Friday, April 4, 2014

Rosie Perez offers master class for young performers

Rosie Perez holding a master class
at Baryshnikov Arts Center's Jerome Robbins Theater
Photo by Robert Leslie
courtesy of the National YoungArts Foundation
Actress, dancer, choreographer, director,
Rosie Perez has had to acknowledge and push past her fears
in order to be the accomplished, authentic artist she wants to be.
Photo by Robert Leslie
courtesy of the National YoungArts Foundation
Rosie Perez majored in biochemistry. That scientific headset remains with her, she says, making it easier for her to function in theater onstage--more in the moment, finely analyzing and managing each and every aspect of her performance--than in film, where so many, many others have control of the product.

That was one interesting revelation from a master class the multi-talented performer and Puerto Rican activist offered for high school arts students enrolled in this year's YoungArts New York week-long intensive. Held yesterday afternoon at Baryshnikov Arts Center's Jerome Robbins Theater, The 90-minute session gave a group of about twenty students in jazz, singing, dance and acting an opportunity to be observed and critiqued by this exceedingly sharp-eyed, frank and caring artist. And it also gave her a chance to share hard lessons learned from decades in the entertainment industry:

First off, check your attitude at the door, or you might get shown the door. 

"You're going to be dealing with a lot of older people who've been around a long time," she said. "When you get older, you don't have time to put up with people's BS, with chips on their shoulder."

Next up: Just plain do your art.

"If you're an artist and you aren't doing what you do, a part of you will be dying."

Nerds are it.

"That feeling that you have of never fitting in? That you're kind of weird? The reason you stand out as an artist is that you are not the norm. Embrace your oddity. Embrace it, honor it and cherish it."

No slacking off.

"You have to bring 100% professionalism, being prepared and pushing through your fears and stepping into your greatness, knowing who you are."

It was director George C. Wolfe who gave Perez that advice--"Push through your fears and step into your greatness"--and who once confronted her, as she waited to go onstage, with this:

"Are you still scared?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Good. Use it."

Passion. Use it, too.

"Have you seen my YouTube Soul Train compilation? Passion was leaking out of my pores. I learned to control it, manipulate that passion."

Your authentic self is your artist self.

"I used to spend a lot of time being someone else in my performance, thinking that that's what it is."

She thought she had to be Meryl Streep--although, she jokes, her accent was kind of a liability. But she watched jazz drummer Max Roach at a White House gig being nobody but Max Roach and was blown away by his cool. That gave her a clue. And she watched Sutton Foster, then a virtual unknown, step into the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie at nearly the last minute when another actress was fired--"Sutton Foster was read-day! Bitch was read-day!" Foster got her break and more than proved herself. And went on to win a Tony. Perez resolved to always be read-day, too.

"Where you find who you are and how you perform are those moments alone. That's how you develop the person you want to be."

Perez intently watching as
YoungArts New York participants perform.
Photo by Robert Leslie
courtesy of the National YoungArts Foundation

My favorite part of Perez's master class came when she quietly asked some members of a jazz combo, who had just played for her, to each take a moment to describe one of their colleagues as a musician. Each of the students did his or her best with this assignment but, as I see it, might have missed Perez's point. 

I think she was trying to get them to see that ability, and even style, is not enough. You have to have that little something something that is absolutely yours alone and that identifies you to your peers and your fans. Your signature. 

But they have time to work that all out.

* * * * *

YoungArts New York is a program of the National YoungArts Foundation, established in 1981 to "identify and nurture the next generation of artists in the literary, performing, visual and design arts, and to contribute to the cultural vitality of the nation by supporting the artistic development of talented young artists."
During YoungArts New York, March 31-April 7, 2014, approximately 100 YoungArts Winners in the visual, literary, performing and design arts will take part in a week-long intensive, working with masters in their field. These talented young artists will then present their work through several multidisciplinary performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and a visual art, photography and design exhibition, writers’ readings and cinematic arts screenings at the MoMA PS1. The week will culminate with a special screening of the HBO documentary series Anna Deavere Smith: YoungArts MasterClass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For a schedule of YoungArts New York exhibitions, readings, screenings and performances open to the general public this weekend, click here.

Applications to participate iin 2015 programs will be open from April 15 to October 17, 2014. For eligibility requirements, click here.

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