“Helping the Writers Find the Way”: Brent Wagner from the University of Michigan (Part 2)

In this series of blog posts, I’m focusing on the musical theatre BFA: thoughts from a variety of people about the state of actor training today.

This is the conclusion of my conversation with Brent Wagner, chair of the Musical Theatre program at the University of Michigan. (Click here to read Part 1.)

ROB HARTMANN: We’ve talked about developing vocal technique; knowing what your voice can and can’t do; learning the classic works. What other elements are important for musical theatre students to learn?

BRENT WAGNER: I think it’s really important in the training process that young people work with as many directors as possible. Directors are so different from one another — and the performer has to adapt and adapt and adapt. That’s a challenge schools have because, you don’t want just a series of guest directors, you want continuity. The students are growing, and you want somebody overseeing their progress. But you also don’t want the actor to get too comfortable in a certain way of working, because it just isn’t going to be that way.

So we’ve devised a lot of shorter assignments that try to focus on either the flexibility or the speed that you need to develop, or the hypothetical situations that you could be in — so that the adaptability of the actor is first and foremost. That always comes back to technique. But also, it’s developing a certain psychology, a personality that is open to work and respectful of the process and contributes ideas — while understanding that there’s a larger vision to be fulfilled.

Watch this video on YouTube.

University of Michigan MT students perform “Good Old Glory Type Days” by UMich alum Nick Blaemire

RH: Talking about flexibility and speed — since so many new things start off as readings — the minute that someone appears to need spoon feeding in any way, it becomes, “Oh, they’re just not quick.” And they maybe don’t get hired again. Everyone’s just got to be – bang! Able to define something pretty quickly.

BW: The challenge, I think, in a school is that if everybody is pushed to work quickly all the time, you get a certain superficial, limited approach: “this is what this actor does and it’s fine, but don’t ask him to do anything else because, you know, he’s used to doing everything in half an hour.” And that’s that.

And so it is a balance we have to have. In the first two years, the tools and techniques we study are not on the quick side, because I just don’t think that’s going to be advantageous. That’s when we’re moving the students away from their old habits, and we’re trying to explore, to try different things, to experiment and learn.

But you have to be able to adapt to any process. Our kids so often will go into existing shows — so they have to fulfill a vocal part or a track or a role that already exists. So how can they fill that track, but keep their own creative approach? That’s very hard for a school to simulate, because we don’t have that kind of experience here. So again we have to devise assignments and activities, projects, that will be similar to that.

Another thing that performers have to focus on which is harder than ever is the transition from dialogue to song. We work on that a lot. In the old days, where you could do a She Loves Me or a 110 in the Shade or Guys and Dolls where you had substantial dialogue scenes — today, by comparison, if a show has dialogue, it’s much, much shorter. The scenes are very short — less happens in them, so you have to make sure that the actors understand that, and are taking time. Some of the kids approach it like TV dialogue, and you think, “We’re never going to build to a song this way.” So we go back and try to find all the nuance in the scene.

I saw a revival of 1776 — which isn’t typical, really — but I’d forgotten how much dialogue there is in that show. They talk and they talk and they talk. And I thought, you would just never have anything like that today. In most shows today, the dialogue is very short, most of it is underscored — and then you get right to the next song — if there’s dialogue at all.

I often talk to the kids about analyzing backwards — while you never play the result, of course, you have to know where you’re going, and make this dialogue build to get to the song. Most of the scenes will end with a song. In the old days, a scene in Guys and Dolls could end with a blackout and a punchline. But those days are not with us. So, the scene is almost always building to a song. Getting the dialogue to get there is a technique the actors really have to have – because if the actors don’t create that build, it makes the writing seem bad.

Another reason why I think new works are important —I think, funny as this sounds, that there’s a risk in the students only working on great works, the ones that have been tested. Because — you need some experience with things that aren’t that far along, so that you’re helping find the way. You’re making choices, and you’re making sure that you can make the writing work. If a production of My Fair Lady isn’t working, you can be pretty sure the problem isn’t the writing. In a new work, you wonder, is it the writing that isn’t working, or is it the performer? If the performer brought something different to it, would it actually start working?

I think that it’s good to have something that’s in process — in progress — so that the students will have the chance to contribute to that process. You’re helping the writers find the way.

Watch this video on YouTube.

UMich grads Trevor St. John-Gilbert and Madison Micucci perform “The Temp and the Receptionist” by Kooman & Dimond at the 2013 MT showcase. 

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