Friday, February 26, 2010

Musical theatre guru Erin McNally welcomes all, especially ‘non-singers’ and ‘non-actors’

Hey all you actors out there who think you can’t sing: Erin McNally says you can.

“Singing is just talking – only slower and on certain pitches,” she says. “I have found that actors who have worked hard to train their speaking voices will often surprise themselves.”

And you singers who think you can’t act? “A singer who feels the music of a song is indeed acting,” says Erin, who teaches musical theatre classes for kids and teens at SCR. “Actors are storytellers. Songs tell stories.”

McNally feels strongly that emotional vulnerability is essential to becoming a good musical theatre performer.

“I have this metaphor – I believe that every time we make a sound out of our mouth, it opens a little door to our heart. So when we speak, it flutters open and closed, which feels safe. But when we sing we sustain sound, so the door just stays open and our heart is exposed.”

Erin knows that being exposed can make students feel scared, which is why she uses lots of fun exercises in her classes. One of these involves performing songs completely the opposite of the way they are written.

“If a song is a slow love ballad,” she says, “I will have them do it angrily, then laughing like they don’t care. It is fun to do and fun to watch.”

She also has students speak the lyrics without the music, as if reciting a monologue: “It’s amazing how some students connect to a song once you strip the music out of it.”

Not all students can easily access their musical theatre side. There are a few students who have struggled in her classes, but when they finally have their breakthrough moment, she says, “I have tears in my eyes.”

Erin remembers a boy whose previous training had made him “showy.”

“He felt the need to do all these gestures to show how he felt. He couldn’t just connect and be in the moment. One day, I finally got him to open up and talk about what his song was really about. He shared a life experience that mirrored the song’s story. He was finally able to stand and truly connect the song to his heart. There wasn’t a dry eye in the classroom.”

These breakthroughs are a result of Erin’s special approach to her musical theatre class.

“My class is an acting class with music. It is not about how pretty you sound or about ‘performing.’ It’s about connection to the truth of the song, finding the honesty of that moment and living it, while maintaining vocal integrity.”

Erin McNally has a BA in Acting and Musical Theatre from Cal State Fullerton, has starred in numerous musicals and sung backup for such musical stars as Patty LuPone, Kenny Loggins and Sarah Brightman. She has been teaching at South Coast Repertory for seven years and has served as Musical Director for various Players shows.

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