Voice work and Drama School: the case for training.
The debate still goes on today whether or not actors really need to go to drama school to be good at what they do, or if it’s just a waste of precious time and money. Even though I am decidedly on the pro-school side of the question, I will be among the first to admit that Hollywood, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and yes, even London is still crawling with leading actors who didn’t go to drama school, whose talent comes from on high and may only have been spoiled by all that theory and conditioning. These fortunate ones may argue strongly against formal training, claiming that common sense and hard knocks will teach you most of what you need to know. Does school teach confidence? Charm? Charisma? Or how to have the right ‘look’ for the part? Or (perhaps most importantly) how to be in the right pace at the right time for the all important “big break”? Being a successful actor requires some combination of all these, together with a good deal of persistence in case these don’t all come together when you are first starting out. While some of these traits may be enhanced through theatre training, some natural aptitude is often needed. But I hope I’m not stepping on too many toes if I make a distinction between the actor that is ‘successful’ and the actor that is ‘good’. Every successful actor wants to be ‘good’ and every ‘good’ actor wants to be successful, but they are not always in agreement on where they fit in this spectrum. Since there’s no way to cross this bridge without taking stock of what you feel you need most, training starts to become the tool by which one can start to understand their abilities and take control of their career. In the better drama schools, voice and speech training tends to be an primary component of the curriculum. For actors who don’t attend school, but get their education more piecemeal, this aspect is often lacking or absent altogether since voice and speech doesn’t often relate directly to a performance result. Also, it generally takes at least a year or 2 of consistent voice work for visible results to manifest in the actors’ performance. Enter now, the pro-school argument: when I was in drama school it was my voice teacher who taught me that there are 3 principles about voice training that both acting students and teachers would do well to remember. They are:
1) Voice training will not make you a better actor,
2) Voice training will help you become more Present,
3) Presence is the key to Great Acting.
I believe that this notion of Presence is one of the most essential and frequently misunderstood qualities in a performing artist. In my definition, this idea of Presence with a capital ‘P’ is not an ephemeral, spiritual notion referring to a person’s aura or unseen qualities being sensed. Nor is it just about the ‘fact of being’ somewhere, physically. Presence is the ‘ACT of being’.
To be truly engaged, with mind and body, in the experience of being in whatever situation you’re in. It seems simple but it’s not as easy as it may seem. Aren’t we always ‘present’ wherever we happen to be? In a purely physical sense, perhaps we are. Although quantum physics may negotiate the absoluteness of this rough, empirical statement, most of us would agree that because we cannot be in two places at once, we must always be in once place or another. But unlike many animal species, humans have the distinct ability (or perhaps the luxury) of being alive and awake but also mostly unaware of what’s going on inside us and around us. We take a morning shower and think of what we want to eat. We eat our breakfast while dreading our morning commute. We sit on the subway and rehearse our arrival at work and all day long, we dream about what we will do when we can finally go home. Of course in some ways this feels very practical, always thinking ahead, anticipating rather than reacting to what life throws at us. But we are equally good (if not better) at living in the past. Reminiscing with friends, regretting our mistakes, and yearning for a lost or misspent youth are favourite pastimes of our brains. All of these: our obsession with the past and our dread of the future challenge our whole sense of being alive and responsive to the moment we are actually in.
Actors have an especially hard time with this. Not only are they being watched by critical or curious onlookers whenever they ply their
trade, they also want to at least appear to be alive and responsive in the moment as their character. But they still have to remember their text, the character choices they made, the director’s notes, where their marks are, where the camera (or audience) is and how to not look directly at them. None of these things are true for the character they are portraying, so they are all challenges to the actors’ valiant attempts to be Present and (lets face it) at least somewhat watchable.
Kristin Linklater asserts in her book on voice training that “the first step toward freeing the natural voice is to develop an ability to perceive habits and register new experiences”. This quality of perception is what tunes the mind/body of the artist to felt experience. This is the first real objective of the exercises used in the Linklater technique; connecting the action of breathing and speaking to the sensation of emotion as the voice responds to real stimuli. That stimuli may arise from the dramatic action of the scene as the actor attempts to allow themselves to be affected by what’s happening to their character. If the average person has to use their imagination to escape the humdrum, predictable reality of their lives, the actor has to use their imagination to attempt to fully experience this reality as if their circumstances were radically different. As if they didn’t know what the other actor would say next, or how the scene would end, or who was just about to walk in.
A lot of people like to throw around this platitude about ‘living in the moment’ as if we could just forget our past and let go of our hopes for the future by ‘living’ now. I’m not even sure these would be good things to do. The past is a very good teacher, most of us don’t possess the innate knowledge to navigate even a detour en route to work if we could not use our recollection of the past. Our hopes for the future are just as valuable since they give us the motivation to keep trying and innovating, developing new skills in order to improve our outcomes. Acting teachers call this: having an ‘objective’ or a ‘want’ that keeps the character engaged in the story of the play. And yet, the constant obsession with the almighty Objective can also play havoc with the actor if they are not constantly open to changes in the situation. If a characters’ objective is “to impress” their scene partner, but on this occasion the other actor bursts out laughing at them in unrehearsed mockery, the failure to achieve this goal becomes the most obvious fact for the audience, and for them the character’s response to this stimuli must follow from what is happening and not what the actor knows was ‘supposed’ to happen. Perhaps the best way to summarize this is to say that when we are actively engaged in transforming an expectation into a fresh discovery through the possibilities of the immediate moment, we are Present. Here the quantum physics can come back as the Present actor combines the past and future together with the immediate experience of the moment to breathe life into the dramatic action of the scene.
Now to my original question: How does Voice training improve an actor’s Presence and make them better? The first thing to know is that the notion of voice work being mainly about the enunciation and projection the stage actors need to shout to the back of the theatre without amplification and to recite long passages of text on a single breath, is a good half-century out of date. The muscularity of breathing and projecting one’s voice is still useful but more as a by-product of consistent and regular practice. The true objective of working on the voice is to reconnect the thinking and feeling parts of the body, to reveal the inner life of the character through the clear and truthful expression of somatic experience. How did these ever become disconnected? My guess is that it happened in the same way we learned to ignore most of what’s going on around us to focus on a single specialized task or to escape the boredom of repetition in modern life. Inevitably, we have to recognize that the expectations and rigour of modern life have drained us of our capacity to be Present. And we have created a good many habits and tensions to survive the pressures we may feel. Moments of great event and import often push us to a level of base survival. We hold our breath and push through it, anticipating a future moment of freedom and ease. But of course these are the moments that we call Drama and we love to see or experience through others. These moments are difficult, no less so for actors, they are still human after all, yet they are the very ones we spend so much time orchestrating when we create and re-create drama on the stage and screen. Legendary Japanese theatre maker Tadeshi Suzuki writes that we must “Go toward the difficulty to find freedom.” Through the act of searching for and experimenting with ways to address these moments, actors must develop a sensitivity and attention that draws them into a state of Presence. They must find their freedom in the difficulty.
This quality of Presence is also effected by driving force of the performers’ creative imagination, something Linklater calls “the causal conductor of the actors’ quartet”. There is a connection between voice and imagination in acting training. Voice work helps actors develop their innate curiosity, transcend self-imposed limits and make more compelling choices in rehearsal and performance. They learn to engage with their work in a way that excites them personally. The words of their text often take on a new and deeper level of meaning when brought to life by an imagination that is actively involved in their discovery. Freeing the imagination supports the freedom of the voice. This is a crucial quality that can help an actor transform the speaking of text into an experience which takes us out of our present reality into that singular and essential moment when the atmosphere is changed and a new reality is born.
All of this is easier said than done. But once accepted, the path begins to become clearer. Freeing the breath releases the tension and the inhibition of the experience. Allowing the breath to flow allows the body and the imagination to respond. And again to paraphrase my own teacher, David Smukler, the true meaning of voice work is found in ‘the response’. But if we cover our heads and grit our teeth through the difficult moments in hopes that we will survive them a little less scarred and a little less sensitive, we are actively denying our Presence. If there were an audience tracking our responses (or if we were even in that audience) we would indeed see that we have committed a cowardly act. We don’t know this in the moment though. Or to be more precise, our bodies know it but our minds have blocked the information from coming to our consciousness. And if Voice training does nothing else, it’s primary objective should be to help reconnect the mind and body experience. Being alive and being aware of life in the same moment is akin to the feeling of being Present. Identifying with this sense of discovery in training helps actors let go of the judgement and self-doubt that often inhibit them in such moments, just as they would anyone. To profoundly accept all of the input available to us, both useful and distracting, and to respond to our experience courageously in the moment is to perform an act of real transformation. Finding freedom through a path of difficulty is not only inspiring, it’s art.
And for those who experience it, they often become addicted to it, with little desire to be re-habituated. Even if you never learn their names, they are often great actors. But not because they have a special gift, reserved for them by a higher power. It’s because they took the time to perceive their difficulty and go toward it. So that one day, while you were in the audience to bear witness, they could share their Presence. And in them you believed, if only for a moment, that somewhere in your own difficulty there was freedom to be found. A discovery made possible because in some form or another, they had voice training.