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
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