Friday, December 4, 2009

Five Questions with Vincent Lonergan


"Five Questions" is a SignalEnsemBlog project that will post short interviews of our ensemble members and artistic associates. General or artist-specific questions are submitted by members or friends of the company, and will be posted every couple of weeks. In addition, if you the reader have anything you'd like to know about a member of Signal Ensemble, or about the company in general, please leave your query in the comments section and we'll make sure it gets answered in this space.

Vincent Lonergan has been a Signal Ensemble member since 2003. He has appeared in Signal’s productions of Much Ado About Nothing, She Stoops to Conquer, Hamlet, Old Wicked Songs (Jeff Nomination, Best Actor), 1776 (Jeff Nomination, Best Supporting Actor – Musical), Six Degrees of Separation and The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©, where he also served as Assistant Director. He has appeared with Porchlight, Vitalist, Quest, Pegasus Players and Bailiwick. Vincent is also a well-respected vocal coach, with a Masters in Music from Indiana University.

1.) You went to school for music and singing. What drew you to acting?

This is an interesting question, as my whole life I have had a dual path between music and theater. When I attended Indiana University I was a music major, but I would also go to the theater auditions and did Mame and Guys and Dolls with the theater department. My third year there I got cast in Man of La Mancha, and at the music school I was cast in a Mozart opera called The Abduction from the Seraglio. Much to my surprise they were in the same time slot. The dean of the music school called me into his office and told me that I needed to do the opera as, after all, I was a music major and I had a music scholarship. So from then on I did opera and of course went on to do my Masters. So, as you see I always had a bit of the theatre bug from the very start. The real change came after I moved to Chicago. At one point I lived near Center Theatre and I went and saw a couple of productions and I was bitten by the bug so to speak. As much as I loved music and opera I knew I could explore much more in straight theatre. There is more room to play when you don't have to stay within the structure of the music. Also for those who have done opera you know the conductor has total control and he or she is at every performance. In theater the director leaves you alone to continue your work as the performances go on. In the end I think that I will always have a place in my heart for music but I enjoy the process of theater more. In performance of straight theater I love to see the gentle discoveries I find right up to the last show. I think in some ways I was lucky to do the music thing first because it taught me good habits in discipline. Here in Chicago I have taken a number of acting classes and like the freedom that has given me and in a way I am glad that I don't have a degree in theatre. So in the end it has been a great journey and this dual path continues to amaze me.

2.) In your role as a vocal coach, you must teach breathing exercises. How do you find breath work differs between singing and speaking on the stage?

As most of you know I have been teaching vocal work for over twenty years now. This question comes up a lot. I could go on for hours but I will try to give you the simple version. I think what is most important in not to talk about how breathing is different for singing and stage work but to work from an angle of how to make all vocal work come from a natural approach. Think of a baby who can gently coo one minute and wail the next. Do you honestly feel that he thinks there is a different way to breath for these two experiences? In my teaching I always tell students that all vocal work is based on balance and hearing. I tell them these are sense memories that were developed in the womb before we even started to breathe. No one stands over the infant child and teaches them breathing exercises. So the real problem is as adults we have developed bad habits which always result in muscular tension. A simple way to try to breathe more naturally is what I always go for in teaching. Always start with balance and hearing then gently receive an aroma through the nose. This of course helps us with sense memories of smell and taste. This is a very Italian thing, but I believe in it. The Italians can make an art form out of any experience. So as you see I start by finding the common, natural approach to vocal work. It is always clear to me that bad habits in speech and singing are usually the same, it’s just that in singing you extend the habits for a longer duration and in speaking the habits are for a shorter duration. I always tell a student that vocal work is about having resonance. We are in a sense the instrument and we need to function in a complete way. There is of course the fear that it takes more to sing than to speak. This is true but you start with the whole recipe before you increase it, just like in cooking. We as Americans should take this more to heart. Acting is all about listening and natural vocal work. It is the same with singing, only for longer durations.

3.) Who is the person who has most influenced you as an artist?

This one is fairly easy for me to answer. However, since we have been talking about by dual path, I have a person for singing and a person for acting. The person in singing is a man by the name of Giovanni Battista Lamperti. He was a singing master who lived in the late 1800's. He wrote a little book called Vocal Wisdom which was translated by William Earl Brown. This is my bible of vocal production. I learned more from this little book about singing than I did from all my college teachers. It helped me become the teacher I am today.

The person who most influenced my acting is Mary Ann Thebus. I have others that gave me things, but she changed me in a way that no one else had. Through working with her I realized acting was first about process and then product. She knew my bad habits and helped me become more natural in my work. Marry Ann is a rare person in that she is as gifted in teaching as she is in acting. She sets the bar for me in both areas.

4.) What is the most powerful theatrical experience you have had as a participant? As an observer?

The first part of this question is very easy for me to answer. I have been so blessed and have had many great theatrical experiences in which I have participated. The one that I am sure I will never forget was a production called Old Wicked Songs. This play was a chance for me to integrate so many parts of my life on stage that I could have done it forever. I cannot say that about any other production. It brought together for me my love of music, acting, and teaching in such a way that I felt completely alive and had no sense of time or space. Having Shawn (Pfautsch) as a partner in this production was a blessing. He brought magic to the stage every night. I must also thank Chris (Prentice) for his direction, and his vision allowed Shawn and I great freedom in performing this play. This theatrical experience will always hold a special place in my heart and soul.

As an observer I have had many great experiences as well. But the one that comes to the front of my mind is the Signal production of Waiting for Godot. I have seen other productions of this work and always found it interesting but what stood out for me in this production was that suddenly it was human and oh so visceral. I found myself laughing one moment and crying the next. Ronan (Marra)'s direction was physical and from the gut, and Aaron (Snook), Chris, Joe (Stearns) and all the others lived this direction throughout the production. It was a production that was simple and glorious all at once. I left the theater that night and knew why I loved theater so much.

5.) You are certainly most experienced member of Signal. What drew you to the company (i.e., how do you put up with these kids all the time)?

Again this one is easy to answer. First and foremost I am drawn to this theater company because this group of people have a passion for what they do. This group can bring passion to any experience whether it’s a production, a party, a play reading or a BBQ. Yes, I am the oldest and sometimes feel it but it is the Signal Ensemble that keeps me young at heart. This is actually the third time I have joined a company and for me the third time is the charm. I feel I have found my home. As a company we may be young but there is a soul to this ensemble that is old and wise. You know it’s not an accident that my most influential moments as a participant and as an observer in theater have come with Signal Ensemble. The other reason I am so drawn is because this company is, in truth, not just an ensemble in name. Signal gets what this word means. That is a great plus. So from my point of view I feel blessed that this younger group of talented people puts up with me and my crap. Signal Ensemble has been there for me in the most glorious moments of my life and in the most tragic. What is so clear to me is that I feel loved at all times. Viva La Signal.