‘Crisis’ Revisited: Re-entering Dark Voices in Revolt

In 2013, an article that I wrote called Dark Voices in Revolt was published in the TDPT Journal (vol. 4(3), 2013, 360-380). The article discussed the application of existing Oriental and Occidental voice and movement methods (the term Physio-Vocal, to me, captures the exact essence of voice/movement integration practice and theory) in order to ‘discover’ an alternate to the multifaceted area of the voice in performance pertaining to the notion of ‘crisis’. Simply put, ‘crisis’ may be defined as an emotionally significant event (which possibly has negative connotations attached to it), an unstable situation, and so on. Throughout our investigations, training, performance practice and research, we came to the conclusion our work was categorised into three forms of ‘crisis’: physical crisis, conceptual crisis and vocal crisis.

Physical crisis is a situation where the body is engaged in a challenging position, for example, it may be off balance in a moving or static state, moving dynamically through the space or placed in a position where the abdominal muscles are engaged to keep the body upright or in a stable position. Through these physical states, the performer must engage in various voice work. Conceptual crisis is a term (and practice) that is largely influenced by  the philosophies and practice of Butoh dance, for example, exploring the illogical, absurd with the underpinning notion of ‘revolting’ against the convention. Of course, Butoh means one thing to one practitioner, and another thing to the other. It is not a method, which makes it quite difficult to pin down. Vocal crisis is a term given to when the use and semantics of the voice is extended, amplified, enlarged beyond recognition to depict the primordial, preverbal and representational significance of the inner contained energies expressed through sound.

The training that comes from the above categories of crisis can be quite physically and vocally demanding. Of course, this is not uncommon in performance training, particularly in more recent times. The demands on the performer are increasing; they are required to do so many things at the one time – dance, sing and act, and many other challenging things. Performers are being trained to deal with difficult and challenging materials that are given to them.

I’ll refer to the Suzuki Actor Training Method as an example of a method (particularly in reference to physical crisis), that is truly challenging. As Suzuki’s training method is rigorous and ‘plagued’ with physical crisis, there is a risk, according to Paul Allain, that these physical tensions may ‘exacerbate vocal stress.’ (Allain, 2002, p.127). This is in a sense the crux of the enquiry, and is a factor which is in need of investigation; the dichotomy of the instruments: free, unhindered voice from a body which is in a state of crisis. By crisis, I don’t mean counteractive, painful and harmful intensity that is damaging to the voice and body; I mean a heightened level of physical, muscular energy not present in every day life. In fact, this is what theatre is meant to be. What inspired me were these four thoughts:

  • The performer must be able to speak/sing in any position.
  • They need to train at a higher level than the actual performance itself.
  • They need to experience a certain level of contradiction in order to balance opposing elements.
  • They need to understand tension (or intensity) before you can understand freedom.

A performer must be able to speak, or sing in any position. That is fairly true, although some conventional theatre sees the performer doing nothing out of the ordinary. The musical would see the performer heighten this energy as they are required to dance, sing and act. Experimental and physical theatre would see the performer doing a lot more non-conventional physical and vocal actions. A performer may need to be able to sit and speak/sing, lie down on the floor and speak/sing, move, jog, leap, and speak/sing at the same time, or even be in a strange and highly challenging physical position and speak/sing. A performer needs to be ready for all of these challenges.

Performers are required to:

  1. Challenge the audience in an intellectual or conceptual level so that they could say ‘I believed (or didn’t believe) the story’, ‘That was an interesting story – it made me think’;
  2. Challenge the audience in a physical and vocal level, so in that case, the audience might say ‘the voices/bodies moved me…I was affected by the physicalities/sounds of the performers’;
  3. Understanding tension (or intensity) in order to understand freedom.

In order for the performer to successfully achieve both goals, they must be able to immerse themselves fully in what they are doing at all times. This means knowing themselves in time and space, understanding their physical and vocal power (and being able to harness that powerful energy and use it to its upmost advantage) and allowing their voice, bodies and imagination to drown in the drama at every millisecond. With all these things they need to do, they also need to be heard at any point in time. This is why training at a higher level is crucial.

Training at a higher level increases performers stamina and improves overall physical and vocal fitness. In essence, it makes performing easier. An athlete trains relentlessly, doing all kinds of moves and exercises specific to their sport, but they may not do the same sorts of moves in the actual game. The training prepares the athlete or sportsperson for the actual game itself. The idea of training at a higher level can be applied to the rehearsal room, as some treat rehearsals as preparation for the play, not the performance. Generally, some actors rehearse the play itself, meaning that they focus on the internal, the discussion and the world of the text as opposed to the play in conjunction with the notion of performance. Therefore they should contain the same level of intensity, awareness and focus as they would in a performance, in their training.

The third point refers to the experiencing of contradictions in order to balance opposing elements. Performance is all about balancing tension (useful tension, or heightened energy, not the counterproductive tension which blocks creativity and physical ease), with freedom. The contents stirs and bubbles, but the pot remains calm and serene. They must overcome the notion of expressing discomfort through the voice. Some of the physical positions in the work outlined in Dark Voices in Revolt (and other Voice Theatre Lab/Persona Collective exercises) are very challenging because they engage the entire body. They can be vocally challenging as well, because they are required to vocalise or speak in highly energetic and physically challenging positions. Performers minds will be trying to deal with these physical states and they will notice their bodies will try to avoid the difficult moments and jump to the conclusions. After all, nothing is achieved if they endgame.

The last point, ‘understanding tension (or intensity) in order to understand freedom’, refers to the muscular release and freedom (both mental and physical) one experiences after being engaged in a series of challenging exercises. In order to experience freedom, one needs to have an understanding of tension. It is quite tempting to carry on that tension (physically and vocally) if the performer holds on to the experience for some sort of counterproductive comfort, or just because they are simply unaware of their bodies. It is however important to focus inward, listen to the body and not to consciously hold during and post-exercises (e.g. only use the right muscles for each move without consciously bracing any other muscles).

In order to achieve success in any form of dichotomy, performers must have both knowledge and awareness: Knowledge of anatomy and physiology, and awareness of their own bodies and their limitations. Performers can do practically everything with the voice and body as long as they know what they are doing and what is going on inside them, and they are aware of what they are doing and feeling.

In summary, challenging Physic-Vocal training is encouraged and very beneficial, however, both the teacher/workshop leader and participant must have a clear knowledge and understanding of the body (including the vocal anatomy) to avoid injury and discomfort.

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About Robert Lewis

Dr Robert Lewis is a graduate of NIDA (Grad. Dip. Voice), University of Tasmania (BPA, PhD), Monash University (BA, Honours) and RMIT (Grad. Dip. Ed). Robert is a Lecturer in Voice and Movement at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania and has published theatre performances and training films through Contemporary Arts Media (Artfilms) and has also published various articles on the subject of voice and movement. Robert is the director of the Voice Theatre Lab (VTL) and its associated company, Persona Collective, a performance group focusing on integrative practices. For VTL, Robert has directed Dr Faustus (2007, 2008), 5 (2008), The Oedipus Project (2009), Iam Nocte (2010), Alchemy (2010), Profuge (2011, 2014) and the site-specific performance Two Houses (2011) as part of Iteration:Again. For Persona, Robert performed I Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2014) and directed Savages (2014) as part of Junction Arts Festival. Other directing credits include St Nicholas (2004), Glib Western (2005), The Pillowman (2010), When The Rain Stops Falling (2012) and The Photo (2013), including many other productions through the Theatre Program at the Tasmanian College of the Arts.

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