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For the past few months I have been doing audition coaching here in New York City for a niche market of musical theatre performers: tweens and teens auditioning for performing arts middle and high schools. This has given me a unique insight into the world of the young performer and it got me to wondering what kind of training students receive in these programs? For an answer, I interviewed Jeff Statile who is Artistic Director of Drama & PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School) at RTKids (Rosie’s Theater Kids). While the mission of RTKids is not just preparing students for professional careers in the arts, they are committed to serious training that allows each individual to express their best self. They say they are “rehearsing for life,” creating art lovers on stage and off. Below are Jeff’s answers to the questions I emailed him.
- What is your background and how did you come to work for Rosie’s Theater Kids?
I began performing in Community Theater when I was about ten, and got hooked ever since, participating anyway I could (usher, tech, construction). From there, I went on to attend Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, earning a BFA – Acting/Musical Theater. After graduating, I worked professionally doing regional and touring theater, and a bit of commercial and voiceover work. I also trained in improvisation for many years, with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater.
I have been an acting instructor with Rosie’s Theater Kids since 2004, and in 2008 was hired full time as the Artistic Director of Drama. So, I teach acting classes to all level students (grades 6-12) in our ACTE 2 scholarship program at RTKids. In 2009, I also added the title of Artistic Director of the PPAS (Professional Performing Arts HS) Musical Theater Program to my title. We are in the 6th year of our partnership with PPAS, a selective NYC Public Arts High School that requires students to audition for a seat, offering year round training to students who are eager to develop skills in the field of musical theater. Their schedule is five days a week, for 2 hours a day, and they study Acting, Vocal and Dance Technique, and also participate in end of year theatrical productions. All classes are housed in Maravel Arts Center, a state-of-the-art performing arts center just outside of Manhattan’s Theater District. Each student’s schedule is very rigorous, and demanding. In a way, it is a junior conservatory, modeled after the structured training that I received at CMU.
RTKids believes in an arts training model that provides all students with a balanced approach. We are not in the business of launching careers, or specialization (having a student train only as either a singer, actor or dancer). Besides the fact that younger students should receive exposure to all areas, it’s important for all students to be physically active, and open to possibilities. We don’t want to limit our student’s potential by limiting their exposure.
All students receive training in voice by taking group choral based classes, to promote ensemble singing and an understanding of fundamental concepts in Vocal Production, and Music Theory. Students also receive semi-private voice lessons, in order to address more individual vocal habits, and work on material that suits their specific voice type and range.
As musical theater vocalists, we also train students in song preparation. How to tell a story with your lyrics and music. Even if a student is not the best vocalist, what can ALWAYS set them apart is their unique, and truthful interpretation of the song. We work on establishing playable and relatable given circumstances, and empowering students as storytellers, by introducing them to the application of their imagination. This requires students to think about their songs as scenes, rather than simply melodies and feelings. Our goal is to also nurture improved self-esteem and confidence. Students who are more open to taking risks and ‘playing’, which is a common obstacle among teen performers, make the biggest progress as artists.
Every week, students receive dance training in Ballet, Tap and Theater Dance. All students are required to take Ballet so they can gain a base knowledge of Ballet terminology, body positions, and most importantly balance and alignment. Since many students come to us with years of prior training in dance, students are placed in the appropriate level for their Tap and Theater Dance classes.
Of the three disciplines, acting is the skill that most young performers have had limited exposure to. Younger students receive training in the basic skills of talking, listening, and creating through engaging games and improvisational exercises. Older students in the 8th grade year and higher, are introduced to the basic scene study skills required of a proficient actor. How to bring text to life. We encourage our students to think on their feet, begin to observe and understand human behavior, and to be, most importantly, inquisitive and open to the potential of a moment.
3. Do you think students understand the value of extensive training in the arts? Do TV shows like GLEE, American Idol, The Voice set unrealistic expectations for young performers that they can just ‘do it’?
I think those shows may set up unrealistic expectations of the work it truly takes to train for the arts. It’s not always clear to us how much training and work the contestants have put in to their craft, leading up to the competition. The networks want us to believe that we are all ‘discovering’ the talent in that moment, together, yet, the truth is that most have already been singing and training for years. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s not the full story. I do think that getting students to sing and pursue the arts is a big plus of these reality shows. In the end, it’s our job as educators to remind the students that it’s a marathon; that one’s career is most desirable if it has longevity. And the foundation for longevity is a sound technique, and an undeniable passion to have a life in the arts. While you may not win a Tony Award, or a record contract, with those two qualities, you will be happy in a lifelong career that you were meant to pursue.
4. What advice do you give a young performer who want to audition for a professional show?
It should not be the goal of a young performer (or their parent/guardian) to work professionally. I am a strong believer in that. Be sure the young performer is pursuing it for the right reasons. If they love it, and are not in it for the fame or money, then working professionally can be very enjoyable. But a healthy balance is necessary. If it feels like a JOB to the kid, then maybe it’s not the right fit. But if its FUN, then by all means, enjoy the experience!
As for the audition, prepare your sides and songs. Select material that you enjoy working on! Bring in some choices with the material. If prompted, ask smart questions about things you don’t know with the director or casting director. If they give you feedback, listen and INCORPORATE IT…Don’t oversell yourself… bring your best self into the audition room. The casting directors are really good at separating phoniness from genuine personality and charm.
5. How do you help students protect their own vocal health? Do you talk about the “screlting” phenomenon?
We have a great vocal training program at RTKids, one that emphasizes healthy vocal production. You probably won’t hear our students belt until they’re in their later High School years, and even then, they would have already developed a strong mix, and head voice.
I haven’t witnessed a lot of students with a ‘screlting’ issue. I’ve definitely worked with students who have a tendency to pinch, push or belt through their nose (the “Annie” Syndrome). We are sure not to give them material that might put them in a position of needing to ‘screlt’. So that may be the reason we don’t hear it.
Sing every day! Even if you take a voice lesson once or twice a month, or less, record that lesson and sing with that recording’s vocal warm-up daily. Get the most for your money. Healthy Repetition is absolutely the key to vocal mastery.
Get in front of a mirror. If you can see the tension, in your face, or posture or neck, for example, then you’re doing something wrong. It’s all about the breath. Work with basic relaxation and breathing exercises of laying down on the ground while vocalizing, or rolling over on your side (fetal position), or massaging the tension out of your face. Take deep inhales into the stomach, and long exhaled ‘hisses’ out….see if you can increase your breath capacity without adding tension… build up to single vowel sounds (a ee i o u), progressing to higher notes. These are just a few suggestions for how to decrease tension by improving your breath support.
Do a FULL Body Warmup. If your body is warmed up, then your voice will follow. Do some cardio-based exercises for at least 5-10 minutes before vocalizing, until you have at least a light sweat, and your heart-rate is elevated. You should be able to feel and hear the difference in your song!
Stay Hydrated. Period.
6. What is the biggest mistake you see young performers making?
Not being present. Theater is an art form of immediacy. What’s happening NOW, is the most important thing. I always work with my students on building focus and concentration skills. Being present is always required.
Not being prepared. Do your work. Class and studio time is just the tip of the iceberg. You should find time to work outside of class on what you love. Bring your ideas to the next class. This is the start of the collaborative process.
Not Being Comfortable in Silence. I make all of my students perform in silence. They learn that presence is not sound. And that ‘thought’is thought provoking.
Unhealthy Imitations. It’s great that you love to sing like Adele. But, there’s only one Adele. Be yourself. Find your own, healthy way of singing. Imitating a pop-star can cause you to form bad vocal habits.
7. Obviously not all of your performers go on to careers in the arts. What do you think the arts training Rosie’s Theater Kids gives them?
Teaching theater arts has been such a rewarding career path because I’ve been able to see students succeed both on and off the stage. Some go on to conservatories, and others go on to become nurses, or teachers, etc… RTKids believes that the arts are transformative. All of our students find a second home at Maravel Arts Center, where they become leaders, collaborators, thinkers, creators… the list goes on. But for the better, every student who walks in to our classrooms leaves as a citizen of the arts. For most, this is enough. But for others, a career in the theater awaits them. Either way, through their exposure to the arts we know that we’ve armed them with greater self-respect, an empathy for others, and a desire to apply their newly found work ethic. It’s a marathon, so these foundational qualities are truly irreplaceable.
Anything else you’d like to share about training for young performers? Patience is a virtue. Listen to your teachers. If it’s a free performance, see it!
For more information on Rosie’s Theatre Kids, visit their website at www.rosiestheaterkids.org.
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