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Building Character

There's one house rule every student in Professor Jennifer Hart's Musical Theater Performance class must follow before entering class: Leave their shoes, and their inhibitions, at the door.

Musical Theater Performance

"There's a certain freedom that comes from this practice," Hart said, "and freedom is great for singing, movement and acting."

The class specializes in the art of rehearsal and performance once an actor has been selected for a role in a musical. With the help of student directors, choreographers, acting partners and props, the class works on character development, scene transitions by rehearsing solos, duets and group numbers.

"It teaches the student what will be expected of them in the rehearsal process of a professional theater," Hart said "My hope is that this class will help these students compete in the musical theater world in New York City. It is a very tough place to start, but – by the end - they will be better equipped for whatever is to follow."

Gabrielle Dina '19, a performance major, says the class is a must for every drama student. "When you get a part, you need to know everything about the person you are playing," she said. "Here, we are given two sets of questions to use to flesh out a character. The first set is about objectives and obstacles – what the character is hoping to achieve and what they have to overcome.

"The second is their psychological and physiological state – their morals, their physicality, their social interactions and their history."

Jason Belanger works with the students on 'The Song of Purple Summer.'

Said teaching assistant Jason Belanger '18, who graduated summa cum laude from Hofstra in May:  "The goal in this course is to get experience working in a lot of different musicals and stepping into a variety of characters – even ones that we might not be suited to play professionally."

Throughout the spring 2018 semester, the class worked on a group song, "The Song of Purple Summer" - the finale from Spring Awakening. "We've been working on the notes and the rhythms," Belanger explained during one class. "Now that those are set, we are looking at what the lyrics mean and how the piece is constructed. What the metaphors are and what language the composer chose to use."

During this particular class session, Belanger - a dual drama and psychology major - asked his classmates to try an unusual exercise: Become five-years-old again and dance to "The Song of Purple Summer."

Some of the students held hands; some moved freely on their own. As the song progressed, the students were asked to 'grow up' – changing their movements to reflect being 12, 16 and eventually in their early 20s.

"An exercise like this might seem odd to an outside eye, but that's the sort of stuff we do a lot of in class," said Marie Fournier '18, a BFA performance major. "It's really great to delve into the entire libretto for a show. In addition to working on your individual character you get to work on your relationships with your fellow performers, and those inform your performance."

While many aspiring actors believe they are born for the stage, the skills offered by this course and others give students a tool kit that they will carry with them from job to job. "Yes, there is an element of really wanting to be in theater and feeling that it's in you," Dina said. "But you need to have some training or lots of training, depending on where you are in your career.

"I've always loved being in theater and musical theater," she said, "but having this background helps you to become more confident as a performer and to give a better final product."

Said Heidi Gleichauf '18, who graduated with a BFA in performance, "This class reminds you in order to give an honest performance you have to put in a great deal of work: character study, reading through libretto, and thinking about the time period of the show. It's a big commitment. … But hopefully it's what I'll be doing for the rest of my life."