I Talk of Dreams

R&J dancing

Michael Croome (Romeo) and Flloyd Kennedy (Juliet) rehearsing for Full Circle Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s “A Tender Thing”

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”, says Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  I have a good friend, a very experienced Shakespearean actor, who would happily change that to “made of”, claiming that otherwise nobody understands what it means. I disagree, for more reasons than I care to enumerate.  But I will say this, we ARE such stuff as dreams are made on, we have imaginations, we thrive on metaphors and fables, fiction and mystery.

We constantly adjust the way we use words; we invent new words and new ways of using old words.  We hear someone speaking words we’ve never heard before, and we figure out for ourselves what they might mean long before it occurs to ask us to ask for clarification. Of course, this often leads to misunderstandings. It’s why two people sitting in an audience will come away with very different ideas about what a particular performance might be about.

This brings me back to Shakespeare.  There is a very good reason why many, many people believe that his language is obscure, obtuse and difficult.  It’s because their experience of Shakespeare is that of hearing it spoken in a manner that is obscure, obtuse and difficult.  Those of us who have a different experience of Shakespeare can argue till we are blue in our faces that it isn’t Shakespeare that’s the problem, but until you hear his language spoken by someone who actually knows what they are doing with it, you probably won’t believe us.

So what is that “knowing what you are doing” when it comes to performing Shakespeare? What is the secret, the mystical truth that will blow it apart and make it accessible?  I can tell you this for nothing: it’s not about leaping about the stage (or screen), creating astonishing visual images with the actors’ bodies, or with outrageously expensive sets and costumes – although I don’t mind if you do that too. But that will not make the text any more easy to understand, although it might keep the audience entertained while the text rumbles incomprehensibly on.R&J 02 (1 of 1)

No, the answer is a lot cheaper than that.  It lies within the actors’ gift. The actors’ task is take the time and trouble to understand exactly what they are saying – not ‘sort of’, or ‘kind of’, or even ‘understand the gist of’ what they are saying, but specifically and precisely KNOW why they choose those exact words to express themselves in that situation at that moment.  In other words, Shakespearean language functions the same way that any language functions. It exists as a means of self expression for the person speaking it.

In Full Circle Theatre’s forthcoming production of “A Tender Thing” (a reworking, an adapted version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”), I play Juliet, a woman in her 70s, in the year 2013, who is married to her childhood sweetheart who happens to be called Romeo. I have the fabulous task, as Juliet, of telling my Romeo the story of Queen Mab, who gallops through the night, through people’s brains, causing them to have dreams and – more often than not – nightmares. Romeo is not in a good mood, and he asks me to give him “Peace!  Thou talkst of nothing.”  (So he uses the old way of speaking to a loved one, saying “thou” instead of “you”, and “talkst” instead of “talk”.  Not much translation needed there.)

As Juliet, I respond with the words: “True!  I talk of dreams”.  How long did it take you to make the connection between his “nothing” and my “dreams”?  What precisely am I saying? That dreams are the same as nothing, they are not real, they do not exist.  Did you think there must be more to it than that?  Did you, just for a moment, assume that it had to be more than that, because Shakespeare Is Difficult?  Believe me, he ain’t.  But as long as people believe he is, he will be. It’s a bit like that voice exercise, the lip trill.  Keep on saying you can’t do it, and you never will do it. IMG_2429

So here’s my challenge.  Come along to the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, sometime between 9th and 18th May, and catch a performance of this production. Stick around afterwords and bail me up when I come out of the dressing room, and tell me whether or not you found the language difficult to understand.  Call me an optimist, but I like to think you’ll understand exactly why, and how, by the end of the play, “our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

I’ve also written about this production at Thunder’s Mouth Theatre, and you can keep up to date with production details at Full Circle Theatre’s Facebook Page.

Speaking of Facebook, did you think of clicking Like on the Being in Voice Facebook Page?  That way, you’ll always hear about the latest blog posts, and about classes and workshops – not to mention the soon to be released iPhone App!Default

 

Did My Heart Love Till Now?

My students hear those words a lot these days, whenever I need to demonstrate a particular teaching point that involves placing my voice at the disposal of sounds that combine to make words that combine to make phrases, sentences – in other words, text.

It makes a change from “the quality of mercy…” which is usually the first text that comes to mind when I am teaching – “to be, or not to be” is usually the second. There are many reasons why I choose these texts, not least being because I am so unlikely to ever be cast as Portia or Hamlet, so it’s an opportunity for me to play with these words.

A Tender Thing

A Tender Thing

You’d be forgiven for assuming that I’d never be cast as Juliet either, but here’s the thing. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned playwright Ben Power to create a new version of the star-crossed lovers, an elderly couple who also happen to be called Romeo and Juliet, who speak with the language of Shakespeare as they approach the end of their lives. Full Circle Theatre, a company new to Brisbane, presents “A Tender Thing” at the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, from 9 to 18 May, and I’m playing Juliet. Linda Davey is the director, and Romeo is played by Michael Croome. Lighting design is by Matilda nominee Daniel Anderson, set design by Freddie Kompt.

“Forswear it, sight!”

This is a beautiful play.  It is also a challenging piece, demanding every bit of vocal, physical and emotion power I can find, intellectually stimulating and deeply satisfying to my soul.  I am terrified, excited and thrilled to be involved – all at the same time.

I hope you will come to see it in May. We have a relatively short run, just a week and a half, and we are so looking forward to sharing it with you.  Please spread the word. Booking are now open at the Powerhouse.

“For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”

 

Accent on Voice

Accents are often the first thing on the minds of young actors, and there’s no doubt being able to speak with different accents is a useful skill.  This article  came to me from my dear friend and colleague, Amy Stoller, one of New York’s top accent coaches. The author shares his experience of discovering that his Pakistani accent had modified itself quite unbeknownst to him, as he lived for years in the States, and how he realises now how much cultural, social and even political baggage  – if not downright prejudice – is attached to the way people pronounce their words.

Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.

Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.

My own experience confirms this, albeit in a pretty mild way, compared to the challenges faced by people from different language groups and different ethnic groups from the mainstream.  While living in Scotland I found I had to modify my accent if I wanted to be understood clearly, and immediately.  Without that rolling Scots ‘r’ in the middle of words (like the word “words”), the local populace found it hard to tune in to what I was trying to communicate. It didn’t take a lot of effort, just a tilt of the tongue in the general direction of an ‘r’ was sufficient for general comprehension. But of course, if you move your tongue to a different position in a word, the surrounding sounds cannot help but be affected as well.

And so it was, that I returned to Australia some years ago to find myself accused of being Scottish.  No Scot would ever have thought so!  I’ve modified myself back to regular Aussie, but still people often assume I am from the UK.  Why should that be?

My own theory is that because I speak clearly, and because my voice has a pretty good range of colours and inflections, I sound somehow “posh”.  This is in spite of the fact that many upper class English folk mumble, speak on a narrow range, and certainly speak much more quickly than I do.  But, as Omar Akhtar says in his article, “Basically, if you sound non-native, you’re screwed.”

Actors need to be able to “do accents” so that they can play a very wide range of roles. Here in Australia, it’s important for a jobbing actor to have a great General American accent, because the paid work lies in the film and tv productions being filmed here by US companies.

What I want to emphasize here is that if you don’t have a good grounding in basic voice work, if you don’t have a well placed, well supported, well-varied, open and flexible voice to begin with, it will be harder for you to create those unaccustomed sounds of different accents with ease. And if you can’t do it with ease, it will always sound ‘tacked on’.

Voice and speech are inseparable. But they are not the same thing. Voice carries the speech, it fills the speech, it gives the words and phrases of speech body, life and soul.  Work on your voice first, and the speech work will fall into place.  Of course, you have to work on the speech part – nothing good comes from nothing!

Do you have an accent?  Is it the same as those around you, or different?  What is your experience of being judged by your accent?  Share your story in the comments below.

 

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Golden Rules

Do you ever wonder if people really understand what you are saying?  Do they seem to misinterpret your words, or accuse you of being unclear? Often our friends will try to be helpful and tell us we are sending out the “wrong” signals. But are they right?  Or does that say more about their own insecurities? After all, we are inclined to criticise others on the basis of faults we perceive in ourselves – because that is what we know something about. Indeed, we are experts in our own imperfections.

Here in Australia, I think we have an overly judgemental culture. It’s easy to comment on the mistakes others make, and to criticise failings in each other.  This then requires us to get in first, and criticise ourselves, apologising and offering up excuses and reasons for why we aren’t perfect. Some of us do an awful lot of apologising, don’t you think? Or do you think we don’t apologize enough?

Voice is a physical, material substance created deep within the human body, and then released to the outside world. Any comments or observations made about the way we sound has a profound effect upon us, and we tend to take them negatively, whether intended that way or not. But we have no control over what other people think or say, and we certainly have no way of getting inside their heads to know exactly what they are thinking, any more than they can get inside ours.

So I have come up with some Golden Rules for people undertaking voice training. These are rules to help us find, and take control of our own actions and behaviours, providing us with a safe environment to be adventurous within:

Timeout - Wynnum, Qld. 21 Jan 2013

Timeout – Wynnum, Qld. 21 Jan 2013

  1. Convert the judge in your head into a very clear, accurate observer.
  2. Be self aware, rather than self conscious. Notice when you are self conscious, and convert it into self awareness. In other words, when you catch yourself thinking about how you look or sound, from the outside, turn your thoughts to noticing and observing what your body is doing, and how it feels from the inside (physical sensations).
  3. In class, in training situations, try to avoid making jokey remarks about yourself or your colleagues. Observations which are factual are fine.  This doesn’t mean we can’t laugh, o
    r enjoy ourselves. On the contrary, we can relax and enjoy ourselves more if we are not expecting, or handing out judgemental comments, even in jest.
  4. In the class, never apologise, explain, rationalise, excuse. Instead, observe. Whatever you observe, “that’s interesting!”
  5. Whenever you catch your thoughts wandering, or realise you have the impulse to make a joke or a comment, congratulate yourself on the observation and notice that it is a
    n interesting observation and move on.  That is being present.

This might seem like a complicated approach to voice training, but I find that a little bit of practice in following these rules goes a very long way towards helping people to be more relaxed and comfortable about exploring their sound, and adjusting their vocal behaviours. They still feel vulnerable, but they have the tools and techniques to deal with that feeling and work with it creatively.

Do you have rules, or guidelines that you have found helpful for your training?