by Paul Canaan
Part of The Ensemblist's "What I Teach" Series
About 10 years ago I started teaching workshops for school groups visiting New York. They would see a Broadway show and I would teach them about what they saw. Fans of Legally Blonde for example, got to Bend and Snap with the pros. Trust me when I say… I’ve done enough bending and snapping to last 10 Elle Woods lifetimes. Now when I bend, I actually snap. But these workshops opened my eyes to the massive need for quality arts education in this country.
More recently, I’ve had the chance to teach more intense workshops that cover the three disciplines of musical theatre: music, dance and acting. Lately, I connect most with song audition prep. Finding the right song for your type and conveying a story and character through that piece. Aside from proper vocal technique and getting a song in the correct key for your voice, I believe embodying the character and conveying emotional arch of the story is equally important as hitting that high note. I teach a little easy-to-remember acting technique to cover your bases before you go into an audition -
5 W’s: Who, What, Why, Where, When.
Who - is the character you’re portraying and who are they talking to.
What do you need to express or want from the other character you’re talking to.
Why did I say that? Why am I singing right now? Why did I end the song this way?
Why is the character reacting this way? “Why” embodies the questions we ask about the material, because questions lead to answers.
Where does the action take place? Specific environments help tell the story better.
When does the action take place? Time-period, time of day, etc, are all important to support the character's storyline.
After a student sings their song, I ask them to answer the 5 W’s as it pertains specifically to their song. With new discoveries, we do the song again and see if they can go deeper and implement more organic choices to tell the story. The goal is to know the character as intimately as possible so your audience or people in the room see you completely as that person and relate to your plight. After a while, my students can quickly tell me the 5 W’s they’re playing whether it’s a scene, song, or even a dance. And when one student understands this, others gain perspective for their own material. As musical theatre artists, we are storytellers, so no matter what we’re doing on stage, the story is the most important. This quick technique aligns you with the characters point of view so that you’re more equipped to tell their story.
I cherish every opportunity I get to share what I’ve learned with young aspiring artists. Throughout history, art and passion have been passed down from generation to generation. This is how it works. We honor those who paved the way for us as we work to pave the way for others. Everything I know, I’ve learned from teachers, mentors and other artists. The ultimate reward from a career in the performing arts is contribution and giving back. It’s also so refreshing for me to be reminded of where passion is born through the eyes of a young dreamer.