Nona Hendryx: Stage Master

Danielle Dreilinger
October 13, 2010
Visiting artist Nona Hendryx helps student Will Wetzel find his inner angry, rejected-boyfriend self in the September 24 Exploring Your Stage Persona master class.
... and shows student Renee Orshan of Dave Weigert's pop ensemble how to react to Wetzel's musical plea.
Wetzel sings Billy Joel.
Hendryx connects with the audience at the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival September 25.
Faculty member Terri Lyne Carrington backs Hendryx on the drums.
Faculty member Gabrielle Goodman sings backup for Hendryx as well as performing her own set.
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

You don't sit up front at a Gallagher show if you want to stay clean, and you don't volunteer to participate in the Nona Hendryx Exploring Your Stage Persona master class if you want to stick with your old habits.

Two ensembles and several singer/songwriters lined up September 24 for the honor of getting tips from one of the best performers in the business. Hendryx's career has gone from '60s girl group to disco-glam with the band Labelle to varied solo projects.

And even though the ensemble classes had met only two or three times, Hendryx wasn't shy about pushing them to excel. Literally.

As Dave Weigert's pop ensemble started John Mayer's "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" a second time, Hendryx could see that singers Will Wetzer and Renee Orshan hadn't quite internalized her feedback on how to present this song, about a spurned suitor demanding answers. They weren't going far enough.

So Hendryx got on the Berk Recital Hall stage and crossed Wetzer's arms for him. She pushed the singers together and made them slow-dance. She even stood in Wetzer's place and ad libbed seductively to develop the mood: "'Sup. I dated you for at least a year. And you're gonna tell me that it's over?" Orshan reacted spontaneously by turning away. The audience roared.

It proved Hendryx's main point: Performers need to build a relationship on stage and convey that to the audience. "It sells the story," she told Orshan.

Alain Mallet's Music of Paul Simon and Sting ensemble got the same close treatment. The three singers sounded great—but didn't really interact with each other. Finally, Hendryx guided the singers to stand close together and had them jam without lyrics. Looking at each other, the singers connected, and the music took off.

Instrumentalists weren't safe from the long arm of the law: After urging a bass player who hid behind the piano to reveal herself, Hendryx finally took her music stand and dragged it forward.

"Loitering on stage is not allowed. You get arrested for that. I mean you don't get booked again," she said.

The advice couldn't have been more practical, reflecting her five-decade career. "This thing should get out of the way," Hendryx said, pointing to the mic stand, or "all your photos will end up with a pole in your face."

She learned the basics from touring in the '60s with greats like James Brown and Jackie Wilson, she said in response to an audience question. "If you were going onto stage with James Brown you had to perform."

Hendryx was respectful and constructive, but she didn't pull punches. "Go out there and get somebody's heart and take it home with you. I mean, what are you doing on stage?" she asked Marcella Camargo Silva. When backup vocalist Tevin Brown hesitated to take a verse, Hendryx challenged him: "You're in show business. The lead singer doesn't show up and you are it."

From the performers' side, it must have taken serious guts. "I'm going to be hard on you because I wouldn't be fair if I weren't," she told Wetzer.

But Wetzer wasn't embarrassed, even when trying out new stage moves. In fact, he was invigorated. "I thought it was freakin' great," he said afterwards, adding that it's always been an uphill battle for him to put a song across. "I was like, bring it on."

Mallet, too, thought it was "fabulous." No matter how good you sound, "If you're not engaging people you might as well be in your living room." And Hendryx herself, well, "She's got the goods."

That became crystal clear even in the recital hall when Hendryx took the mic, backed by some of the Sting/Simon ensemble plus students she would perform with the next day at the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival. She sang, "Let's Give Love a Try," got into the groove, looked at her keyboard player and backup singers, and strolled into the audience to sing directly to a man on the aisle. As she finished the last line of the verse, she flicked his long braid and walked back on stage.

It was just a prelude to her performance the next day at BeanTown, when she danced with her backup singers—faculty members Gabrielle Goodman and Annette Philip '10, and students Vaughnette Bigford and David Michael Wyatt—flirted with the instrumentalists, and picked an audience member to chant "voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir" along with her biggest hit, "Lady Marmalade." When she teased him about the line, it brought the house down.

So you'd never think that Hendryx had once been a stage wallflower herself. "Oh yeah! I was shy," she said after the clinic. With Labelle, "I could hide in the group and when the group split up, even with what I'd learned. . . my manager had to tell me 'You can't hide behind the drums.'"

With her own progression in mind, "It was great to be able to pass on information and experience that I've learned and had, because my feeling and my philosophy is that I can't take it with me," she said—helping hesitant students find their own way to become stage knockouts.