By Dr Sarah Weston, University of Leeds (S.E.Weston@leeds.ac.uk)
In the first year of my PhD I was trying to design a ‘political voice’ workshop for young people. And for some reason voice training came into my head. Like, proper actor training – drama school voice training. At first, I assumed it was a terrible idea. As a student of applied theatre who had largely left much of the technical training I had learnt in past behind, the idea of ‘training’ raised some alarm bells. Training, skills, telling others what to do and how to be, correctness – all these associations ran in opposition to what applied or participatory performance felt to be about – dialogue, reflection, agency and heterogeneity. But then, when I thought about it a bit more, I thought about Boal, and one of my favourite parts of the Theatre of the Oppressed:
To control one’s own body, we need to undo the ‘muscular alienation’ that is imposed on the body from work. Training can be used for this purpose, not to weaken or destroy the subject but to raise them to a level of consciousness about how labour has marked their body (Boal 2008: 103-104).
The undoing of muscular alienation always seemed such a powerful idea to me. That we can undo the marks that the world has left on us, the drudgery, the pain, the work, the reification and commodification of our bodies – theatre could help undo that, or at least begin to fight back against it. This was the principle that underpinned the decision to use practices of voice training and technique in a community context, specifically with young women around the question of political voice. In this context, the voice could be more than a metaphor for opinions, or a symbol of political representation. It could be a form of bodily apparatus that can be marked and investigating the voice could make the subject conscious of this vocal alienation. Voice training could be a tool of political intervention to undo this.
I will illustrate this further by discussing just one aspect of my voice practice. This practice was part of a doctoral research project that explored political voice as something material and embodied, rather than the ways in which the voice in the political sphere is a word used to symbolise broader ideas of representation and engagement. I worked with a small group of young women in different parts of the north of England. The workshops consisted of a combination of vocal technique with theatre exercises and political discussion, culminating in a short (aural) performance to a blindfolded audience. These performances were explicitly political, responding to a feeling of exclusion from politics that many of these young women felt. Their voices expressed these feelings of exclusion before making sounds of protest and resistance. We largely worked with the voice technique of Linklater and Rodenburg, thinking about their idea of habits and the habitual voice as something sociologically and culturally constructed.
One of the main aspects of the workshops was the creation of vocal soundscapes. This was the creation of a non-linguistic sound world, where the young women produced a series of vocalisations together to represent a theme or idea. They didn’t use any words and produced the sounds entirely through the voice. In one project, we produced a series of soundscapes in response to four themes that we had identified through a political discussion: being ignored, feeling helpless, feeling engaged, being active. The creation of these soundscapes happened quite late in the project, after the participants had already engaged in three days of both vocal technique and political discussion.
For the first soundscape, being ignored, one of the young women created a specific sound to represent this, a sound of being silenced. This was a kind of interrupted “B-uh” sound, as if she was trying to speak but the word got cut off; consonants never making it to a vowel. It was quite breathy, guttural, falling into sighs: a stopped voice. The other participants created the sounds of ignoring her: forceful “hah” sounds, elongated vowels that rolled over her stutters, clicks and other noises from the teeth and tongue.
In contrast to this, the soundscape for being engaged developed these cut off consonants to open vowels. “C-uh” and “b-uh” became long “ah’s”, moving from the staccato to something with more flow. The “ah’s” began in tone as a series of questions, a form of discussion between the participants, which eventually became “ah’s” of agreement, enthusiasm and excitement. We worked on how this change happens, and how it felt to finally allow the cut off consonants to become fully vocalized vowels. This move from the consonant to the elongated vowel sound was reflective of Linklater’s sigh of relief exercise. The sigh of the relief is when the participant stretches her arms into the air on an in breath, holds the breath to experience the tension, and then releases the arms at the same time as exhaling deeply, producing a sigh-on-sound, relieving tension through the body and voice simultaneously. The frustration in the first soundscape of not being able to make the sound, and being stuck at the consonant, was like the tension of the stretched arms and held breath. Then, the feeling of release in the full vocalization was like the relaxation felt in releasing the breath and arms on a long ‘ah’ sound. Here the participants drew a direct comparison between a vocal representation of being silenced to being heard, with the physiological experience of vocal tension to vocal release.
In creating these two soundscapes, the young women drew on vocal technique to help them articulate specific political feelings. Voice training helped provide a vocabulary of sounds that could represent political ideas. This is because voice training helped make clear how being silenced or the opposite, feeling able to voice, is something that can be experienced in the body. Becoming aware of how their bodies have been marked by their experiences of politics, the young people used these marks to help them articulate this experience to the audience. By using the motifs of voice training: vowels and consonants, sighs of relief, the touch of sound or blocks and tensions (as some examples), the young people demonstrated how this training has helped them articulate the social restrictions on their voice, and furthermore, how to begin combatting this restriction, firstly, through the body.
Boal, Augusto (2008). Theatre of the Oppressed. Trans. Charles A. McBride, Maria-Odilia Lead McBride and Emily Fryer. London: Pluto Press.