Monday, July 03, 2006

Interview with Herman Sebek

This Interview took place June 28, 2006. Herman Sebek is Directing the Rhinebeck Theater Society's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, Opening at The Rhinebeck Performing Arts Center Thursday June 29, 2006. The Music Man is running until July 16. He was kind enough to spend some time with me for this interview.

Herman brings 26 years of theater experience to the Hudson Valley. He began his career while earning his BFA in dance from The Juilliard School. As a professional dancer-singer-actor, Herman's credits include 5 Broadway shows; West Side Story - revival and international tour, Cats - original cast Pouncival and then later Mr. Mistoffolees, Song and Dance - also its national tour, Shogun, and Miss Saigon where he starred as The Engineer. Herman is also a songwriter and continues to develop projects with colleagues, friends and students for theater, film and recording. As a coach and teacher, Herman provides private instruction in voice, dance and performance. Locally, he has been a regular guest teacher for Vanaver Caravan, and was guest director-choreographer for BSP's production of Fame. He, and his students, have contributed their talents to the On Wings of Love concerts benefiting Angel Food East, American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, and Pause for Paws benefiting AWAN. Most recently, Herman wrote an original musical with Candy Productions for InsideOut Magazine's 2nd year anniversary celebration, The Purple Palate Party, and had friends from Broadway come upstate to perform in it.

Erica: How did you discover the theater? Was there an “Aha” moment?

Herman: According to my family, the minute I was on my feet, I was running around the house hitting the highest note I could hit. My sister said it would pierce her ears. Then the dancing was something I just started doing.... My childhood sweetheart, her parents had a dance studio. My mother tells me that in kindergarten, somewhere between kindergarten and 3rd grade, I told her [my sweetheart] that “Yes, I take dance lessons” So then my Mom spoke with her parents and I started Ballet at 8 years old.

I'm a very good at pirouetter, spinner ... In Fact, when Michael Jackson came to see the show [Cats], when I was doing Mr. Mistoffolees, we had the pleasure of him coming back, this was when he was in the height of his career - doing that Pepsi commercial ... just after he was recovering from that burn ... So he comes and as he was leaving he said “I like your spins” ... So what I would do when I was little, my mom and family said, I could obviously see the concept of spotting .... holding focus and snapping your head around ... I would stand on my toes and shake my head, and that was my pirouette.

It was in my blood, it's always been in my blood. I'm so blessed to have an immigrant family that grew up and survived the ... freedom of Indonesia – My family is from Indonesia, we're Dutch Indonesian, and they had to leave the country when Indonesia gained it's independence from Holland, they had a choice of staying there and totally letting go any allegiance and any connection to their European heritage or leaving, and they chose to leave. I was born in the Netherlands and we immigrated here when I was 6 months old.

Erica: So you've lived your whole life here practically ...

Herman: Since six months old. My mom said there was something with my birth, this energy, a hand pushing them across the ocean. I was really blessed, it's always been in my blood, something I just knew I would do, It was like, not an 'Aha' but like an inner knowing, an inner knowing long time of this is what I do. It's my thing.

Erica: Do you have a favorite Role?

Herman: it's the Engineer, it's the Engineer in Miss Saigon. I have slamming reviews from it. My most current are from last year when I did it in Wooster Massachusetts. The Review is from the Boston Globe.

Erica: Speaking of which ... August 20, 1997 – Do you know where you were?

Herman: That was Germany

Erica: Then you were in Germany, Then I didn't see you on the stage - I thought I perhaps had... it's the only Playbill [Miss Saigon] I'm missing from my collection.

Herman: Oh ... No that wasn't me, I did my run on Broadway from 1992 – 1994.

Erica: I just wanted to check. That would have been too .... uncanny. It was one of the first Broadway shows I saw ... Not the first, the first was The Secret Garden – it's funny how you remember these things.

Herman: Oh yeah, I know it is ... My first show was A Chorus Line.

Erica: Do you have a favorite show? Not necessarily one that you've done ...

Herman: You know it is one that I've done, it's still my favorite, I just think the design of it is just absolutely beautiful - West Side Story. The whole human aspect of it.

Erica: Beautiful and Timeless ...

Herman: Yes, What I really love about it – which is where I don't get Rent at all, West Side Story is based on Romeo & Juliet, and brilliantly. Where Rent is based on La Boheme, and that's the problem you get when you use an opera libretto, that opera stories are so bizarre are just purely designed to have tragic and intense music and arias sung. There's really no commitment to telling a story that has any kind of coherence.

Erica: It is kind of disjointed, but I do love the music ...

Herman: Exactly ... before I saw the play, the music, I heard the score and loved it! loved the score, just such cool music. Then when I saw it – I did not get it at all. I know it's La Boheme, but still ... You know what's another favorite of mine? West Side for Theater, but since it is coming to Broadway now, Mary Poppins ... Movie Musical Mary Poppins, Musical West Side Story. I just love Julie Andrews in that. Oh god, it's so hard, Sound of Music is another brilliant ... but West Side Story is my thing.

Erica: Tell me how Music Man came to be, how did you come to be involved?

Herman: I'm a teacher, and one of my past students was involved with the Center, and her Mother asked David Forman “Do you know who we have across the river? Herman Sebek, he's a Broadway Veteran, and good with kids .... ” and suggested me for a future production. So as we were discussing this other project, David mentioned he needed a choreographer for Music Man, and it grew from there.

Erica: Do you think it's harder to do a beloved classic, like this show, just because of the audiences expectations? Everyone knows this show ... does that add a little pressure to give them enough of the traditional view of the show ...

Herman: No, as you can tell the way I work ... as an actor and performer myself, thats where I come from as a director. I'm looking for inner life, we didn't have the time to do a lot of inner life work, which is the way I teach. I actually do a lot of experimenting and a lot of discovery, and improv exercises ... to have people come from that creative soul ... I love just coming from a playful place, let's just play, let's see what happens, let's see what lands. If it doesn't land we find something else, if I need to give you the direction on how it needs to look out here, but let's always come from there. So for me, that's always the thing, just coming from the heart, starting from the the heart and seeing where it comes from. I would do that with anything, a little five minute song or a cabaret offering, or a big production like this. To me the human element is first, because if you take it all away - you gotta still touch the people. What they're going to connect with is human beings being human beings on stage.

The great thing about Directing/Choreographing is that I see the whole thing as a dance, the whole thing is such a dance ... as far as honoring the tradition of the piece, and it's history, is really honoring that it's the dance. You've seen some of the pictures of even just the scenes, the way I blocked it, to make it look as if the dance is continuing ...

Erica: There's a continuity ...

Herman: and a choreographic element to it, it has that kind of sculpted look to it. It doesn't go book scene and then you dance and have a good time ... For me the challenge, if you want to know the challenge of doing Music Man – Is that I would take on any piece the way I took this thing on ... I sit at home, I'm looking through the script, I'm taking notes, thinking of pictures, I'm thinking about the inner life, popping on the DVD seeing if there's any clues I can use from that interpretation. So the inner life really is it. I just wanted to make sure it was fresh for the people, that we weren't just going to do a copycat thing ... I want to find something fresh and new and different.

Erica: What is the thing that sets this production of Music Man apart from all of the others. What would you say makes it special?

Herman: I think what's starting to show up, in a really nice way, is the spirit of Community. The whole thing of community theater – the whole thing of community, really starting to shine through all the work. Now that all of my directing and continual notes and drilling is really starting to lock in and show up on the stage consistently. There's a real community spirit that makes this special. It really feels like grassroots kind of a thing.

The production elements are looking really high end – I'm really touched and moved by how it's looking - just the quality for community theater, I have a feeling people are going to be really happy. The sound too – the way the orchestra and the sound is working, I'm really happy. I'm so glad for you guys [the cast], because out in the house I've never experienced a show like this.

Erica: Honestly, from the stage I've never experienced a show like this either. It feels likes we have support like we've never had before.

Herman: Awesome! I'm so glad ... You know what, when you guys did Iowa Stubborn with energy and clarity – I was like Oh my God they're bringing it'

Erica: I think that's because we're inspired to bring it ... The band really helps, that deep sound supporting you, you gotta belt it out – because of - oh wow – all that sound!

Herman: It's fantastic ... I was really touched yesterday [6/27], really touched. So I mean community like our region – the Hudson Valley community kinda feel, it is showing up on the stage, and it's our thing up here. What it means to be Hudson Valley ... It's showing up ... It's really interesting – It's like Music Man looking like a touch of New Paltz, Woodstock, Kingston, Rhinebeck, It really looks like it.

Erica: Right, because we're all taking our small town experiences and bringing it to the stage ...

Herman: It really feels like that ... It's Iowa with our unique regional spirit.

Erica: What do you think overall of the community theater experience in this area?

Herman: It's the desire .. love the desire, and what is really interesting ... It's the desire on one end, and everybody really wanting come to give and get ... give what they can and get their opportunity in the limelight. On the other end [of the spectrum] to have to keep ... it's fascinating how low the percentage is of these actors instincts are, as much as they love being here and want to be here, it's just amazing how many times I have to tell people not to have their back to the audience.

Erica: They get so caught up in their world ...

Herman: It's so funny. Exactly, which is great tot see that there's that inner life – Great! But then the whole thing of serving the public that you're there to serve.

Erica: You have to connect to the audience somehow ... and your back just quite doesn't do it.

Herman: That's the most fascinating thing, to keep saying something like instinct, yet it's something that needs to be trained.

Erica: Are there any future projects or plans that you're excited about and can talk about?

Herman: Let's see ... future ... Getting ready for Halloween again – it's time to do that. Andy, a couple of years ago, created a really fun witches troupe ... and we're always in the Halloween Parade in New York City, and I didn't want to be a pretty witch and then I created this character – her name is Horrorah, you can go to the website and you'll hear a little clip of her dance song. She's a Troll ...

Erica: That sounds like fun!

Herman: It is fun, and she is always a star in the parade ... the first year I created her, I was amongst hundreds of people dancing in the street, NY1 came right through the crowd and grabbed me and pulled me in for an interview – pulled her in ... because she's not me – it's really weird – it's totally someone else. It's like ... mask acting, because there's a mask involved with her – people really freak out when they see her, because it's not me. A friend of mine ... she got to meet her [ Horrorah ] last year, and she called me later in the night and left me a message she went 'Herman, that was so weird – I met Horrorah. I could not find you in there anywhere' she's a total spoof on the cookie-cutter shaky shaky girls .... and she has a good cause – Eat the Mean Men. That's my fall project, always love doing that.

We always have a entry, this will be a third year, for the Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby. Which is a total fun event ... For two years we had a broom, that went down the street, a hot rod witches broom ... This year we're going to do something different. So that's the next project up.

I'm in the midst of a writing project – a children's musical that I'm revisiting with a collaborator who just was one of the finalists in the Slamdance screen writing competitions in California. That's something we're revisiting ... we had started it in the early 90's ... It's called the Long Lost Land of Color and it's all about environment and the world. We're like ... we have to do it, it's time – these conversations are out there now. So revisiting that.

And then putting myself back in the Biz – I'm back in film and TV acting class. I'm always writing something. I'm continually songwriting – I had so much fun writing this eight minute musical that was an info-musical or com-musical, commercial musical that I did for the InsideOut second anniversary of the Regional Hudson Valley LGBT magazine. So that was really fun, I love doing projects like that.

That's it right now, all developmental but lots of possibilities ...

Erica: Wonderful!

Herman: I'm teaching, Loving teaching! Always getting new students and always thinking of things to do with my kids. I have an amazing 17 year old that writes the most beautiful faith music ... I have him in the studio recording. I have a couple of kids like him, that are creative as well as singers. I'm also looking at other ways to provide for the Hudson valley community as far as show biz goes.

Then the church [his home] is always a project, my space, the management, the maintenance alone ... let alone development and renovation. And then Andy with his company Candy Productions ... they were the events planners for the InsideOut anniversary, and then they have a Breast Cancer event in the fall ... he also does, as you may have noticed, his Party Illustrations, Party Portraits in the house ... He 's in the midst of doing one for Two Rivers Theater from NJ. We're both very creative spirits and always looking to see what we can create together, as well.

Erica: So what made you decide to Direct? Is that just an outreach of the acting?

Herman: Let me think ...

Erica: or did that just kinda come about because someone said 'Hey Herman – can you do this project?', and you were like 'yeah, sure!'

Herman: Yeah - that's how it happened. It was an extension of being a guest teacher for Vanaver Caravan and other dance schools up here. It kinda grew out of that. I haven't danced for you guys, but even at 44, if I show you what I can do ...

Erica: Oh, I think we've seen enough to know you can really move ...

Herman: When I teach, people are like 'Whoa! ... Can you teach these kids over here....'

Erica: Now this is a big one, Because I know some of the people who read my blog on a regular basis are definitely trying to make it as an actor – do you have any advice for them?

Herman: Hmm – Yes, the hardest one to do – Follow your heart. It's the hardest to do. Follow your heart and let all the opinions that go counter to what your heart says just slide off your back – It's the hardest, yet it's the most valuable, if you really want to make it in the biz - it's a must. And you've gotta turn to whatever your faith is, you gotta turn to whatever is missing is in your confidence, and in your belief in yourself. You gotta turn and deal with whoever in your world that isn't giving you the support and guidance that you're needing or requesting even. It's really following and staying true to your heart. It's hard, it's really easy to get thwarted, especially if the money formula isn't kicking in.

I was really blessed to have that instilled in me at a really young age, that when I went for my very first audition – which was Chorus Line, I was 16 – I shouldn't of been there, we were supposed to be 18, but at 16 went to Philadelphia, because I grew up in Bucks County Pennsylvania. I was one of the last 5 men and boys, and then when they let me go – I was like it's okay I'm 16 only. That set me up that when I went for first audition for West Side Story Revival at 17, which it almost looked like I was going to get ... and I would have not been able to go to my early entry to Juillard, Because I was allowed to have my freshman year at Juilliard count for my senior year at high school. I was given this great privilege. If I hadn't had all the support ... if I hadn't had that in my youth, It wouldn't have showed up around 17, 18 when I finally was in the revival at 18 years old.

That's where that whole knowing, this is what I do ... 'Hi what do you do' – Oh I'm a theater star ... I'm a theater professional. Period. No questions about it.

Erica: As opposed to 'Well, I'm trying to' ...

Herman: Exactly, In fact you know what my parents did that I know really locked it in ... I was 15, 16 ... somewhere around pre-college. Mom and Dad were like Herman you need to get a job, because I had already ended my paper route years, and allowance and mowing the lawn, whatever only did so much. Herman you need to get a job – so you know what it's about - making money. Fine, I go to Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor – I'm a busboy for ... one week. My parent's were like okay this is too much driving you to work then dance classes... just keep your grades up in school, and we'll deal with this. Doing that totally wired me for 'Oh I make money from being a performer'.

So yeah, that's really it. It's the hardest one ... that's where you want use whatever schools or books of self development that really help you deal with your inner blocks. That's where it all lives, you hear of it over and over again. People have their breakthrough because they were able to close some door of their past or confront some issue that had been hanging around that they just didn't want to face. They finally do, and boom the next magical career opportunity opens up. That's the magic of life ... we can turn to whatever religions, this thing and that thing - this self help and this guru ... but until you know that moment of following your heart ...

Otherwise, and I've seen it so many times, I've seen amazing talent that didn't have that – even in training, and just not having the heart there, the heart element just blocked or stuck or whatever. The career doesn't unfold, and they just give up.

That's the one ... The second is serve your bosses really well. Do do do and say nothing. I saw one of the most brilliant Miss Saigon understudies in the roll of Kim. Gorgeous! Brilliant. When she had her chance, the stage manager going 'Oh the producers would like you to do the afternoon show' and she was like 'No I'm sick, not feeling well, not ready'. I think they did it two or three times, and there was this kind of scenario. Done. They wanted her for a potential alternate for the role, and because she was doing her little insecurity thing ... that shows up like diva thing .... Done, it didn't happen. Not in that opportunity. You see that a lot too. People doing the 'I'm not ready'. Yeah – you are, the bosses have been training you in understudy rehearsals, get up there! You're not the critique of your work.

That's the other thing, don't be your own critique, don't be your own critic.

Erica: Because you put yourself under a microscope anyway ...

Herman: Anyway, it's human right? We judge, we're always judging ourselves anyway ... Don't try to be your own director. That's the most challenging thing ... that's when you're mid path ... that's REALLY hard. Really easy for that to kick in strong, like you know now. That's it ... never know, never know a thing. This industry is going through so many shifts all the time .... We're having to find all other ways to keep people engaged in entertainment. You can't know how it's done. Yeah there are formulas, yeah there are designs, the only design that is consistent is the Greek [story formula]. So never know is the other one.

Erica: Excellent Advice.

Herman: It's what I have to do for myself.

Thanks very much to Herman Sebek who took an hour out of his busy day to speak with me. I've tried to stay as true to the original interview as possible, while editing for clarity. Thanks also to Rhinebeck Theater Society and the producers for deciding to put on The Music Man.


Peri said...

thanks for sending me the link to your interview with Herman! I learned so much about him and from him that I never knew from the time we've been workking with him. What he says is so true, and it's been a great experience to work with him on The Music Man. Your interview was very well written and informative. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog when I have a little more time.

Ethnic Food said...

Magnificent post. Its really interesting

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