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By Kathryn Holmes
It’s a steamy Friday afternoon in New York and two dozen aspiring triple threats are wandering around a dance studio looking lost, frustrated, and exhausted. No, they didn’t miss the latest audition for Billy Elliot or Wicked—they’re in acting class.
“Think of your favorite musical theater character,” calls out the director and choreographer Stephen Nachamie. “Do they lead from the heart, the head, the fists? Walk like that character. Now, you’re running late in a crowded airport! Who’s around you? Are they helping or getting in your way?”
Meanwhile, across the hall, a series of rise-and-fall “whoa” sounds comes from Marianne Wells’ vocal class. An hour later, both groups come together for tap class with 42nd Street choreographer Randy Skinner, before splitting up again to rehearse song-and-dance numbers for the showcase they’re presenting in three days.
Sound hectic? It is. But for Broadway hopefuls, that’s part of the appeal of the Musical Theater Performance Project (MTPP), a new summer intensive presented by Broadway Dance Center. In the program’s inaugural session last summer, 47 students (ages 15–25) tackled 20 classes and more than 20 hours of rehearsal over six days. And program director Joshua Bergasse—a dancer, choreographer, and BDC faculty member—is aiming even higher for 2010, planning a longer workshop with even more opportunities. His goal: to give participants not only top-notch training but also a glimpse into the life of a working musical theater artist—plus the chance to make some invaluable connections.
Class with the Best
There’s no denying that BDC is an iconic institution. Legions of musical theater performers have passed through its studios in the heart of New York City to learn from renowned faculty. But for MTPP, Bergasse and the BDC team raised the bar even higher, giving students the chance to study, in a small-group setting, with working performers, choreographers, directors, and more. The 2009 roster reads like a Who’s Who of Broadway’s brightest: Andy Blankenbuehler, David Marquez, Paige Davis, James Kinney—the list goes on. Put simply, you’re at MTPP to learn about life as a professional, from professionals.
“The faculty aren’t sugarcoating anything,” says Bergasse. “They demand from our students what they’d demand from a professional cast.” And because the teachers are active in the industry—directing, choreographing, and casting shows—students get to know the people who may be auditioning them down the road, getting more personal attention than they ever would at a cattle call. As Bergasse says, “The students learn about what it’s like to work with these people: How should you behave in rehearsal? How do you eat up information?”
The Complete Package
With its equal focus on dancing, acting, and singing, MTPP is tailored to training well-rounded Broadway performers. “Dancers have to learn how to open their mouths and trust what’s going to come out, to express a feeling in their face without using the rest of their body,” explains Bergasse. “In musical theater, that’s the vocabulary of the storytelling.”
MTPP applicants must submit both a dance video and an audio or video vocal performance, as well as a resumé and letter of recommendation. Those materials function as an audition for the program and for class placement. They also help the faculty design a final performance that allows everyone to shine—an extra perk considering that the showcase is open not just to friends and family but also to agents.
If you’re not the consummate triple threat, MTPP will help you build up your arsenal. “I didn’t grow up singing, and this program has been great for filling that gap,” says Meghan Larabee, a senior at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. “It’s exciting to realize that you can hit the notes—it’s like the first time you do a double pirouette.” Samuel Sacco, a high school senior from Oceanside, NY, adds that in his experience, every skill you develop enhances the other disciplines. For instance, he says, “acting teaches you how to take risks, which helps with all aspects of performing.”
Even if you’re at the top of your performance game, that’s not all it takes to land a job. To that end MTPP offers practical components, such as panel discussions with Broadway agents. Participants in 2009 also saw West Side Story and Altar Boyz and attended post-show talk-backs with the casts.
“Getting one-on-one career advice from people who are actually working in this industry—it’s knowledge without a price,” says Lauren Westcott, who graduated last year from Florida State University with a degree in theater.
The Next Generation
According to Bergasse, most of the faculty members were once in their students’ shoes—dreaming of a professional career, but unsure how to make it happen. “When I got my first show, I had no idea what to expect. I’d only been in class,” he says. “I moved to New York and started rehearsals with no idea how the process worked! So for our students, it’s about learning the process. They’re in the room with people who do this for a living, who want to pass on what they’ve learned. Not to mention that the students take class with someone and then go see their show that night. How cool is that?”
Kathryn Holmes is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Pictured: Dancers at MTPP. Photo by Jessica Saylor, courtesy BDC.