Theatre as Protest Alive and Well

There’s an interesting and provocative blog post up over at Belt Up Theatre that prompted me to join in.  The tenor of their argument is that if government funding for the arts, arts education and arts training generally dries up, then the arts will dry up.

While I agree with their assertion that artists will find it harder to make a living, and audiences will be harder to attract if the government (aka society itself) refuses to contribute to the very real financial costs of creating and presenting theatre, I can’t agree that theatre will die out.  There have been harder periods for creative artists throughout humanity’s evolution, and still live performance continues to exist, mostly to entertain but frequently to provoke and challenge the powers-that-be.

Much as I value training in the arts, especially as my livelihood depends upon it, I am also aware that actors in particular will keep on acting, creating new performances and sharing them with audiences whether they get paid or not.  Think of the so-called ‘dark ages’, when theatre was totally banned across Europe. Did this mean that there were no performances? I’m not sure of the numbers, but I believe it lasted for around 1000 years, and at the end of it there were still jugglers, singers, dancers, musicians, AND actors available, and skilled up ready to carry on, but this time legally.

Closer to home (chronologically speaking), it is sad but true that some of the most exciting, vivid and effective theatre-making happened in Eastern Europe during their ‘dark ages’ under repressive communistic regimes. Theatre makers don’t give up, they just become more and more ingenious and inventive.  I remember a production of “Lord of the Flies” by the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg which I found, from my Australian/UK cultural background to be quite weirdly literal, was considered by its funding body (the communist government) to be a safe adaptation of a world classic, while its audiences read it as a refreshing indictment upon the politbureau.

Of course we must lobby for decent and adequate funding of the arts, especially for arts education if we want to live in a thoughtful, well-informed society.  One of the ways to do this is to keep on creating theatre that challenges the status quo and the assumptions of the ill-informed that the arts are irrelevant to daily life, and to a healthy society.



Well, it seems to be sorted, with fingers crossed, touching wood and breathing out – often.

I’ve just put up a whole load of links to voicey websites – all in the States, but I’ll suss out a few around Australia for you as well. There are good people out there! (As well as in here 🙂

The discussion is back on track, re my post on “A Breath of Fresh Air”. Wonder if I can provide a link to it in this post, to save you scrolling down to look for it…

Try  THIS.

Let me know how it goes.  I think we also have the email notification system back on track as well.

Still breathing…

I am so sorry that we lost two valuable comments on the discussion on breath training. Nancy Kreb and Deborah Kinghorn both had something to say on the merits of Lessac Training. [ED: NANCY’S COMMENT HAS BEEN RECOVERED, YOU CAN SEE IT HERE]

A colleague also sent me a link to Jeanette LoVetri’s blog, on the subject of Somatic Voicework, the method she advocates. Check it out here.



A Breath of Fresh Air

For many years, I have been troubled by the attention given in voice coaching to working on breathing. I know it has to happen, but there is always something about the way it is approached that seems to me to be counter-productive.

My early years were spent learning ‘rib-reserve’, whereby we expanded and lifted the rib-cage while lowering the diaphragm, and then attempted to keep the rib-cage up and out as we hummed, or ah-ed, or counted to 500 (ok, I’m exaggerating slightly), or spoke ten lines of Shakespeare on one breath.  The result was the kind of performance that gave acting a bad name during the 20th century, all frozen from the chest down.

That system fell into disrepute, and was replaced by ‘belly breathing’, where we all tried to puff out our bellies with the incoming breath, ignoring our ribs entirely.  This allows more freedom of movement.  Trouble is it takes ages to get people to let go of the impulse to put such a huge effort into taking that in-breath that their upper chest and shoulders do all the work, making it hard for the diaphragm to do any supporting at all!  Another problem is when people just push out their bellies, using their external abs while constricting the internal core muscles.

This method has now been replaced by a focus on expansion of the lungs within a relaxed torso, aiming for a sustained engagement of the transversus abdominus that support the diaphragm and facilitates a consistent supply of air to the vocal folds. Nice work, if you can get it.

Part of the problem is the language that is used to describe the behaviour of the various sets of muscles.  For example, in looking for a website to link to for ‘diaphragm’, the first one I found described the diaphragm as “pushing” the air out on exhalation. The second – the one I have linked to – refers to the air being “forced” out. These are medical encyclopaedias!  They should know better…  because the air is neither pushed, nor forced out – or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Breathing is an autonomous function of the body. Air comes in, the body takes what it needs and (roughly speaking) converts what’s left into carbon dioxide and that is allowed to leave. In the normal course of our lives, we know perfectly well how to breathe. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. I have checked this Wikipedia entry, and it’s pretty scientifically spot on.

However, as soon as we start trying to consciously control our breathing, we run into problems. We do all sorts of weird things quite unconsciously, trying to control the air flow by tensing our jaw, or throat, as if we could manipulate air that way! Or we push the air out in a rush, attacking the vocal folds on the way and giving ourselves vocal strain.

I take the view that we breathe for two reasons: 1) to stay alive and 2) to express ourselves vocally and to communicate with each other. The staying alive part is taken care of by our very clever bodies, that know perfectly well how to do breathing without any help from us thank you very much.  In the normal course of our lives, the speaking part is also taken care of by our clever bodies, which know that air needs to be within the lungs so that it can come out and interfere with our vocal cords, thus setting sound waves in motion. As soon as we have the urge to speak, or yell, or cry, or laugh, our bodies ensure that there is air inside already set up and away we go!

So – here’s my suggestion.  Let’s stop doing breath control, or breathing training, or any form of breathing exercises.  Instead, let’s work on our voices, and creating healthy sounds, with the understanding that if we leave our bodies alone to get the breath into our bodies, we can train ourselves to have better and more sustainable air supply to the vocal cords (or folds) by demanding more sustained thoughts, and needs and desires for expression. The body will always try to give us what we are asking for, but it must be allowed to do it in its own way. The more demanding we are of ourselves, in the sense of having more intense, passionate, intellectually stimulated thoughts to express (whether in the form of a hum, or a sigh, or clearly articulated language), the harder the body will work to supply those thoughts, and this workout will result in stronger, more powerful muscles that are actually and appropriately involved in providing the necessary air flow.

Fitzmaurice Voicework goes some way towards addressing this with the Destructuring program, but still with the focus on conscious awareness of the breathing process. I’d like to take it even further, destructuring (in a sense) but while focusing upon the vocal sound, and the physical sensations in the body that occur during the eventuation of the sound.

I’d love to hear what you think?  Please leave your comments below.


A Conundrum

Now here’s the thing.  I am a freelance voice and acting coach (among other things). That means I work for myself, making up my timetable to fit around my students’ busy timetables, fitting in rehearsals for whatever play I happen to be working on, or film shoot, or meetings with colleagues, and trying to find time to finish writing my thesis.

When I first started teaching privately, I discovered this interesting phenomenon: sometimes, people will contact me to book a lesson, and then fail to turn up, or to let me know that they have changed their minds.  I understand. Especially when it is voice training, people are nervous, not sure that they really need it, afraid of sounding silly, and so they dip out at the last moment. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I am not prepared to ask people to pay in advance for something when they don’t know if they really want it, until they have at least tried it once.

Eventually, I took the advice of more experienced colleagues, and began to insist upon payment in advance, after the first session.  This has served me very well ever since.  If there is always at least one session paid for in advance, and the agreement that we give each other a minimum of 24 hours notice of cancellation or postponement, then I am never left sitting, waiting, having prepared the lesson, without any recompense for my time and energy. And believe me, it takes an awful lot of energy to wait. I don’t take easily to doing nothing.  If the student foregoes that session, at least it was paid for.  Likewise, if I have to cancel with less than 24 hours notice, I owe the student that session.

This has the effect of totally eradicating those occasions when a student might wake up in the morning feeling a bit sniffley, and think they can just not bother turning up for a lesson. It also seems to sort out those who are serious about their training, and therefore value it – not just in financial terms, but also in terms of time and energy expended.

Sadly, it still doesn’t solve the problem of the occasional no show for the first session. Any suggestions?