“Think Fast!”: Eve Himmelheber of Cal State Fullerton

In this series of conversations, I’m investigating the musical theatre BFA: talking to people involved in programs at a variety of schools. This week, I talked to an old friend, Eve Himmelheber, who is the coordinator of the musical theatre BFA program at California State University, Fullerton; their musical theatre program is competitive with the top schools in the country. Eve is a professional actress and has appeared in a few shows I’ve written; her experience performing in new works has given her unique insight into training new musical theatre students.

ROB HARTMANN: What does a student with a musical theatre BFA need to effectively compete in the industry?

EVE HIMMELHEBER: They need to show range in their acting. And they need to know who they are as a marketable item in the industry, which is so different from what they might have done in school productions. They need to know who they are and have a great deal of material that says, “Hello! This is where I think you might be casting me today.”

RH: When people come in to audition for me and they don’t know who they are – they just seem fuzzy. Indistinct.

EH: They come in singing “Ladies Who Lunch” when they’re 21 — they just don’t have the life experience. It’s awkward to watch it.

RH: Emotional connection to the material — that is always what sets someone apart.

EH: For a while all we were seeing was people who were screaming and wailing with all kinds of vocal pyrotechnics — and there’s just nothing underneath it.

RH: You have the students work on modern material — I understand you just did a reading of an Adam Gwon piece.

EH: Yes! Bernice Bobs Her Hair. LOVE that. So charming. We saw it at NAMT [the National Alliance for Musical Theatre conference] a couple years back. I liked the sensibility – F. Scott Fitzgerald, a snappy, clever comedy of manners. They’ve done a lovely adaptation, he and Julia Jordan. They’re doing the first professional production this summer at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, but we convinced them to come out here first, and we did a reading of it with them in residence.

Having the authors here was really cool. The kids were terrified. Literally terrified — even though Julia and Adam are the nicest people in the world and so supportive. The kids got time with the authors to talk about New York and the industry. It was really nice — doing new musicals is where you really test your mettle as an actor.

In Bernice, the music is more difficult than you think — it sounds cute and fun, but it was not easy for them to learn. It was a great challenge for the students — the complexity of the music was lovely. We need more challenges! (laughs)

Watch this video on YouTube.

NAMT interview with Adam Gwon and Julia Jordan about Bernice Bobs Her Hair.

RH: I say this to BFA students all the time: you absolutely need to read music and read it well. When you’re first in New York, you’re doing readings of shows constantly, and if you’re the one who is slow, you’re out, or at least you’re not called again. But if you become known as someone who is fast, you’re on everyone’s list. Are the students using material from new songwriters in their auditions in school?

EH: Yes. We have audition master classes with outside theater professionals. And sometimes the performance of the new material is really exciting. But they’ve also been told, if your musical material is more interesting than you, then they’re wondering what the song is and not actually watching the performer.

But they’re always looking for that song that not everybody is doing. And these new writers have a lovely sensibility. They’re writing for people who are in the students’ age range, and it speaks to them. Those are the kinds of songs that are really moving them.

RH: There’s a lot of emotional nuance to so much modern material. A lot of material being written now, it’s like musical monologues. Very detailed and intricate.

EH: Yes. They are like monologues, where some classic songs are more like arias, expanding on one emotion. In the new material, the characters think fast. The songs can be dark and a bit cynical at times. There’s a great deal of depth that the students can dig into. The challenge is for the students to think faster — the material requires detailed, specific thought. They are writing more intelligently these days, and you have to be smart enough to understand what’s going into a song so you can capitalize on it.

RH: So it does always come back to acting. No matter what the high note, you have to have something going on underneath.

EH: The difficulty is when they choose material that might be beyond their ability — not vocal ability, but acting ability. Are they connecting to the material?

RH: When there’s a depth of soul, then the high note is thrilling, when you understand the emotion.

EH: The emotional release. It’s a release of something we’ve seen building in front of us, and we go along on that ride and that build. It’s like a mutual orgasm. (Laughs)

RH: Sometimes what I say to young singers is, you have the tools, you have the voice. What you need to do is develop your spirit. Knowing on a deep level who you are. Don’t be indistinct.

EH: They’re trying to hide the insecurity. They’re trying to hide it so much. So they stay safe because they’re afraid to be foolish. My god, you’re going to be actors. You can’t be safe.

RH: Everyone wants to be “fierce.” But strength without vulnerability is an empty gesture.

EH: If they don’t show me their heart, I don’t have any vested interest in them.

RH: In the writing of a good song, you build in a sort of magnetic pull – if I’m singing to you, what is drawing you to me?

EH: Huge need, huge pain, huge vulnerability. That’s when you get shivers.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Jennifer Lefsyk performs “Again” from Bernice Bobs Her Hair at a 2010 BFA Musical Theatre Showcase at SUNY Fredonia. 

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