(presented November 2018 at the Shanghai Theatre Academy International Conference: INHERITANCE OF ACTING TECHNIQUES AND THEIR INNOVATIVE DEVELOPMENTS)


As a lifelong practitioner of voice training for actors, I write from my own practical experience and interest. I am not an academic and will not be adhering to academic requirements for this paper. Thus - there will be no footnotes or references. I present to you some of the ideas and perspectives that interest me as a teacher and passionate theatre lover. These are personal points of view emerging from sixty years spent in drama schools training young actors, in studios coaching successful, experienced, professional film and stage actors, at the side of directors directing everything from classical to experimental theatre, as an actor playing many of Shakespeare’s women and some of his men, directing Shakespeare and the Greeks myself and running workshops in many different countries and languages.


The title of this conference implies, quite rightly, that Voice and Movement techniques are also “Acting Techniques.” It was not until the early 20th Century that “acting” began to be explored distinct from the performance instruments of body and voice. Until relatively recently in the English-speaking theatre world and in Europe, actor-training meant elocution, singing, dance and imitation of one’s thespian elders.

I think we all recognize that it was largely Stanislavsky’s search for a more convincing stage life in the Russian theatre that engineered the redirection of the actor’s energies inward rather than outward. His emphasis was on how to generate emotional and psychological truthfulness. The search was on for the causal impulses that would activate voice and body. A distinction was made between “Acting” and “Performance.” “Acting” became “Being” while “Performance” was “Showing.” The separate discipline of “Acting” was born and Stanislavsky’s ideas and exercises spread from Russia to America in the 1920s and ‘30s spawning the concept of “psychological realism.”

In France and then England in the 1920s and ‘30s, it was initially Jacques Copeau who developed exercises in character behavior that challenged actors to break free from the repetitive vocal inflections and stylised gestures that were the hallmarks of great theatre on 19th Century European stages. This “performance” theatre style lasted well into the 20th Century and shifted gradually in England under the influence of Copeau and Michel St. Denis before making way for Stanislavsky in the 1950s.

We tend to give the Actors Studio credit, and make Marlon Brando the exemplar, for popularizing psychological realism; but playwrights from Ibsen, Chekhov, Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill to Clifford Odets and, in England, John Osborne with his 1950s Look Back in Anger supplied the material that demanded that actors dig beneath the surface of external behavior for truthful psychological and emotional representation.

Perhaps the art of vocal and physical acting training met its most significant challenge with the impact of film. During the 1930s and 1940s film documentaries recorded social and political stories that revealed the gap between how real people spoke and behaved and how the stage depicted them. That gap had to be filled in by questions of motivation. Cameras and microphones picked up the intimacy of inner motivation and uncovered details of character that justified action. External, stagey representation became unacceptable.

Stanislavsky codified exercises that helped actors to investigate the motives of invented characters telling invented stories. The question he asked, and the question that actors have asked ever since is why something happens. “Why” becomes the key to the story historically, biographically, psychologically, emotionally, professionally, politically and (possibly) philosophically.

I acknowledge that psychological realism is by no means the only major influence on 20th Century acting. Social and political realism gave birth to the powerful contribution of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in Germany. "Epic, political, confrontational, documentary theatre" as it has been described, has spawned its own particular training methodologies. In the latter half of the 20th Century the powerful influences of Jacques LeCoq and Jerzy Grotowski have created a whole genre of physical theatre that continues to break boundaries.

My own predilections have directed my lifelong pedagogical focus towards psychological realism and its extensions and I will confine this discussion of inheritance to those actor-training parameters with which I am most familiar.

Of the English-speaking drama schools that still dominate the field, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, LAMDA, is the oldest, dating from 1861 while the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, RADA, and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama were established in 1904 and 1906. My own teaching owes its origins to the pioneering methods of Iris Warren who taught at LAMDA. I trained at LAMDA as an actor and began my teaching there. Iris saw that vocal health and vocal authenticity were rooted in free emotional connection and she re-directed traditional voice-training exercises from external, muscular control to interior controls of thought and feeling impulses.

I moved to the United States in 1963 and my experience of the Human Growth Movement during the 1970s and 1980s helped me develop and deepen the psycho-physical aspect of Iris Warren’s approach, as did the expansion during those years of research in voice science.

Development in the field of voice-training for actors must serve its art. Western theatre “inheritance” has determined the way that actors have trained their voices thus far. Innovation in Western theatre may frame speculation about innovations in voice training but it seems clear that we are not going to abandon the old ways to make room for new. Technology, special effects, artificial intelligence, microphones and robot voices may be fashionable for short periods of time but it seems that audiences still want to be told good stories in voices they recognize to be human like theirs. We must train for the past, present and future theatre.

Ancient Greece is generally recognized as the birthplace of Western theatre, and Athens as its nursery. Our imaginations are fed by the story that Dionysus, the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstasy was the progenitor of Greek tragic performance. Tragedy was to be publicly acknowledged and communally shared. The word “tragedy” comes from an ancient Greek word that means “song of the goat” and the satyrs, half men and half goats, were said to have formed the chorus that could provide the rhythms and rituals capable of transmitting the force of the tragic story. From this choral transmission there emerges, mythically, the individual actor - Thespis, the first actor to speak alone on stage. Thespis had a new task: to convey the details of the tragic story in solo speech. To act.

The most famous theatre space in Greece, for voice aficionados, is not the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens but Epidaurus, an outdoor theatre seating 14,000 people, where a whisper from center stage can be heard in the back row.

There are many theories as to how and why these acoustics are so remarkable but the story I like best is that which connects Vitruvius, the theatre architect of his day, with Epidaurus. The 1st C Roman architect, Vitruvius, made it clear that the proportions of the human body and the corresponding proportions of the cosmos should be incorporated into the architecture of all theatres, and they were to be designed for voices to be heard, in his words, “clearly and sweetly.” “The voice,” he said “is like a breath of flowing air that moves in successive undulations as when a stone is thrown into standing water. But while in water the circles move horizontally only, undulations from the voice both move horizontally and rise vertically.” To reinforce the vertical undulations of the voices of actors Vitruvius instructed: “In the foregoing investigations on mathematical principles, let bronze vessels be made, proportionate to the size of the theatre, and let them be so fashioned that, when touched by the voice, they may produce with one another the notes of the fourth, the fifth, and so on up to the double octave. Then, having constructed niches in between the seats of the theatre, let the vessels be arranged in them, in accordance with the musical laws.” The urns reinforced the harmonics of the voice and enhanced not only the flow of sound-waves that carried the story horizontally to the audience but vertically upward to nourish the harmonics of the music of the spheres. The belief of the time was that the cosmos was maintained by the harmony of the spheres - great crystal globes that emitted different notes within the double octave which combined to make the perfect harmony that holds the world together. The actors of that time would not only have to develop the power of their voices to reach their audience of 14,000 people but to reverberate accurately within their bodies so that the harmonics would reinforce the music that maintained the cosmos. Quite an incentive for exercising and warming up the voice before a performance!

Whether this cosmic idea is accurate or not, we know that the ancient Greeks paid great respect to the voice, employing teachers for strengthening the voice - vociferaii -- for enriching the voice – phonasci -- and to develop intonation and inflection - vocales. The art of oratory was studied, analyzed and prized.

The jump from Ancient Greece to mediaeval England is perhaps facilitated by reference to bards and story-tellers. Before Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides was Homer - the great Greek bard who in the 7th Century BC first told the stories of The Odyssey and The Iliad, stories that were repeated orally for a hundred years or more before being written down in the 5th Century BC. The oral tradition and the universal human need for story-telling can be seen as the origin of drama.

In mediaeval Europe, Ireland, Wales and Scotland there were troubadours, minstrels and bards who recited and sang epic tales disseminating local stories of valour and romance throughout the country. But it was the Church that co-opted the story-telling to spread its word and in so doing gave English birth to the great, humanizing art of theatre.

From the 5th Century to the 15th the Church spread its reverent word by means of travelling monks and players who set up their wagon stages in the streets and market-places.

And, inevitably, there were also stories of irreverence - secular and comedic stories. Stories of human frailty and vice to balance out those of virtue. Entertainment was expected, and delivered by clowns, jugglers, acrobats and jesters. The voices of the players of the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries were exercised in telling stories that elicited laughter, tears, reverence and ecstasy from their audiences.

Voices in mediaeval times were outdoor voices. Melodic voices. Energetic voices. The voices that joined together to bring about the golden age of English theatre were melodious and strong. Elizabethan England was known on the continent as The Singing Nation. From the court to the villages people sang madrigals and rounds and hymns, drinking songs and lullabies.

Elizabethan education was conducted in Latin and schoolboys recited their lessons in accordance with the strict rules of rhetoric, which demanded appropriate gestures and persuasive intonations. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the Elizabethan schoolroom provided good basic actor training.

The translation of the Bible from Latin into English in the mid-16th Century resulted in a volcanic splurge of freshly-minted words drawn from a marriage of old Anglo Saxon and French mono- or bi-syllabic words with Latin-based poly-syllabics that could articulate complex intellectual and metaphysical ideas. While Shakespeare is credited with inventing between 1000 and 2000 new words he was not the only writer to do so. Everyone was at it.

The artistic exuberance of the Elizabethans was short-lived. In 1642 the Puritans tore down the theatres and banned public entertainment. Singing and dancing were seen to be instruments of the devil undermining those in godly authority.

The pendulum swung back to mirth and frivolity on the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 under Charles II. The theatres re-opened but with plays that were pure froth, frivolity and entertainment. The rich layers of historical, political and social commentary that had electrified Elizabethan and Jacobean playwriting were missing and would not return until near the end of the 19th Century. Scandinavian, Russian and German playwrights started digging beneath the surface of human behavior and, with the eventual help of Freud and Jung, initiated the great ongoing voyage of discovery into the human psyche.

What does all this imply for a study of the “inheritance of acting techniques” for the English-speaking actor? On one level it dictates the curriculum of most acting schools. The Greeks and Shakespeare are the foundation of serious training in the leading actor-training programs. Ancient Greek drama plunges the student actor into raw emotional story-telling, demanding stamina and commitment. Playing Shakespeare develops nuance through the heightened poetry of complex character revelation and story, requiring a full two to three octaves of vocal range, the dynamics of rhythm, pitch and volume and crystal clear articulation. Only when student actors have stretched their expressive instruments on the rack of the Greeks and Shakespeare can they deal with the truthfulness of contemporary communication whether for stage or screen. The subject matter of contemporary story-telling is no less extreme than that of the Ancient Greeks or Shakespeare though the form of the telling has changed.

Voice training for actors in the 21st Century must accommodate the history of theatre and be prepared to take on the demands of 21st Century psychological realism and surrealism. In the English-speaking voice and speech training world that means opening the gates of emotional and imaginative expression wider than ever before. Not only must actors be able to render believably the most extreme emotional states of being, or convey layers of perhaps psychopathic mendacity but they may be asked to stretch their voices into extended animalistic or robotic or fantastical noises. Believably. In my particular approach to voice training for actors this means that I must help my students drop all defensive psycho-physical habits they may have (almost certainly have) developed as human beings growing up in an often hostile or confrontational world, and restore the wild expressive courage they once knew as small children.

Voice training in the English-speaking world has evolved exponentially from the emphasis on “correct” speech and “beautiful” voice that dominated a profession serving the aesthetics of 19th Century theatre practice to the current emphasis on believability and freedom. It is no longer unusual to hear popular singers whose range covers more than 4 octaves. Gruff, ragged, crude or monotonal delivery may be recognized as necessarily ugly in the interest of truthfulness. My job as a voice trainer is to help the creative imagination to find a free connection to the extraordinary capabilities of the human voice.

While there will always be some extended vocal demands made on performers (Roy Hart teachers and others specialize in that branch of voice work) most voice teachers within a drama program will train young actors for a career composed of stage, television and film work. Their voices must be able to connect without constraint to their emotions, their imaginations and their psychological landscapes. Only then can the emotions and inner truths of the character they are playing be freely expressed. Their voices must not describe, but must reveal the thoughts and feelings of the characters they play.

We now know a great deal about how neuro-physiological pathways work from brain to body and body to brain and why those pathways can become blocked. Neuroscience and psychological advances help the expressive artist understand herself or himself and present ways of thinking and practical exercises to clear defensive and habitual obstruction. In actor-training thought processes and the experience of speaking must be re-routed from the reasoning head and mouth to the sensory brain in the body. There are 100 million neurons in the gut-brain, the enteric-brain – in constant communication with the 86 billion neurons in the skull-brain. Voice comes from at least eleven different parts of the skull-brain all of which are in visceral communication with the gut-brain. In order for the actor’s voice to reveal the character it must connect profoundly with the breath, the sensory life, the gut-brain of that character. The rhythms of speech and all dynamics of expression that are specific to that character’s psyche will then organically transform the actor’s speaking.

Believability depends on this transformation happening on the level of impulse and the subsequent interaction of involuntary breath and laryngeal muscles. Any inhibitory or conscious interference with this involuntary process compromises the transparency of the communication. Training implies training the imagination to be experienced viscerally and for breath and voice to be intrinsic to the visceral experience.

When actors get a clear picture of the actual neuro-physiological functioning of the voice and are at ease with their emotions and psychological complexity, their voices and bodies respond with integrity to the stimuli of character and story. They can say “My voice and my body can do anything my imagination comes up with. My expressive potential is limited only by choice. And the choice is mine.”

Perhaps some future actors will choose to imagine their own version of the cosmic consciousness of their ancient Greek ancestors and discover a vertical electro-magnetic field that will amplify their resonance and beam their voices up to join a galactic, inter-planetary chorus bringing harmony to the world.