With decades of experience in performing, directing and producing, celebrated artists Blair Underwood and Kim Fields gave students invaluable career advice and acting direction this spring during a special masterclass and conversation. The Zoom event on Feb. 5 allowed students the opportunity to not only perform for the pair, but ask their burning questions about the industry.
During the masterclass, students performed various monologues in succession, receiving feedback and corrections from Underwood and Fields. The artists also worked with students to achieve more grounded performances — going over character objectives and conveying the context of the monologue to the audience. After the class, they shared ways to discover, define and achieve personal success in the industry.
Discovering as actors
“We [as actors] are the conduits of emotion and story. If we don’t feel it, then the audience does not feel it,” Underwood noted for one of the students after their performance, encouraging them to focus on finding discoveries within their monologue and honing in on new information the character is processing.
Underwood, who is an SDA Board of Councilors member, was recently in A Soldier’s Play on Broadway, which he was nominated for a Tony Award. He was also recently in the film Bad Hair, and the series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker, When They See Us and Dear White People. Other notable on screen works include Quantico, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., L.A. Law and the film A Trip to Bountiful. He also performed on Broadway in the play A Streetcar Named Desire and the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure.
Providing feedback for another student, Fields shared: “Find those moments where you don’t know what you’re going to say next. Find your words. Find the connection of the words.” She explained how it is easy to forget the words you are reciting are being said by the character for the very first time.
An actress, producer, director and writer, Fields was recently in the series The Upshaws and Living the Dream, and the films A Question of Faith and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She has also directed the television series House of Payne, Kenan & Kel, Meet the Browns, among others. Other notable works include starring in Living Single and The Facts of Life.
Owning your destiny
During the Q&A portion of the night, which was moderated by Assistant Professor of Theatre Practice in Acting Anita Dashiell-Sparks, a student asked for guidance on how to respond to casting directors who ask about their brand.
Underwood offered: “Those who you allow to define you will confine you.” He asserted that students should answer that dreaded question by saying, “ ‘I’m an actor so I can go in any direction you need me to go in.’ … Then, when you do the work, you back it up.”
For Fields, the work is what the brand becomes in the moment. “That sense of that adaptability, that you’re not hiring my brand, you’re hiring me as an actor to fulfill the brand that you gave in this page,” she said.
When a student expressed their fear over being labeled or seen in a way that is undesirable to them and asked how to navigate that, Fields shared her way of combating people’s preconceived notions of her. “The way I have chosen to deal with that is: go the other way,” she said. “Don’t you wait on these people to make you. Make yourself. … There’s enough platforms that you can be the owner of your own destiny.”
Underwood encouraged students to focus less on the stakes surrounding an audition and instead use it as an opportunity to grow. “Don’t make it about booking the gig. You can’t control that,” he said. “If you can get to a place where that’s not at the forefront, use the thing you can control: ‘I want to use this to make more eye contact, I want to use this to get better at cold reading.’ ”
Underwood and Fields wrapped the conversation with advice on ways students could set their careers in motion. In particular, Underwood reminded students to be adaptable in the various roles they perform. Underwood said: “[Be] intentional in continuing to play the unexpected. That way no one knows what’s going to come up next on screen.”