“The Reason to Sing — A Guide to Acting While Singing”: A Chat with Craig Carnelia About His New Book

June 14, 2021 | By

Craig Carnelia (Photo: Michael Ian)

Between 1992 and 2017, singer and composer/lyricist Craig Carnelia (Working, Sweet Smell of Success) taught acting classes for singers in a studio on West 71st Street in Manhattan. His students included members of the New York City theatre community. They may have been prepping for auditions or working on a particular role or song. Sutton Foster, Aaron Tveit, and Annaleigh Ashford are among those who studied with him over the years. He has also taught master classes for musical theatre programs at universities.

Now, Carnelia has shared his expertise in a book, The Reason to Sing (Routledge 2021). His approach—which focuses on the fulfillment of actions while singing—will, he believes, be useful to students and teachers alike.

“Acting…” Carnelia writes in the book’s preface, “is the taking of action, after having prepared. I don’t mean physical action, though sometimes there may also be a physical action involved. I’m referring to an emotional action, something you’re ‘doing’ by singing the song. Preparation is a process that causes feelings. The feelings cause the song. And action is what you are then ‘doing’ in the song.”

Although the book is geared principally toward singers in musical theatre, Carnelia also deals with singing and acting outside of a strictly theatrical setting. His chapter “In Concert” will be of particular interest to members of the cabaret community. In that chapter, he explains that some musical selections that a singer will deliver in a concert/cabaret setting require the same sort of actions-based acting that singers need when they play roles in musical plays. But other selections in a concert or cabaret show are meant primarily to “entertain.” In some musical genres—jazz, in particular—the singing may even be more about the sounds being created than it will be about the playing of actions that actors would do in the theatre.

Cover art photo (Brian Darcy James starring in Sweet Smell of Success)  by Paul Kolnick

Recently I had a phone conversation with Carnelia in which he shared his thoughts on how singers can better integrate effective acting into their performances. Here are some excerpts from our hour-long conversation:

Why the book has happened now.

I’m in a part of my life now where I’m giving my time—full time—to writing. I’m working on doing musicals, and I wrote this book. Running my teaching business and teaching 16 hours a week didn’t leave as much time for writing, certainly, as I have now. So, I’m free to do it now, and I wanted to say what I had learned in the classroom and to pass it on to other teachers and to actors.

The satisfactions of teaching.

I’ve always found that teaching was its own reward, because it’s stimulating and fun, actually. It’s physically tiring, but it actually feeds my other artistic endeavors. So, it really solves the riddle of how to make a good living while doing something that’s good for you.

The classroom anecdotes he shares in the book—and why he had such a detailed recollection of them.

I wrote them down, but not for the purpose of doing a book. The way I taught, I would have a single page of a legal pad that I would scribble on during each person’s session—the sessions were probably about 20 to 25 minutes long. And then, on days when I wasn’t teaching, I would encapsulate the session within, oh, a paragraph. I would keep a page on each student. I taught in 8-week sessions, and some students stayed with me for years. They knew that I kept these notes, so—very often—they would revisit a song, and they would ask me what we had done, because something had felt really good to them. So, we would retrace our steps and then start again, usually traveling in a different path.

Were the exercises and other activities that he used in his classes generated on the spot? Or were they planned out ahead of time?

My teaching—and most people’s teaching—is response. You can’t know what’s going to happen until you’re in the room with the students. I have put in the book many techniques, theories, and ideas that I found to be useful. And I would use them more than once if they proved to be useful—not to be repetitious and certainly not to take shortcuts. But you learn things that are effective as a teacher, and you use those techniques when they seem appropriate.

However, inventing is the fun—inventing how to draw out from a particular student, on a particular song, what might be possible. That has at least as much to do with the student and who they are that day as it has to do with the song.

The main tenet of his teaching work—and of the book.

My theories are always about playing the action of your scene while singing.

Before [songwriters] begin a song, we are filled with something, and we are trying to find a way to express it. I’m talking about writing for a character. We’re in the character’s position and we are filled with feeling, and we are aware that there’s something we are doing or trying to do. But we don’t know how to give voice to it. And, in essence, when an actor prepares to play a scene, that’s what they’re doing, too. They’ve never before said the things that they’re about to say. And that’s the place the writer was in before the writing was done.

Reliance on ideas from other teachers or other “schools” of acting.

I’m rather self-styled as a teacher, as I am in everything I’ve done. I haven’t read a lot of books about acting. I started as an actor and I did some studying in college—which I didn’t finish, because I got cast in a show in New York. So, I haven’t done a lot of formal studying. And once I became a teacher, I actually didn’t want to study other people’s techniques because I was finding that I had a basic theory that I had started formulating as a [songwriter] that seemed to really work for the singing of songs.

I try to never, as a teacher, discount another person’s methods. I think that any good acting method is compatible with the kind of thinking and the kind of teaching that I’ve done—and with what’s in my book.

Sometimes acting teachers have students identify the actions in a particular scene (“to tempt,” “to blame,” “to console,” etc.) and advise them to notate those actions in their scripts. Is this something actors should do with songs they’re working on?

It can be helpful to the actor to work that way–to begin with. However, if you are, on a particular line, thinking, “I’m doing this to tempt…,” on the next line, “I’m doing this to blame…,” on the next line, ‘I’m doing this to console…,” you’re attempting to play the scene—meaning the song—while aiming at a series of targets. And when you aim at targets, there is something deliberate [going on] that veers toward “performing” and away from “acting.”

I don’t think that following that kind of a roadmap or that kind of a plan is the best way to be alive and to use everything you have of yourself and what you know of the scene and the song—[not] while you’re in the middle of it.

How singing can get in the way of acting, and vice versa.

Very, very often, an actor with a great technique in acting will leave their acting technique aside because they’re working so hard to sound good. They actually turn themselves into novice actors by doing that.

Someone who sings very well but who is trying to be a better actor will tend to put the focus on the thing they’re good at. So, they will feature the singing in a way that causes them to not be able to act their scene or act their song.

Engaging in the action of their scene would make the novice singer sing better and would make the experienced and refined singer sing better.

The four “stances” used by concert (and cabaret) singers.

If you’re singing a song in front of people, and you’re not in the context of a show, of a story, you are probably doing one of four things. You are “telling a story,” you are “playing a scene,” you are “entertaining,” or you are “being one of the musicians.” “Being one of the musicians” has absolutely nothing to do with acting. You really are one of the musicians. That’s what you’re doing, and we get to watch it. It’s great. And it’s what we see in all kinds of jazz.

The one that’s the trickiest of those “stances” is “entertaining.”

If you think back to what you first did when you sang a song in front of people—you probably did it when you were a kid—it was “entertaining.” We were in front of people, performing a song. We might have been telling a story, but chances are what we were doing was entertaining. We got that idea from watching so many people entertain—and entertain well.

I refer in the book to a couple of very different people from the past: Margaret Whiting and Sammy Davis, Jr., who were basically “entertaining.” And then, a couple of people from the present: Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. They might be telling a story or they might be playing a scene. But, either way, they tend to sing directly to the audience. I might sing, ‘I’ve got you under my skin…” and be looking at the audience. That doesn’t mean that I am feeling that way about each of the audience members, or all of the audience members, or that I’m not thinking about what I’m saying. But there’s something that people do sometimes in cabaret and concert work, where they are singing everything directly at the audience.

I speak of it in rather unspecific terms, because—while I’ve had many conversations about it with cabaret artists—it’s actually something I don’t understand. But I know that it works.

Margaret Whiting said, “You just do it. You’re singing to the person you’re singing about, but you bring it to the audience.” I’ve seen many really fine cabaret performers doing that. And as [part of] an audience, I completely enjoy and accept it. As an actor, I’ve always found it somewhat confusing. The weird thing about it is, it works because [singers] think it does.

Even though jazz singing is often more about making sounds than it is about “acting” the song, can’t “musician-like” singers sometimes be fine actors as well?

Absolutely…. I looked at Sarah Vaughan a lot. Sarah Vaughan is absolutely “being one of the musicians,” but she’s also deeply living the scenes she’s playing. She had a wonderful self-effacing quality when she spoke. She was, so clearly, a very down-to-earth, regular person. And when she sang her songs, she would go so deeply into them—it was as if she owned them.

What cabaret singers can bring to the acting profession.

You always need to be present as a cabaret performer. That experience is great training for being a good actor. For instance, walking onto a cabaret stage and greeting the audience is exactly what you need to do when you go to a theatre audition. You need to walk into that room and say hello—and mean it—and be comfortable with who you are. And many actors don’t know how to do that.

What he learned from his dog about acting—and what he learned from a small child.

I watch my dog, and he’s a great actor. He always has a purpose. He’s always going toward that purpose, and he’s very concentrated on it. And that’s what we’re doing as actors.

A “sense of play” is a thing we have as children. The very first thing I refer to in the chapter on [a sense of play] is watching a young [boy]—under 5—playing on the floor with a wooden barnyard with animals. He had three horses and two cows, and he needed an extra cow. So, he picked up one of the horses, and he said, “You’re a cow now.” Now, you could say that that’s pretending—and it is pretending. But it is whole-hearted pretending. He believes it. He believed that that horse—for whatever game he was playing—was now a cow. And that childish sense of play is so useful to us as actors.

There’s something about being a grown-up. We’re afraid to look stupid or silly—or to “do it wrong.” The child who turns a horse into a cow is never thinking of that. He’s just doing what he needs to do. This is not the “pretending” we would see people do if they were “indicating” or telling lies. It’s actually a truth told with great abandon.

Ed. Note: To purchase Craig Carnelia’s The Reason to Sing, visit the Routledge website or Amazon.com.



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About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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