BY MARY SETRAKIAN
(c) 2018 Mary Setrakian
MY FATHER & ME
Growing up, Dad was my hero. At 13 years old he was hit with polio and could never raise his arms again. If you met him, you'd never know it. He was the most charming, loving and brilliant man I knew – and he loved to sing. Singing songs was a prerequisite in my family, and from the age of two I couldn’t get enough. Sunday mornings we’d gather on my parent’s king-size bed. Under the sheets lying on his back, Dad would bend his knees into a blanket-covered mountaintop. One at a time, we kids would sit on top of the kneecap peak. The rule was we had to sing a song at the top of our lungs – and then, without warning, Dad’s knees would drop and we’d all dissolve into hysterical laughter. I loved every minute of it.
Many weekends, Dad sat me and my three brothers around a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He’d interview us and then we’d sing. We’d belt out in perfect harmony the old time hits of the ‘20s – “If You Knew Suzie”, “I Had a Dream Dear” and “Barney Google”. My brothers were terrific singers, but Dad saw a star quality in me. He thought I had the potential to be like one of those original Broadway belters: Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Mary Martin. Daddy gave me my own one-on-one sessions, too.
To be honest, I wasn't sure that Dad's dream for me to be a singer was my dream. From the age of eleven I studied flute with the first chair of the San Francisco Symphony, Merrill Jordan. Mr. Jordan thought I had the talent to have a career - but in high school, when I was sitting in the pit playing flute for the big musical that year, Guys & Dolls, I realized - (I don't want to be down here in the pit - I want to be up there on the stage!) For the rest of high school, I participated in every chorus and musical that was offered.
Heading off to college, I still wondered - (Is there something else that I love to do other than sing?) When I got accepted at Stanford University I thought I might try other subjects than music and performing - but alas - from the very first day, I passionately signed up for every choir and show, I landed my first lead, Hodel In FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and I even led my freshman dorm - pre-meds and geeks alike - in singing at the top of their lungs every week. I was hooked! Right after graduation I went on to get a Masters at the New England Conservatory. Then I decided that Dad was right. Broadway was my dream, and I moved to New York.
NEW YORK CITY
As my taxi from the airport crossed the Triboro Bridge, I could see the luminous island of Manhattan. Yup, I sang that Frank Sinatra cliché right there in the taxi.
“If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere... It’s up to you... New York... New Yoooork!”
My first week there, to my joy, I auditioned and landed in the chorus of an off-Broadway repertoire company, the Light Opera of Manhattan (LOOM for short). I made $35 a week. Woo hoo! I was a working actress! Apartment hunting, I hit gold the third week. My wonderful friend Marty had another Stanford friend Marty who needed a roommate. (It was like Marty Gras!) Perfect! Fourth week and I landed a secretary job in the mornings. The rent-free month paid off in spades.
But as much as I enjoyed singing at LOOM, I was dreaming of Broadway.
I was waiting on line, hoping to be seen for my first Broadway audition – BIG RIVER – a new musical with an exciting score by Roger Miller. On Broadway, you have to sing in all styles – legit, belt, pop, rock – and now, (drum roll) ... country. On Broadway, you also have to be in the actors’ union called Equity. If you’re not, you wait at the end of the audition line behind the Equity actors and hope to be seen if there’s time left. That was me.
The casting director, Stanly Soble, peaked his head out of the studio and said the magic words: “I’ll hear everybody today, even non-Equity.” (Yippee!) Instead of the usual quick 16-bars, he would only hear 8-bars. Let me tell you, that’s quick.
I couldn’t decide what to sing. Three years of Schumann and Bizet didn’t prepare me for Tom Sawyer’s country trip down the Mississippi. I settled on “Amazing Grace”. I didn’t have the sheet music, but I’d sung it in my hometown church many times. I’d do it a cappella and give it a country twang. Plus one verse was exactly 8-bars. Perfect!
Stanley Soble and the pianist were the only people in the room – both white guys with grey beards. I tried to be delightful as I stepped into the room, but nobody cracked a smile. Normally that would throw me off, but this time their somber faces didn’t faze me. I stepped to the center of the room in front of stone-faced Stanley and started to sing.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound...
BOOM went the low G on the piano. The pianist perfectly entered my song. He made the piano sound like an orchestra! My voice rode the wave of his heartfelt accompaniment. Crescendo ... Diminuendo ... eight bars of “Amazing Grace” was suddenly a journey through time. We felt each other. We lived each moment, each note, each phrase. The song had a beginning, middle and end. It was eight bars of MAGIC!
And then it was done. I glanced at the guys. They had a little laugh together. I giggled politely, said thank you and left. I went home and tried not to think about it too much.
The next day I got a callback – for a Broadway show!
(Oh my God! Hallelujah! The director, Des McAnoff, is seeing me for Girl #3! Casting even sent me a scene to read for the leading lady! Oh joy! Oh rapture!)
Pure panic set in.
I’d heard that when you get a callback, you should sing what you sang at the original audition. There was a reason they liked that song choice. Sing it again for the team.
(Oh no! How can I sing “Amazing Grace” a cappella again? How could I possibly repeat the magic that happened at my audition? What if I start in another key? Would the pianist still magically come in? What if he doesn’t and my a cappella version sucks? Besides, singing an easy song like “Amazing Grace” can’t be enough for a big director like Des McAnuff!)
I loved Joan Baez’s version of “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. I got the sheet music and tried to make it sound good. Then I stumbled through the dialogue with my actor roommate Marty. Little voices of doubt kept rearing their heads. (Who am I kidding. I don’t know what I’m doing. They’re gonna think I’m a fraud.)
At the callback there was a room full of people behind the desk, and smack dab in the middle – Des MacAnoff. After a few hellos, I sang my song. I tried to make it special. My song ended.
Suddenly, Des launched into his own Bob Dylan impersonation of “Forever Young”. I smiled along like I thought he was funny. (Oh my, this can’t be good.) Then I read the scene with Stanley Soble. The stage direction said to kiss Huck Finn, so I kissed Stanley on the cheek. (Is it okay to kiss the casting director?) I left the room deflated.
When I saw the show, Girl #3 was an easy fit for me. Disappointment loomed in not knowing what the heck I was doing.
My wonderful friend Marty later starred as Huck Finn.
FINDING SUSAN BATSON
Something was wrong and I had to figure it out. I studied with several Broadway vocal coaches. They would say, “Mary, be more like the character ... Be sad here!” “Be happy!” “Be young!” “Be bold!” I would give them a sad, happy, young and bold face – the same I did with my soprano roles – but I didn’t feel anything. They weren’t too impressed and neither was I.
I decided to find an acting class.
I began my search by meeting a renowned acting teacher. In the pre-screen interview he asked me about my experience. I told him I was the leading lady in repertory at The Light Opera of Manhattan. He said I couldn’t be in a show if I was taking his class. I stayed at LOOM and didn’t sign up.
I then found a workshop that was performing scenes from Chekov’s THE SEAGULL. (Why not?) I jumped into the course! The play was triple cast, and I was one of the Mashas paired with an actor to do a scene.
I was standing on the stage in my A-line skirt and stylin’ black leotard with one long sleeve and one naked arm. (I must have gone to dance class that day.) My partner and I began the scene. I got about seven words out before the short director leapt up onto the stage, totally disgusted.
“That was just awful. And Mary, why did you wear this for Masha? It’s not helping the character at all.”
The director tugged at the front of my leotard. Without warning, my naked breast popped out in front of his face! Flustered and bright red, the little director cowered away. I carefully pulled up my top, made a nonchalant face and tried not to dissolve. (I’m an actor, goddammit!)
He regrouped with a gulp. “Okay, let’s try it again. Now Mary, you are to say the line and do something disgusting to your partner.” I took a breath, said my line, and in one swift motion pulled down my leotard and exposed my breast again. The class swooned. I re-covered, recovered and went on with the scene.
After class, one of the most talented actresses there, Wendy Way, came up to me. “You need to study with Susan Batson.”
“Really? Who’s that?”
“An amazing acting teacher.”
“Why should I study with her?”
“Because of the way you handled yourself tonight. You have something special. Study with Susan. Trust me.”
It sounds strange now, but I didn’t even think to tell Susan Batson that I was a singer, starring off-Broadway at LOOM every night. I was a beginner. I was there to learn.
I went to class three mornings a week. Every lesson Susan assigned us a different exercise. If Susan said, “You got the job!” life was good.
My life sucked.
“You’re shut down.”
I knew Susan was right, but I had no idea how to fix it.
One day Susan told us to "Visit your father in the hospital." The other students had tears streaming down their faces. Me? Dry as a bone.
Weeks later we were assigned the "Confrontation Exercise", I was donned the Good Girl. I was so disconnected from my anger that Susan had me go around the room, stand in front of each student and say "Fuck you!" I was as embarrassed as they were delighted.
Next class Susan announced, “Our business is competitive. Today you'll do a 'Daily Activity' that you do the best. Nobody else in the world does this everyday activity as well as you. We’ll go in groups of three.”
My first thought was to floss. I am the best flosser in the world.
One actress cooked, another got dressed, one read a magazine, a guy combed his hair. A few got the job – a few didn’t.
Susan called my group to the stage. As I walked to my spot, I had an epiphany. (I’m playing Naughty Marietta every night. I practice every day. I’ll sing scales.) I took my place and sang my soprano vocalize with extended octaves. Up and down I went.
Susan was awestruck.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, the other two actresses chose singing as their activity too. (Dammit. What are the odds? I better make this more interesting!) I bagged the singing and jumped into practicing scenes from NAUGHTY MARIETTA. Susan stopped the exercise.
“Mary... So... You’re a singer.”
Susan just looked at me.
“Obviously singing scales is an activity you do every day. There was something so honest about it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. When you changed to the scene – that was not interesting. But those scales! ” I smiled from ear to ear. Thank God I didn’t floss.
From then on Susan knew who I was. I was beginning to know, too.
I scheduled my first private lesson with Susan. She sat me in a chair directly across from her. I had no idea what to expect.
“How was your weekend?” Susan asked warmly.
“I went to a wedding.”
A dear friend of mine just got married. The ceremony was beautiful. I sang in front of the congregation with all of the attendants in tow – including a particular groomsman. Paul and I had dated for three months and had just broken up the week before.
There he was across the way. You know how it is when a guy knows you’re there, but he doesn’t acknowledge you? He didn’t even shoot me a glance, but he did give himself away. He was laughing just a little bit too loudly, as he shamelessly flirted with the bridesmaids.
“Did you go anywhere to get away from him?” Susan inquired.
“What do you remember about the bathroom?”
“I stood in front of the mirror.”
“What were you doing?”
“Looking at myself.”
“What was the sensation?”
(What was the sensation?) Nothing came to me.
“How did you feel?”
It felt like another hour went by. I was the Good Girl stuck in the mirror.
“What are you aware of?”
Finally … finally … a word came into my mind.
(Dare I say it?)
Susan ran a victory lap around the studio! She celebrated my loneliness! It was a jewel I could bring to my artist. A truth I could embrace for any character. A depth I could give to my work. Susan showed me, for the first time, my loneliness was an asset to my life.
“Mary, this is the work,” Susan said. “All feelings are required.”
I still couldn’t cry in class, so I went to therapy in hopes of fixing my dry-as- a-bone problem. It was helping. There I’d sit in class, sobbing my eyes out. This day was no different.
“What do I do, Susan?” I pleaded.
“Don’t clean-up, Mary. Cry. Keep crying. It’s your turn, by the way.”
I stayed in the pain and took my place in front of the class. “Now ... go back to the worst day of your life.”
(Oh my God. Really? The worst day?)
And then like magic – a scene came to my mind. I was thirteen years old, seeing a U-Haul truck in the driveway through my bedroom window. Nobody could see me. I was numb. Dad had just arrived to get his furniture. The divorce was final. My brother Robbie was Dad’s arms that day. I heard strange noises – Mom asking questions, furniture dragging, truck engine revving. Dad was giving orders since he couldn’t do the lifting. “Rob! Rob!”
“And now sing.” Susan said.
“I can’t!” I sobbed.
“You must! Your instrument is opening up. This isn’t therapy. We’re not trying to fix your feelings. We’re using them. It’s uncontrollable now, but with practice, your instrument will be clear and you will be the vessel. Don’t clean up!”
I thought she was mad at me. I started weeping through a song from the musical PIPPIN:
I’m your average, ordinary kind of woman, competent and neat, making life a treat...
The numb Good Girl evaporated. There I was at the window, looking at Daddy steering the truck up the driveway, leaving our family behind. I sobbed through every word. “I’m crying! I can’t sing!”
“Don’t clean up, Mary!" Susan yelled. “Speak through it! SING THROUGH IT!”
Others as nice you meet often I know. At least once or twice, every decade or so...
The lyrics said I was average – the opposite of everything I wanted to be! I was shaking. I was reaching to Daddy. I never told him, “Don’t go! Stay with me!” Now I could tell him. I could sing it to him!
Because I’m just your plain, everyday, commonplace, come-what-may, average, ordinary...
Suddenly the sobbing united with my voice in one fell swoop. I could hear Daddy’s reply, just like I was three years old in front of the microphone. “BRING IT HOME, MARY! BRING IT HOME!”
WONDERFUL ----- GIRL!
My classmates applauded. Susan yelled, “YOU GOT THE JOB!”
It took a while, but working with Susan Batson (and I still do today) my life and my career totally changed. Susan taught me how to connect my well-trained voice technique to my personal, intimate and vulnerable emotional life. In time, my dreams came true. I booked those Broadway shows and tours I was yearning for: LES MISERABLES, EVITA, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and HELLO, DOLLY! starring Carol Channing.
Now my passion and purpose are to share with you everything I learned. The super fantastic out-of-this-world fact is that my process works for every level of “Singer”: The guy who’s embarrassed because he can never sing Happy Birthday on pitch – the woman who loved to sing back in high school, but is too busy (or shy) to try it again – the executive who sings his heart out in the shower – the Broadway hopeful who has a great voice but can’t get a job – the pop star struggling to reach the top – the artist who is AT the top but wants to go the extra mile.
Believe it or not, the seemingly tone-deaf amateur’s work is not that far from the trained professional’s process. Sound impossible that every level benefits? Even for me, it’s a miracle every time.
Here is my secret.
I am not just teaching you how to hit the notes. I’m teaching you how to access your intimate emotions and connect them to your one-of-a-kind voice. I guide you to understand your body and how to connect your vulnerability to your voice so that you can share a real story, whether you’re singing at Karaoke night, or playing a complicated character in a musical.
THE REVOLUTIONARY SEND
My method connects 5-elements of voice technique with 5-elements of the emotional life (or acting technique). I can't wait to see you in class and put all of the elements together! Here's an example of pros & debut singers together connecting all ten elements of The Revolutionary Send!