Voicing Presence When Acting

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Subject: Acting
Last updated: 23/01/2018
Tags: acting, presence, self, silence, voice

I've been an actor[1] long enough to know there is no mind/body separation. That is a conceptual illusion, articulated by Rene Descartes, misinterpreted and realigned over the centuries by philosophers and physical scientists creating school-of-thought empires for themselves, abused by politicians who will take advantage of any tool of divisiveness to keep their jobs. Actors, though, have to move beyond the purely conceptual as soon as they take the text that has been absorbed from the page onto the rehearsal floor. Words in the head do not resonate with an audience. They have to be spoken out loud, by the physically present, living body, and if they haven't sunk into that body, if all you are doing is speaking them aloud with nothing more than your understanding of their conceptual nature, you would do better to just hand out copies of the script to your audience, so they can read it for themselves. 

So no. As an actor, you are obliged to recreate the playwright's words into your own creation - without altering a syllable. And your own words are much more than mere concepts. They are the audible expression of your own lived, embodied, physically realised experience. But when you perform someone else's words, and the actual experience, in the context of the play, might be totally imaginary, you engage with the paradox of acting.

You can never be someone other than yourself. Whatever you do, think, say, believe, it will always be yourself doing it. The paradox is that the more completely you gift yourself to your words and actions, the more completely the audience perceives the character. Fortunately, however, you can do things differently. You can think things you wouldn't choose to think if left to your own devices. You can move in different, unaccustomed ways. Some of those ways feel weird, because they are different to what you are used to, and when they do, you know you are expanding your understanding of what it is to be human, and your ability to present that to your audiences in all its complexity. 

You can say words that someone else provided for you to say, and even as you are in the act of saying them, you can allow yourself to believe things you otherwise know to be not true for you, personally. As Humphrey Bogart once said, of Spencer Tracey, "Spencer does it, that's all. Feels it. Says it. Talks. Listens. He means what he says when he says it, and if you think that's easy, try it" (qtd in Hall, 2006, 6).[2]

When I signed up to do a PhD some years ago, my motivation was to publish something that would drive attention from the nature of the text to the nature of the performing voice; to inspire respect for the actual voice of the actual actor performing the text, in all disciplines that touch upon performance – directors, actors, acting teachers, critics to name a few. And since Presence is the Holy Grail of performance, I decided to demonstrate how it can be detected in the voice of the performer.

Speaking is vocalized thought and an action. It is the way human beings function, in that we think, speak and act more or less organically. In other words, brain cells, nervous system, chemical distribution, skeleton and musculature work together autonomously to allow thinking, speaking and acting to occur spontaneously. The actor who is able to recreate the way language normally works, but under the extremely abnormal circumstances of speaking a memorized text in front of an audience, potentially may produce the particular vocal quality that signifies as Presence. When this quality is present in the voice, the actor - like the character in the play - is not (in Kristin Linklater's words) "'talking about' her emotional state, she is revealing it" (1992, 33). This vocal quality voice has what Ingo Titze refers to as "the illusion of ease" (1992, 136), giving the impression that it is the character, rather than the actor, who speaks, creating the illusion that acting is easy, but of course a great deal of intensive training and or experience is required to create this illusion.   

The speaker's voice shaped into words is the nearest thing possible in that instant, (arguably the identical) thing to the self as constituted in that moment, the unique "vocalic revelation" (Cavarero, 11), of the speaker. The vocal event manifests the thoughts, the 'being' of the speaker, with all of the contradictions and inconsistencies that involves.

Presence only occurs when the trained[3] actor understands and appreciates the meanings and intentions, the objectives and the subtext, and all the rest of that rich material that has to be explored in the rehearsal room, and then chooses to let it all be, and to rely on herself to be the very person who uniquely at this moment needs to express herself in this specific way. Not to pretend, or demonstrate, or prove, or enforce, or inform, or educate, or impress, or decide, or even intend, but be. And that is a terrifying idea for many people. Very few do it instinctively, most of us have to learn how, then give ourselves permission to do it, and then practise doing it over and over for the rest of our lives.

The idea that the self of the actor is the essential ingredient, that the actor who appropriates the text as her own in order to generate the language of the playwright as if it were her own, has been examined and shared by practitioners and researchers many times since I began my own journey of research. Publications promoting the voice and voice training are now reaching out to the general public, enhancing the perception of the voice as something to be nurtured and respected – and of course there is still a long way to go.[4] 

As a teacher I constantly strive to find more effective ways of persuading students that fully-embodied presence is as satisfying an experience for them as it is for their audiences; that gifting their present selves to their sounding bodies with focus, with awareness, with honesty will result in engaging performances. And because I am working with the voice, I have come to some new (to me) conclusions.

Titze points out that "[b]reathing is a biologically required modulation of the true carrier of speech: voicing. We manage breathing as an interruption of the carrier, tuning it on and off for a group of words". He proposes that "practising breathing without voicing has limited value" (2015) and encourages the training of breath, voice and resonance simultaneously – something I heartily approve of. However, in his model of Communication Theory, voicing is the only carrier, while silence has no value whatsoever. 

I suggest that, for the performer, the silences in between voicing are of equal significance, and that the way we undertake the voicing has a profound effect upon the silences we create. Not only that, but our silences have a profound effect upon the next voicings we let loose. Presence does not just exist in the sounding voice. It has to exist in the silent body as well, and if this is inculcated within the way we train the acting voice, we will be far more likely to produce totally present actors.

The skilled actor's task is to be aware of, and respond to the physical, mental and emotional states which continuously transform her own being in performance.  Her spontaneously creative self-expression must take form in the exact shape of the words the playwright provided her with.  It is the constantly renewing action of this process that allows her to be totally present, on stage, in character, speaking ‘as if’ she were the embodiment of her character – which is what, in fact, she is. After all, there is no one else up there on stage, speaking those lines. She is, indeed, Present with a Capital P.

Cavarero, A. (2005). For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford, Stanford UP.
Hall, P. (2000). Peter Hall's Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle, Theatre Communications Group.
Karpf, A. (2006). The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are. New York, Bloomsbury.
Linklater, K. (1992). Freeing Shakespeare's Voice. New York, Theatre Communications Group.
Titze, I. R. (1992). "Vocal efficiency." Journal of Voice 6(2): 135-138.
Titze, I. R. (2015). "Breath is not the carrier of speech." Voice and Speech Review 9(1): 91-93.

[1] I use the term “actor” in its non-gendered sense throughout this article.
[2] In case these names are new to you, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracey are two American film actors of a past generation I highly recommend checking out on Youtube. Likewise, Sir Peter Hall was a hugely influential English theatre director worth researching.
[3] It makes no difference whether the training was acquired in a three year acting course, or over a number of years gaining experience 'on the hoof'.
[4] Anne Karpf's book The Human Voice, is an excellent place to start. Karpf, A. (2006). The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are. New York, Bloomsbury.

Flloyd Kennedy Vocal Coaching Tutor (Liverpool)

About The Author

I am an experienced voice/acting coach & professional actress, having worked in the UK, USA and Australia for many years. I offer tools to develop a strong, flexible, effective and creative speaking voice and powerful communication skills.


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