I remember, several years ago, hanging up the phone after speaking with someone from Theatre for a New Audience and having one feeling: fear.
I had just agreed to participate in a Shakespeare workshop for directors with Cicely Berry, the renowned author and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s voice and speech teacher. The focus of the workshop would be the director’s role in Shakespeare. With Berry’s guidance, a group of directors and actors would explore the plays of Shakespeare. My fear arose from the fact that I knew very little about Shakespeare. I would be surrounded by fellow directors—a rare opportunity in our profession. And these directors would undoubtedly know a great deal more about Shakespeare than I did. Add to this a group of trained actors who I was certain would stand in judgment of me. What was I doing?
Cicely Berry is a small woman. When I walked into the classroom for the first time, I didn’t notice her. She stood in the corner, quietly observing. After greeting the directors and actors, Berry invited us all to sit in a circle. As she talked, the room actually changed. I believe we all felt it. There was an electricity—a force—that she generated. What’s more, there was trust.
As she continued to speak, my fear began to subside. This workshop would be about the work. There would be no judgments—no right or wrong. It would be about exploring. Each of us, in our own way, would discover the meaning of Shakespeare through his words. We would find the music; we would concentrate on our own bodies and voices to help us with this exploration.
Over the next few weeks Berry guided us through exercises, discussions and readings. Everyone got a chance to work. Opinions varied. However, since there was no right or wrong, there was always something to learn. I soon found out that as a director, I had a tendency to plan things out, to expect certain results, perhaps as a way of feeling I was on track. I was also (I suppose out of fear, again) very controlling. But through Berry’s work, I discovered that if I did not look for judgment—or preordained results—the final work would be far more satisfying and, in the long run, much better. The world of Shakespeare was suddenly opening up to me, and Berry had shown me the door. It was pure joy.
We were told at the beginning of the workshop to select two scenes from a Shakespeare play of our choice. We were given a group of actors and a list of Berry’s exercises to begin to explore the scenes. We would use these exercises to continue to explore the scenes in front of the group, and Berry would observe, help, guide—but never introduce. It was up to us, the directors, to find our own way of approaching Shakespeare. It was an extraordinary experience to see all of the scenes, to see how each director chose to work, and to observe how the actors responded to the directors’ processes.
It was decided that these scenes would be presented to the public at the end of our workshop. Students, scholars and people interested in Shakespeare and Berry’s work would be invited. My response? Again, fear. After weeks of isolation and protection, we were now letting people in. Judgment. But something had changed. I kept hearing Berry’s words: There is no right or wrong.
On the last day of the workshop, we were each to stand in front of the audience, talk about our experience, and present our scenes and exercises. As I begin to talk, I realized I would never approach directing in quite the same way—whether it was a play by Shakespeare or a contemporary author. The way I work had actually changed. As I left Berry’s workshop on that last day, I felt I had acquired the tools and skills to direct Shakespeare.
SCOTT ELLIS: What was your journey to becoming a voice teacher?
CICELY BERRY: I was always mad about poetry as a kid. It was my refuge from a very lively family. I trained to become a teacher at the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, one of the best drama schools in the country, with courses for both actors and voice teachers. On leaving, I worked for two years in schools across the country, then went back to teach at Central. I taught there on the actor-training course full time for about six years. Then, having married, with a child on the way, I went part time. However, I started to do quite a bit of private work, and that was very rewarding. I was lucky and had some very interesting actors—among them, Peter Finch and Sean Connery. Then, in 1970, I had a piece of great luck—Trevor Nunn asked me to come in to the Royal Shakespeare Company, because he felt that young actors were not always ready to relate to the space they were working in and fill it easily. Nunn’s work was always intimate and private on stage—the actors needed help to really be able to keep that intimacy yet reach the edges of the auditorium.
To begin with, my work was basic voice training, which I’d done a lot of at the Central under Gwyneth Thurburn, who was a great, great teacher. The chief directors at the time at the RSC were Trevor Nunn, John Barton and Terry Hands. They were all three very generous people and allowed me into all their rehearsals as much as I wanted. It began to dawn on me that each of those directors had very different ways of working, very different styles of directing. As I’ve already said, Trevor wanted the intimacy and the deep passions of the characters not to be lost on stage, which is very difficult when you’re trying to fill a whole theatre. Hands tended to do more epic play and the histories, and he was always saying “louder” and “faster.” Barton did a lot of the more difficult later plays, like Measure for Measure, and he was very interested in every actor getting all the forms of speech, the imagery, the alliteration, the meter and so on, very clear.
To help an actor working with Trevor, I would get them to do things very quietly but reach across a large space, so they’d realize it was not just the volume but the muscularity of the language that had to be gotten over. With Terry’s actors I used to make them do it very quietly and slowly and find the imagery in their bodies for themselves, so that they could find the different textures in the language. And with John Barton, I would perhaps do a speech with an actor, throw a lot of books on the floor, and get them to put the books in order on the shelf while they were speaking the text. I wanted each actor to honor the style the director wanted, whilst finding their own personal, intimate relationship with the language.
When Trevor brought you in, the RSC had not had a voice teacher before—is that correct?
Yes, exactly. Plus, to my knowledge, it was the first company that had ever employed a full-time voice person.
Is that expected now, a given? Or is it unusual?
I think it’s more of a given. I wouldn’t say it happens all the time. And not always are directors totally free with the voice person—they don’t always give them license, I think. But I do think that actors nowadays have a very difficult task. I think it’s more difficult now for an actor to play Shakespeare than it was 20 years ago.
And why is that?
Twenty years ago, you expected to go to the theatre and hear beautiful language spoken in a slightly poetic way. But nowadays, we don’t want that. We want Shakespeare to sound as though it is being spoken for now. We have television and film in our ears. So we don’t want it kind of “performed” at us in a poetic way. But we’ve got to get that intimate meaning over to the audience. The language in Shakespeare is so rich, so heightened, and the actor has to get that over as if it’s being spoken normally—but really make the listener hear the depth and extravagance of the imagery that is being used.
Do you think something is now lost?
No, I don’t think it’s lost at all. I think the right delivery of Shakespeare’s language can make the play more real and more pertinent and urgent for the listener. But how we work on it has changed. I firmly believe we want to hear Shakespeare as if it were being spoken in today’s world, whilst honoring its heightened language, and this takes a lot of skill—like walking a tightrope—and to do this I have developed a lot of ways of working in order to feel the physicality of the speaking in the body so that it releases the language without making it sound falsely poetic in that slightly old-fashioned way. And this can be exciting.
Has your teaching changed and developed as you’ve worked with actors and directors?
I think it has changed considerably, and because all actors want to honor that language as fully as possible, I have developed a number of strategies to make this happen. The need to make the language clear and logical takes over—this stops us hearing what the actual sound of the language is doing to us. In Shakespeare’s day, only about 8 percent of people could read—they really got Shakespeare through the sound of it. Nowadays, we do so much research and so much reading about it, we’ve lost our innocence regarding the language. But there is something amazing about the sounds of that language. When Ophelia says “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown,” the length of the vowels, the sound of it, makes us hear her pain, so we realize the sound of the words reinforces the meaning. Again, when Iago feeds Othello’s jealousy and says: “But he that filches from me my good name…”—that word “filch” has such an unpleasant sound that it feeds Othello’s jealousy even more.
Is there a big difference between the way American actors work with Shakespeare and how English actors do it?
Yes, but I think that difference is getting less and less. Certainly when I first started working in America, I felt that the focus was on the feelings of the characters and not on how the language itself physically and muscularly expresses the feelings. Using Method acting, actors were giving the audience emotions rather than the reasoning behind the emotions—they weren’t so good at getting the reasoning and argument through.
Has the training of English and American actors become similar?
No, I don’t think it has; there is still quite a difference there. When I work with American actors, I find they are very hungry to take on this other way of doing it—i.e., ticking off the thoughts, so that one thought kicks off the next so that they find the reasoning behind the emotion. It doesn’t dumb down the feeling; it makes it stronger. We are allowed to discover what characters are feeling rather than being told what they are feeling.
Would you describe your approach as a system or technique?
I don’t want to label it, no. I just like to explore as I go and then set down my discoveries in the hope it will get others to explore further. My latest book, From Word to Play, is aimed at directors. It lists all the strategies I have found which help actors enter the center of the character and to allow them to find the language within themselves, which is underneath the logical meaning of the words. I often get people to perform a task while they are speaking. For instance, in the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude, when Polonius is killed, I might get the ensemble to try to keep them apart while they are speaking to each other, so that the effort of trying to get together gives the language itself a different kind of resonance: We are made to feel their pain—and their love. Or with Ophelia, when, in Act 3, Scene 1, she has had that painful exchange with Hamlet and he has feigned madness, I’ve often done an exercise when, while she is speaking the text, the rest of the group walk round in the space quite briskly, and she has to try to make someone listen to her. But as she walks up to them to speak a thought, they turn away. This heightens the reality that she has no one to talk to—and she is alone. That sense of not being able to communicate, of everyone walking away from her, helps the actor to feel how alone and bereft that character is—and that perhaps this leads to her madness. The sound of the language unlocks the subliminal meaning.
Is there a connection between the spoken word and singing? Is the approach the same?
To me there isn’t. Language actually comes from the need to speak a thought, and how each actor responds to that need differently. But when you are singing, although you are finding the truth of what you are singing, you have to honor certain notes at the same time, as well as certain timing, and that process is very different. Singing comes from the side of the brain that needs to put things in order. To speak a piece of text requires a great deal of understanding and imagination from the individual actor. I’m not saying singers don’t have to have imagination, but in the end they have to honor the timing and the notes of the music. Language also has a music to it, but its music responds to how the speaker hears it, and not to the music written down. Read The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain.
Is there one general mistake that American actors seem to keep making when they do Shakespeare?
No, it would be generalizing too much to speculate about that. I do think there is too much emphasis on the feeling, and that it is very important to realize what the structure of a speech is telling us. For instance, in any speech of Shakespeare, the premise is set out in the first line or lines, then that premise is argued through, and so comes to a conclusion. In Julius Caesar, for instance, how Brutus reasons through the possibility of killing Caesar—it is fascinating how he debates this within himself and his own experience, and so comes to a conclusion. Also how the iambic meter keeps the energy of the thought and reinforces the meaning. Yet within that structure, as Peter Brook would say, there are a million ways of saying one line. It’s like singing the blues—you can linger on any one vowel or any one sound as long as you like, but it has to be kept within the structure and timing of the iambic pentameter.
How important is dealing with breath? You talk about the muscular element, how important the body is when one approaches Shakespeare.
If you know how to take that breath into your center, that’s where the voice work comes from—that is so important. That makes the voice sound new. You have to do breathing exercises as part of the way you work. Eventually breathing will take care of itself when the thought is right, frankly. Let me add that the rhythm of prose is just as important as the rhythm of verse; that’s how primal language is—it changes all the time, but we have a reaction to the very rhythm and sound of the vowels and consonants.
Talk about the five-part educational DVD series The Working Shakespeare Library. How did that come about?
That was basically through Glenn Young, who has published my books under the Applause Books imprint in the U.S. He suggested that I set out a series of exercises which help the actor inhabit the character through that heightened language and make that language their own. I had always wanted to set out such a program, and he enabled me to get all the actors together and to get Tom Todoroff, who is a wonderful producer, to put it all together. We had an amazing set of actors—Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Claire Danes and Toby Stephens among them—and we tackled all the different aspects of acting Shakespeare: language textures, rhythms, relationships and so on.
Schools need to have the series because it is really remarkable. Shifting gears, how do you approach stage dialects in Shakespeare?
You have to deal with it as it happens. I like dialects, myself—what I don’t like is a very sort of middle-class accent, because I don’t think Shakespeare ever wrote in that accent; it was probably more what we now think of as West Country. I am told it was very similar to that spoken now in the Appalachian Mountains; I don’t know how true that is. Whatever accent you believe in, obviously, you still have to make it clear and define its muscularity.
What about the actor’s background? Here in the U.S. we have African-American actors, Latino actors, Asian-American actors—are the imperatives of how you train actors with voice, especially with classical text, different?
No, there are no absolutes. I’ve worked in all sorts of languages—I’ve worked in China in Mandarin and with Aboriginal people in Australia. I’ve worked a great deal in Rio, of course, with my group there. Whether or not they’re speaking English makes no difference to me. I mean, one really opens up to their own way of speaking, but the same rigor is necessary—the sense of the language being muscular, and hearing the changes in the rhythms of the language. You work in the same way you work with an English-speaking person. The voice is the voice. And what you have to do is honor the language of Shakespeare as well as you can, but from your own background.
You’ve done some work in prisons. What is that like?
It’s been wonderful working in prisons; once you give these fledgling actors the confidence to speak Shakespeare aloud (and that initially takes time), they actually get right inside it in an amazing way. That’s why a lot of my exercises deal with, say, an actor playing Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, getting surrounded by the group, which tries to impede him from speaking his piece and he has to fight his way through. That sense of using your body to get through the language—it takes you off guard and makes you angry, in a way, and the language comes out in such a forceful yet truthful way.
How have your feelings or thoughts about teaching voice changed over time?
The way of teaching voice I learned from the Central School of Speech and Drama—relaxation, strong breathing from the diaphragm, support from the ribs, muscularity of language and so on—has really not changed. It has been the most wonderful basis to work on, and I still believe in it. I like to get the actor individually to sit down, often on the floor, with me sitting on a chair behind them; they lean back on me so that they feel their own weight against my hands, and then they can feel their breath and get the sense of it going right down into their center, so that they feel where their voice is starting from.
Is teaching the voice for an ensemble different than for an individual actor?
Oh, yes. Well, I mean, you’re using the same tools. I often get the members of an ensemble to speak a speech together and walk around, then change direction on every punctuation mark—that is to make them realize that you have to find each thought as it goes, and develop one thought from the other. We do a lot of work on the structure of speeches and therefore the music that goes through those speeches.
I believe your exercises can work for other things—I’ve applied a few of them to other texts. It’s not just about Shakespeare.
Oh, this training really isn’t exclusively about Shakespeare—it’s about all text. And the rhythms, the rhythms are important. When the Hostess relates to us how Falstaff died, we are still moved by it today, and it is the very rhythm that moves us. We still laugh at the comics—Touchstone or Feste, for example—often without completely understanding the dialogue. Rhythm is primal. To quote from my book, From Word to Play: “For the writer, the essence of the meaning is locked in the rhythm—whether smooth or broken. It is in the length of the phrases and how they knock against each other—be it Shakespeare or David Rudkin, Ben Jonson or Harold Pinter, Philip Massinger or Samuel Beckett, meaning is rhythm, and rhythm is meaning.”
Scott Ellis, the associate artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, is a five-time Tony nominee. His Roundabout production of The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck and his Second Stage Theatre premiere of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch by Douglas Carter Beane are currently running in New York City. He is the executive producer of “Weeds” on Showtime.
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