The Voice, the Whole Voice, and Nothing But the Voice

These days I seem to hear just about everybody in film or TV dramas performing at least 80% of the time “off voice”, speaking in a semi-whisper, or creaking or croaking. I can’t bear it. It’s the fashion, I’m an old fogey, my hearing is Good For My Age, which means not as good as the average 25 year old, so this means most of the time the dialogue is just at the edge of my comprehension. No point turning up the volume. Because the so-called “background” music will just get louder too.. My guess is that the directors think it denotes intensity. They don’t do it in the comedies. Or at least not as much. For me, it denotes meanness, perhaps unintentionally, but a fully voiced sound carries the whole person, generously gifted to the moment, to the scene partners, and to the audience.

Flloyd as June Bloom (Brisbane production)

Flloyd as June Bloom (Brisbane production)

I’m ranting, I know. Lost my patience button. some years ago. But I do think those who make performance, i.e directors, producers as well as all the technicians and performers need to be thoroughly educated in what the voice IS, the huge scope of its potential to create any illusion they want, as long as it is healthy, trained, infused with intelligence and imagination, and respected.

Over many years, I have noticed that a lot of actors go “off voice” as the passions heat up, as if they are afraid to let out the strength of their emotions. It seems to me that often it comes from a subconscious attempt to hold back, a protective device to shield oneself from anticipated criticism. It’s very prevalent here in Australia, understandably so considering the effect of the so-called Tall Poppy Syndrome. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is the requirement, here in Australia, to cut down to size (i.e. lowest common denominator) anyone who aspires to be better, more skillful, more successful, more creative than average. Tall Poppies are people who are assumed to be “up themselves”, to enjoy looking down on lesser mortals. In order to avoid being considered a Tall Poppy, one has to constantly apologise, denigrate oneself and one’s achievements, in a jokey way, of course. Just as the cutting down is always done in a jokey way. But do not be misled. It is not a joke.

Some of my US based colleagues have expressed, in a recent discussion about “off-voice” acting, the view that it results from a lack of focus, or lack of specificity or commitment to the text being expressed. I think this view demonstrates one example of the difference, culturally, between the US and Australia. Of course, it will sometimes be the case that Australian actors will lose focus of the vocal folds as they lose mental focus, but the US has a culture of speaking up for oneself, expressing confidence in one’s abilities and actions without fear of criticism. On the contrary, one is more likely to be criticized, or thought less of, if one fails to communicate the strength of one’s capacity. It’s not about boasting, it’s about honesty.

The fact remains that here in Australia, declaring or revealing awareness of one’s strengths and abilities is, more often than not, assumed to be boasting, derived from arrogance, and arrogance is not to be tolerated.

Tall Poppies only get one chance. Once cut down, they do not get the opportunity to rise again. Failure is celebrated here in the land of Oz. Look at Anzac Day. But I digress…

My new favourite word is respect. Self respect is an honourable state. Knowing who you are means, for me, having a realistic sense of where I’ve come from, how I got here, and what possibilities lie before me for growth and exploration. My voice is the audible reflection of that state. My responsibility as an actor is to gift that state to whatever I am playing. Even if I am playing someone so insecure, so defensive, so shy that in the “real” world she would be inarticulate and barely audible, my job as an actor is to create the illusion that I am those things, but sharing them audible, clearly with my fully-embodied and empowered voice. Long Live The Voice!

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