Interview: Sheri Sanders on Her Ultimate Musical Theatre Resource, ‘Rock the Performance’
Back in 2011, Sheri Sanders wrote a terrific book called, Rock the Audition, a resource for musical theatre actors on how to prepare and get cast in rock/pop musicals. Since that book landed, she’s not only been teaching all over the country, she’s been spending time creating an incredible new website called, Rock the Performance.
The site is an online hub that any musical theatre actor should be familiar with. It’s got sheet music that’s customized and arranged for any audition that calls for 16 or 32 bars of music. It’s got all genre’s like 50s, 60s, Disco, 80s, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Hip Hop and more. Add to that, it’s got how-to videos, interview with Broadway actors, tips and more.
I talked with Sheri recently about the website and her tips on getting out of your own head and how to nail musical auditions.
You’re also an actor, when did you move to the teaching side of things?
Sheri Sanders: Well, it really started in 2004. I grew up listening to popular music so I sang it really well. But I’m a legit musical theater actor, so I love like old school shows like On the Town and then newer ones like Urinetown. As an actor, I was able to live in both worlds and when I noticed that my peers were being asked to live in both worlds, they couldn’t. So, it really turned into one of those things where like I know how so let me just help my friends. Especially with Rent because that’s when they really started asking for people to do pop rock tunes. And all of my friends were like, “I don’t even know what that means. I grew up listening to show tunes.” We all grew up listening to Lez Miz, so nobody had any sense of it.
My friends weren’t getting called back and then the casting director to Rent started going to bars and clubs because they were like, “We need real rock singers and nobody knows how to handle it, even though they’re all really great singers.” So, it was actually one of those things where I just decided that I wanted to help my friends and be in service of my community in a small way. So, I just put a class together and I was like, “Let’s just try this.”
And I set it up at Pace University because I was dating the woman who ran the program and she said just try it on my students and see if you can put your technique onto them. And I tried it on them and I was like, ‘shit, this is totally gonna work.’
And I reached out to my community and I was like, ‘Don’t give me any money. Just pay for a space, pay the piano player and let me see if this really is a thing that I can help people with’ and it started working. So, it was really just an act of like, ‘Let me help my peers.’
You sound kind of like me. I grew up on pop and rock and then also loved to sing show tunes.
Sheri Sanders: You know, one of the things that I teach as a rock musical theater teacher is to live in multiple styles. We don’t just want a pop rock song, we want to know that you can live in the Motown era or the disco era. To me, that’s what’s marketable now as a musical theater performer. They want to know that you can live in multiple styles and that includes living in legit and living in pop rock and being an actor that can do both.
So, rather than training people to be triple threats and having that be the big marketable thing, now the big marketable thing is to understand different styles of legit and different styles of pop rock and being able to bend and be flexible. Let people know that you’re able to identify what the essence of that aesthetic is and live in it. That’s what a marketable actor is today.
After you wrote the book, when did the website come about?
Sheri Sanders: The book was cool, but I didn’t make any money on the book because it was a theatrical publication. But was the key that got me into teach at 55 colleges in four years. And what I was noticing was I would come in and I would shake the place up and I would leave. But I would leave them with no tools to continue the work. And even though I had the book, people don’t really read books anymore and it’s primarily because of our attention span and social media. So, they flipped through it while they were on the can and they go and watch the DVD and not read the book.
I realized that I wanted to be able to be more far-reaching and give people long-term growing tools so they can start the work and they can continue to work and that whole programs can grow together.
And so I approached a Tony winning Broadway producer who happens to have a business called Art Tech and he builds small online businesses that are theater related. I approached him five years ago and while I was there he said absolutely because he got that I had cornered the market and he had gotten how valuable and necessary this was.
It took four years to build because we are creating something that’s never been done before. I mean some of the things were doing is nuts. Like we reached out to Hal Leonard and said, ‘We need the rights to about 5000 popular tunes and we’re cutting them and arranging them into 16 and 32 bar cuts that sound great on the piano and we want to sell them on the site. And we want to sell them on the site so that somebody can go to the site and go, okay I need a Motown tune.’ They click on the Motown filter. Then they go, ‘Okay, I’m mezzo soprano’ and they click on that filter and then a whole list of cut and arranged songs come up and you can get sheet music with accompaniment, accompaniment with the melody lines banged out and then an instructional video on the Motown era. So, that not only do you have the music but you get an instructional video on how to take you into the Motown era.
And then from there, I took my book and I turned it into an online training program so that people can study with me privately. I have 11 colleges that are signed up for the training program so that the programs are studying with me. The sites already hugely popular and we still have tons and tons more content to add. So, the site will continue to grow and change over the next year or two with more songs, more videos. We’re gonna bring in Broadway music directors, choreographers, composers.
It sounds like a huge massive undertaking.
Sheri Sanders: It is and we’re just at the tip. But the good news is, is that everybody loves it and I’m really happy to know that it’s helping.
You say that early on in your career that you were sabotaging yourself. What did you mean by that?
Sheri Sanders: Thank you so much for mentioning that because it is a huge part of my platform. Because of all of the schools that I’ve gone to and all of the professional actors that I’ve worked with, I would say that most of the actors that I work with sabotage themselves in one way or another. It’s become a part of the platform I have about taking that mechanism on and grabbing it by the balls and shifting it.
Actually finding out the reason why I was actually sabotaging myself in the first place helped. I’ve had to near-death experiences and what I didn’t know is those two experiences set something in my nervous system to believe that I was in danger in the world. And because of that, when I would go to an audition because I was so talented, it would be between me and another girl for like, I don’t even know, 16, 17,18 Broadway shows I must’ve been up for. I would get to the end and my nervous system would get so excited that my nervous system would misinterpret the excitement as fear and I would think that something terrible was happening, not emotionally but my body. I would end up shutting down in a place that I had to be the most open because I thought I was in danger. And it was because I had two very dangerous things happen to me that made me feel like I was in danger.
And so no one understood the sabotage mechanism. I didn’t understand it. We just knew that I was sabotaging and we knew that I had to stop. That’s why focusing out was so good because you can’t sabotage something that you’re not in and so when Rock the Audition became this big huge thing and I wasn’t sabotaging myself in it, that’s how I was able to turn back and I went, now that I’m looking at it, I wonder if it’s my is nervous system? And that’s when I went to a doctor and said, “Hey, I think I live in my sympathetic nervous system.” And they were like, “Sherry, has anything bad ever happened to you?” “Yeah, pick one.” And when I told him that I had almost died twice, they were like, “Sherry, you have PTSD and it’s never been treated and you need to treat it because your nervous system is making choices for you rather than you making your own choices.”
So, I started to treat my own nervous system because of that, and this happened three years ago, I started looking at the performers I was working with and started asking them to tap into something that happened to them that may have changed them in a way that they couldn’t identify or name. That was the reason why they couldn’t come through in their material or that they would get so scared that they would shut down or that they would go to audition and they would get in their own way. And I began to ask the students that I was working with to go in and name that thing and confess it come forward about it so that they could put it in their material rather than have it interfere.
So, this is part of the work that I’ve been doing and part of the platform I’ve been using is addressing the difficult emotions that can come from things like that. Like, I had a near-death experience or having abusive parent or an alcoholic sibling or you’re struggling with your own emotional illness and need to be on medication. Whatever it is, I open the door for the students to come forward with that thing that they struggle with and bring it to the surface and make art out of it rather than hiding it and having it come up and rear its ugly head in the most important places.
And it transformed my work as a teacher and transformed the work that we’re doing in this particular idiom because popular music is about you. It’s not about playing the role of Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, it’s about finding a song that taps into that thing that hurts the thing that you terrified of and using that song as a place to put your terror and a place to heal from it.
Yeah, I know I’ve sabotaged myself tons of times.
Sheri Sanders: Oh, please. It’s a part of our makeup because we’re doing this absurd act of vulnerability in in absurd environment and most the time we come into acting because it’s hard to be ourselves and it’s really awesome to go and be somebody else, it’s like a safe place. So, there’s a lot of emotions around you and you put your ass on the line and having people reject you.
You’ve also been behind the casting table. What are some of the big mistake actors make in their auditions and on the flipside, what are some of the things that they do that just blow you away.
Sheri Sanders: I think the biggest thing and that it’s important to demystify and what we don’t want is screaming and riffing and songs that are negative. Because when you scream at us, It feels like you’re attacking us and we can’t hear emotion and it comes off as anger and that’s not an emotion. It’s what we use to cover up our emotions or to protect our emotions when we feel threatened. So, not looking for screaming. There are no shows that have screaming, even American Idiot is not screaming. When I sat in on the auditions for that, they wanted to hear people’s emotions on their voices so they would’ve been happier with a sensitive icky ballad rather than a big, screamy song. So, the screaming is a big no-no.
The riffing is something that comes from The Voice and it comes from American Idol and also comes from awesome teachers. Like there’s this great teacher named Natalie Weiss who does this thing called Breaking Down the Riffs and she teaches people how to riff, which is awesome, but riffing is not good for auditioning for rock musicals. So, if you rip the daylights out of a song that has no riffing in it because you think that it’s gonna be competitive or if you add riffs in that don’t belong in there, the people behind the table gonna go, “What you doing? Why you riffing? The show has no riffing and it?” Riffing is an emotional release and it’s not what’s happening in your song, so it turns people off to hear so much riffing. If you’re auditioning for a show that’s a punk musical, don’t riff the daylights out of it.
We’re looking at you to live in the world that the musical lives in and be an emotional person whose feelings travel on their voice.
The thing that we love is a singer who listens to multiple styles of popular music, not a musical theater performer who doesn’t listen to popular music and then sings a Sarah Bareilles song and copies Sarah Bareilles or sings an Adele song and copies Adele. When you listen to popular music and you listen to different styles of popular music, then we can hear what your voice is like, and we can go, “Oh, their voice is so cool. Sounds like they listen to Stevie wonder. It sounds like they listen to Cake or Joe Cocker or Tori Amos.” We can hear your influences and it colors and flavors your version of that song.
So, we go crazy when you’re somebody who listens to different kinds of popular music and we can hear that you have your own unique voice that sounds like you and everybody who’s influenced you. That’s what we love and we can really tell the difference between somebody who doesn’t listen and somebody who does. And that somebody who does is the person who time and time again will get called back.