When I first received a Facebook message asking me if I would like to interview Mary Setrakian, I was sceptical. I am often approached by teachers who are eager to promote their “life changing” masterclasses and 8 week intensives. Unfortunately, many are more oriented towards profit than helping actors.
But after seeing the litany of superstars Mary has worked with, from Nicole Kidman to James Gandolfini, I was intrigued. We met for a coffee, and instantly I could see why her Australian trip was aptly named the “Let The Sun Shine Tour”. She was radiating, and I could tell instantly she was one of the good ones. Her passion was palpable and I knew I had to work with her.
Mary, and her wonderful producers William and Katie, invited me along to her weekend workshop. I immediately said yes, not knowing exactly I was getting myself into.
In the preceding days I was surprised how worried I was about the workshop. It had been some time since I’d taken time for my own training. And to be doing a singing workshop? I am an actor, not a singer. I just kept feeling like a fraud. I wanted to write to them and remind them “I’m not a real singer”, despite the fact that I love singing, have had vocal training since I was a kid, have recorded nearly 10 albums, and have worked professionally in Musical Theatre, and sing everyday! You probably know this feeling of struggling to own a certain title. For me calling myself a singer has always been difficult. You probably have your own stories, “I’m not a professional actor” or “I don’t deserve to be here” or any of the myriad stories we incessantly tell ourselves.
However, come Saturday I was there, pen and paper in hand, ready to go on the journey, and boy am I glad I did.
Mary is a Master Voice Teacher who works primarily in New York. Though her focus is singing, she has been a long time collaborator with Susan Batson, one of the leading acting coaches alive today. For me this workshop was an exploration of not just signing, but acting, performing and something much more important.
You cannot explain the power of an experience like this in bullet points, but I wanted to share with you some of what I took from her workshop. Though much of her work was centred around singing, all of these lessons apply to acting. I encourage anyone reading this to experience her work first hand. Like many of the great teachers alive today her passion is immense, and her love for the art of performing is something that will stay with me.
Here is what I learnt…
#1 If it sounds too complicated, it probably is.
To begin the workshop Mary outlined the foundations of voice: breath, support and resonance. What shocked me immediately was the simplicity of it all. Assisted by some wonderfully fun animations she had on hand, I felt I finally understood things that I have studied for years. It was a reminder that if you are finding anything you are learning convoluted and complicated, it probably isn’t helpful. I believe any great acting theory can be explained simply. That doesn’t mean it can’t be detailed and complex, many of Mary’s techniques are very in-depth, but they all made sense.
#2 You can’t breath into your stomach!
This was the one massive takeaway that I wanted to share with all of you. Whether you’ve done one voice class, or have been working on your voice for years, we are all aware of slogans like “breathe into your belly” or “you have to breathe from your diaphragm”. Mary reminded us that you can’t actually breath into your belly, you breathe into your lungs! The goal is to think about breathing into the bottom of your lungs, and that your diaphragm is an “involuntary muscle!” As the diaphragm pulls down, that pushes your belly out to make way for your lungs. This might sound like a simple differentiation, but it is really powerful. You may have been like me and forced yourself to have deep belly breaths only to feel more tense and short of breath.
#3 Fear is such a waste of time.
This was a revealing class. It was incredible to be sharing the experience with such a mix of performers. There was a huge range of age and experience, but the one commonality among us all was the amount of fear that was holding us back. Unnecessary stories and beliefs that we clung to. I really think solving self consciousness and working through fears is one of the most powerful things you can do as an actor.
#4 The revolutionary send.
This is the name Mary gives her powerful process. And though it has many layers, and I think you have to work with her to fully experience it, this is what I took from it: send your work, don’t hold onto it. Whether it is a song, or a scene, send your work to the other person. We are so focused on ourselves we often forget to share. It’s not all about you!
#5 Do something for yourself.
As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s been a long time since I did something for myself as an artist. And even longer since I’ve done something where I SING. But I am so glad I did. It is important to remind ourselves that we are artists, even if society isn’t always seeing us that way. If you haven’t been working as an actor, or haven’t done any training in a while, take some time out to come back to what you love.
#6 The power of script analysis.
Mary talked through a powerful process of script analysis. Actors are often turned off by how complex these processes can be, but it is always important to breakdown a script and find what the intention of the writer is. We were working on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song I must have heard 100s of times, but have never understood so clearly. Breaking a scene or song into beats (complete dramatic thoughts) is a great start. But then you have to find what is really underpinning the work. I can’t go into Mary’s full process here, but I do encourage you all to keep exploring your own process and don’t be turned off by convoluted techniques that don’t work for you.
#7 Stop closing your eyes.
When I sing, I love to close my eyes. Mary didn’t love it so much. She encouraged us all to stay connected. It’s not about you. It’s about the story. Though this is a singing note, the theory applies to actors. We can often get trapped in the awareness of how good, or bad, we think the scene or monologue is feeling. But it isn’t about us. It’s about the story!
I have never had vocal support explained so clearly. I’m sure many of you have worked in vocal classes rolling about on the floor, or bouncing about while a teacher talks about support. For me Mary kept it so simple. Feel the power from your superhero belly button. This probably needs more explanation, and a few fun cartoons, but it was a huge learning curve that if you have a well supported voice you can speak and sing with power.
#9 Relaxation is not a lack of energy.
One great note that kept coming up was how relaxed everyone was after working with Mary. And she pointed out again and again through the workshop that relaxation doesn’t mean a performance was flat or de-energised. In fact it just means that it felt “easy”. If we think of all the great performers from Gene Kelly to Meryl Streep, we can see this same thing. They make it look easeful. You could even describe Usain Bolt as relaxed as he runs faster than any human ever has.
#10 Don’t focus on your weaknesses
Early on in the class I mentioned that I had “bad pitch” or a fear of hitting the wrong notes. Ever since a few embarrassing auditions as a teen, the idea of hitting the wrong note has haunted me. Through the weekend Mary reminded us that focusing on these kinds of things can bring about more issues. Instead we have to trust that the notes will be there when you really send the story to someone. When I think of all the negative self talk we all experience, “I’ve got a bad voice” or “I struggle with emotional connection”, are we really helping or just perpetuating a story that for most of us actually isn’t true in the first place? I encourage you all to think about what you are still holding onto and whether some passing note your singing teacher made when you were 13 really holds much merit today.
I can’t explain the full power of Mary’s work, only she can. So I encourage you all to get along and see her work.
It’s always important to find time to work on your craft. This class reminded me how much we all have in common. Whether it was the talented 10 year old girl in the class bringing us to tears, or students who bravely shared their health issues, that were so full of joy and warmth, I was reminded of our humanity. I was reminded of how we performers are so sensitive and that sensitivity is everything, but it can make living challenging. Work with teachers and actors that inspire you. And even if you don’t call yourself a singer, find some time to simply sing.