Bubba Knows Best

South African by birth, Berg has spent 23 years shaping CCM students or careers in a most American art form: musical theater.
South African by birth, Berg has spent 23 years shaping CCM students or careers in a most American art form: musical theater.

Photograph by Jonathon Willis

Editor’s Note: This was originally published in the March 2010 issue.

You need it, but it’s the one thing no one can give you. Some people have it and land on Broadway. It’s crazy. We can train you to the hilt, yet there’s just no substitute for being in the right place at the right time. When the door opens, you have to be ready.

Aubrey Berg, the Patricia A. Corbett distinguished chair of musical theater at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, is teaching a class called Audition Techniques, and on this sunny October morning he is doing two things: First, he’s listing, in reverse order, the “10 special skills” that anyone who hopes to make a life in musical theater must acquire; second, he’s examining headshots—photographs he’s collected from working actors, who send them to agents, producers, casting directors, or anyone else who might have a job to offer. He’s grilling his students—in this case, juniors—about the 8-by-10 glossies, focusing on the ones that have maximum impact.

“Tell me about her,” he says, pointing to one of more than a score of black and white photographs.

“She’s nice, she’s genuine,” a student says, a little hesitantly.

“How do you know?” says Berg.

Then, turning to another photo, he asks: “Do you trust her? Why not?” He never raises his voice but he never lets the students off the hook. “Would you date him?” he asks about the picture of a young man that someone describes as “quirky.”

“Remember,” Berg says, “casting has to do with sex appeal, so you should look hot.”

Headshots elicit from Berg a strong point of view, as does everything relevant to theater. “You need to exude confidence, or why would I be interested in you?” he proclaims. He likes front-facing shots, but allows exceptions. In one photo, an actress Berg identifies as “Sally Ann,” an especially comely young woman, turns her face slightly away from the camera.

“If you look like Sally Ann,” says Berg, “you can look any way you want.”

9. Good information, advice, help. Can you name all the musicals currently running on Broadway? You need to be able to. Name a national tour currently on the road. Whom will you trust? You will get a lot of advice, some of it quite bad. You need to be discerning.

Berg has been in his position at CCM for 23 years. In that time, he has directed well over 50 musicals—most for CCM, but some for other stages, like the upcoming The Marvelous Wonderettes at Ensemble Theater—with a level of professionalism and a sureness of touch that would grace any New York stage. He has graduated more than 300 students, following their careers the way a father follows his children. His protégés play in regional theater companies, chorus lines, touring shows, cruise ship ensembles, and theme parks nationwide. Some play on Broadway; the pantheon of CCM graduates currently cast in Broadway shows and national tours includes Karen Olivo, class of 1997, who won a Tony last June for her rendition of Anita in the current revival of West Side Story. In the process, Aubrey Berg has brought rare distinction to UC’s musical theater program, resulting in more than 800 applicants annually vying to win one of the 20 to 25 freshman slots.

What is his magic? It depends upon whom you ask—student, colleague, administrator—but all agree that Berg has a vision about his work and knows exactly how to get it out of his students. “He knows what he wants and has a remarkable way of making it happen,” says Diana Lala, his choreographer for 21 years. R. Terrell Finney Jr., head of the division of opera, musical theater, drama, arts administration, theater design, and production at CCM, and Berg’s boss, puts it this way: “The fact that he’s surrounded by colleagues and students who are the best, his obsession with quality and excellence, his confidence that the students will consistently meet his high expectations, all have allowed him to demand a level of excellence that he might not achieve in a lesser institution.”

Berg himself is less definitive. “There is no magic, only experience,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for a very long time.”

Unlike the two previous chairs of CCM’s musical theater program, the charismatic Jack Rouse (who went on to run Kings Island productions and found his own theatrical production consulting company, and who serves on a slew of local boards) and the bombastic Worth Gardner (who left CCM to become artistic director of Playhouse in the Park for several years in the 1980s), Berg seems inherently shy. He has a low profile in the larger Cincinnati community, and that appears to be by choice. Thus his final pronouncement on his modus operandi: “I always felt the only real thing I have to offer is to be in a room with students.”

8. Freedom from inhibitions and entanglements. Everyone needs their own code of morality, but the more closed you are—example: you refuse to take off your shirt—the more you limit yourself. And if you’re offered a national tour, would you turn it down if, say, you want to stay with your sweetie in Chicago?

Berg is 59. He grew up in South Africa, nurtured by parents who took him frequently to the theater. He saw Shakespeare, Shaw, and Ibsen as a child. He majored in drama at the University of Capetown and directed his first musical at 18—a production of Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. After graduation, he studied in England at the British Drama League and the Bristol Old Vic Theater School.

But he wanted to come to America. “Musical theater is the great contribution of America to world culture,” he says. “It is the single most popular theater form today.” He earned a Ph.D. in theater arts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1979 and went immediately into directing. “I think that’s what I always wanted to do,” he recalls. “I have acted, but I prefer being on the other side of the footlights.” Perhaps that has something to do with one of his few performance stints, which earned him his nickname—Bubba. It’s short for BubbaLou Clemson, a self-imposed pseudonym from many years ago when he was both directing and acting in the same production and reluctant to credit himself twice in the playbill.

Integral to this decision to direct was his instructor/mentor at Illinois, Burnett Hobgood. One of the great teachers of theater and directing of his time, he was, Berg says, “a great theorist” as well. “Hob instilled a love of teaching in me. Before that, I thought of being just a director.” Upon graduation, Berg signed on at Catawba College in North Carolina, where he worked for two years. The second job, at Birmingham-Southern College, lasted six. Then Terrell Finney, an Alabama colleague who had moved on to UC, recruited him here.

Berg likes to cook, read, travel, and go to movies. But with a schedule that often keeps him in rehearsals until late at night, or out of town viewing auditions through much of the winter, or busy readying students for the department’s annual New York showcase (the production that exposes students to agents, producers, and directors), he has little time for any of that. With no immediate family of his own, he apportions much of his leisure to trips to other cities to watch his alumni perform. His work is his life.

7. A healthy attitude, the capacity for psychological adjustment. There are some really horrible people in the business, and you’re going to have to work with them without becoming one. Don’t add yourself to the list of alcoholics, damaged people, dope fiends, and all the rest.

On a Monday evening late in October, the cast of Hair is rehearsing Act One. Twenty-eight young and shapely bodies, some in pairs and some singly, move in and out of a circle, pieces in a kaleidoscope, now apart, now back together.

Berg selected Hair, the groundbreaking 1968 musical, expressly for the musical theater program’s 40th anniversary celebration. He liked that it is a “concept musical”—less about plot than about ideas. And he liked that it would showcase his students’ singing, dancing, and acting talents with lots of musical numbers.

Goateed, heavy-set, and not tall, Berg stands almost expressionless in front of the stage, watching. The song is “Donna,” one of the show’s big production numbers. Ever so faintly, he nods his head and taps his feet (without actually lifting them) in time to the music. He is in a cream yellow shirt and brown pants, with a cell phone at his side. Nearby are the only other full-time faculty members of the musical theater department: Lala, the choreographer, and Roger Grodsky, the musical director, coach, and conductor. While each has a vital role in determining how Hair will evolve, Berg’s is the last word.

“You are slowing up when you start singing,” he says to one of the lead dancers when the number pauses. “We cannot have it.” And to another, in a trio of tappers: “You’re doing your lead twirl different from the others.”

Mostly, though, he watches, occasionally scratching notes on a yellow legal pad. Melvin Logan, a junior who is playing Ron, sings the score’s first notes: When the moon is in the seventh house… Berg is not happy with Logan’s inflection, and he stops him and utters one word. “Again.”

Logan runs through it twice more, concluding with the famous line, “. . . and peace will guide the planet.” The third time, Berg says, “That was exactly right.”

To one of the dancers: “Aleysha, you’re still doing this—” and he imitates an extraneous gesture.

“I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again,” she says.

To another, whose focus has drifted: “Natasha, please pay attention.”

Brandon Ynez, who plays Claude, one of the principals, is asked to sing one of his lines over. “Make it a little more gospel rock,” Berg instructs. “You’ve got to raise the roof on this one.”

Then: “Tenors, you’re not making much of a sound.” Citing the “Manchester, England” number, he says: “I need to see a little more animation.” When he gets it, he tells the cast: “That was correct. Will you remember?”

If you talk with faculty and students about Berg’s techniques, invariably they remark on his attention to detail and his ability to coax extraordinary things out of his performers. His staging is almost painterly—“He has a very good eye for stage pictures,” says Lala—and exceedingly precise. “The stage managers can draw road maps for blocking weeks before opening,” says CCM faculty member James Gage, who has designed the lighting for more than 20 of Berg’s productions. It’s an obsession that serves a larger purpose, Gage says. “He stages the entire production, every little heartbeat in the show, so the actor can really deliver a message to the audience. His expertise at actor placement and emotional and spiritual impact is without question one of the very best.”

All that is in evidence at the Hair rehearsal, along with this fact: He is a teacher and these are his students, and he is preparing them not just for one production, but for a lifetime of challenging work in a grueling field.

Berg asks them to repeat the “Aquarius” number, then abruptly waves a hand to shut them down: “That was horrible. Why are you making so little sound after ‘harmony and understanding’?”

The next time a full, rich sound pours forth. “That was a whole different number,” he says. “So what did you do that was different?”

For 23 years, Bubba has been schooling Broadway hopefuls in the 10 steps to musical theater success.
For 23 years, Bubba has been schooling Broadway hopefuls in the 10 steps to musical theater success.

Photograph by Jonathon Willis

6. Commitment / the will to succeed. We’re halfway through the list, and we haven’t talked about talent yet. How long are you willing to give yourself—to live in a garret, drive a cab, bartend?

Berg can be intimidating. He wants students to know that the entertainment business is unforgiving, that there are 55,000 Equity members who call themselves actors but are in reality nannies, store clerks, cabbies, and servers. If he is hard on his charges, it’s because the world will be no less so. “They need to understand that just because Mama and Grandmama,” he says, emphasizing the last syllable in each, “think they’re fabulous, it doesn’t matter. The difference between a B+ and an A is huge.” The intonation leaves no doubt as to which has a chance in the real world.

“It’s not just about training and skills, but about life,” he continues. “About dealing with a difficult profession where you get rejected 99 percent of the time. The first thing I say is ‘Give up the need for praise’—because it’s so easily given.”

Does he ever give praise? “When it’s merited.”

He concludes: “How long should you give yourself? As long as it takes. But that may not be realistic for you.”

5. Contacts. You cannot make it on your own. The only way to do it is to network. Who are your contacts? Directors? Choreographers? Agents? Other actors? In a word: Everyone.

Joey DeBenedetto, a student in Audition Techniques, says Berg is “a scary individual, but he knows so much that we love him.” Berg genuinely believes that anyone can act, and act well; that people are not, as DeBenedetto says, “graced by the acting fairy.”

“Acting is about being a believable human being onstage,” says DeBenedetto. “Aubrey knows how to work with each individual and pull out true and honest emotions. And in his class, we develop the skills to bring out those emotions over and over again, each and every time.” Instead of conveying a sense that some students “have it” and others don’t, “Aubrey allows his class to be a safe place to find yourself as an artist,” he says.

“He does an unbelievable job of de-mystifying what we’re doing,” says Joe Moeller, who plays Berger, another of the principals in Hair. Moeller sees Berg as something of a theatrical guru. “We feel each [performer] can really rise to the occasion because of the things he teaches us.”

Disingenuously, perhaps, Berg professes “no idea” as to whether students like him. “If I wanted them to like me, wouldn’t that be like asking them for praise?” he asks. But he allows me to read some of the note cards his cast members sent him in the wake of their Hair experience. His students call him “Bubba”—the old nickname followed him here—and their appreciation is effusive.

“Bubba,” begins one, “I have never felt so creatively free and inspired by the art form before. What you’ve given me in class (regarding theater as well as my life) is a gift and I will never forget it.”

“Bubba,” Lexie Dorsett, who played the female lead in Hair, writes. “I cannot even begin to express how truly special and amazing this whole week was for me. Thank you so much for trusting me with the role of Sheila. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the opportunity. Hair was by far the most satisfying theatrical experience of my life.”

Berg’s conclusion: “They like me when I cast them and hate me when I don’t,” he says. “I don’t think liking me needs to come into it. We’re on a journey together—like the Marines. The goal is to make them the best they can be.

4. Training/experience. For some people, it’s easy to get a first job. For Rent they wanted untrained voices, so they took kids off the street. But you’ve got to sustain it. CCM will open doors for you. People that you’ll meet will have expectations. Take advantage of it.

To pick his troops, Berg spends much of the winter watching auditions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. The schedule, occurring mostly on weekends, is grueling, often lasting from morning until late at night. What he’s looking for is not just the fabled “triple threat”—a high school student with the ability to sing, dance, and act in equal measure—but one who can be integrated into the program seamlessly. By that he means, “Sing while you act, act while you sing, and dance when the spirit moves you.” What’s unique about CCM training is this integration of the components, he says. “I can’t say we do it better than others, but we do it really well.”

With academic training for musical theater relatively rare, CCM’s major rivals for talent are Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan. The edge those schools have, according to Berg and Finney, is not the quality of their programs but their greater ability to grant scholarships. For that reason, Berg does not always get everyone he wants. But he gets a lot of them, and their gifts are magnificent. Typically, he says, they represent students from the “arts equivalent of a good athletic program.” Like an athlete who has been preparing his or her entire life, Berg’s picks have been going to voice and dance lessons since they were very young. Says lighting designer Jim Gage, “He has the best kids in North America.”

For some years, Berg—along with Finney and CCM—has sought greater diversity in the composition of their classes. In the musical theater program, students of color are uncommon (some current and recent exceptions: Melvin Logan and Brandon Ynez, who had lead roles in Hair; and Tony Award–winner Karen Olivo). When Kevin McCollum, a 1984 CCM graduate and New York producer, was brought in to teach a master class last fall, he asked the students if they’d done Ragtime. The students told him no; they don’t have enough black performers to stage it.

Berg is sensitive on this point. “The make-up of our class is as diverse as any other in the school, or more so,” he says. “We certainly would like more African-Americans and Hispanics, and we’ve accepted many.” But that’s where CCM is less competitive, explains Terrell Finney. “We don’t have adequate scholarship money to secure them,” he says.

Although a total of 20 to 25 students are sought for each freshman class, attrition grinds them down. This year, 13 seniors survive. What happens? Some find that what was fun in high school is less so when you’re playing for keeps. Some fall behind academically, or for disciplinary reasons, or occasionally, receive offers that tempt them to leave before graduating. And because it’s a conservatory, some are dismissed because, in the opinion of the faculty, their talent doesn’t measure up. The school holds performance examinations, or “boards,” generally twice a year. These are song and dance performances in front of the faculty, who determine whether the students are making adequate progress. “Students can be dismissed if they aren’t reaching the standards sought by the faculty,” Finney says.

Two years ago, Berg made the case that because the caliber of the students is so high, and because anyone can have a bad day, no one should be dismissed on the basis of one bad board. “Now it’s an overall summation of boards, performance programs, and classroom work,” says Finney.

“If they flunk three boards, they can’t graduate,” Berg adds. “Losing three or four kids out of each class is not very many when you look at how many start in liberal arts and then graduate. I think our graduation rate is about correct. And remember: Our program is a microcosm of the profession.”

3. You’re not going to like this one: Looks/physical appearance. Yep, they count openly. You have to look good, and if you don’t, you play character roles. And if you do that, you must look really eccentric. Nathan Lane. John Belushi. Right now, men, buff is in. Get you to the gym.

Hair opened in early November to a sold-out crowd that gave it a standing ovation. Berg’s direction did not disappoint. The legendary songs sounded fresh, the dancing was dazzling, and the set was an eye-stopper. Berg took special care with the ending, ensuring that the poignant death of Claude, and his return from war in a coffin, had a searing pathos. The performance, which was preceded by large-screen stills from the ’60s—Woodstock, peace marches, Vietnam battle images, women’s lib rallies—reflected well the alienation and isolation of the young people who defined that age. This, too, Berg secured by immersing his troupe in videos of the time before they ever sang a note.

Still, Cincinnati Enquirer critic Jackie Demaline expressed some reservations (the high energy had a “sanitized” feel, she wrote; and one of the principals sang “without ever pulling me in”), and some in the crowd with theater backgrounds felt the production was too long. Berg, who doesn’t read reviews (“What’s the point?” he asks), took offense when his students reported what they’d read. He said Demaline “trashed it”—not only overstating her objections, but missing the many things that she praised. If he sounds thin-skinned, he demurs: “I wouldn’t have survived this long if I were thin-skinned.”

2. A definable personality. You better have one. Stars have personality onstage. You love them, you are seduced by them. Think of a star. Do you want to go to bed with her? Him? That’s sex appeal. If you want to be a leading man or woman, you have to exude it. It’s that simple.

On the Sunday after Hair closed, CCM offered an afternoon of cabaret to celebrate “40 years of musical theater excellence.” To secure the professional polish he adores, Berg invited nine distinguished CCM graduates to perform, and he was ebullient as he introduced them. When Gina Valentine and Jessica Hendy belted out a torchy combo that brought cheers from the packed house, Berg deadpanned, “I can do that.” He can be very funny.

Late in the program, Finney came onstage with an “unexpected interruption” to announce the establishment of a musical theater scholarship in Berg’s name. CCM patrons Douglas Duckett and Barbara Wittenbaum read emotional testimonials, praising Berg for his “passion, generosity, [and willingness to] give everything he has.” This musical theater program, Duckett said, “is beyond amazing…it is the finest in the country.” And it doesn’t just happen, he noted. It happens because “good, dedicated—and yes, sometimes difficult and obsessive—people make it happen.”

Berg remained impassive during the praise then thanked the assembled crowd simply and sincerely. The auditorium, filled with his fans, erupted in applause.

1. Talent. You need it. But your skill set—acting, singing, dancing—is only the beginning. What else can you do? Balinese fire dancing? Sign language? Learn some other skills, because they’re marketable. Then ask yourself: Do I have the ability to communicate? Do I have the confidence to put them across?

In the end, Aubrey Berg is all about talent—his own, his colleagues’, his students’, and that of the writers, composers, and choreographers who created the American musical theater. When talent is in abundance, as it is when he watches some of his own graduates perform—at the Aronoff, at “The Muny” in St. Louis, with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, on Broadway…wherever they’ve been cast—he is never happier. And when talent is wanting, as it can be in community or regional theater productions, he is restless. He’d rather be someplace else.

That’s the thing about Berg, says Gage: “He does not accept limitations.” And his demands pay off. “Students know that if they try to give 101 percent every time—if the moment he says jump, we all jump—when we see the [results] in the next run, later that day, or tomorrow at the next rehearsal, we all get goose bumps.” Berg doesn’t burden himself with second-guessing. “There are so many other directors who need to experiment for weeks and weeks about staging, and then of course restaging, their direction,” says Gage. “Not so with Mr. Berg.”

That assurance was on display in early January, when Berg agreed to a cameo appearance in a recital by Patricia Linhart, the conservatory’s voice instructor for sophomores. A celebration of her 60th birthday, as well as a showcase for her considerable abilities, it offered up Berg as comic relief. In a take-off of Noel Coward’s famous patter song “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” he archly roasted the star attraction while wearing a black T-shirt that said, “Bubba Knows Better.” The largely student audience screamed in delight, hammering home to anyone with a doubt that the cult of Aubrey Berg is as much a part of CCM as memories of Patricia Corbett, and that among his many talents, self-promotion and the creation of his own mystique are not least.

“I trained in a period when the director was in charge of the project,” he says. “I’ve never had much time for ‘let’s-all-decide-what-we’re-going-to-do-and-accept-that-as-best.’ There are directors who do that, but I’m not one of them.”

Bubba doesn’t just know better. He knows best.

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