On July 25, 2011, I had the distinct opportunity to sit in on Sheri Sanders' "Rock The Audition" class at True Voice Studios in NYC. I only expected to stay for the first half of the class, but I was so moved and inspired by what I saw, I asked Sheri if I could stay for the whole class instead. Sheri has a firm, yet very encouraging teaching style. She will push you to learn and grow, but she will do it with love because she knows you can achieve what she is asking for. A few days after sitting in on her class, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sheri to discuss her class, her book, and everything in between about how to "Rock The Audition!"
Sheri Sanders is an actress, a singer, a teacher, and most of all a pioneer whose confidence with in herself skyrocketed her to success! From legit theatre to rock musicals to solo concerts, Sheri has taken all of her experience, education, and expertise to become the first and only person to lead the musical theatre community in learning how to style and interpret Rock, Pop, R&B, Blues and Folk Music with her "Rock The Audition" Master Class and book of the same name. She piloted "Rock The Audition" here in NYC at Pace University and has since presented her master class in colleges across the country including Syracuse University, Millikan University, and The Conservatory at Papermill Playhouse amongst others.
In addition to traveling around the country, Sheri teaches her "Rock The Audition" class right here in NYC at True Voice Studios. Always continuing with her performing, Sheri will be starring in a special "Rock The Audition" concert series at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Come see Sheri do what she does best, put her heart, soul, and body into an electrifying concert of rock music! "Rock The Audition" concert series will play October 11 at 8pm, October 12 at 1pm, and October 13 at 11pm at TBG Theater (312 West 36th Street). You can also catch Sheri on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) on Sunday, September 25 at 10am in "My OWN Time."
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I love that question. I came out of the womb performing, but as far as who inspired me to become a great performer was Bette Midler. Me: I like that. I like how you said that. Sheri: A great performer. Me: Yes. Sheri: Especially because of the way she is. She didn't apologize for anything. She could be flat and sharp and crack and it didn't matter because she was so authentic emotionally and so raw. She was so dynamic. She had these raw emotional moments and then she had these really clean, crisp vocals. She was the whole woman. She taught me at very young age not to apologize as an actress or a singer. Hopefully, I'll get to meet her someday. I'm sure I will, as I get more prominent in the community, I'm sure I'll meet her at a party. Me: Have you thought about doing an evening of her music? Sheri: It's hard to do an evening of her music because she's still alive. You kind of have to wait for people to pass on before doing that. I just want to have a drink with her and tell her some of my favorite B-side tunes or favorite moments in the many concerts I've seen of hers. Me: I'll film it and we'll make a documentary of it. "My Moment With Bette Midler."
2. How did you come up with the idea to write "Rock The Audition" and how did you decide that you wanted to teach about auditioning for rock musicals? Was there that one moment that made you go, I need to do this? I love this story. I was actually with a really beautiful woman for four years, Amy Rogers, who created the musical theatre program at Pace University. So she was my girlfriend and what she noticed about me was that when I was performing I was on fucking fire and when I wasn't and I was waitressing, I would get very dark emotionally and that I had this pendulum swing. She knew that I was really great at singing rock music because I was booking a lot of rock musicals along with the legit musicals I was booking. One day she just said to me as I was coming home from waitressing on a Sunday, "Sheri, why don't you just teach people how to audition for rock musicals?" So, it wasn't even my idea. It was my girlfriend's idea who intuitive me as a woman and as a human being. She saw my potential and she saw a way out of torturing myself. I was like, "I'm not going to be a teacher. I'm going to lead as an actress." What she noticed most about me is that I always wanted to be a leader and a pioneer. I always wanted to be somebody important and because the only way I knew how to be was as an actress, it got really tricky for me because you cannot choose to be a pioneer as an actor. You can only be a great actor and if you happen to be a pioneer, cause you're great, that's awesome. So she basically saw a way I could be a pioneer elsewhere and still love acting.
Now, what it has all become has been all me. The reason I wanted to write a book about it was because it sort of grew into this cult hit in the city and I had become the go to girl for rock musicals, rock songs, rock anything, but I realized all the people coming to me were all people living in the city and when I would go out into the regions and do master classes, the response would be, "Oh my gosh, we're so glad you're here, we don't even know how to approach this," and it made me go I have to get out into the world more. I want to write a book because I want teachers in all of the colleges and universities across the country to learn how to teach this so that the students can be prepared for when they come to the city. I wanted to be somebody who shared with people the idea that if you study rock music, you actually grow as a performer, as a teacher, and as a person.
When I decided to write a book, I said, "Let me find out who the book publishers are that are publishing books on rock music, musical theatre, and on theatre in general." I found out that Hal Leonard was the biggest publishing company. I cold called Hal Leonard, found out who the head of publishing was, found out his name was Rusty, and I said, "Hey, is Rusty there?" with a love in my voice because I was excited about what was happening. They said, "Hold on a second." Rusty picks up the phone, "Rusty here." "Rusty, it's Sheri Sanders." Just in my tone it was "do you remember me?" kind of thing, you know like maybe he met me and we had a conversation. He didn't know who I was, but it somehow put him in the position of "Hey, Sheri, What do you need today." It put him in an open place and I said, "I want to write a book on auditioning for rock musicals. I'm the only person that does it (and at the time I had 11 people on Broadway) and I want to get out in the world." He was like, "Have you told anyone else about this?" I was like, "No, you're Hal Leonard, I called you." He said, "Write a book proposal and send it right to me." I wrote a book proposal and I sent it to him and I got a book deal. To me, that speaks for, what I do as a teacher, I never thought I could write a book. I'm actually a college drop out. I didn't even know the difference between a colon and a semi-colon. I've never written anything, except maybe a Hallmark card. I didn't know what I was doing, but I just going to do it and figure it out while I'm doing it. That's what I realized what I teach...no you do not know how to sing a rock song, no you never sang one in your life and it terrifies you, but just put your seatbelt on and go for it and we'll figure it out along the way and I'll help guide you and you'll learn it on the job and you will come out at the end of studying with me and you will book a rock musical, but you just have to throw your caution to the wind and say I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm just going to do it. I did that and look what happened to me.
Me: How do you think you became that go to person? How did people hear about you? Sheri: I had been a successful actress in the community, so I had been in enough classes, done enough shows, and made enough friends in the community that when I said, "Hey, I wanna have a class, will you come? I'll charge $150 for 4 weeks and that will pay for the space and I try this out?" Because people have seen me in class and seen me in shows and saw that I was good at what I did, they said "Yeah, well you know what you are doing, so sure." So in the moment, I was leading by example because I do know what I am doing, so what do you say I try to get you to do it too. People started coming to me and I just kept the price really low because I wanted to practice on people and wanted the bells to get out. That's how people found me, leading by example.
3. What was your training like and how did you learn to audition for rock musicals? I dropped out of school, came to the city and started studying with some really great teachers and joined 2 theatre companies and I really learned on the job. I learned about how good I was and what kind of work I needed to do by how people were playing with me on stage and by how the audience was responding to me. I took technique from the musical director, director, and other actors, so I really learned on the job. In two years, I did something like 24 shows with the two theatre companies I was with, and I learned to act by being with other people. I had some great acting teachers too. My vocal training is from an opera singer who just trained me so well that I had no break. The best training I had for rock musicals and auditioning for rock musicals was just listening to rock music. I grew up listening to blues, rock, pop, country, and disco, so to me, when people started asking for rock songs, I could sing any of the songs I grew up listening to. I naturally just knew how to do it. Me: I will say that when I saw you in class and you would sing along with the students to teach them, you just jumped in and were dead on from the get go. It's not like you played the record first. You just opened your mouth and there it was on key. Sheri: Again, I grew up listening to so many different styles that has really helped me and as an actor, I'm naturally the kind of person, where you can put anything you want in front of me, and if you give me a minute, I can do it. I will say, my best training came from listening. That's why I tell my students, you can take a class with me, but you have to go home and make Pandora stations of every single era and all the different artists you can possibly know. If you make Pandora stations and start listening to styles, you can learn style. If you make a Martha and the Vandellas station you can learn about Martha and the Vandellas as well as all the other girls groups of the 50s and 60s and what style they had. Just as if you make a 70s station, you can realize that "Oh, the 70s sound very different than the 50s and 60s do." So, that's how you can go, "Oh, I'm auditioning for "Hair," well I need to sound like this, not like that."
4. How did you decide which artists to include in your book and how did you go about asking them? I love this question also. It's interesting because I kind of have a diverse palette of people. I wanted point of views from the casting people because those are the people actors/singers have to cross, as well as from people on the other side like musical directors, directors, and composers. I wanted as well rounded of a palette of opinion as possible. The part that I loved about that was that we all felt the same way. You need to be informed, you need to rehearse, and you need to throw caution to the wind and say fuck it and just give people yourself. Everyone said that in their own way. Don't just come in like American Idol. You really have to come in with a package of preparation and freedom. I think I just wanted all of the people I responded to as an actor. I love Michael Mayer as a director; I think he's so brilliant. I wanted to have him. I was so moved by the physicality in "In The Heights," that I had to ask Andy Blankenbuehler who was one of my favorite interviews. There were also a lot of casting directors that I have in the book that don't only cast rock musicals, but they cast me over the years that I always thought, "Gosh that person has such a great point of view and they have such important things to say and they're going to be the people who say 'listen to me, I don't want product. I want to see you be a human being in that room. Don't try to be clean, please be real.'" That's much more important. This way they don't just have to get a point of view from Telsey's office, who is the God's of the theatre casting community, but there are all of these other casting directors that are so valuable to me and have such great things to say. I wrote the book and plugged people in where if they said the same thing as me, I would take me out and put them in and it just all blended so smoothly.
5. What did you learn about yourself from writing this book and what have you learned about yourself from teaching? I LOVE this question. I thought the only way i could heal other people was as a performer. You can't set out to do that, but we can only hope that what we do up there does something to make people lives better, even if it's just to say for this hour and half I'm going to help somebody laugh or for this hour and a half I'm going to try to be somebody that someone can go, "Wow, I feel like that too." You just try to be impactful someway.
What I learned about myself was that the book was an opportunity for me to do a few things. First, I felt the book was very healing for me because I had a completion problem, you know since I dropped out of school. I had an issue with starting something and not finishing it, so by writing the book, I found that if I just committed myself to something that I believe in, I actually am able to complete. It was healing for me to do something like that.
The second part that was so awesome and healing for me too was that I could heal myself and heal other people at the same time. That's what I also learned as a teacher. That's why being a wounded healer is so great for being a teacher because in the classroom we all heal together. I'm not just sacrificing myself and just healing everybody, I'm healing too. So we all get to walk out of there better people. I think I've learned that there is room for everyone to heal.
6. What do you get from teaching that you don't get from performing? I get the same satisfaction from performing that I get from teaching and that is we are making great art together. I feel like in class that I'm not even the teacher. I feel like I am a scene partner in acting class together. I feel like we are all creating a rock musical together. I feel like I'm as much of an artist as everyone else is in the room.
One thing I will say, and I'm going to be really honest, which is one way I can lead by example, by being really honest. I don't have a self consciousness when I'm teaching that I have when I'm acting meaning that when I'm teaching I feel like I'm channeling something bigger than me because my ego is out of the way. I'm free to let whatever is upstairs come through me and there isn't any voice inside me going "Is that right? Is that okay? Are you sure? What are people going to think about you when you say that?" I just say things in class and when they come through, they are always correct. As an actor, I wrestle with the judgment demon that will creep in. There's an ego that comes in and I have to wrestle it out and most of the time I'm able to wrestle it out.
7. So I feel that you have very firm yet extremely supportive teaching style. Where did that style of teaching come from and were you influenced by any of your teachers that you've had along the way? I will say first and foremost that I became the teacher I always wanted to. It's sort of like when you decide that based upon your parent's parenting, it makes you decide what kind of parent you want to be good and bad. I need somebody sometimes to scream at me to get off my shit with love, so that's the kind of teacher I am. In addition to that, I've had some really great teachers. Kimberly Vaughn is a wonderful acting teacher who I studied with her for many years and I swear by her. Jen Waldman is another acting teacher I studied with. Jen is very different than Kim. Kim is like nurture, nurture, nurture and Jen is like creative, creative, creative. They have different energies, but both of them are huge influences on me in being a teacher because they are both just connected and there's no ego with either one of them either. I think my style is a combination of what I needed and also what I got from my teachers.
I've also worked with many directors who have influenced by teaching style such as John Rando, Gabe Barre, and Amy Rogers (who was my girlfriend and has directed me too). I worked with Sheryl Kaller on a workshop once and I was like "That woman is doing what I want to do as a teacher." John Rando is so nice and so cool, so creative, and so open. To have directors who are open and sensitive, but also really firm, it came from them too.
8. How do you feel auditioning for a rock musical differs from auditioning for a traditional musical? There are the technical differences which are the responsibilities. With legit musical theatre there is a 16 bar cut or a 32 bar cut from a show that already existed and you know this is my audition piece. This song comes from this particular show, this is the scenario that takes place in the show, this is what the character is like based upon how we know they exist with in the scenario, but with a rock song, it's just a song off the radio. There's no play. There's no before or after. It's a moment and it's an emotional moment and what you are responsible for is picking, cutting, arranging, interpreting, vocally styling, and acting a song that has never intended to be acted in the first place. The responsibilities are so different.
The idea that you are entirely responsible for creating a story based upon how you interpret a song without any information to help you is a challenge. The only thing you can draw from is what's inside of you and that is something that scares the crrraaap out of actors. When they figure out that it's actually liberating and it gives them all the freedom they possibly could ask for to express themselves, it's then pure magic. And because it's not from a musical, if you interpret the song based upon you, it doesn't make it right or wrong. No one is ever going to go "No, that's not the way it's supposed to be done, that's not how it was done in the show." So the freedom of interpretation is vast, as long as it's real and true to you, as long as you understand what it is, it could be anything. There's a very exciting liberation about it.
In terms of storytelling, you must always tell a story. That's what is the same between legit musical and rock musicals. You can just stand there and sing. That's fucking boring. You still have to tell a story, it's just a different way in telling the story. It's an emotional story as opposed to a plot driven story.
9. You have students that have had traditional training prior to your class and it seems you are teaching them a different technique for rock musicals. So how do you help them break what they've learned and how have what they have already learned help them to audition for rock musicals? Do the two styles ever get confusing for them? Hopefully whatever college they went to has already taught them that auditioning for "Chicago" is different than auditioning for "1776" or a William Finn musical. You cannot sing the same song for all three of those nor do you handle the styles the same. "Chicago" is sexy and the music is vampy and jazzy. When you come into "Chicago" there has to be steam coming out of your ass. But when you audition for William Finn, you just have to be like a regular person you are hanging out, having a coffee with. Those are very different styles. When you study musical theatre, you have to be able to understand how you adapt to those styles with different kinds of songs. The good news is that you have to do the same exact thing with rock musicals. They already have that technique if they were well trained. They just adapt in the same way. That's where I think their training in legit musicals can be applied and be successful.
Where rock musicals are very different from legit musicals is that in college people were told if they were having an emotional experience it was masturbation emotionally, that they need to move the plot. You can just stand there and have your feelings. It's unsuccessful. What sometimes happens is when teachers, and not all teachers do this, tell you to just play the plot and it's not about your feelings, an actor will then leave their feelings out and make sure the plot is played, but then you're like well who's playing the plot here? What I try to do is introduce the idea that I want to know who you are and I want to know who you are emotionally. What are you going through emotionally? If you were by yourself in your room and didn't have a plot to play to, what emotions would you have? What would you go through when nobody is looking? Sometimes too, when people are in a plot singing a song about what you want to do, you are caring about what the other person is going through while you are telling them through this song. If I was wanting to talk to my girlfriend about something that upset me, I would very, very careful with her feelings while I told her because I don't want to hurt her feelings, I don't want her to lash out at me, I don't want there to be a fight. But with rock music, we're not tip toeing around each other's feelings. It really is the I'm alone in my bedroom and I'm letting all my feelings out. The action of the plot is how do I move through my feelings so that I can get out on the other side.
10. What's the best advice that you've given to your students? The more you listen and study rock music and pop culture and how music influenced society and how society influenced music and the reason why people were expressing themselves the way they were, the better performer you become and the better person you become.
11. In your opinion, why do you think the rock musical has become so popular? Why do you think more rock musicals are being produced over traditional musicals? I think because of the audience. I think the contemporary or the young folks don't want to see old school legit musicals anymore. When I was a kid, "Les Miserables" was everything to me, but now a kid, 16 years old, doesn't want to see "Les Miserables," they want to see "American Idiot." Because "American Idiot" is pop, even though it's a punk musical, it's pop culture, it's off the radio, it's what they know, it's what they identify with. That music is on TV, on "Glee." Musical theatre is now basically "Glee" on stage. That's what's great about "Glee," it's a jukebox musical with musical theatre songs and pop music. I think that if you want to get the family to go to the theatre, the family is going to have go see a rock musical. I think that's how they're going to sell tickets when the kid goes, "Please, please, please I want to go see this." I think they are just appealing to who's going to buy tickets. These kids are not up for "South Pacific" which is a shame because I did grow up doing legit musical theatre and I love "South Pacific."
12. If you could have anyone in your class, what performer would you like to teach? This was one of my favorite questions ever, ever, ever, ever. There has been speculation in my community about me creating something called "Rock Class Live," which would be either a one night thing or an on going thing where I would get five of the most legit musical theatre performers who have ever lived and that I assign them rock songs and that I have to adjust them in front of a live audience. Me: Oh my gosh! Sheri: It's being discussed. I mean, could you imagine what a show that would be. Because here are our inspirations in legit musical theatre that we love and to see them try something on new and to see their bravery and to see their terror and to see them move through things, what exciting theatre that would be. So to me, I want Donna Murphy, I want Sutton Foster, I want Marc Kudish, I want Kelli O'Hara. I mean there are singers I'm like, "Ahhh, I want to play with you!" I want to see what you're like when you unleash. There are many, many people I want. In my mind, it would blow minds, it would inspire, and it would probably blow their minds too because they would be like, "I didn't know I had this in me." (and then they'd start booking rock musicals too...hahaha).
13. What mark do you hope your book and classes have on the theatre community? Also another amazing question. I want the book and my work to teach people that they can be their informed, inventive, bare, creative selves. In my book, my friend Stephanie Klapper, a casting director, said, "Legit musical theatre is clean, crisp, and pristine. Like a renoir. Rock music is like a Pollock. I really want to dare people to not be perfect, and as long as they are true to themselves, they can be messy and it will be correct. I just want people to be themselves.
14. As a trailblazer for teaching how to audition for rock musicals, what excites you and what makes you nervous about having others follow your path and teach the same course? I love that you said the word "Trailblazer!" It made my heart skip a beat! Nothing makes me nervous about having others follow in my path. I can't wait for people to start studying it and teaching it the way they do. My only hope is that people train and study and that people don't teach from an uninformed place. If anybody who chooses to continue on the pioneer ship, takes the time and the joy that they'll get out of expanding their taste buds and grow as an artist, to help other people grow as an artist...that they lead by example also.
What excites me is that when someone looks up the 70s and gives me raw, emotional, earthy, and poetic performance because they saw it, they read about it, and they understood it. When I see the work that they did and that it comes through effortlessly because they understand it, that excites me.