USF has employed Voice, Speech, and Text specialists since 1986, and this commitment reflects the festival’s larger commitment to engaging with the plays of Shakespeare and other great texts with integrity and respect for the theatrical tradition out of which they arose. The plays we produce here are challenging and complex, and the festival recognizes the need for diverse team of specialists in bringing these works to performance.
The purpose of this document is to provide a conceptual framework for understanding the contribution of the Voice and Text team, to articulate USF’s goals and values regarding the speaking of text on our stages, and finally to give some practical information about schedules and work practices in this area.
What is a Voice/Text Director?
Voice Direction (also called “coaching”) is as flexible a role as any in the theatre. We work, as all theatre artists do, in collaboration with the team, and seek to forward the production’s artistic mission in the manner best suited to the style of the director and acting company. We are well aware that our contribution amplifies the director’s vision, rather than contradicting it, and that actors are engaged in a very sensitive, personal process that we support with our work. Our best work facilitates the creative work of our collaborators, and never undermines it.
There are a variety of terms for this role in the Theatre. At USF we have settled on the term voice/text director as a convenient and inclusive label for the wide range of artistic issues under our supervision. Depending on the demands of the production, we may be concerned with:
Health and safety of an actor’s vocal use
Metrical aspects of a text
Design of vocal characterizations including:
Qualities of resonance
Other prosodic features
What do we value at USF?
We value language that moves, that illuminates, that demands attention and allows revelation. Simply put, we value language that embodies our humanity. There are three areas of focus for our work: Voice, Speech, Text.
Every actor’s voice is an embodiment of themselves, and the actors employed by the festival have been selected for their vocal strength and flexibility, as well as for their experience and training. We do not take the view that the voices of actors in our company are in need of fixing. We recognize, however, that the vocal challenges of rehearsing and performing challenging texts, in an outdoor theatre, perhaps simultaneously singing and performing with a variety of accents and vocal characterizations, is a daunting task for even the most athletic voices and we aim to assist actors in making the most out of their performances.
Our first goal is to help actors find vocal freedom. The notion of freedom in voicework is founded on the principle that human speech is an instinctive and naturally effortless behavior, that is inhibited by habitual patterns of residual tension. We seek to remove obstacles to the free flow of breath and sound.
An actor’s voice also needs to be capable of athleticism within the context of vocal freedom, and experience, tradition, and science have led us to some conclusions about which muscular actions most effectively power the voice so it can carry the thoughts to the back of the balcony. When an actor can isolate the muscular activity that helps the flow of voice from the effort that interferes with that flow, this provides a physical “structure” of support. That allows the actor to use the energy required for performance without engaging in efforts that can tire the voice or reduce flexibility.
The voice, more than any other musical instrument, is capable of modifying its resonant characteristics. These fluctuations of resonance are an essential part of language and we are capable of a tremendous variety in the creation and perception of these resonance patterns. We can also manipulate resonance in order to “tune” our vocal use. Adjustments of the shape of the vocal tract can amplify our voices by maximizing acoustic efficiency. Attention to this aspect of vocal resonance can greatly add to the impact of an actor’s voice on an audience’s perception.
An actor needs a strong voice and a relaxed voice, and a richly harmonic voice, but these are not just abstract aesthetic qualities. It does an actor no good to have a beautiful voice if that voice is not flexible enough to transmit the spontaneous, impulsive variations of mind and spirit that convey the actor’s internal experience of thought and language. An effective voice in the theatre must be “transparent”, and available to minute fluctuations of expressive variety. To a certain degree expressive clarity of language can be something that is analyzed, rehearsed, and performed, but there is also a need for the voice to convey the presence of the actor’s inner life, and moment-to-moment experience of the text.
Many of the principles listed above lead an actor to a more healthy use of voice. Engaging in vigorous, playful activity tends to make us more physically fit, and this is no less true with the voice. But actors do get sick and, high altitude, low humidity, pollen, and repeated vocal effort can combine to put a strain on the larynx. It is an important responsibility for the Voice and Text staff to assess an actor’s vocal health, to refer to a qualified physician, and to assist actors in planning their return to vocal fitness. Voice injuries are serious, and we pay close attention and offer guidance to help actors recover, or if possible, avoid these problems in the first place.
As we’ve already stated, we value voices that reveal the complexity of an actor’s inner life, and we see “voice” as a term that encompasses the articulation of words. “Speech” is an inextricable part of what actors do with their voices and anything actors do with their voices, they are really doing with their whole selves, and so we address speech with the same care and complexity as we do the rest of the voice.
The first goal in our work on speech is intelligibility. Especially when dealing with centuries old texts in an outdoor theatre, actors need to provide audiences with an unusually high degree of what we would call “linguistic detail.” Simply put, this is the information provided by our articulation that allows a listener to decode what’s being said. In normal conversation, we get by just fine while leaving out a surprising amount of that detail, but when the wind is blowing, and your mind is drifting, and the actor up on stage is facing upstage, the small difference between “swords” and “sores” can have a significant impact on the information being conveyed. The effect of this loss of linguistic detail is also cumulative and what may seem to the actor to be a small degradation in the quality of the signal can lead to an audience getting exhausted by the task of making up the difference with their imaginations.
The need for linguistic detail and energetic articulation must always be balanced against the moment-to-moment needs of the character and the natural flow of language, but the role of the voice/text director is often to break the news that the ideas are not making it to the back row of the balcony.
Intelligibility is largely independent from accent, and it’s important to state this fact clearly because there can sometimes be an Anglophilic tendency amongst American actors in Shakespeare, and it is often promulgated under the guise of intelligibility. There are many names for this vaguely British accent: Mid-Atlantic, Stage Standard, even Good American Speech, but they all modified forms of an essentially British model. We believe that there is nothing inherently clear about a British accent, and since we are an American Shakespeare Festival, it is more than reasonable to speak these plays with our American voices. The accents of the United States are clear enough, rich enough, and sophisticated enough to carry the language of these plays in all their complexity.
When Shakespeare wrote his plays, modern British and American accents didn’t exist and so there is no rationale for choosing the former over the latter. There may be a rationale for altering an actor’s personal accent to bring it in line with character decisions and the aesthetic of the production, but the assumption that there is a particular, “proper” accent for acting Shakespeare is flawed at its core. This is particularly the case when the accent has been constructed with a clear bias toward British sounds. Our goal is intelligibility, and we pursue this with specificity and with sensitivity to artistic results of our choices.
In many cases, the accent an actor constructs for a character will be close enough to their own that no special attention needs to be paid to it. When accent work is required, however, the voice/text director provides extensive support.
Complicated language doesn’t obscure meaning: it IS meaning.
Intelligibility is built on a foundation of rhetorical clarity. A great deal of attention goes into making sure that actors understand the text they’re speaking, and that the rhetorical strategies they use to speak it clearly communicate the ideas to the audience. We see this as one of our first tasks and we take the time to go over every word spoken in the play in individual meetings with the acting company
In service of this goal, we also pay close attention to the metrical structure of the plays. While we don’t adhere to a particular school of Shakespearean textual interpretation, we do find that prosodic analysis can yield insights that are useful to actors. Furthermore, our preference, all else being equal, is for the verse to be spoken smoothly, with no interruptions not called for by the verse structure itself.
The primary member of the artistic staff who facilitates the phrasing, musicality, and interpretation of song by the actors is the musical director. However, the voice/text directors can play a crucial collaborative role in this process, particularly when there is a requirement for actors to sing in dialect. In collaboration with the director and musical director, the voice/text directors can assist in determining key sounds and phrasing which support the given world of the play, but also allow the actor to find effective vocal placement and a relative ease within the athletic event of singing. Additionally, voice/text directors may offer assistance in maintaining vocal choices that promote health and repeatability in performance.
Voice/text directors are assigned to productions by the artistic directors in consultation with the head of Voice and Text. They serve the production and work with other artistic staff (mainly director and actors). Their work is always intended to enhance the artistic work of these collaborators. voice/text directors will make themselves available to meet with directors and maintain clear communication throughout the process.
Secondaries and Notes
Voice/text directors make use of the festival’s system of secondary rehearsal calls and submit requests for secondary Voice and Text sessions with actors directly to the stage management administrative assistant. We meet in the Voice and Speech House – which serves as the Childcare House once we reach previews. There are several places in this building to hold secondary sessions, so both voice/text directors are able to hold sessions at the same time.
After the initial weeks of rehearsals, voice/text directors tend to spend more time in the rehearsal hall and less in secondary sessions. As a result, more of their feedback will be in the form of notes. These may be emailed, or printed and delivered. Sometimes notes are best given in conversation, and while we are careful not to intrude on actors’ break time, or distract actors waiting for an entrance, many actors find that they prefer to engage the voice/text directors in informal conversation in order to amplify and clarify written notes. If we can find a way to get this done during rehearsal lulls, we’re happy to take the opportunity
We offer voluntary group vocal warm-ups during the rehearsal process. While we recognize that actors in this company haven’t come to Utah as students, and that each actor has their own needs and process, we hope to provide vocal workout that actors will find useful in meeting the challenges that come with performing Shakespeare in a large, outdoor theater.
Looking forward to the work we’ll be doing together,
Head of Voice, Speech, and Text