The Actor Speaks
Voice and the Performer
By Patsy Rodenburg
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Patsy Rodenburg
All rights reserved.
THE ACTOR FIRST SPEAKS
Grey September. I walk into a room at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama to meet twenty-four new and nervous students. They have all been through a gruelling audition process but this morning is the real beginning: their first steps towards becoming professional actors. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and from around the world. They are all different shapes, sizes and temperaments. But they each share something in common – they all want to be actors. Most have no real idea what that means yet. Each one has talent. Everyone is brimming with energy and passion. But what they all need is technique and the essential tools to develop a voice that is genuinely their own. So we begin to work on how the actor speaks.
I look around the room. I remember each person from his or her audition. Some can speak fluently, others can barely get out a sentence without feeling self-conscious. Some are extremely literate and may have been to university, while others cannot read well at all and have chosen drama school over college. Some have naturally good voices, others will have to labour incessantly to give themselves a vocal chance. After just a few sessions some will quickly pick up the work we'll do, others will take years to know and appreciate the importance of the exercises we will do together.
Year after year I have begun this same process with other groups of students and later that afternoon, when I go to my other job at the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank, I will continue the same kind of work – on a more advanced level – with professional actors: some just starting out in their careers in small parts and others at the very peak of their achievements in big starring roles. The work with these actors will be different and more concentrated than the work with my Guildhall students. I will be preparing actors at the RNT for specific shows with different vocal demands on the National's three stages. But in many fundamental ways my work with fledgeling students and seasoned professionals will be exactly the same. From the first stage to the last stage of an acting career every performer must go through a vocal process which leads to the same result: learning how to speak on-stage with power, clarity and confidence. For me that is what acting is all about. During the course of a working day I encounter actors at every single stage of their lives and careers. The tentative work I start with on this grey autumn morning with students may culminate later that same evening in some actor's greatest triumph on the stage of the National's Olivier Theatre. Every day I see actors make the full circuit of work we will be talking about in what follows.
At the start of their training few young actors realize how fundamentally important their voices will be for them throughout their careers. For them, acting is just about performing roles in plays. They have yet to think of their bodies and their voices as instruments which they must learn to 'play' properly and pitch in different ways to accommodate different sorts of characters and texts. For them acting is not yet an art, not yet about acquiring the kinds of techniques that will allow you to repeat a performance night after night with truth and authenticity. They have no way yet of knowing the stages to which their journey through the voice will take them.
Proper voice work, or the lack of it, could make or break a performer. It could enable you to act with greater ease or be the source of an endless struggle. After all, if an audience or another actor on-stage can neither hear nor understand you, your work is irrelevant. So the first step in learning to speak, as an actor, should and must involve trust in and commitment to an area of work that ought to form the pattern of your lifetime as a performer.
The Anatomy of the Voice
On the first day I explain to my students how their voices work. Most have no idea about how the voice functions and usually confuse voice work with speech work. Few realize the importance of the body, the breath and the powerful acting impulses that can be released by a free and open voice.
On first encounter it is always hard to understand something so natural and fundamental as breath and voice. We breathe and speak as natural functions. We just do both without thinking. We neither analyse the processes nor feel self-conscious about them. But when we stop to consider the processes in more detail we become usefully conscious of the fact that breath and voice actually power much of our acting system. An unfettered voice, powered by breath and free of tension, is the ideal we strive for from the first day of class.
I begin by going through the anatomy of the voice, identifying the chain of physical relationships which help us produce sound:
Body Voice work makes use of the whole body from head to toe. The way you stand, the angle of your head, the drop of your shoulders, the position of your spine and pelvis all contribute to the production of a strong voice. Speaking and singing are really the end results of a whole series of reflexive physical actions and body placement which you simply must become aware of in order to gain mastery and control over your vocal instrument.
Breath Voice is powered and carried by the breath. Knowing how to breathe and how to adjust our breathing allows us to produce sounds and speech of infinite variety and richness of tone. The most active part of the body as we vocalize is the breath system: the rib cage, diaphragm and the deeper support muscles of the abdomen going down as far as the groin. Literally half your body and a number of organs housed in your torso are utilized to manufacture the breath necessary to produce human sound.
Larynx Vocal sounds are produced when the air from the lungs passes through the larynx, a bony shell-like container located in the throat, which contains the vocal folds or vocal cords. From the larynx the air passes into and through the pharynx, mouth and nose, allowing us to emit a great variety of sounds. Located just behind your Adam's apple, the larynx is the metaphorical 'voice box'. Consciously knowing it is there will help in the work.
Speech Muscles The jaw, mouth, lips, tongue and soft palate all contribute further to turning sound produced by the breath passing through the larynx into articulate speech as the breathing sound is channelled into literally bite-sized units of notes, words and phrases. Proper manipulation or articulation of the speech muscles will, of course, be essential to speaking.
This very brief anatomy of the voice at work is naturally just a sketch of a complex physiological process. But I want you to understand how sound rises up within us literally from the ground level, gaining a rush of energy as it passes up and out into the air.
The Vocal Process
Now let's look more closely at the process as if it were an action inside your body.
The breath powers the voice. You breathe in, gathering strength or inspiration, either through the nose or mouth. Each mode of breathing implies something different. The nasal breath is generally a longer breath, connected to longer thoughts, and is more sustained and relaxed. You often breathe this way when you are thoroughly engrossed in something or simply reflecting. When you breathe in through the mouth the breaths are usually shorter. Generally most of us breathe through the mouth if we are under stress or when our thoughts are shorter and more fragmented. We breathe through the mouth when we are in panic, feeling tension or in flight. This is the kind of breath you gulp when you are gasping for air.
As the breath enters the body and fills the lungs, feeding much needed oxygen into our respiratory system, the rib cage opens all around the centre of the body. This should happen without any force or lift in the shoulders or upper chest.
As the ribs open, the diaphragm – the divide between the lungs and the stomach – moves down. You cannot actually feel the diaphragm. What you can feel are the stomach muscles connected to it. If you are physically 'centred' and 'released' (two terms I will go into at greater length below), you can feel a release of muscles right down into the groin. You can even feel movement in your buttocks. We'll be doing an exercise later in this chapter to demonstrate this effect (see here). The rib cage and abdominal muscles are now open and you begin to feel physically wider as the breath drops in. The abdominal muscles not only expel air, they work to create a column of air that can support the voice as it produces sound. As you breathe out, these muscles move in, regulating the voice in a number of ways. Vocal control starts with these support muscles. Learning to tune them for any vocal challenge is one of the actor's most important tasks.
With each outward breath you ought to become aware of the column of air making its way up through the body. This air should pass, without restrictions in the shoulders and throat (two principal areas of tension and troublesome habits), over the vocal folds or cords making them vibrate to produce sound. A simple hum will quickly demonstrate the process. You are now in the act of voicing rather than just breathing. This same pattern is repeated again and again when you vocalize and speak. When the folds move and change shape or density, getting thicker or thinner like an elastic band, you will be sounding different pitches. This changing pitch is what we call the range of the voice. A critical part of our work, as you can imagine, will focus on ways of extending range to meet different vocal challenges on-stage.
Breath has now made a sound – a single note. The sound travels up and out through the mouth. This note can be further reinforced, extended, resonated or amplified in five main areas of the body: chest, throat, mouth, nose and head. The resonators are what give notes their amplification and tonal quality. They enable the performer to make the vocal music to suit any score or text.
What I have described above is a very simple version of the vocal process, focusing just on the features which I think should most concern the beginner actor.
Voice Work is Craft Work
The first stage of work I do with actors requires very little in the way of inspiration, thought or even language. What it does require is perspiration and plenty of physical endeavour. Our whole first year together is about the foundation of proper technique in different parts of the body. Proper voice work is very physical. It involves the use of the entire body. It is not arduous and athletic like, say, dance training. Yet it does require an awareness of the body and how it aids you in producing an ever expanding range of sound.
So what we begin with is the craft work required to learn a whole new range of skills. This is the apprenticeship phase in the life of the actor. Concentration, repetition and diligence will be required if results of real consequence are to be achieved. This is also the phase in which the first set of hurdles is thrown in front of the beginner actor; the kinds of tests which let you know if you should proceed or if the actor's life is not for you.
This initial craft work, if skilfully achieved and, moreover, retained, will make the later inspiration work of acting more easily achievable and actually release it. If the craft is deeply learned, the voice will respond to any sudden acting challenge like a reflex. What is self-conscious at the beginning of the process will become second nature later on. Repetition of craft through a pattern of carefully linked exercises will enable the work to become embedded and more organic as the challenges of the voice take you deeper inside yourself to meet the oncoming challenges of the actor's art.
My aim in the first year of training is to make the voice so fundamentally a part of the actor's physical being that it actually becomes an extension of both yourself and your talent. A properly rooted and balanced voice is, I believe, fundamental to the process of acting, despite whatever method or school of acting your allied training follows. I remain neutral on that point and assume that the work I do will help any actor in any acting situation from the most traditional to experimental, from the Greeks to Grotowski. I have worked with companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company (where the emphasis is heavily on the classical text) and with Theatre de Complicite (where the work is both physical and improvisatory), and I have never found myself altering the basic means by which I teach and work.
Actors who miss out on the initial craft phase of voice work usually find that consistency in their performances and re-creation of their work from performance to performance is difficult to achieve. They always feel detached from their craft. In the deepest sense they will never really own their voices but always feel alienated from them.
There is tension in the air. As I begin to work with my first-year students I quickly notice that the room is actually filled with it. There is the tense, mental first-day-of-class suspense which naturally comes from taking the initial steps in an unknown process with a group of people you have barely met. Any actor auditioning or attending a first rehearsal knows this feeling too. That kind of tension, not always a bad thing, is part of the competitive atmosphere of an acting class. But there are also powerful waves of physical tension which swell up inside everyone in the room. The kind that is locked inside the body and will prevent the voice from doing its proper work. This sort of tension is more fundamentally insidious and damaging. My students will come to learn that tension is their fundamental foe; it must be brought under control and defeated if the voice is to be liberated. We'll soon get to work on unlocking and releasing that tension through a variety of exercises which will start each working day from here on.
The natural voice, free of constricting tension, will work happily and healthily on its own and grow to meet the demands of new acting challenges. However, most of us carry tensions somewhere inside ourselves and these will constrict the breath and the voice. For an actor the consequences of tension can be dire. You may find that your voice serves neither your imagination nor the text. Tension can also prevent you from getting through a performance. The voice might falter in places, or you might feel that you cannot sustain a long run. So many of the various work-outs and exercises in this book are about relieving tension and isolating it in various parts of the body.
I also begin to notice that a number of students have clear physical habits which, along with tension, can limit, block and suppress the voice from doing its work. As soon as the young actor begins to understand the working of the natural voice he begins to isolate where his own individual habits reside. What I do not classify as debilitating habits are native or regional accents or colloquial speech patterns. Gone, fortunately, are the days when all trained actors were expected to speak with one uniform, impeccable accent. At this first stage of training, however, the habits can often be extreme and are always visible:
Spine either too rigid or slumped.
Jaw tight and clenched.
Breath held too high.
I cannot tell you the number of times I've worked with an ex-student who is still toiling to break a habit first uncovered fifteen years ago. Maybe it is a posture or breathing problem, or just the simple fear of speaking clearly. So you can see how easy it is for habits to plague a performer throughout a career. Letting habits go takes courage and can be uncomfortable, largely because you feel vulnerable without them.
Some actors will willingly address these habits immediately; others will resist, perhaps for years, until a habit worsens and creates a crisis. It must be an individual's choice as to what to do about habits. All of us have habits that affect the voice and unless they are harmful and blocking your way in performance no habit can be judged as wrong. In training, I am never aiming to create homogenous voices which all sound alike and are problem free. Voice work can never be this restrictive. But it may be necessary to break a habit when it becomes inhibiting because it is one's only choice. A tight jaw, for instance, could create an interesting vocal or speech effect, but do you have other options besides this one when you need them or has the tight-jaw habit taken control every time you speak?
As an actor matures, habits usually settle and become more subtle, making it more difficult to root them out. At some future point the actor will either have learned to control them or is being controlled by them. But for a young actor in the earliest stages of training the work required to break habits is usually obvious and clear. All habits can be worked on technically and addressed through training. They can be banished, or laid aside in favour of better habits. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Actor Speaks by Patsy Rodenburg. Copyright © 2000 Patsy Rodenburg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.