Voice Exchanges

Emma Bonnici and Sarah Weston

During lockdown in the summer of 2020, we, two practitioners concerned with voice, entered into an email discussion. We had identified mutual interest in the liberating qualities of voice in performance training, but were approaching such training from two different perspectives. Trained in Grotowski and Polish physical theatre, Emma Bonnici is an actor, singer and teacher who has worked with companies such as Song of the Goat and Tear Zar and now explores voice as life practice. Sarah Weston alternatively is a community theatre practitioner and academic, whose research examines the political efficacy of voice training.

We sent a series of questions and email exchanges across several months, and we hope it is of interest to a wider audience…

Sarah’s question:

Do you think there is something about engaging and training in voice that is unique or different to engaging in other theatre or performance practice?

Emma’s response:

Dear Sarah,
Sorry it has taken so long to write back to you I got swamped by a project I was shadowing . . I have been going over and over your question and in many ways I find it difficult to answer because is there something different or unique?? . .yes and also no. I am aware of my own bias which is sometimes evangelical in its expression and I am wrestling also with this.
I would say that all the different elements of theatre or performance practices offer a door way into a dialogue and discovery of self and one’s subconscious as well as one’s own blocks.

However when looking at the peformative tools which are connected to one’s own self/body, the voice, unlike the body – is linked to both body, breath and psyche. We can work with our body and never use our voice, but it is not possible the other way round. Voice is also linked to language and cognitive comprehension in a way body is not. Also I instinctively want to say that voice displays to our internal state with greater clarity than the body. Or perhaps we can read its meaning more clearly. A business woman who holds a senior position at PWC told me that when she has to go to a big meeting she can gain mastery over her nerves when they are shown in her body but her voice always betrays her inner state as she can’t get it under control. It is harder to make the voice lie or manipulate it to present a front or image. And in performance work it shows our connection to meaning and imagination and so when the actor does not have this connection we can hear it.

Further to this there is something about the voice which is experienced as intensely personal. (I acknowledge the body is also intensely personal as the number of body issues will attest to). But I have always been struck that when speaking about singing I rarely meet anyone who is particularly neutral about the subject. It seems to hold a strange and often unique place in people’s lives where so often people have a deep belief that they “can’t” sing and this can often hold a lot of emotion and rejection in a way that those who say they can’t dance often don’t feel.
When broaching the subject of singing with those working in the corporate world in line with team building, training listening, leadership and followership etc even the most open minded will often at a push be okay with moving – if they cant do something more overtly linear and with a clear outcome such as mountain climbing, absailing, obstacle solving – but singing . . not on your life!!
It is too exposing, too vulnerable making and therefore it is renagaded in the business world to a place of frivolity. There is something about the voice that feels so closely linked to self and an expression of self.
Can it then be seen as an access point into a dialogue with self in the way that the body is not?

Here are some questions for you, not necessarily to be all answered . . maybe just the one that attracts you

Emma’s question:

What attracts you or speaks to you about voice work? What stories does it help you convey that you can’t convey any other way? What place/need does it fulfill for you in community projects?

Sarah’s response:

Dear Emma,

Your response made me immediately think deeper about the vulnerability of the voice. Which I think leads me into the answers to your questions. The voice seems a place of intense vulnerability, but at the same time it can be a symbol of power. It is the voice not the body that is used figuratively for empowerment, representation, political expression. Yet when it comes to training – as you describe – the voice is often a much more intimidating thing for people to approach. I think perhaps then my work is about claiming the symbolic power that the voice holds through countering the feeling of vulnerability of the physical/physiological voice.

This tension between voice being used in politics so often as a synonym for representation, and the lack of material engagement with the voice broadly in our society (in schools, education, workplaces etc) for me seems really significant and something that I want to address. I think that’s why it is so important to me in community projects. If we are doing community theatre as representative performance (giving a platform to a story that would not otherwise have been seen/heard), then working on the voice seems fundamental. I guess I’m saying that we cannot fully think of the voice as symbol of representation until it has been approached physically/materially/physiologically – whatever word you want!

And I guess this becomes true in all aspects of the subject’s life – like in the workplace as you describe.

So my question for you, if you wish, or if you would prefer just to reply that is fine –

Sarah’s question:

Do you find singing as a way for someone to represent themselves / express themselves / tell their story – even when the content of the song is unrelated?

Emma’s response:

Dear Sarah,

In brief,
I’m sitting on the thankful empty tube reading your response and crying, because. . . Maybe because I’m listening to a song that makes me sentimentalise, maybe it is because in 2020 I have been so acutely aware of a voicelessness – starting with climate change, then black lives matter, #metoo. Your words reminded me of the deeper reasons of why I passionately believe in voice work. For a long time I was not really allowed a voice or it was quieted as a child, then as a person, an artist and ribboned through all of this was the repression of my voice because I was a woman. Speak up, you are angry, Speak up, you are emotional, unreasonable. Later disagree and you will be fired, repel my advances, you will be fired. I was fired twice first time for repelling advances, 2nd time for having and using a voice to question my rights. And your email connects me with my own longing for the right and courage to use my own voice and own my own perspective. I teach so I might open a space where others are allowed to speak, to say to others and most of all to themselves, I am here, I have power. In the very fact of acknowledging I am of speaking that out into a space where that is seen and witnessed, it allows for all the fragmented and outcast aspects of self to come together! And in that moment the work of voice is about an embodiment of voice – See me, I stand before you and own every aspect of myself.
In that moment of standing and being seen, in seeing, the thoughts that maybe one is not quite
Good
Enough
Right
Enough . . .

Is not there
And the voice is freed.

Voice is not a purely creative tool but one that is deeply linked with a right to be and take space: to articulate thought, feeling and human rights – a political tool which feels ever more important. It is in many ways exactly this which I feel is being eroded through the education policy and the ways in which the arts are being taken out of mainstream education. However I am interested in pursuing more this thought of yours, that the voice, not the body is used figuratively for empowerment, representation and political expression. When I follow that thought I see the loss of the arts in correlation to a diminishing of an ability to connect to and express personal points of view and experiences and then enter into a conversation about them, a debate.

However here the voice is not a single thing. To ” have a voice ” can also be image based too. Much of the political voice, as I understand it, is about visibility before audibility. Is this true?? Or is it that in fact I am just not seeing that before audibility comes a conversation albeit behind closed doors and then the visible voice through action is taken?

Is “having a voice” a vocal and physical/ visual thing. A freedom of thought and response to that thought?

Okay I will send this now despite wanting to be more artful and thoughtful but I prefer to be clumsy and after your prompting continue our exchange.

Emma’s question:

So what is it then to HAVE A VOICE as a person of colour, as a minority, as an ecology, as a woman, as a person with mental health challenges? What facilitates the growth of this voice individually and as a community. What is hindering it? To have a voice does that mean one has to be heard?

Where does listening come into this?

Sarah’s response:

Dear Emma

I think certainly there is something more to having a voice than vocality when we think of voice in the political sphere, and when we think why voice has become a metaphor for something related to empowerment, protest and/or liberation. In response to your final questions, I suppose the question of having a voice is so much more significant to those who feel marginalised. It is for them (us?) that the image of voice that you talk about does feel important – because speaking is often not enough, or your words aren’t listened to. I guess voice becomes a term for connection or solidarity – women having a voice rather than a woman.

I suppose what I have been examining in my work is whether there is a connection between not having the metaphorical voice – e.g. not being listened to in mainstream society – and not having the physical and psycho-physical tools of voicing. So voice as empowerment, protest and/or liberation is deeply connected to both the metaphor/image of voice and the physical act of vocality. Freedom of thought and being able to vocalise are the same process?

I think listening is a huge question that I am really interested in exploring further. This week it occurred to me how bad I am at listening. In my own training I am thinking of focusing on this as a main point of development.

Sarah’s questions:

Can we train the voice and train the act of listening at the same time?

I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts about the connection between voice as visual and voice as aural?

And what has been your experience of listening when undertaking your voice as life practice? Both you as listener and the participant when they hear themselves differently?

Emma’s response:

Dear Sarah,
It is funny, I think listening is the heart of voicing and in particular singing. The first person who taught me about listening was Jonathan Hart Makwai. In the group classes with him he was the first teacher who lead me to “listening” to my own curiosity, trusting it and following it, rather than “teaching” us. In the 1-1 classes I found he listened to me and the room in such a way that I could hear myself. It was the first time that I caught what being a teacher was about and what the power of a listener who was present could do. He the only teacher I have had whose way of working leads me back to being able to hear myself. I am indebted to him.

Through working, I also began to feel that the “soul”, one’s subconscious, has its own tempo and in order to hear it and express it at the same time one has to slow down!! Do less and more can be heard and expressed. It is a listening as following, rather than knowing. It is a listening based on curiosity not destination.

As a teacher much of the way I listen has been informed by training and qualifying as a craniosacral therapist. (It is a body practice that uses light touch to listen to the body and the underlying movements of the joints, cranial bones as well as tonus and tensions of the muscles and fascia. On one end of the spectrum it is rooted in the mechanics of the body having come out of cranial osteopathy; at the other end of the spectrum with biodynamic craniosacral therapy, it sits closer to other body work forms such as reiki. I sit closer to the mechanical side for now.)
It taught me a particular quality of listening. And most importantly how to trust what it is that I am “hearing.” At its basic level, I would sit for an hour, holding a person’s feet and observing what I could feel or hear. This perception is enhanced by being present with and also by learning to ask the “right” questions. In order to ask those questions one first has to listen to what the client has said and also not said and then also see and read what the body is saying. As time went on, strange and odd things would pop into my head. Things I could not know and was not sure where they came from. I learned to say them out loud and allow the client to tell me if they meant anything to them. More often than not, it did. In that time, I learned that it didn’t have to make sense to me and no matter how stupid it may seem, just say it.

In Singing as Life Practice I continue that. I trust what is coming up and follow it, this often enables an unlocking.But I have over the years learned to read the body and voice and so can hear what is being unsaid. I can feel other’s voices and bodies inside my own. It is a choice, a matter of expansion and in my work teaching Ensemble theatre practice, this is a lot of what I am teaching. How to hear and where do we see/hear from.

Our seeing does not just happen with our eyes.
Our listening does not just happen with our ears.
Our expression of self, idea, thoughts does not just happen with our voice

Training Citizenship and Performance – Reflections

By Sarah Weston

“The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible in a way that is connected and full of conviction” Max Hafler.

On Wednesday 24th April 2019 I organised a symposium at the University of Leeds called Training, Citizenship and Performance. Hosted by two research groups, Political Communication (Media and Communication) and Performance Training, Preparation and Pedagogy (Performance and Cultural Industries), the event was an interdisciplinary exploration of whether we can train citizenship, and more specifically, whether performance is the tool for this training. The day was composed of four parts: two talks, from Professor Stephen Coleman presenting an overview of citizenship and Miranda Duffy discussing her work promoting democratic values with primary school children through theatre; and two workshops, Proper Job Theatre taking us through their Lab Project workshop process and Max Hafler immersing us in voice technique inspired by Michael Chekhov. Curating these very different approaches into a one-day event perhaps was a bit of a risk, maybe even a bizarre decision. But underneath it was my own conviction that theatre and performance practitioners possess skills that can be utilised in the political sphere. These are both the skills that are more traditionally associated with socially engaged performance practices and the skills of acting and performance more associated with professional theatre, such as voice training. This symposium in essence then, was an experiment in whether bringing together these two spheres – political communication and performance training – could be a way of demonstrating the importance of sharing these skills.

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We shall not cease from exploration.

Dr Dana Mills, Oxford Brookes. (D.Mills@brookes.ac.uk)

The narrative of our life is punctuated with memories as well as voids of remembrance. Some events we can easily recall, some sensations lost to the passage of time, casualties to our need to make reason of the bombardment of information we encounter every day. Some hot summer days, playing barefoot outside, are, for some reason, part of our psyche, and some other people and events we cannot bring to consciousness despite constantly trying.

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Can you bottle it…?

By Sara Marie Jackson, Cast Theatre / The Joseph Rowntree Theatre (Sara.jackson@jrtheatre.co.uk)

This blog-post looks at the role of personal energy and intuition in Applied Theatre Practice and how this can be trained, reflecting on how training affects my practice as a freelance community director, director of The Joseph Rowntree Theatre (a community theatre) and as a practitioner at Cast Theatre.

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Encouraging selfishness in applied theatre students – surprises arising from a community project.

By Dr Kay Hepplewhite, Northumbria University (kay.hepplewhite@northumbria.ac.uk)

A recent undergraduate student project encouraged me to re-question approaches of training students to work in community and applied theatre contexts. This article considers how, in addition to the development of multiple skills required for applied theatre, encouraging selfish motivation enabled a deeper student learning experience. The project is discussed within a conceptualisation of applied theatre expertise and explores how my theory of responsivity informed the teaching of novice practitioners.

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Voicing resistance: training as a tool of political voice.

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.

Training in the Community

Training in the Community investigates pedagogic approaches outside of professional practice, exploring how performance training is utilised in community and applied theatre settings as well as how practitioners train and prepare for those settings.

Training in the Community investigates the role of training in applied and community theatre. We are looking for contributions from practitioners, scholars, teachers and others interested in exploring the intersection between training and community for instance, how training might be used in relation to theatre for social change, the relationship between training and some of the prominent themes of applied practice, or how we train for working in the community.

Through the blog we want to explore the complicated relationship that training has to practice in non-professional settings, considering the broader questions that this practice raises in terms of representation, cultural recognition, power and domination and social change. On the one hand, training can be an act of consciousness raising, re-distributing skills and resources and accordingly giving participants the means of the production (bodily and vocal production). On the other, training can be a homogenising practice, eliminating cultural difference and perpetuating certain dominant ideas of ‘correctness’. The blog will explore the complexity of training, neither dismissing it as culturally domineering, nor fetishizing its value or social good.

We are interested in investigating where practices of performer training are still used in community and applied contexts. Is performer training used as a practice of social change? Can we understand training as a tool of transformation, resistance or political intervention? Furthermore, we are interested in how community and applied practitioners are trained. With a growth in undergraduate and postgraduate courses in applied theatre it seems especially important now to explore what constitutes “training” in this regard. Are applied programmes training theatre craft that is then “applied” to community contexts? Or are they training practices of how to work in the community, how to be a “facilitator”? Finally, we are interested in the politics of training itself, and how training practices relate to broader questions of community identity and representation, particularly with relation to social class, gender, race and sexuality.

Call for Contributions: Performer Training in Community and Applied Theatre Contexts

The Theatre Dance and Performance Training Blog is creating a new section to investigate the role of training in applied and community theatre. We are looking for contributions from practitioners, scholars, teachers and others interested in exploring the intersection between training and community for instance, how training might be used in relation to theatre for social change, the relationship between training and some of the prominent themes of applied practice, or how we train for working in the community.

Augusto Boal discusses training bodies in the practices of Theatre of the Oppressed as a form of consciousness raising. He describes using theatre to train the body of the participant:

That is, to take them apart, to study and analyse them. Not to weaken or destroy them, but to raise them to the level of consciousness. So that each worker, each peasant understands, sees, and feels to what point his body is governed by his work (Boal 104).

Training allows the participant to become aware of how alienation has impacted upon her body: how economic, cultural and social structures mark the body. Training is a training in noticing how the world marks the body and accordingly changes the subject’s relationship to the world.

Through the blog we want to explore the complicated relationship that training has to practice in non-professional settings, considering the broader questions that this practice raises in terms of representation, cultural recognition, power and domination and social change. On the one hand, following Boal, training can be an act of consciousness raising, re-distributing skills and resources and accordingly giving participants the means of the production (bodily and vocal production). On the other, training can be a homogenising practice, eliminating cultural difference and perpetuating certain dominant ideas of ‘correctness’. The blog will explore the complexity of training, neither dismissing it as culturally domineering, nor fetishizing its value or social good. Continue reading