Renowned and influential voice and text teacher Kristin Linklater died on June 5. She was 84.
On June 5, Kristin Linklater left us. She was at Housegarth, her home at the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre on her beloved Orkney Island. She leaves behind her son Hamish (his tribute is below), Lily, and three granddaughters, as well as a diverse global community of friends, teachers, and students who have been deeply and indelibly influenced by her work.
When I first met Kristin in 1977, I was terrified, thrilled, and transported. She was a force of nature, with a vision that theatre should be a catalyst, and charged me as a young actor to go beyond my comfort zone to express myself with greater capacity and dared me to speak from a more vulnerable place. Kristin had a brilliant, well-read mind, a witty sense of humor, genuine human warmth, and a fierce belief in the power of words. She is loved and profoundly missed by me and so many. Having her as my mentor, my colleague, and my dear friend all these years has been one of the great joys of my life.
Born in Edinburgh to the Scots writer Eric Linklater and Marjorie Linklater, a social activist, Kristin grew up on Orkney with her sister and two brothers. In an interview in 2006, she remarked, “My work is filled with images of nature, and I think that is due to the fact that I grew up surrounded by the ocean, birds in rocky cliffs, grassy hillsides, and the wind and the rain.”
She trained at LAMDA with Iris Warren in voice and with Trish Arnold in movement. Warren had developed her own unique approach to training actors’ voices: from inside out rather than outside in. Kristin teacher-trained with Iris at 21, and taught at LAMDA for six years, counting Donald Sutherland and Brian Cox among her students. In her book Freeing the Natural Voice, she wrote:
It was Iris Warren who moved the science of voice production.… adding psychological understanding to physiological knowledge… Progress lay in the answer to the question, “How does it feel?” rather than “How does it sound?” The ultimate aim was to free oneself through the voice. Iris Warren’s constant emphasis was “I want to hear you, not your voice.”
Moving to New York City in 1963, Kristin taught privately and went on to vocal coach for the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, the Negro Ensemble, the Lincoln Center Repertory Group, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. Over the years, Kristin coached Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Alfre Woodard, Bill Murray, Bernadette Peters, Angela Bassett, Courtney Vance, Marlo Thomas, Sam Rockwell, Debra Winger, Kim Cattrall, and John Douglas Thompson.
When Kristin became the Master of Voice for NYU’s Theater Program in 1966, she was deeply influenced by Peter Kass’s acting classes. His emphasis on truthful acting spurred Kristin to deepen her own search for authenticity in her work. She expanded her knowledge with Alexander sessions and sitting in on Moshe Feldenkrais’ and Jerzy Grotowski’s classes. Her curiosity and desire to explore other disciplines throughout her lifetime was living proof that learning never ends.
TCG asked Kristin to meet with regional theatre directors to discuss vocal training for actors. She received grants over time from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the NEA, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of her teaching. Kristin’s commitment to developing teachers made a significant impact on actor training, and she would eventually designate over 250 teachers from more than 23 countries. It was my great pleasure to assist her in this process from 1989 to 2020. Through a rigorous process, Kristin set a high bar of excellence for her teachers. She would challenge them, nurture them, demand more, and have wildly raucous celebrations with them—usually with singing and beverages.
In 1974, Kristin met Tina Packer, a charismatic actress and director who wanted to explore the roots of Shakespeare’s language. Kristin developed a series of exercises called Sound and Movement, designed to awaken one’s ability to respond to imagery so that the spoken word is felt as an experience and not just relayed as utilitarian information. From Freeing the Natural Voice:
The central nervous system governs the whole organism through continuous streams of images, be they auditory, olfactory, tactile, visual, impressionistic, or figurative. Images in voice work help to reconnect the acts of listening and speaking to…the whole person.
The same year she published Freeing the Natural Voice, 1976, Kristin gave birth to Hamish, whom she called “my greatest achievement.”
Tina, Kristin, and Dennis Krausnick founded Shakespeare and Company in 1978 at the Mount in Lenox, Mass. Kristin taught voice and text with the company and brought in Trish Arnold and Merry Conway for movement. I was one of the founding actors with the company; it was a magical, heady time. We all lived and breathed Shakespeare, and felt our vibrations bring the Bard’s words alive. Kristin had wanted Hamish to grow up in the countryside, and all the company children ran around the woods and fields waving sticks for swords and spouting lines of iambic pentameter.
Kristin left to teach at Emerson College, and her second book, Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice, was published in 1992. She created the Company of Women with Carol Gilligan, producing all-female productions of Henry V and King Lear (with Kristin as Lear), and giving empowerment workshops for women and girls. She firmly believed in raising one’s voice in protest for a better world. Kristin returned to NYC to teach at Columbia’s Graduate Acting Program. I taught there with her and enjoyed watching her as she zeroed in and persevered until the actor felt a shift, speaking with deeper understanding. She and I later founded the Linklater Center for Voice and Language, and with Dean Carol Becker’s initiative, gave public speaking workshops together to the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellows for 10 years.
Orkney had nourished Kristin through the years. It was at Housegarth that she built her Kristin Linklater Voice Centre with an amazing staff of women. It opened in 2014 to give workshops, poetry readings, and celebrations of all kinds.
Lately I’ve been dreaming of being with Kristin in Orkney—I had the pleasure of visiting her last year. In my mind I wake up at the Centre and sweep the studio to have it ready for Kristin to come teach. I’m just there on the bench outside, waiting for her, listening to the morning birds, hearing the cows in the field, and the distant ocean. And the air is sweet and clear.
Dining Out on My Mother
My mom died the morning of June 5th, at the ripe, full age of 84. The day previous she’d spent a long, leisurely, laugh-filled FaceTime with her granddaughters, a regular quarantine ritual, and this past January we had all made the trek from L.A. to Orkney to ring in the New Year with her, and we had a fair party full of dance, songs, and toasts before the world shut down.
If anyone asks me about myself, I’ll typically answer with my mother’s story; she’s my best context. So if we were sitting at the West Bank Cafe right now with our martinis, waiting for the calamari, here’s the spiel you’d get:
I’m an only child of a single mother.
My mom came to New York in 1963 to be part of Kennedy’s America—the Civil Rights part, not the man on the moon part.
Within a week of arriving in the U.S. Kennedy was dead.
And Mom had no job. Apparently her only real plan in coming to America was get nearer to Jack.
But then the phone rang—this all happened in the first week, no apochrypha, she was called to interview at a new theatre that needed a voice teacher, she met the bosses in a cigar smoke-choked office.
“I’m Gadge, this is Houseman, our new rep company the Lincoln Center opens in a few weeks and we’ve got this kid Robards who can’t be heard past the orchestra.”
She was in the right place at the right time.
Here was a nation of actors trained in the Method to mumble, and masses of money from Ford’s, etc., flooding America’s regional theatre barns. The mumblers needed their consonants pricked, their vowels individuated, and their volumes turned way way up.
They had the naturalism, but they needed it freed.
She went on to work at, help establish, and/or co-found, the Guthrie, Stratford, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Open Theater, the Working Theater, the Manhattan Project. She worked with Dr. Feelgood on the original production of Hair, she was a lover of Donald Sutherland and purported intimate of Peter Brook, she was a voluntary human shield for the Black Panthers, she was a professor at NYU, and Emerson, and Columbia.
In 1978 she wrote down what she was doing, Freeing the Natural Voice, a book which with its partner Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice would sell 120,000 copies and become the industry standard for training elite Shakespearean motherfuckers.
She quit NYU to co-found Shakespeare & Company with Tina Packer. I was 2. She burnt her tenured paycheck to raise her son in the country, in a commune of actors, cohabitating in a no electricity-or-hot-water haunted mansion built by Edith Wharton called the Mount, where every summer her kid sat on the lawn and dozed off with the rest of the second homers watching Shakespeare.
Or she’d put the kid in the show if they needed a changeling child, and to save on babysitting money. Mom played Margaret, the Nurse, and Lady M with Delroy Lindo. She made her Broadway debut at 47 filling in for Cecily Tyson in The Corn Is Green. She had three granddaughters and figured out you can’t raise a grandkid like a grad student—you cannot mold them, the best you can hope is to surf them, and be delighted by them.
And she was my only mother, my wonderful person, the priest in my temple, the gossip on my Rialto, my historical contextualizer when the world went mad. “Well, in the Blitz we…” “Well, in ’68 we…” “Well, Olivier got terrible reviews for Romeo, too… ”
Her work’s been translated into nine languages, her teachers warm-up has reached the Globe’s four corners. She’s rolled down her spine in Soviet Russia, in Communist China, she loosened her jaw from Taiwan to the Yucatan. And she didn’t do it to be famous, or to get likes—listen up, Granddaughter No. 1—she did it for a higher purpose.
This is from her essay “The Incredible Shrinking Shakespearean,” published in American Theatre (for whom she once was a cover girl) in 1990. I pull the article out right at the table, it’s in my back pocket:
Within the elements of Shakespeare’s language is encoded Shakespeare’s creative force. When that language is incarnated—when the words become flesh and breath and feeling—today’s actors are reborn to embody the archetypal stories told by the greatest poet-dramatist ever.
Through the incarnation of language, today’s theatre could rediscover the whole purpose of theatre, which is to bring healing and new life to the community it serves. The breath of life within the words, the word animating emotions in the body, the body and voice deepening and expanding the humanity of the actor, the actors revitalizing the theatre, the theatre nurturing the soul of its community, the community a microcosm of our global village, where, breathing deeply the air common to all humanity, we may one day before it is too late—find and share words and stories that can save our universal souls.
And then she retired to where her people are from, Orkney, these little islands off the northern coast of Scotland, washed and blown in the bitter spray of the North Sea.
And as you signal for the check, you might at this point say, “Phew, well, she deserved a rest after all that.” To which I would take a sip, and resume:
Rest? Oh no, Then she built a studio, and a residence, and an amphitheatre, and dug a loch in her back yard, started the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, where she teaches 22 weeks out of the year, and the world flies to her now, the rest of the year it’s still conferences, forums, still trying to work it all out, right the world, or the theatre, at the very least. And on it went, till last Friday.
(Here I pause for a sob. And then resume.) Oh, but I forgot the Company of Women with Carol Gilligan, and when she played Lear! Let’s have another…
Mom, I love you, and the life you made for me.