“At the service of the character”: Aubrey Berg from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music

In this series of blog posts, I’m having conversations about the musical theatre BFA, talking with faculty members and graduates of various school about their thoughts of the state of actor training programs today.

This week, I spoke with Aubrey Berg, who is the head of the musical theatre program at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (specifically, he is the holder of the Patricia A. Corbett Distinguished Chair of Musical Theatre — and a recipient of many other awards for his teaching and service to the arts.)

Dr. Berg is originally from South Africa, where he studied at the University of Capetown. He moved to England, where he pursued further training at the Bristol Old Vic; eventually, he came to the US, where he earned his Ph.D. in theater arts from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He first came to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to stage a production of Nine in 1987; soon after, he was brought on to the faculty to run the musical theater program at CCM.

ROB HARTMANN: Is there something in particular you look for in potential students?

AUBREY BERG: We are a “triple threat” program, so we like our students to sing and dance and act equally well if possible. We look at the skill set in terms of their voices — both singing and speaking voices; and in terms of movement — both in their dancing and when they’re doing monologue work — whether they can use their bodies well. And we try to establish whether they’re emotionally available — in touch with their own emotions — and whether they can share those emotions with an audience.

Here the training is based on four areas, which we call the Voice, the Body, the Head and the Heart. And we look at a fifth component, which we regard as the performer’s secret weapon, and that’s their persona — their personality.

You know, if you’re a painter you have canvas and pigment and a brush, and if you’re a sculptor, you have marble and a chisel and an oily rag. But for performers, they are the raw material that they create performances out of. So, individuality, uniqueness is important to us. We tend not to be a cookie-cutter school, where everybody sings and dances the same. We prize individuality very highly here.

RH: I’ve worked with a lot of CCM grads — they’ve all had a strong sense of their own persona. I did a show with Lisa Howard (of the original cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) — she really sort of defined her own type.

AB: We don’t like to use the word “type” – as in, “What is your type?” – but rather, try to analyze where you might fit in the business. I think the old kind of typing is very restrictive, and we try to think outside the box.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Lisa Howard performs “I Have Found” by William Finn. 

RH: Have the demands the industry places on actors changed over the years?

AB: Your skills need to be sharply honed, and they need to be, frankly, all over the map. If you look at the musicals of the past couple of decades, who knew that Pacific Overtures would be asking performers to work in the Kabuki mode, or that Starlight Express would put everybody on roller skates.

RH: Or that shows would have actors playing instruments as in Cabaret or the John Doyle productions, or that performers would be doing circus acrobatics in Pippin.

AB: The more skills the actor has in their bag of tricks, I think, the better.

But I think that’s only half the battle. You have to be comfortable with yourself. Being able to walk into a room, claim your space, take over and share what you’ve got to give — I think that’s a very important skill.

RH: What I hear from so many actors is that auditioning, with callback after callback, really becomes an endurance contest.

AB: I remember when Ashley Brown was auditioning for Mary Poppins — I think she went through nine callbacks. And after the ninth callback, they took her to London to meet Cameron Mackintosh, which I took to be a good sign (laughs.) But yes, endurance is really important. In Ashley’s case, once she got Mary Poppins, she was 24 years old and carrying a multi-million dollar Broadway show on her shoulders — that’s a huge responsibility for a young person. But she was ready to do that.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Ashley Brown sings a medley of “Reflection / Just Around The Riverbend.”

I think at CCM we try to teach the things that you really can’t teach. If you’ve worked with Lisa Howard, she’s a great example of this. She’s focused, she’s professional, she’s punctual, she does her homework, she is self-motivating, she’s a joy to work with. I don’t know how you teach that sort of thing, other than by setting a certain tone in the program of professionalism.

RH: Does the program have an overall guiding philosophy?

AB: If I had to put it on a t-shirt, it would say, “Act while you sing, sing while you act, dance while you do both.” I think by the end of the four years, the three skills have become intertwined, and you never think of them separately. I always get a little nervous when somebody talks about a performance and says, “Oh, so-and-so had such a wonderful voice.” If we’re doing our work properly, you wouldn’t notice that she had a wonderful voice, because it would be completely put in the service of the character.

I think in some ways American Idol does us disservice, because the singer will pop out a note, and the audience will give the note a standing ovation. Well, anybody can pop out a note, but can you put that note at the service of the performance? That’s rather different.

Lisa Howard has a glorious voice, but when she played Fosca for me in Passion, there were some awful sounds coming out of her mouth — because the character would not sing beautifully at that moment. And she was putting her gift at the service of the character to tell the story — and be truthful.

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