Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24 | Author:Jay Burton
The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.
What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).
What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.
In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.
Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.
Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.
A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.
That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.
These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.
Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.