Ruminating on Rodenburg

Before I head off to the States to attend the VASTA conference, I thought I would re-read Patsy Rodenburg’s book The Actor Speaks, as she will be one of the guest presenters at the conference.

“An unfettered voice, powered by breath and free of tension, is the ideal we strive for from the first day of class” (p5)

Lots to think about, just in that one sentence. The word ‘unfettered’ pings out at me with the image of fetters, or chains, falling away, leaving the voice, finding itself released from the dungeon, rubbing its (metaphorical, of course) wrists and ankles, standing up to stretch itself, feeling all its joints aching as it tries to move for the first time in a long time, blinded by the sunlight as it stumbles into the open, smelling the fresh scent of pine needles, relishing the access to all of its senses, realising just how deprived it has been – not just of movement – but of the sights and sounds and tastes and textures it had been missing.

Just what those fetters were made of, who put them in place and threw away the key, is still open to debate.  There is general agreement (I believe) that society, culture and family expectations impact upon growing babies/children, who learn to hold back emotions, to frame their utterances and to interact with others in accordance with accepted behaviours, and they (we) do that by unconsciously developing habitual physical tensions in the body. These physical tensions are what the voice gurus, Rodenburg included, would have us ‘unlearn’.

To be “free of tension” sounds like a wonderful thing. It can also sound quite threatening, especially to anyone who understands that it means changing the habits of a lifetime, habits which feel suspiciously like ‘who, and what I am’.  It certainly doesn’t mean letting go of every muscle in the body so that you look and feel like a bundle of rags lying on the floor. So let me be clear: aim, or strive to be free from unnecessary tension in the body, or even more precisely, as free as one can be from specific physical tensions which are inappropriate or unnecessary at any given moment.  Rodenburg’s exercises

These exercises, or others like them, such as those of Linklater, Fitzmaurice, Berry or Lessac, will help you do that. They won’t help you if you don’t know why.  Ignorance is another form of tension.  They won’t change you into someone you are not. Being aware of the actual tensions in your body, and being able to release those tensions at will enables you to change your behaviour patterns, and hence to undertake behaviours which are not your norm, but which are the norms of the various characters you are called upon to play.

That the voice is “powered by breath” is undeniably true. No Breath = No Voice.  I would go further, not because I know more about the anatomy and the science than Rodenburg does – I don’t – but I believe if we think of the outgoing breath and the voice as being ONE AND THE SAME, rather than one thing powered by another, or created by another, then we have a physical sensation integral to an image/understanding of the voice as being the power and the thing itself. Does that make sense?  I’m thinking on the hop here, listening to Jeff Buckley singing “Lilac Wine” as I write.

Think about it. The voice is a matter of sound waves, sound waves are impulses propelling air molecules through space. Jeff Buckley’s pure sound is indistinguishable from the breath coming from his body. If I hear breath as well as vocal sound I hear something not quite as ‘true’, and certainly not as healthy for the long term life of the voice. Oh, so sad, if only he had waited…

But I digress.

“An unfettered voice, powered by breath and free of tension, is the ideal we trive for from the first day of class”.

Yes, the really important thing to understand is that we continue to strive for that ideal. Achieving it is not the point, as long as we strive.

And that reminds me, bookings are open for Term 3 of The Acting Class. See you there!

Voice and Character

One of the most common questions I am asked is “how do I find my Character’s voice”, to which I usually reply, find the physicality of the character, and the voice happens.

One thing is for sure, if you try to invent a voice, all you will end up with is an invented voice.  Your audience will probably think you are very clever at ‘doing voices’, but if so, it means they have been distracted from the content of your performance by the ‘voice’.

Recently, I saw a production which I found interesting, engaging and intriguing, for many reasons. It was a well-crafted script, by a new young writer. The subject matter was meant to be ‘provocative’ – the publicity implied that it was intended to be immediately understood by YOUNG people, and hence challenging to older people.  As one of those older people, the only challenge I felt was to recall my own youth, because it was very similar to the experience being enacted on stage. Yes, folks, when I was 25 I was confused, I was lost, I went through identity crises, I couldn’t connect with other people, or life in general. So what’s new? hmmm let me think. Maybe iPhones are new. But as for people, life, love, bad decisions and loss of dignity, no, nothing new there.

The performances were, on the whole, excellent. There was that rare occurrence at the very beginning, when the lights went up and the characters on stage began to interact, of a frisson of excitement as I realised that they were already characters, rather than actors on stage. I like that.

However, there was something strange going on with two of the performances. They were both very clear, intelligent, and emotionally honest, but I still couldn’t forget, even for a second, that they were acting. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve decided that the problem lay in the voices, that is, the voices of the characters. They didn’t reflect the physicality of the characters, they didn’t RESONATE with the actual physicality of the actors/characters. The body said one thing, the voice said another. What I saw were actors committing to the physical status, health and well-being of the characters, while still sounding with ‘acting’ voices. Go figure.

Voice is Physical

I’ve been having a lot of really challenging, and incredibly productive discussions lately with friends and colleagues, about what the voice is, how it is, why it is, and how I work with it, both as a teacher and as a performer.

In this little clip of students playing with ‘material essences’ they are exploring different movement qualities, the experience of moving in unaccustomed ways, and the effect that the physical movement qualities have on the voice itself, as it speaks.

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