Thoughts On Theatre, Therapy, And The Art Of Voice

Edited by Marian Hampton & Barbara Acker
Applause Books, 1997

Theatre, therapy, and the art of voice: it would be presumptuous of me to think that I can corral these three huge and restless subjects into a cohesive holding pen for long enough to separate, brand, and relocate them for classification, breeding, and sale, were these not cattle already grazing in my training pastures. I have to examine the art of voice training within the context of where theatre is headed next and what kind of healing power is generated by my work and the greater art it serves because these questions are daily present, not theoretically but practically, in my classroom.

At drama school in London where I trained and taught in the late fifties and the early sixties, teachers of actors considered themselves gardeners: planting, fertilizing, pruning, and grafting as they tended the budding and blossoming of each student actor. Metaphors of racehorse training came in now and then to help harness powerful imaginative energies in impulsive muscular bodies, but one way or another cultivation of preexisting talent was the order of the day. The sociological and psychological climate of the nineties is demanding animal husbandry, some experience in lion taming and the ability to recognize a rabid raccoon as part of the job description for actor trainers.

I remember students at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art sitting with their eyes obediently closed in Iris Warren's voice production class, looking inward and downward with their minds' eyes as they relaxed and breathed. When asked what they saw deep inside themselves they reported lovely visions of rose gardens or beds of lilies, forest pools or calm seashores. Recently, in response to a similar exercise at a workshop I was running, an actor gave a vivid description of looking down through a glass ceiling at a cageful of growling, slavering, enraged wild animals which would eat her alive were they to escape.

If, as many voice and acting teachers suggest, the voice that tells the truth comes from deep inside, forged on the anvil of emotion, and if, as seems evident, the theatre of tomorrow even more than today must reflect an increasingly violent society if is to remain useful, the actors whom we train must be able to conjure up their own psychological monsters from the deeps, look them in the eye, tame them, and train them to leap through hoops of fiery texts telling tales of horror that lead to redemption, destruction, or transmutation. For catharsis is still the mission of the theatre. And catharsis originally meant shedding light into dark corners. Dark corners of kitchens or dark corners of the soul, the darkness, the dirt, must be illuminated before it can be cleansed. The human soul absorbs dirt from dusty psyches, grubby memories, and scrofulous experiences, and the actor must at least have knelt down on the floor of his or her own soul with the scrubbing brush before contemplating the illumination of the souls of others.

In my experience, the voice is a powerful scrubber, with words an excellent cleaning agent. The right words are alchemical touchstones that can turn the deadly, poisonous lead of an abused and wounded childhood into the life-restoring gold of art. A playwright forges the right words to expose a monstrous issue that society would rather ignore, and it is the actors who have found words to bring their own monstrous experiences out of the dark and into the light who can bring authenticity and the ring of truth to the playwright’s words. The climate of our times has brought words that used to be taboo into the broad light of day and onto the airwaves. Experiences that used to be hidden in shame or not even known because not named can now be named easily. "Incest," "rape," "abuse" – with the naming comes the memory and the monsters emerge from their caves in the shape of stories we would rather not hear and emotions that shake the day loose from its moorings.

Theatre is alchemy and if theatre is to be potent the ingredients must not avoid the extremities of life. Unless the actor-alchemists are emotional warriors, the lead will turn to pablum that poisons as it soothes. If the actors are emotional warriors what must the teachers be? How do these bold words translate into classroom life?

These are some of the questions that are being asked with increasing urgency: what are the boundaries of teaching? Can I teach theatre and stay clear of involvement with my students' personal problems? What happens when a student comes face to face with an unresolved trauma in the middle of my class? Should I be able to draw a clear line between theatre and therapy?

A lively, three-hour panel discussion at the 1993 Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference in Philadelphia centered on the subject of theatre and therapy, airing for the first time in public some of the anxieties that exist in the field. Acting teachers, voice teachers, and movement teachers are finding that exercises which they have used for years in successful pursuit of theatrical ends have, in the past five or ten years, been triggering responses in their students of an increasingly emotional nature, and sometimes stimulating memories of childhood traumas that may seem inappropriate to the training task at hand.

Here are some not uncommon events in theatre training classrooms: A voice teacher spends a couple of classes teaching relaxation, and gradually student belly muscles let go so that breath can enter a body fully for what seems like the first time in years, and the student begins to cry uncontrollably. When asked to say something about what is going on, the tears are articulated in memories of a) being told not to answer back by a parent or a teacher; b) holding his breath as his parents fought; c) hating her body so much that she became anorexic, bulimic, and/or suicidal; d) being sexually or physically abused in a variety of ways...the list goes on. A movement teacher notices a lack of coordination in a student's body; exercises for the legs and pelvic area provoke resistance – boredom, exaggeration, panic or collapse. A student may say in response to an individual critique: "I don't understand" or "I'm frozen" or "I don't feel anything in my lower body; it feels numb." These days the movement teacher who has read any kind of psychophysical literature or even Newsweek will suspect sexual or physical abuse as the cause of this separation of mind from body. An acting teacher asks students to bring in a monologue. A student brings in something from Extremities (or one of a dozen other plays or monologues about rape). She cannot speak. A contemporary scene class includes scenes from A Lie of the Mind or 'night Mother. One actor has a brother who is dying in hospital; an-other's sister committed suicide.

We ask for the truth on stage. We say that the actor's raw material is her/himself. The demands we make are time-honored and valid. Yet many teachers, myself included, are becoming alarmed by the responsibility they are faced with when these facts of theatrical life spark a personal horror story in the student actor, together with the threat of "going over the edge," "collapsing," "falling apart," "breaking down completely," "going crazy, killing myself." What are we supposed to do?

Those of us teachers who belong to the humanistic, psychophysical, “use yourself” genre find ourselves in a variety of classroom dilemmas:

  • One student “goes” and they all “go”: horror is as contagious as tears.
  • Half the class is in tears and the other half is in angry resistance, furious that their time is being wasted in emotional indulgence.
  • We deal with the situation in the classroom; someone says, “this seems like therapy to me. Are you qualified?” If no one says it, someone is noisily thinking it.
  • We do not deal with this situation in the classroom and set up an appointment during office hours. The next thing we know is that we have taken on hours of personal commitment and bought into an unhealthy codependent scenario.
  • We tell the student we are not equipped to deal with such distress and suggest or insist that s/he gets counseling. The next thing we hear is that s/he cannot get an appointment until next month or that s/he would rather work it out in class because acting class is better than therapy.

These emotional incidents, I hasten to emphasize, are not the whole story but only, as it were, the highlights in a long semester's hard daily work. Focusing on the problems in this way is akin to presenting a two-hour performance of nothing but the climax scenes from all of Shakespeare's plays. Luckily in both the plays and the classes there are long stretches of calm exposition; sometimes there is a dull passage and often there is comic relief. The purpose of this examination is to isolate the emotional incidents and see where (or whether) they fit into the art of theatre. Are they just therapy? Just personal?

Of course, there is a whole other style of teaching that manages to avoid the personal, emotional problems altogether and I confess I often wish that I had adhered to the school that says: “Leave your personal life behind you when you come into the classroom (or rehearsal or the stage).” This approach says: “You become a character and for a brief moment on stage you escape from yourself.” The notion of losing myself in a character implies that the character is bigger, more estimable, more exciting than I am while the idea of finding the character in myself suggests that I am multi-faceted and illimitable and that each character I play finds the roots of its truth in the fact that I am All as well as One; that from my wholeness I can create multiplicity; that I have the capacity to understand the natures of all people and can become any of them by expanding the seed of my understanding until it dislodges and rearranges the ingredients of my personality and a different part of me dominates. This temporarily dominant characteristic proceeds to rearrange my physical and vocal behavior as I develop a character that is rooted in truthful experience because rooted in me, and has blossomed into a flower or a tree or a poisonous plant—or a ravening beast or a purring kitten—that is unrecognizable to my familiar self.

The kind of teaching that we focused on at the ATHE conference and to which I clearly belong is this inside-out approach to training the actor. In fact, we are training the person who will become the actor and therefore we are inevitable inhabitants of therapeutic territory because we are restoring a lost sense of illimitability. It does not seem such a bad thing really; if we believe that one of the missions of theatre is healing we can accept the fact that healing goes on in the microcosms of theatre we call classrooms. The person who becomes the actor needs unblocked access to the fullest capacity of voice, body, emotions, intellect, and imagination. Very often one or more of these essential attributes is held hostage by past experience that says emotional expression is dangerous, impulse and spontaneity are dangerous, words are dangerous. Inner voices shout STOP at the moment a creative impulse yells GO and the resonance of these hidden voices flooding the inner ear deafens the sound of one's own true, individual voice. There is no authentic individual artistry until the reverberation of personal truth replaces the resonance of naysaying; until then derivative performance is inevitable and real art is elusive.

If real artistry depends on the authenticity of the artist's voice, and if we are talking about the real, physical voice, not a metaphorical one, then we must recondition real usage on a psychophysical level, by which I mean not just the discrete respiratory and laryngeal mechanisms but their deployment in the larger arsenal of emotional defenses. The emotions that are being defended are often huge and the order of the art they produce is seldom “recollected in tranquility” but more often forged in a chaotic escape on the rehearsal floor or in the classroom when they are afforded relaxation and permission.

Nine times out of ten, magical performance results when a teacher and her student can channel undammed emotional energy into a scene or a monologue or a poem. We witness artistic transformation. But the tenth time, an enormous personal story presents itself that demands personal work right then and there. Such work can result in personal transformation or vocal transformation or breakdown. When either transformation or breakdown occurs at the very end of a class there is potentially some danger that the student will be left feeling out of control or disoriented if s/he is unused to intense experiences of this nature.

We are operating within a social climate that has changed radically in the past twenty years and many of us are looking for ways that expand the safety nets both for us and for our students without ducking the issues. At the ATHE conference we talked about ways of “cooling down” emotionally to balance the practice of “warming up”, and shared techniques of “stepping out” of emotional hot spots. Panel member Robert Barton, who teaches acting at the University of Oregon, adamantly expressed the point of view that if we soft-pedal, sidestep, or soothe away the painful emotions that erupt from time to time in our classes we will produce actors fed on pablum who will in turn produce theatre that is pablum. We must be able to step into the fire. And we must avoid getting burned. We must build emotional muscle and exercise the passions, passions which are hottest at the core of the toughest personal ordeals. And we and our students must be able to step out of the core, cool down and go on with our days.

I remember saying to the actor with the glass-ceiling zoo in her belly that if she could learn the names of the raging beasts and find the keys to their respective cages, she could, over time, develop a relationship with her monsters. I suggested that if she let them out and exercised them on a leash they would learn to behave and might become useful guard and attack animals. They could also transform into fabulous engines of creativity when she needed them to be that and then go back under the glass and sleep peacefully. This is, of course, easier said then done, and I am grateful to Robert Barton and to Susanna Bloch, who was also on our ATHE panel, for offering us practical techniques for handling wild animals.

Susanna Bloch brings a background in neuroscience to her study of emotional effector patterns and her work is provoking considerable interest among actor trainers. From laboratory observations she found that specific emotional feelings were linked to specific patterns of breathing, facial expressions, degrees of muscular tension, and postural attitudes. Her experiments led her to develop a “step out” procedure which will restore neutrality to someone who is caught in an emotion and cannot shift the state.

The procedure is: take at least three slow, regular, and deep full breathing cycles; then totally relax the face muscles and change posture. Not only will this end the emotional state but it will obviate the “emotional hangovers”.

Robert Barton pointed out that we seldom spend as much time on rituals to end classes or rehearsals as we do to start them off. 'Ritual' might simply mean a warm-up or a circle but might be more elaborate. His suggestion was that we end each work session as we began, thus formally 'taking off the mask' of our work and returning to our daily selves. He also has a 'step out' process in which he as the teacher stands opposite the person who is emotionally trapped and asks to be mirrored as he stretches, massages his own face, and breathes slowly. He always sets up agreements with his students that give the option of disengagement from any exercise that may be emotionally demanding; he defines boundaries of safety and sets up ground rules of support and comfort. For example, students learn to ask for a hug if that is what they need. Unsolicited hugs are discouraged as they sometimes come from the wrong person even though with the right intention; sometimes they come from the wrong person with the wrong intention; sometimes they are counterproductive because an emotional condition that looks painful from the outside is thrilling from the inside and comfort is an unnecessary distraction from a long-desired and enlivening experience.

I myself sometimes ask a student who suddenly starts crying uncontrollably in the middle of a group relaxation to sit out for ten minutes and write in his or her journal until s/he feels better-it is important that s/he does not leave the room. This can work well for the more advanced student who understands what is happening on the personal level, does not really need help, and appreciates that the class cannot always stop its momentum to accommodate the rise of an emotion, but also wants to record and examine the details of a valuable spontaneous memory or insight. The student always rejoins the class in a good state. This solution honors emotions without letting them rule the day.

Students who have yet to learn the value of the sudden onset of emotion and who feel frightened when it happens must, of course, have personal attention. With careful planning, a light-hearted approach, and a modicum of luck, I try to postpone the possibility with new students until we have a shared experience of voice exercises that can be drawn on. At that point real emotion is a key ingredient in the true reconditioning of habitual defense patterns. Once the student knows how to keep the throat open and can choose where the breath goes in the body, vulnerability is experienced as strength, and emotions become a source of power as their owner is no longer incapacitated by them.

Quite recently I had a student who even after a semester of voice work still spoke in a breathy whisper most of the time. She was the survivor of all manner of childhood abuses, was in therapy, had attended violence workshops, and generally understood her state of mind and body well but could not yet risk a full voice. One day in class she became choked with fear as she was doing an exercise and whispered, "I'm scared I'm going to cry." I said, "Open your throat and say that on the vibrations of sound." She opened up her clenched throat and in a loud, clear voice said, "I'm scared I'm going to cry—oh! That's funny—now I don't want to cry any more!" When she went back to the whisper the emotion threatened to incapacitate her; when she found her voice the emotion receded.

The practice of setting up agreements with one's students is essential to the health and integrity of this kind of work. Without them we run the risk of abusing our positions of power. Students must know that they are in a collaborative relationship with their teacher; that they are working together towards the same goal. Ideally, “problems” are made explicit and “solutions” openly discussed. If the teacher diagnoses resistance (and worthwhile change nearly always meets some resistance) the student should accept the diagnosis and endorse the prescription before the teacher administers treatment. This is not only healthful but twice as effective as the old authoritarian mode of teaching-so long as the partnership is genuine. The ultimate caveat about emotional work with acting students is that the teacher must be as psychologically healthy as possible.

The question of the emotional and mental health of theatre practitioners is obviously beyond the scope of this piece of writing and may properly belong in a standup comedy routine, but it should be equally obvious that there are serious ethics involved in stirring up the interface of the personal and the artistic experiences. Teaching that stays forever behind a locked classroom door is almost always unhealthy. The artistic worth of a method of teaching can and should be measured in an artistic product visible to all. Artistic output can provide some sort of guarantee of the competence of a teacher and the health of his or her methods; process and product can be assessed in a public product more objectively than in the classroom. But finally it is the teacher who should be his or her own severest judge. S/he must ask students for honest feedback on how the classroom culture and content is working and be willing to make changes where responses are negative. Honesty, openness, and courage in a teacher create an environment where students can be honest, open, and brave. They want to be; if they are not then we must take responsibility for having failed them.

For myself, I teach. the same basic technical progression of voice production exercises that I inherited from Iris Warren between 1957 and 1963. But after thirty years of admittedly random consciousness raising and refining I see much more about my students now than I used to. Willy-nilly (often more nilly than willy) I have learned more and more about the causes of human dysfunction and I have read enough about psychological development to recognize not only the behavioral manifestations of traumatic childhood but the potential for huge expressive talent beneath the behavior. I have picked up basic principles from Stanley Keleman and many others that clarify how the body's intelligence develops survival habits that save a person's life but can at some point be exchanged for the energy of life itself. Dozens of books, seminars, and workshops are available to the searcher after truth, freedom, and creativity.

What I have learned reflects the psychophysical knowledge of this century in this very privileged country. We-we privileged few-have been relieved enough of our external survival needs to be free to focus on internal survival and something which has come to be called “human growth.” (This is a term which should not deny the moral growth many humans experience in the face of external adversity.) The “human growth movement” of the past twenty years focuses on release from psychophysical adversity, emphasizing the benefits of emotional and psychological freedom in achieving a fully lived life. This goal would be immorally self-centered did it not include the notion that the purpose of growing as a human being must be to look at and listen to the whole human condition with increased understanding and compassion and, in the case of the artist, to shed an ever brighter light on the causes of humanity's more egregious errors. The theatre is home to both light and sound, and it is the sound of the actor's voice that is the ultimate instrument of catharsis. It penetrates the ultrasound to the hidden recesses of a listener's soul if its frequencies are begotten in true feeling and delivered free of distortion and effort.

The voice of a very good actor rings with authenticity whether in the wild poetic extensions of the classics of Western dramatic literature or the equally wild poetic extensions of language that express the contemporary soul in extremis, and although I know more and more about the workings of the psyches of my students and my intention is that they prosper as human beings, my objective is that they become very good, very exciting, very idiosyncratic actors. My super-objective is that they advance the art of theatre.

We often use as a challenge to take our discipline seriously the analogy of the musician or the dancer: talent is not enough—you must train. Does a talented musician (or dancer) go out and perform Beethoven (or Swan Lake) on the strength of talent alone? Invoking the years of scales and arpeggios, barre exercises and hard, slogging, self-sacrificial technical work that dedicated musicians and dancers undertake before inflicting themselves on an audience, we goad our students into voice and body work that, alas, often trains them out of authenticity and into a slick showcase of styles.

Musicians seldom have to perform Beethoven and hard rock, and ballet dancers are not required to do both Swan Lake and break-dancing, but actors must be able to deliver the authentic ring of the streets, the shelter, the prison, the hospice and Shakespeare, Restoration, Shaw, Chekhov, and Tennessee Williams. Today's high earners in film and television are often cast from real life. Training would have ruined their authentic look and sound. If they continue in the profession, however, they discover the need for training and often come to a moment when their artistic wings yearn for the spread of the classics. Do the classics represent the highest echelon of the art of theatre? Or is the art at its highest when it engages a community (or just one individual) and helps bring healing through reflection and transformation? Is it inevitable that “the classics” are distanced from the daily grind of real life? Or can they connect with current issues at least as graphically as a movie or a soap opera?

Those of us who train actors' voices cannot afford to make a choice between the classics and contemporary drama, nor do we have to make any such large distinction. We encounter contemporary drama daily in our contemporary students and when we listen carefully they already possess the stuff of the classics, only requiring access to some different forms of expression to gain entry and command. What sometimes seems like emotional chaos tearing us apart like an internal zoo full of rabid wild animals becomes the passion that authenticates King Lear on the heath, Medea, and Oedipus.

The miracle of the voice is that it connects both inwardly and outwardly, and the depth of the art with which the voice is deployed by the actor depends on the depth to which it plunges internally in the creative process and the scope of its outward journey. Voice is air and vibration; it is infinitely malleable, transformable, and expressive. It can communicate more intimate nuance over a greater distance than the body can. It is the bridge between souls. The art of the voice flourishes in the ground of healthy psyche, and though in today's theatre it is an art not much heralded, I hope that if we can heal the rifts that society and upbringing have made between the souls and voices of the actor/artists that are our charges now, the voices of the next theatre generation will discover how to penetrate the inner worlds of their audience with harmonies of understanding, compassion, and true healing.