DIRECTOR, EDUCATOR & ADVOCATE
April 5, 2020
E = EDUCATION
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Ellyn Marie Marsh (E) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Welcome Ellyn! An original cast member of overlapping broadway shows. Right?
E: It’s some talent but it’s a lot of luck. This is the first time I’ve been unemployed in 11-years. So who are these people? Who are we talking to?
D: We’ve got students and teachers, college kids, professionals…
E: I love all students.
D: Great, then let’s segue to students. We could talk all day about you and your Broadway career, which by the way, if people aren't clear, Ellyn does big, huge fat musicals but she also does plays. Who else does that?
E: Well I majored in acting. I did musical theatre classes there but I thought acting would serve me better. Give me a musical all day long, but a play every couple of years has really been good for the soul.
D: And in addition to all of that, you are one of the most sought-after voice coaches in the city. You have students that have gone onto be in every musical that needs a kid, right?
E: It’s funny. I started when I was doing Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert. I remember one of our little Benji’s saying something he had learned from a very, very prominent singing teacher in New York and I said, “Where did you learn that?” And he said, "I learned it from such and such teacher,” and I was like, that’s not good, this is not good information. So I sort of started researching this and then I started building my student base from there and I love working with kids because kids don't come with baggage. I do have adult students, but I really love working with kids, because kids just fix it and they don't quantify and they don't explain themselves, and they don't give me a back story, they just fix it and I learn so much from them that way, because they come ready to learn. They’re just magic.
D: Amazing. So these little master classes are made up of your questions everyone watching. So, please ask away. I’ll start while we wait for questions, what would you say is one of the biggest things you have to undo when a kid comes to you?
E: I always love identifying bad habits, including my own.. So, I go right there and I say... Why hasn't someone told you about this? Why hasn't someone told you about your forehead tension or shoulder tension or your tongue tension or why hasn’t anyone taught you how to lift your soft palette or why does anyone taught you how to connect with the lyric? The thing to remember is that you're never gonna be perfect, that there's always gonna be a note, there's always gonna be something to improve.
I like to hone in on strengthening our weaknesses rather than patting ourselves on the back for what we're really already great at... Key is really being honest with ourselves and remembering there's always room for improvement, even on our best day.
My ballet teacher growing up, she danced under Joffrey and Fosse…Every five years from the time she was like maybe 40, and I had her well into her 70s, she would pick up something new. When I was in college, she was learning the fiddle because she wanted to remember what it was like to be a beginner. She said, “How can I be a good teacher without remembering what it's like to learn?”
D: I love that, I love that. I love what you're saying about identifying strengths and weaknesses, because I think, coming from someone like you who has your career. people think that you've arrived that you've accomplished everything there is to accomplish. That there is no weakness. It’s a theme of these talks actually, most people are talking about the fact that no one is everything. And that's valuable 'cause I think young people especially think there's an arrival point, some kind of pinnacle. But there isn’t, is there?
E: There’s always something to be better at: it’s theatre, it's television, it's film, it's picking up any and every kind of skill that's necessary and valuable. You’re constantly a work in progress.
D: Do you focus on acting with your singing students?
E: Yes, I think that acting informs your singing and singing informs your acting. I say that to my students all the time, because you act something better when you are in the moment, when you're connecting to something, to understand that means your singing automatically improves. And when you're singing is spot on, that opens the door to be present and for your acting to move people. For example, I always talk about lifting your soft palette and creating a lot of wide-open space when you sing... But that naturally happens when you smile. So if you find a memory that invokes joy, you’re naturally going to live your soft palette and you will then sing better.
Some of the best pop singers, for me, Adele, are very dramatic. She’s very emotional when she sings, and those are the pop singers that connect to me. The ones that connect to emotion through their lyric. Lady Gaga, she’s an experience. When she's at the piano, she's acting through her voice, she can have one without the other.
D: There’s a question: as someone who's done musicals, how do you get taken seriously in the acting world?
E: That's a really, really great question, definitely something that people struggle with and that's getting pigeon-holed. My only advice is just to keep doing good work because you are going to get put in a pile: a dancer, a singer, a singer who moves, you will. That's just how people compartmentalize you. You can't help that.
But, I know a very, very successful dancer, who just got this new opportunity to be somewhat of the leading man and the only thing that I can attribute that to is his hard work. You just have to keep going and going and going, and proving yourself in different ways. Whether that's through your social media or through concerts or through a one person show, whatever that is, to show the different facets of you. No one is gonna come and say, “Hey, David, I was wondering…” No one's gonna do that. We're all too worried about ourselves. So putting yourself out there in the way that you want to be perceived is really important because otherwise, it's just so much easier for someone to keep you in a box.
For example, there’s a stack of comedic women let's say, well some of these women are amazing dramatic actors. I love to use the example of Robin Williams because Robin Williams before Good Will Hunting, or maybe Patch Adams, was a comedian. But he was more than that, right? How did he make the switch? He kept making people seeing him in a different light. And I think that's our responsibility. Keep reinventing yourself.
Look at Billy Porter. He has been a staple on Broadway for thirty years but only now does the world see him for the star that he is. His success was found so much later in life. He kept pushing, he kept pushing and is now a mega star. So it's just, it's our responsibility to keep making people see you in a way that you wanna want to be seen.
D: You are the queen of that. You have a phD in creating content. For those of you who haven’t fallen down the YouTube hole of Ellyn Marie Marsh - do it. Not everyone does what you do. You're creating one-woman shows, you're creating content for YouTube…What's your motivation to do that?
E: Well, like for example, now… That's my coping mechanism. I think sitting still in this business can be detrimental. I read Amy Polar’s book, “Yes, Please” and she said something that really resonated with me. I'm paraphrasing, she basically said if five percent of everything you put out there is successful, you're winning. You just have to keep pumping out ideas or scripts. Also my mind doesn't stop. So, I put it all out. That's why some people might think I'm quite insufferable on social media, but for me that's just putting it out there and making things and maybe one thing sticks or two things stick then that's a success, but I just think that constantly putting ideas out there, collaborating with people, talking to people, having these kind of conversations, we’re so lucky in our business that we get to do that.
Social media allows us to not only keep in touch with each other and keep tabs on each other and enjoy each others stories but you get to be in a different country, and we get to have this conversation today. So whenever people turn down their noses at social media. I'm like, Okay, maybe it's not for you, but that's how great things happen. That's how collaborations happen. So keeping this going, keeping conversations going is important to me. It’s not important to everyone, but it is important to me and I love it.
D: Part of what this time is doing is letting me stop and realize how lucky we are, in our industry to be able to intersect with so many people along the journey.
E: Yes. It’s just a cross-section and you meet these people and you never know how they're gonna come back into your life again. Especially because, you know, not everything is sunshine and rainbows. But we’ve collected our gems along the way and can stay connected through this crazy world of social media and can be there for each other in good times and bad.
D: OK, so let’s talk about digital presence. Do you encourage your students to have material online on a website or YouTube or…?
E: Yeah, I think it's all important and I think that they all serve a different purpose. YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram… I think it's all there for you. Personally, I call myself a calculated sharer. Very important. I don't think all things need to be shared, but that's just my journey. There are some people who choose to share the good, the bad, ugly, and I appreciate that. That's just not my, I hate to use the word, brand. We are a brand - especially what you're putting on a social. Yes and always remember social media is forever.
It doesn't matter if it's a story that's gonna disappear in 24 hours or a tweet you’re going to take down. You are allowed to have your opinions and your thoughts, but just be ready for any kind of backlash. Just be responsible.
I have a dear dear friend who I respect and admire and she's so talented and she put something out on Twitter, maybe five to six years ago, and it's still haunts her to this day. I think putting your work out there is important but do it cautiously.
D: What’s the number one thing we, in the business, should be doing right now?
E: There are 100 things. You should be learning constantly, you should be learning from different people, you should collecting information, keep track of good people you want to work with, you should be seeing theatre, you should be watching movies, you should be watching television, you should be knowing whose work you wanna emulate, you should be knowing whose work you don't wanna emulate.
I had a teacher once in college say seeing bad theatre is as important as seeing good theatre and it is. It’s not commenting on that, it's taking it in and saying that's what I don't wanna be doing. I look back at some things that I did, a couple of years ago and I do the face plant emoji but we learn and grow and we’re all on such a different journey.
D: Can you talk about the addition binder for a second? We have lots of kids online who dream of being on Broadway, and you’ve gotten people there. What’s in their binder?
E: Ya, you need three songs. A big mistake I made in my youth was to think, “Oh, I'm auditioning this. It's written by Lerner and Lowe so I should sing a Lerner and Lowe song and I should tailor myself to that audition. I’m gonna learn a new song and it’s gonna be great.” No it’s not. It’s not gonna be great. You know what’s great? The song you’ve been working on for a year. You know what’s great? The song you can sing in your sleep? You know what’s great? The song you can sing when you’re sick, sad, mad, glad, bad. You know what’s great? The song that when you walk into a room and the person you admire the most is there and your nerves are shot and you can't breathe and your body’s shaking uncontrollably and you can still make that song come out. That’s the song you need to sing.
You need three of those songs. You need a pop song, a contemporary theatre song and a legit theatre song. I booked most of my Broadway shows with Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” That’s it.
Sing songs you love and connect with because if you sing a song that someone told you you sound good singing, but you don’t connect, it will never get past ‘good.’ But a song that moves you will move others. The song that I’ve sung since I was in college that can still move me to tears is Meadowlark, because I can get weepy at the end of that song just from connecting to the lyric and what the lyric means to me.
Yeah, you don't need 20 songs in your binder, you don't need a Pasek and Paul song, I love them, but you don’t need it. Block out the noise, just block it.
D: You can hear two versions of Ellyn singing Meadowlark online. The traditional version and a rap version that is mind-blowing and will make your day.
Okay, so we have to get to the subject of online training. Have you always done it? Is it new to you? How are people meant to pivot?
E: Have I done online training in the past? Yes. Listen, it’s not great, it's not the best way of teaching because learning is an energy exchange. People who speak to me are people whose energy just overflows. Like your energy. You have this amazing, warm, loving energy and I can feel it now but it's different, right?
What we love about teaching is giving our energy, our emotion to singing and acting. It's all here, in the heart. How many of you have been in a voice lesson and cried? I find that part loses a little bit of its translation online - the breathing oxygen with someone else in the room. But, we all have to adjust and keep going, we can't stop. I’m so inspired by everyone who has just jumped on and offered free things like this, or a yoga class or a dance class… it's really inspiring to see how powerful and how loving our theatrical community is. Not just Broadway, but all over the world, and I think that's a testament to how important it is to all of us. How important art is, how important creativity is… how important it all is to our soul.
D: And that the world is turning to us. That the world needs the arts for their comfort, their catharsis, their escape… I didn't realize it, to the extent that I'm realizing it these days. I'm so proud to be part of this ‘sector.’
Rebecca Poff has a question, a very well-known, very accomplished singing teacher in her own right. When do you know when it's time to leave a song behind, if there's such thing as aging out of a song?
E: Well, for kids, there is definitely aging out of a song in a literal way and for adults, it’s time to move on when the lyric of the song doesn’t align with you anymore or you shut off when you sing. Earlier, I said you should be able to sing it at any moment. It still needs to resonate with you. The minute you just are bored with a song, that is okay. It’s time to move on.
For my students, I have one student, she’s brilliant, on the Fun Home tour and she came to me to redo her book because I was like, "Oh we're gonna do a big girl book now.” She's 13-14. now, I had her, since she was eight or nine. And you shouldn't be singing ‘Consider Yourself’ anymore, you're way beyond that. So for kids, I think it's constantly pushing their ability. I have a little one right now singing World Burn from Mean Girls. That's a challenging song.
You always need to check in with yourself and say, "Do I still enjoy singing the song and am I moved by this song so I can move others?” And is this enough? Does it challenge me enough? Because if there’s another story out there that will present you in a different way, you should be singing that.
D: I think the other side of this thing we're going through is going to require us to have a whole bunch of new material. And I think that the resilience that empathy that we are all experiencing must be reflected in new choices. We're gonna be different humans, right? So post those new audition song videos!!! And don’t overthink the self-tape.
E: At live auditions you do it once and cross your fingers… with self-tapes, you’re like, "Oh my God, is not the way I sound? Is my nose that big?” But that’s not us, that’s not theatre. Theatre is live and in the moment.
D: What are you most proud of? What do you think your niche as a teacher?
E: My biggest asset is also being a performer, because I can empathize with everything. That saying: those who can't do, teach, is false. Some of my best teachers are performers as well, so I think empathizing as a singer, empathizing with knowing what it's like to work around your limitations or break through or have a break through.
Also, while I do have overall feelings about technique and ideas that I pass on to each student, I do tailor-make all of my lessons to each student, and I tailor my style, so I think that that is probably one of my greatest assets. Every person learns differently, at a different rate in a different way.
What is your biggest audition no-no? I always say if you do not feel good, if you started wrong, laugh it off and start over. I had never won. I’m never one to say Plug Away! Finish the song no matter what!
Like it's not that deep, because everyone behind the table knows you’re nervous, they are nervous. Always remember the people behind the table have a problem to solve, they need this cast right? They want every person that walks through that door to solve their problem.
The biggest no-no is mind trickery. It will play games on you which I didn’t learn until I had my daughter because it thought, this is all so stupid and I changed my tune. I no longer allow my brain to trick myself into believing that it’s a performance. It’s not. You wan to be prepared, prepared, prepared for things to go wrong because guess what, things go wrong on Broadway all the time.
What do you think about that David?
D: I think that's a 100% true. I think for me is about the material you bring into the room. If you don't have material that you can channel all of that nervous energy into, that it's going to come out in other ways, but if you're so excited about sharing this story and focused on that character and the energy that that needs, then you’ll conserve all of the frightened, crazy, manic and channel it in the right direction.
It’s all about those 32 bars and now is the time to learn new stories!
E: Someone is asking, “How do you pick out the right material for you?” I always say, take a night and go down a YouTube Rabbit Hole. Click click click, next recommended song. That composer who just graduated from college who got somebody to sing their song in a concert that makes you say, "I gotta sing that song.” Those are the things you should be singing, Go watch 100 YouTube videos. What else are you doing right now? Track down that composer and say, “Can I buy that sheet music?” And it doesn't have to be obscure. It’s about finding things that you connect with and that's how you pick up the material, just keep clicking on it and you'll find a world of good.
D: How do you find an auditions without an agent?
E: In New York, you have to go on Backstage or Playbill… there are always auditions. Lauren Chapman, Kinky Boots, First National… she played my part, she’s now in Frozen on Broadway, she got it from an ECC. Also, Jelani Alladin, my favourite story. Almost didn’t go to an EPA and was Kristoff on Broadway. It happens. You gotta get your ass up and you gotta go. The 100% way you’re not going to get the job is to not go to the audition.
D: It’s less common in Canada to have those kind of open calls. So my recommendation here is that, you go to the website of the theatre companies that you respect and actually be a little discerning in your submissions. Rather than saying, “I’ll take any job in any show.” You want to show that you’ve done your homework. Look at the shows, see where you fit and then submit.
E: So you guys don't have open calls, but you have free health care.
D: Someone’s asking what are ECCs and EPAs.
E: An ECC is an Equity Chorus Call which is open to anyone with an Equity card and then sometimes they open up to people without a card. And an EPA is an Equity Principal Audition. At an ECC, a member of the creative team is required to be there at an EPA, they’re not. At an ECC you sign up online for what is sometimes referred to as a cattle call. At an EPA, you sign up for a specific time and each person is given two minutes
D: What colleges do you recommend?
E: Well, I don’t know about Canada, but here, there’s a million and you just have to decide... what city do you want to be in? When are you allowed to perform? Some places don’t let you take work until junior or senior year. What about Canada?
D: My advice is always to look to someone you admire, to your role model and find out where they went. And maybe they didn't go to school. Also remember that schools have reputations, but they change and ebb and flow and I think what's important is look to someone who's recently been somewhere and go there.
Mariah has a question: What are some ways to train your voice? Do you recommend video taping yourself if you don’t have access to a teacher right now?
E: I always tell my students to record themselves and watch themselves back and to be their own teacher. Sometimes in a lesson, I will turn and I'll say, critique that. Tell me what you think I will say. I think it's really important to self-correct, because again, some people don't have the luxury of having a teacher or can’t afford it, currently.
Also, you know, when you’re listening to yourself on a recording, and you're like, "Oh no! is that my voice?!” When we sing, we don't hear our voices the way others hear it. We're hearing our voices bounced back to us. So recording your voice is the only way to really figure out how you sound to others… very important. And I also encourage people to videotape their faces, not just voice memo so you can spot where your tongue tension is, your head, your head conducting. You can see all the possible bad habits that may have creeped in.
How to maintain to train your voice. Listen, everyone is different. Some people need 20 minutes of warm-up, some people need five minutes of warm-up. Do you know what Barbra Streisand’s warm-up is? It’s the first song in her concert.
I have three vocal exercises that I have to do before I sing that I can do waiting for a bus but it’s different for everyone.
A question I get a lot is: what you do when you get sick or what do you do when you feel under? I have my arsenal of things that I do, but if you go to any Broadway theatre backstage, everyone has their different potions a lotions and oils and teas… and you just collect gems as you go because there is not just one answer.
D: OK, last question. I’m new to New York, what is your advice for entering an audition room for a singing call.
E: I can't stress it enough… Just be yourself. One of the most valuable things I ever did was I was a reader for auditions. That was worth four years of college being a reader at Telsey. Because you can see people's energy when they walk in the room, right? And that energy is so palpable. And being in control of how you enter a room is really important.
So just try and take a breath and know that you have a 100% success rate of exiting the audition room alive. No one has ever died in an audition. You don't have to announce, you don't have to stand on an X, you don't have to wear a flowery dress… just be authentically you because anything else will be faux and people see right through it. Do you think that?
D: I think you’re one of the most authentic people I know and I'm so inspired by you, on so many levels, and again, if you’re not following Ellyn, do it.
E: You guys are all so lucky to have David. He is one of the most positive, collaborative, talented people I know.