Sharing a dreamActor, JTHS grad leads teens in workshop
(By Catherine Ann Velasco)
JOLIET- Swinging his hips and flapping his arms, actor John Barrowman crossed the stage, crouching low to the ground.
"If you screw up, keep going. Do what you feel. Keep in the low position," he said.
Like little ducklings, 27 teens followed Barrowman's lead. Some were graceful as a ballerina. Others did rap moves. While others bounced up and down flapping their arms around.
Then, they had to do it again.
"I want you to show me with focus, intent, commitment. Show me your personality. You all know I'm an idiot," Barrowman said. "Do something to show me who you are. Don't try to impress me. Don't try to show off. Just try to be. There's nothing to be embarrassed about."
Jeny Wasilweski gave it her all with some jitterbug and swing steps as she danced across the stage at Joliet West High School.
"Acting is my life. I want to be on Broadway like Bernadette Peters. That's my goal," said Jeny, 19, a theater major at Loyola University.
Jeny is one of 27 teens who is participating in the Dreamer's Workshop run by Barrowman, who wanted to give back something to his alma mater.
Barrowman, a 1985 graduate from Joliet West High School, is spending eight days with local teens, sharing his secrets and offering guidance to students who want to sing, act and dance for a living.
Barrowman starred in the Aaron Spelling drama Titans and several London productions, including, Anything Goes and Miss Saigon. He also has an album, Reflections from Broadway, and a new album coming out this fall called Anyone Can Whistle, with lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim.
"I always wanted to come back to Joliet and do something after having some success in my career," he said. "I was given my greatest introduction of music and theater from Joliet West High School."
Dreams vs. reality
Barrowman is teaching the workshop with Beverly Holt, the accompanist at Joliet West and who also plays piano on Barrowman's album. The workshop cost $200 per student, but scholarships were available.
"There's a verse (in his trademark song Dreamers) that goes, 'Some people dream of being rich. While others dream of being tall. And there are people who don't dream at all,'" Barrowman sang.
"I'm a firm believer in fulfilling your dreams," he said.
But students found out those dreams don't magically happen as they learned the harsh reality of auditions.
To prepare for the real world of acting, Barrowman had each student audition while he videotaped and took notes.
Some danced. Some sang. Others recited verses from a play.
With his legs crossed and note pad in hand, Barrowman played the serious producer with short, terse responses.
"We don't applaud. Nobody applauds in an audition," Barrowman said. "It's the hardest thing to do as an actor. ... It's the most embarrassing experience. They make you leave. ... You feel like crap. They make you do that because they don't want you to know what they are thinking."
Jeff Sandstrom, 16, a junior at Plainfield High School, reluctantly walked out of the room and walked back in as if in a real audition.
"I'm Jeff Sandstrom, and I'm going to dance to It's Gonna Be Me, by 'N Sync," he said.
Jeff dropped his head like a puppet and spiraled, spun and turned just like the popular band members do on MTV.
"Very good," Barrowman said. "I know no applause. I'm going to call J.C. and tell him. I don't dance myself. ... But you just did. What is amazing to me is that you were quiet and intimidated to go up. If you commit yourself to singing like you do to dancing — 'N Sync forget it. You got it made. You were all different people when you were up there."
Jena Stworzyjanek, 18, a Joliet West graduate, said the hardest part of the audition wasn't hearing clapping.
"I'm so used to getting applause from my friends. My friends are encouraging people. It was very nerve-racking," Jena said. "I do want to go into theater. Nobody said this is what it will be like, and this is what you have to do. It is like a reality check because it's not high school anymore."
After the auditions were over, the lessons began.
"I hate to do auditions, and I still have to do them," Barrowman said. "I can't stand them. I went to an audition ill-prepared. ... A lot of you came ill-prepared. I just want you to understand, you'll be wasting your time. They would have stopped you in the middle of it. We have to refine what you did," Barrowman said.
"I want to show you what minor changes you will make to a performance," Barrowman said.
Using Jeny as his guinea pig, Barrowman gave some tips.
"I'm Jeny Wasilweski, and I'm going to sing, Broadway Baby," she said.
But before she got the first verse out, Barrowman stopped her. Instead of walking with her head down, Barrowman encouraged her to be confident and walk in with her head up.
"Pick a focus in front. ... Feet planted. You are grounded with the Earth. I'm John Barrowman. I'll be singing, Broadway Baby," he demonstrated. "Put your head down and look at the pianist to the side. This tells the auditioners that you are ready to start."
With a sweat shirt tied around her waist, Jeny filled the choir room with her sweet voice.
"I'm just a Broadway baby. Walking my tired feet. Pounding Forty-second Street to be in a show," she sang.
"Minimalize even more your movement," Barrowman said. "Don't do a tilt. Don't do anything until the words tell you to move. ... I'm looking at you as a singer — not a dancer. It's a sassy song. ... Stand still until you get to the words that are sassy. ... Less is more."
Students found it hard not to move their hands and feet.
Clarissa Shelby, 17, a senior at Joliet Central, made the mistake of moving so much that she wasn't even on the videotape.
Tony Vescovi, 17, a senior at Joliet West, moved too close to the audience as he sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.
"This is more of a ballad. This is one of my songs I do in my concert," Barrowman said. "Every verse, you kept getting closer and closer, and it was uncomfortable for everyone. ... You are pointing to things, to people who don't exist. ... I want you to choose specific people to look at out in the audience. When you are in the moment ... it's truthful. ... You don't come to the audience. You bring the audience to you. You do it by refining your movement. Keep focus. ... Pick someone and sing to them."
Dressed in a black T-shirt, plaid pants and sneakers, Barrowman bounced up and down the choir room, giving tips.
He dropped to his knees and held onto Tony's hands to keep them from shaking.
He sang a duo with Clarissa, who sang the first verse of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, holding her hand for emotional support.
"Try to do it with your hands at the side," he told her. "You got the voice. Knock us with your voice."
He helped Emily French, 16, a junior at Reed-Custer High School understand the song, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, from The Phantom of the Opera.
"You did a sharp movement for a song that doesn't need a sharp movement," Barrowman said. "This is a song that you don't sing to nothing. You sing to your father's grave. The phantom is watching her sing to her father's grave.
"You were once my great companion," Barrowman sang soulfully, looking to the imaginary grave.
"I just sang it because I loved the song. It's a real pretty song," Emily said. "After I started to slip into character, I was like, 'Wow, I'm singing to my father, who is dead, and I'll never see him again.' Wow, it's weird."