The quest for naturalism and truth can lead to voice training falling out of favour as actors fear sounding ‘unnatural’. In fact, to be truly truthful you need to work at acquiring a free but supported voice, says Dewi Hughes
Voice work and Meisner technique can be great partners, vital for the training actor. We at the salon:collective are huge fans of Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting (no surprises there, I’m sure). The Meisner Technique’s goal is to have actors live truthfully in performance; more specifically, the ability to invoke an emotional state appropriate for the character and their situation.
To be a good actor, you need a voice that can be as expressive and expansive as your imagination. If not, you will be very limited in the roles you can play. A great voice teacher once said to me: “Actors speak. If they don’t speak, they’re mimes.” While I’m sure you could point to a number of wonderful non-speaking performances, these tend to be the exception.
Even before I began studying Meisner’s technique, I encountered resistance to voice training, mostly from actors who declared that a trained voice is “unnatural”. Perhaps this is the result of hearing actors perform in very stylised plays or films, which required a sense of style that is at odds with modern ideas of naturalism. Whatever the reason, voice training has the reputation of either being detrimental to naturalism, or being something that can be tackled later on, once the actor has nailed ‘living truthfully’. I believe that this is a mistake, and that Meisner and voice work are mutually supportive.
Stay safe in the playpen
To allow an actor to experience truthful living, the Meisner Technique begins with the repetition exercise to explore their own personal emotional range. It creates a sort of playpen, in which actors are encouraged to explore their emotional range with a partner. Through this exploration, the actor learns to avoid repressing emotion. This environment regularly produces moments of intense drama. Actors will often find themselves shouting or screaming at one another, and I am often approached by students of Meisner who are developing sore throats, or even longer term vocal damage as a result of the exercise.
Voice work can help with this, and more besides. Kristin Linklater is one of the most celebrated voice teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries. She uses the idea of the child in the cot as the example of the perfectly free voice. The child feels annoyance or sadness or joy, takes in a full, free breath, and simply expresses. Like Meisner, Linklater describes our process of growing up as a process of repression. To repress expression of emotion we tighten the muscles that govern breathing and voicing. As a result, our muscles atrophy. We learn to rely on minimal breathing, and limited voices, and the associated muscles become stiff or feeble. The training actor then arrives at their acting class with a vocal instrument that is not suited to the task.
Why the voice needs a workout
Meisner training will begin to unpick emotional blocks, but it will not deal with the underlying muscular problems. Without good breathing muscles, perhaps you can whisper, or strain your voice emotionally. Your words can still be understood, provided you have a good microphone and a very patient director, camera crew, audio technician, etc.
Or, the body goes on the attack. It’ll get that voice working by beating it up. It’ll create fascinating rasps, squeals, punches and croaks to get those feelings across. To do this, perhaps it will make you poke your head forwards, tightening the neck with the effort. This will throttle your voice even more. Your body is clearly under immense strain, so you must be feeling something deeply, yes? No. Ultimately, punching and pushing your voice will not make you a better actor. All of this effort is in fact blocking Meisner’s goal of living truthfully. It’s forming yet another layer of disconnected fakery.
Support your expression
In brief, if you want to be a better actor, you need to work on your voice. That’s it. Strengthen the appropriate breathing muscles, find the right balance of muscular efforts so that you can use your voice safely, and explore your voice through your imagination. All this will make a huge difference to your Meisner training, as it will enable you to express a broader spectrum of emotions.
I’ll leave you with one tip: if you are in a Meisner rep class, keep breathing. Notice if and when you hold your breath, or if your breathing becomes panicky. It’s a clue to something emotional underneath, so breathe down into it, and express it all.
Dewi Hughes is offering a structured programme of voice classes for the salon:collective this year, starting with an introductory two-day workshop on September 19 and 20. This will be followed by Saturday afternoon classes from October 3.