Billy Porter has presence. That’s one thing the Broadway star made clear to the Kean University students who attended his master class on Thursday, April 27.
“You have to stand out in an audition,” he said. “You have to own your space. When I walk onto a stage or into a room, rest assured people are looking at me because I have presence.”
Porter implores young people to stop looking down at their phones, to stand up straight and walk with confidence.
“You have to empower yourself,” said Porter, who starred as the original Lola in Kinky Boots. “Don’t look at the floor or at the piano player. Don’t ask for validation. You can’t be an actor and be on stage if you don’t want people looking at you. Take your power.”
Five Kean University Theater Conservatory students –– Christiana Alicante of North Plainfield; Jose Arroyo of Perth Amboy; Jesse Dorfman of Hawthorne; Brianna Javis of Union; and Cecelia Resto of Woodbridge –– were given the opportunity to work one-on-one with Porter during the master class. Earlier this season, the talented students were among those who sang in front of a sold-out audience alongside Broadway legend Patti LuPone.
“His confidence on stage is what I aspire to,” said Javis, a junior theatre major who also had a chance to sing a few notes with the star during his sold-out performance at Kean’s Enlow Recital Hall on Saturday, April 22.
During the master class, each student sang a song for Porter and received his feedback while a group of theater and music students looked on. First up was Alicante, who sang I’d Give My Life for You from Miss Saigon.
Porter praised the fact that she chose a song for which she was a good match.
“You have to tell yourself the truth and know where you fit,” he said.
Porter spoke to Alicante about her breath support and how she can improve it in order to sing the long, emotional notes at the end of a song.
“You have it in there,” he said. “You can’t ever back off.”
Alicante said she found the critique inspiring.
“Not everyone loves to get criticism, but I feel it's all in the way you take it,” added the freshman theatre performance major. “It's up to me to take Mr. Porter's criticism and grow from it.”
Arroyo sang What Would I Do If I Could Feel from The Wiz. Porter counseled him on how to lose the pop-sounding inflections in his voice and just sing the notes straight out.
“Young actors think the more dramatic they are, the better actor they are,” he said. “No. Just be present.”
For Arroyo, a junior theatre major, the biggest takeaway from the class was a sense of validation he received from Porter for his chosen craft.
“I am at a place where I am trying to find myself artistically, so for him to reiterate that just reassures me that I am on the right path of finding myself and growing as an artist,” he said.
Javis used her gospel-like voice to belt out I am Changing from Dreamgirls. Porter again stressed the importance of proper breathing in order to finish the song without running out of steam.
“That voice is fabulous and you have to trust it, and you don’t trust it,” he said. “You think you do, but you don’t. You have to learn how to breathe and how to release it all. And release your expectations of what it should sound like, because it doesn’t have to sound like anything but you.”
Dorfman, a sophomore theatre performance major, was up next and chose the title song from On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever).
“The key is too low. Do you think it’s too low?” asked Porter.
Dorfman responded, “I do now,” which got a chuckle from the crowd.
“It’s not easy,” Porter said. “It’s not supposed to be easy, but you’re supposed to make it seem easy. You’ve got a beautiful voice in there.”
When it was Resto’s turn, she brought out her fun side with the song Special from Avenue Q. Once again, Porter’s comments turned to breathing.
“You love your high notes and you love your belting, but you forsake the rest of the song,” he said. “Every part of the song is as important as the belty part. And you can’t peter out at the end. I paid $169 and I want you to hold the note as long as required. People won’t remember if you take a breath in the wrong place, but they will remember if you petered out.”
Being critiqued by Billy Porter was “one of the greatest things I've ever experienced,” said Resto, a freshman theatre performance major. “We're working with a Tony and Grammy winner. It was a chance to cut the frills and get feedback on the nitty gritty not-so-obvious things. Most of all, it meant that he actually paid close attention to and cared about my performance. He didn't give us a general, broad critique. He also told us to believe in ourselves and our gifts. The only thing that separates us from the next actor is our individuality, so we must accept and love ourselves.”
As an actor, director and writer, Porter spoke of the importance of learning all different aspects of theater in addition to singing and acting.
“For me, the work dried up for 13 years,” he said. “The only thing that saved me was going to the page. I wanted to tell stories that aren’t being told, to represent people that aren’t being represented.”
Javis is grateful for the lessons she and her classmates learned from Porter’s master class.
“He saw something in us that can be pushed, and can be tweaked and improved, and he used it and made us understand ourselves,” she said.
Holly Logue, who heads Kean’s Theater Conservatory, was pleased to have Porter conduct the master class for the students.
“Any time you have the opportunity to be coached by someone who has made a career in theater is an invaluable learning experience,” she said. “Our proximity to New York affords us these opportunities. It’s one of the things that is very special about Kean University.”