Becoming a professional theater actor is not all laughing, singing and dancing in the street, according to the performer who played the Vandellas’ lead singer Martha Reeves in the traveling tour of Motown: The Musical.
Three stars of the show now playing at the Shubert theater took that message Thursday to nearly 50 students a block away at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School.
The students — who got to see the show the night before — asked the actors for tips on preserving their voice after belting every night, rituals to conquer stage jitters and the difficulties of performing in a new city every week. Of course, they also solicited advice on how an aspiring actor could claim the spotlight.
Judith Franklin, a 26-year-old who started her career dancing next to Beyoncé Knowles in the Destiny’s Child predecessor Girls Tyme, told the students they have to be careful what they post online.
At this, the teachers in the back of the auditorium loudly clapped in approval.
After all, Franklin said, the teens didn’t want producers hearing any rumors through the grapevine, because like in the Marvin Gaye song, it’s not much longer till they’d be reassigned.
“Social media is huge these days. If you’re going into any industry, make sure you’re very careful about what you post online, because casting directors [and] producers are always watching,” she said. “They don’t want to hire someone that’s going to be an embarrassment to their production. Aside from performing and having fun, this is a business and it’s a business about making money. Just always remember that your reputation is very important.”
Bad attitudes, she added, will quickly get you canned. Because, as the O’Jays said, “All the time they want to take your place, the back stabbers.”
Fellow cast member Tavia Riveé, who played Mary Wilson, one of the Supremes, added that the students need to be well-rounded by the time they start auditioning. Each had to possess some special skill that would make them stand out to a casting director, Riveé said, be it moves learned in dancing classes or the ability to sing in harmony from choir practice.
“Try those things, feel free to make mistakes, so that when you get to wherever it is that you’re trying to audition and whoever it is that you’re trying to get to give you a job, you’ve explored all of these aspects and really refined your craft,” she advised.
The Q&A was the culmination of this season’s partnership between the Shubert and Co-Op, which helps bridge the divide between the classroom and the professional ranks, according to the theater’s spokesman Anthony Lupinacci. The actors deliberately avoid sugarcoating the process of getting onstage in the talk-back. “This doesn’t just happen; it’s not like a movie,” he said.
The theater also doesn’t want to kids to flounder out in the world. Hence, the collaboration. Experiencing some of that Motown soul, the students made trips backstage, read up on the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War in history (and Marvin Gaye’s protest album), made collages of Hitsville’s stars in art class and staged a Black History Month production entitled “Fire Next Time.”
And they saw the show. The night before, nearly 170 students had watched the musical from the mezzanine. When a technical malfunction after intermission led to the curtain being dropped for nine minutes, the students burst into song. Led by choir director Harriet Alfred, they sang through the Jackson 5’s biggest numbers, like “ABC” and “I Want You Back,” keeping the audience entertained.
And they screamed when Michael Jackson’s character sang all the hits again. At the Q&A, everyone wanted to know how old the actor, Raymond Davis, Jr., was — even asking the panel twice. When they found out he was 12 years old, Kelly Wuzzardo, the Shubert’s director of education and outreach, joked that the high schoolers were all a little behind and had better catch up.