Department of Drama
In the Department of Drama I am responsible for teaching acting and theatre voice on both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Over the course of a twenty-two-year teaching career, during which I have played over seventy roles, I have come to see acting and voice as two limbs of the same body, working in perfect balance and performing nearly identical tasks. Thus, I see voice and acting as a symbiotic process, and when teaching the one I rarely separate it from the other.
Whether I teach the aspiring actor or the liberal arts undergraduate, I pursue a common goal: to bring about the telling and the embodiment of personal and artistic truth. By truth-telling I mean the full, healthy, spontaneous, and varied verbal expression of thought and feeling which enlivens human beings in society and dramatic characters on stage. Many disciplines tell their own truths-chemical truth, historical truth, botanical truth, or musical truth, to name a few. The respective "languages" in which these truths are told, all underpinned by rigorous technique mastered only by serious application, range from experiments and timelines to dissections and clef notation. The two prongs of the "language" of my discipline are voice and word. My mission is to foster the free release of the voice, as well as the love for and facility with words. Not bloodless, sentimental words, but juicy, muscular, active words which pour from the heart's core, out of need.
In North America, and perhaps elsewhere in the world, we are losing our connection to words. The fine old orations of the Chautauqua circuit, the stirring rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., have deteriorated into malapropism and Valley speak. We are becoming an extraordinarily visual society with a short attention span (in Britain one goes to hear a play; here one goes to see a play), yet we still communicate primarily by speaking and hearing words. In the beginning was the word, and words will abide.
A deeper loss, even, than a loss of connection to words is the reality that many individuals are cut off from the signal experience of vocal expression. Even highly talented, confident, and motivated graduate students carry around the blocks and impediments that bar many undergraduate students from a rich vocal life. Years of learning and teaching have taught me that the vivid words of great writers-Shakespeare is the obvious example-blast away barriers such as self-consciousness, fear, phobia, shyness, defensiveness, affectation, sarcasm, bravado, and bluff, opening a grand, wide channel from brain and heart to mouth, and from mouth to outer world. I do not focus exclusively on Shakespeare in my work, but my students comment time and time again that if they can do Shakespeare they can do anything, and I agree.
My teaching has been successful when my students begin to experience a free voice, that is, a speaking voice which is supported by breath; resonant and articulate, which is active in a relatively wide pitch range. The second gauge of my success is that moment when students rely on a freed voice, in concert with words, to tell artistic truth.
The essence of my teaching resides in the time I spend working with students one on one and in small groups to free the voice and to lift powerful words off the page, giving them vibrant, resonant life in time and space. I urge my students beyond mere enjoyment of words to an insatiable hunger for them. I want students to seek out the words they need to express their thoughts and feelings with nuance and image. I want them to become so aware of voice and word that they sharpen their listening skills, become appreciative of all qualitative sound, come to scorn noise, and acquire an attendant appreciation of silence.
The speaking voice is a profoundly personal part of the human being, Longfellow's private and public "organ of the soul." Changing old habits, developing a new way of speaking, requires vulnerability and courage in both trainer and speaker. When I find the right "language," when I reach my students, when they commit to the self-scrutiny and practice which effect a vocal sea change, then the following words quoted by Rosemary Radford Ruether applies:
We meet awkwardly.