How to own your voice as an actor.

On the pursuit of harmony between body & speech

The feet alone can stamp and strike the earth, which represents man’s unique foundation and authority. The feet have provided, up until now, the ultimate means of connection between human and earth. (Suzuki, 2015, p. 73)

When the body and breath are working in unison, underscored by a strong intention of learning and dedication, you may come across those rare times of unplanned inspiration. This is what is known as effort without effort, or the zone, the place where time slows down for performers, and opportunity seeks you rather than the other way round. Resonance and text burst from the player’s heart without conscious recognition, no mind, and with purity of ease. The players are sometimes completely unconscious of this arresting sound and become merely, but greatly, the vessel for sound to exist.

The excitement in watching this happen before our eyes is what every director hopes to experience, and for what every performer yearns. For this to happen, therein lies the necessity of unifying the body with movement and breath, awareness of one’s own emotional restrictions that harbour within the sagittal and coronal plane of the body, how the voice is affected by conditional habits, and the importance of phonetic technique. But voice affects everyone, not just performers, and perhaps the voice you carry sometimes does not resemble what you truly imagined for yourself, and perhaps it unconsciously belies you?

So what are some of the things that affect my voice?

Grounding is a key principle in the effective use of voice for performers. At the expense of efficient roads, we developed shoes, and lost contact with the grass. Runners around the world will experience some form of chronic injury due in part to weak arches. The feet affect the range of your posture, which in turn affects the voice. By becoming more attuned to our feet on the ground we discover a means of self-awareness and heightened sensitivity. By feeling the right to stand upon the earth it gives an actor ‘a sense of his own strength inherent in his body…and can lead the actor’s body to achieve a transformation from the personal to the universal’ (Suzuki, 2015, p. 71). In hearing Suzuki’s attention to the “right to stand”, one can’t help but recognise the resemblance to Patsy Rodenburg’s book on the ‘Right to Speak’ (Rodenburg, 1992). In my experience, they are linked and one cannot live without the other, ‘no one part can compensate with its strength for the weakness of another’ (Linklater, 2006, p. 9). In rehearsals for my company, we spend the first few weeks using games that involve balance, running, jumping, elements of boxing and other physical training. This trains that sense of readiness and vibration that is necessary for the ebbing of tension until the plays end. A flighty touch on the stage reveals a lack of ownership and a constricted diaphragm. The breath is essentially trapped, lifting the body off the ground like a balloon. If the body isn’t weighted in the feet then ownership of the text is affected. Only when we achieve an active neutral active spine, do we begin activating the full voice.

One of Euclid’s axioms provides a glimpse into how your body affects your voice for ‘things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another’ (Euclid, 2013, p. 222). Great performers understand that the body works as a chain of progression, ‘you cannot release the natural voice until you’ve singled out that one flaw, the personal physical trap that triggered the chain reaction’ (Rodenburg, 1992, p. 21). If one muscle is under-utilised, then another will compensate to maintain the equality, even if it is at the expense of integrity. A constricted stomach means the breath cannot travel into the depths of the individual, too much tension in the shoulders lock the ribs from swinging outwardly, and if rounded, causing the neck to compensate by pushing forward, tightening the vocal tract. As the director, I have had to learn how to keep the vocal apparatus working efficiently whilst also being aware of how the biomechanics of the character affect their voice, and how to work around it if the situation demands. Antony Sher’s characterisation of Richard III is a prime example of someone working with a voice coach to maintain his vocal integrity whilst exhibiting some of the most demanding postural characterisations. And there’s the crutch, no great character has a perfect posture, or the perfect voice. It is up to the actor to use what he or she has at their command to adopt the mannerisms and vocal traits of their character at the expense of their own personal integrity; so that they may achieve what Suzuki called universal transformation (Suzuki, 2015, p. 71). Those with trained understanding of voice are aware of what effects these transformations will have on their body and voice, and how they can adapt to it. The result of sub-optimal performances is the tendency for generalisation, and so in the adoption of postural characterisation, which will affect the voice, every movement must be specific and accounted for in releasing the natural voice. With this attention to technique and cognitive understanding the actor can learn to trust his new-found mold. It is only through this trust that his breath can drop and give weight to the words he is about to express. The specificity is a crucial link in allowing the words to have a life of their own; Jung put this technical specificity thusly:

He has penetrated to that matrix of life in which all men are embedded, which imparts a common rhythm to all human existence, and allows the individual to communicate his feeling and his striving to mankind as a whole (Jung, 1933, p. 172).

I have been very fortunate to have been witness, coach and director to a few of these rare moments where the actor transcends the stage through the utterance of sound.

When the actor gives himself over to the power inherent in the word itself, the pressure to perform, or to feel, relinquishes its hold upon the actors psyche and allows the collective conscious of humanity to flood within him escaping on the capsule of sound he expresses — only if — he has his full weight behind it, supported from the breath, with energy placed at the front of his face and mouth [1].

In closing, the stillness that provides such electricity on stage, can only be achieved when the actor learns to unify the many “I’s” within himself, that he has learnt to open his vocal instrument through hours of articulation and resonance practice, that he can trust his breath to flow freely even at the highest and lowest of emotional peaks, that he can feel his feet and demand his right to be heard. Until the performer can understand his own body, and give every mannerism with purpose, he won’t know to what great heights his voice can summon.

Works Cited

Berry, C., 2008. From Word To Play: A Handbook for Directors. First ed. London: Oberon Books.

Euclid, 2013. The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements. Second ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc..

Jung, C. G., 1933. Modern Man In Search Of A Soul. First ed. London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Rodenburg, P., 1992. The Right To Speak: Working With The Voice. First ed. New York: Routledge, Inc..

Rodenburg, P., 2002. The Actor Speaks: Voice and The Performer. First ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Suzuki, T., 2015. Culture Is the Body: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki. First ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc..

[1] This mentality stems from my own training as an amateur level Boxer and understanding that power and speed are by-products of attention to the perfection of technique.

Written by

Voice Coach and Founder of Orator | Masters in Voice Studies, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama | Currently Coaching in London | www.oratorvoice.com

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