Sitting indian-style on stage with the rest of her cast, Haylie Kinsler, a second-year acting major at Suffolk County Community College, awaited the arrival of her idol on Tuesday.
Moments later, Tony-award winning actor Ben Vereen, who played Claude in the original Broadway run of “Hair” in 1968, walked on stage, welcomed with a roar of applause.
One by one, Vereen looked into the eyes of each cast member of the college’s upcoming production of “Hair,” a musical about teenagers searching for truth, peace and love in a Vietnam-era America, before breaking the silence and asking his first question.
“Why are you here?” he asked 25 drama students on stage during the first of two master acting classes he gave at Shea Theater at the college’s Ammerman Campus in Selden.
Cast as Sheila in the production, Kinsler raised her hand and answered.
“This show inspires me in a way that I can’t put into words,” said Kinsler, 19, of Shoreham. “To be a part of a show like this is important to me. It’s helped guide me.”
Vereen, 67, said he was delighted to give back to young, talented actors in any way he could.
“I’m here to help bring out their convictions and explore their inner beings to express themselves,” he said. “By the end of this, I want them to identify with where they live inside their characters. If they’re honest with their parts the vibrations will be felt.”
Steve Lantz-Gefroh, director of the college’s production of “Hair,” said their adaptation of the musical is darker than the original and filled with songs of a lost generation.
“It’s great experience for students to get feedback from him,” he said. “He wanted to give back to the business that’s given him so much and this is the best thing he could do.”
Mark Maurice, who will be playing Claude in the college’s production of “Hair,” valued the personal advice given to him since he was playing the part Vereen had once mastered.
“He’s given me insight into my character you can’t get from someone else,” said Maurice, 19, of North Babylon. “It’ll help me grow as an actor. The way he takes his character and runs with it. Your eyes never leave him from the moment he steps onto the stage to the moment he steps off. It’s surreal to have him right here in front of us.”
Maurice, who also played the lead role in North Babylon High School’s production of “Pippin,” was inspired by Vereen’s performance of Pippin, which earned him a Tony Award in 1973.
Vereen used the first day to not only tap into the students’ emotions to strengthen their acting, but also worked with them on choreography, intensifying further creative decisions.
Copiague’s Oya Bangura, who in April won the top prize in the Irene Ryan National Acting Scholarship competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival finals in Washington, D.C., returned after graduating last semester to choreograph “Hair.”
“He’s taking a look at what we’ve worked on already, including dances, monologues, directing and choreographing and reworking it,” said Bangura, 39. “I’ve paid upwards of $800 for acting workshop classes; these students are getting it for free.”
“Hair” will be showing at the theater Nov. 20-24, 29, 30 at 8 p.m., and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.