Actors and Performers
From the bestselling author of The Right to Speak and The Need for Words comes this Bloomsbury Revelations edition of the essential guide to voice work: The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer.
Written for the training and working actor, Patsy Rodenburg’s book brings to life a wide range of exercises and methods to release your voice, covering everything from posture, breath and the body, performing in specific spaces, previews and first performances, managing different length runs, using microphones, and dealing with an ageing or sick voice. This book allows the reader to perform every night, reaching the pitch, passion and vocal intensity that the best roles require.
The excerpt below offers a glimpse into the renowned voice coach Patsy Rodenburg’s evocative writing about why an actor needs to be able to speak.
INTRODUCTION: STORIES, THEATRE, ACTORS
Storytelling is universal to every society and culture that has ever existed. The stories repeated and re-told again and again are universal stories.
At the heart of a universal story are truths that unite humans not divides them. Some of the surface details might be different – words that might need explaining because of history, geography or custom not universal – but the heart and spirit speaks to all. Power, love, loss, justice. All known by everyone. Stories educate. The journey of a story. The language of the story. They teach us morals and what is sacred and what is obscene. What is destructive, what is creative. A shared debate.
The storyteller is an essential figure in any culture. Held in the stories are the history and ethics of a culture and its quest for light through darkness. The storyteller has to speak well. A strong clear and full voice. Imagination, range and a great memory.
They need to present. Delight, scare, be funny, pause, have rhythm and be humble. The story has been passed down to them. It is not theirs but it belongs to their culture and needs to be served as well as they can do. They need to practice.
Theatre is a huge step forward in storytelling. In Western tradition it started in Greece. A chorus of speakers debating crucial issues. It was a great honour to be chosen to perform in these choruses. You were rehearsed to sing, speak and dance as the great ideas around power, family, grief, belief and justice were investigated. Every side of an issue was explored. These different voices allowed for any ideas and complexity to be excavated. The language and its images and metaphors, the antithesis, the paradoxes made the debates more complex and troubling. Greek society was put under a microscope.
Then something more exciting and complex happened. Actors came out of the chorus as characters in the story and debated with the chorus and each other. This created limitless combinations within the storytelling. Bottomless layers of meaning and nuance as the interactions crisscrossed and were woven into the play. As Bottom the weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream realized, a good story has no bottom. It reaches each member of the audience at the point they can understand it and that understanding can change as the listener changes and hears the story again.
The Greek and Shakespearean theatres had audiences, not spectators. Both theatres could produce spectacle but chose and knew that complexity of ideas and emotions cannot be fully appreciated with too much cosmetic covering. Language is at the centre of the story enhanced by the visual but not swamped by it. The audience must be attentive listeners not viewers. The outside of a story can be communicated visually in the theatre but the spirit or psyche requires metaphor and exact imagery.
Two sides of a difficult debate have to be heard before being watched. Actors have to be able to speak if these great plays are to live fully and their complexities tackled. When I say speak I don’t only mean be heard and clear, but be fully present, connected and engaged with the plays, form and language. They demand the craft and imagination to mean each word and image specifically as they are spoken. The storyteller must discover every idea fully and in the moment. When an actor speaks in these ways there is evidence that their brains are very active. Full engagement with a great text takes physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual athleticism.
Even if the actor can do all the above, if the play is shrouded in a generalized concept of design, sound or costume that doesn’t support the play’s intentions, then the play’s profoundness is reduced. There are great designers who serve the play’s story and do not generalize it, but there has been a recent trend to simplify a play through an over-heavy concept. The actor is either fighting the design or – from the mouths of some directors I know – the actors can’t speak well enough, so the design gives some overview of the play. This concept-driven play is a catch-22: if the audience sees an over-designed play, they tend to sit back and let the design do the work rather than work themselves and listen attentively to the play. I have worked on very well written modern plays with rich poetic language and have noticed that if there is a production with a sparse design, the audience listens; with an over-designed play the audience loses aural concentration.
The Greeks understood something else about hearing as opposed to watching and modern science supports their view. When we see horror, in whatever form, it invades our imagination without our control. We are prone to being visually raped and unable to filter the experience. When we hear horror, we can go to where it is doable for us to go. We can filter.
The Greek messenger always comes on to describe horror and violence and although disturbing it is in our aural control not thrown at us visually and uncontrollably. The images are not branded into our brains. We don’t have to see what we cannot bear to see.
O woe is me to have seen what I have seen, see what I see
— Ophelia on seeing Hamlet’s distress
The word obscene comes from the idea that certain things should not be seen on stage. The Greek actors were honoured and revered. They were priests and healers. When the Roman theatre showed obscenities then actors became rogues and outsiders. The Greeks understood the danger and naivety of the visual overwhelming the word.
But actors need to be able to speak.
The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer by Patsy Rodenburg is now available at Bloomsbury.com