Young Performers, Learn How to Act Through Song with Emma Hatton

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In collaboration with Official London Theatre, Westend Bootcamps has been hosting Monday Masterclasses during the pandemic period. This series of educational webinars led by industry professionals aims to develop audiences’ interest and knowledge in the world of musical theatre. With every ticket purchased, 1£ will benefit the United Kingdom National Health Service.

On May 25th, Emma Hatton, star of iconic productions such as Wicked, Cats, Evita, and more, gave a masterclass on acting through song – how young performers can connect to the lyrics and message of the piece they are learning or performing several times a week.

According to Hatton, using the proper technique, while certainly a crucial aspect, should not make the singer lose sight of the importance of delivering emotion and connecting to the song:

You have to dig into emotion after the technique becomes a muscle memory, she states.

Why act through song?

Hatton began her class by explaining the role of musical numbers in order for performers to gain a better grasp of the importance of delivering emotion while performing in a show. According to her, the three main roles (although not exclusive) are the following:

  • Musical numbers exist as a continuation of the plot and storyline

Supporting this point, Hatton explains how one must approach a song as it was a monologue – focus on the text and why the words would be said. Giving the example of Wicked’s Defying Gravity number, Emma highlights how the story is moving throughout the lead character’s words: Elphaba starts the number of with a personal manifesto, refusing to follow false authority any further. In the middle, she sings how she might try resisting the odds stacked against her, defying gravity – and the end sees her flying away on her broomstick. Would these metaphors work without the proper, honest, vulnerable delivery?

  • Musical numbers provide context

Using Oklahoma’s Oh, what a beautiful morning and its descriptive lyrics of the story’s scenery as an example, Hatton says it’s crucial to act through song also for the reason that setting the background in a show is more easily done so when the audience sees that the character is able to portray its authenticity while emotionally connecting to it.

  • They serve as a way to understand a character’s state of mind

Going back to Wicked, Emma highlights The Wizard and I, a moment in the show where Elphaba is allowed to have her first emotional outburst and hopeful moment after a lifetime of emotional torment:

Once I’m with the Wizard,/ My whole life will change,/ ‘Cause once you’re with the Wizard,/ No one thinks you’re strange,/ No father is not proud of you,/ No sister acts ashamed,/ And all of Oz has to love you,/ When by the Wizard, you’re acclaimed.

Those lyrics reveal a deep layer of yearning for acceptance and love. If not sung with the proper emotion, emotional importance is lost, and audiences will not connect to your character.

Music in a show can be dangerous when not executed properly by the singer, Hatton states. It can become an excuse for the audience to sit back and disconnect from the story. But it shouldn’t.

How to do it?

When acting through song, Hatton suggests performers to think ‘what am I trying to say’, ‘what is the message I am conveying’.

Moreover, when delivering a musical number, singers should be honest, vulnerable, and true. Audiences will eat out of the palm of your hands if you do. – Hatton adds.

Take the text of the song, and put it into your own words. When you formulate the idea in your own language, when you say it as you would, it is bound to summon emotion. Grab it and use it to your own advantage when you have to sing about a situation you might not have experienced in your life. You are bound to find a personal experience that made you feel the same emotion.

Using Wicked as an example once again, Hatton suggests viewers to look at For Good, a moment in the second act of the play where two best friends must part and will never meet again. There are quite a few pauses in the song. Why? Because the one singing it is emotional. It’s as if she had a lump in her throat, Hatton adds.

I was never a green witch, but the idea of losing my best friend forever is enough for me to manifest the character of Elphaba in that moment. That’s one way to connect your character effortlessly – apply their situation to your own life.

Research

Your own life experiences can only take you so far, Emma mentions. You have to delve into the character you are playing and question what their childhood was like, what their insecurities are, what their purpose is, and where they are at in their journey.

If your character is a real person, read their biographies. Bits of knowledge about them can help you construct a clear picture of what kind of person they are, how they would react in certain situations, and so on, Emma details.

Pace yourself to maximize audience engagement and emotional effect

How does one make sure the audience does not lose interest in the song? According to Hatton, the key is pacing yourself.

Make the audience earn a big moment, she states. If you start with an unnecessarily high note or vocal run, the audience will instantly see that you can deliver on an extraordinarily high level and will be bored for the rest of the song.

What’s more, sing according to context and highlight only what needs to be highlighted. Don’t emphasize on the wrong message, and don’t sing about the quiet midnight with a thunderous roar.

For more tips and tricks in the world of performance art and musical theatre, keep a lookout on future Westend Bootcamp Monday Masterclasses.

Written by: Nagy Béla-Zsolt