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Legendary Entertainer Ben Vereen Shares Expertise with Students

Legendary Entertainer Ben Vereen Shares Expertise with Students

Posted: January 30, 2015

Buffalo State’s Flexible Theatre was infused with Broadway magic on Thursday when legendary actor, singer, and dancer Ben Vereen demonstrated his mastery of stagecraft during a master class for theater students.

The 68-year-old performer critiqued two scenes from the upcoming play The Brothers Size, a poetic drama that opens Wednesday, February 11, and stars three students—Denzel Williams, Kwame Feaster, and Shameed Wright. After watching the first scene, Vereen not only gave technical pointers; he also insisted the actors access the emotions that are essential to their characters.

"You are not acting; you are being," Vereen said. "When acting, you are putting us on. Go for the real heart of the situation. You must be able to show the audience that you are naked."

Aaron Moss, assistant professor of theater, who is directing The Brothers Size, said he appreciated Vereen’s suggestions.

“There is a psychology to hearing the same advice from different sources,” Moss said. “And when students hear from a legend such as Ben Vereen, it gives that advice so much more credibility.”

Vereen provided unforgettable performances as Chicken George in the Roots television mini-series, as the original Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar, and in the lead role in the Broadway play Pippin, for which he was awarded a Tony. Many remember him as the father of Will Smith’s character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. More recently, he has had a recurring role on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, playing Wayne Brady’s father.

The actor is in Buffalo to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on January 31. In advance of the performance, Anthony Chase, assistant dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, interviewed Vereen for an Artvoice cover story. Chase and Carlos Jones, chair and associate professor of theater, contacted Vereen's agent to see if he might be available to work with students for half a day. To their delight, he was.

“Any time we can have a professional actor come in, it’s great because he or she can reinforce what we’ve said in class—with a different perspective,” Jones said. “And particularly, if we can have someone who has been as successful as Ben, it gives validity to the possibility of careers in theater.”

Prior to the master class, Vereen enjoyed an informal lunch with Buffalo State President Katherine S. Conway-Turner, School of Arts and Humanities Dean Ben Christy, other campus leaders, and faculty and students from the Theater Department. He then spent an hour talking about his career with Buffalo State and Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts students.

During the master class, Vereen challenged the three young actors to push the envelope and bring their own anger, hurts, and disappointments to their roles. Moss said the students only began rehearsing the play last week and were just starting to explore the background and motivation of the characters, after getting the lines and blocking down.

That can be the toughest part, as Vereen showed them. He unraveled layers from each scene, requiring the actors to perform lines repeatedly until he felt their emotions appeared raw enough to be real.

“You are a membrane away from true feeling,” he told them. “Let your anger be your guide. Make it more; give it purpose.”

Emotions eventually broke open resulting in a standing ovation from the audience.

“It is always helpful for students to watch their colleagues on stage,” Jones said. “Affirmations were made, revelations were made, and many of the students saw themselves renewed in their own drive and ambitions.”

Above: Buffalo State President Katherine S. Conway-Turner with Ben Vereen 

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