TRAINING OR TRANSMISSION: CAN ACTING BE TAUGHT?
How important is technique? Vitez spoke of ‘basic technique’ and of ‘pure technique’. Does technique really free the actor and facilitate the creative process? What role do exercises play in the training? What is the nature of these exercises? Their function? Their usefulness? What other forms of art are called upon in the training of an actor (dance, fencing, circus, singing, mime, street theatre…) and what is the specific contribution of each?
The spirit of technique I A lecture by Richard Armstrong
I am a voice teacher.
I have taught people from almost every walk of life, whether they be actors, singers, dancers, performance artists, storytellers, composers, instrumentalists, teachers, therapists, social workers, electricians, plumbers or whatever. The range of activities of people intrigued to work on their voices is as great as there are in fact people. Behind this ‘intrigue’ lies the profoundly eloquent truth of our existence, namely, that the voice is the muscle of the soul. The sound we make is symptomatic of that existence, the audible manifestation of our ever-changing states of being. The voice is a potential key to the personality, which can reveal and unlock the blocked doors to our individual expression.
At the Banff Center in Alberta Canada – where I have taught since 1985 – I am sometimes referred to as the “extended vocal specialist “, partly to differentiate the work that I do from classical voice training. The term contains two misnomers: first, the idea of ‘extension’. In the 1950s, articles appeared in the press around the world, describing the remarkable work on the extension of vocal range, which Alfred Wolfsohn and his group was doing in London. This group included Roy Hart, my teacher. The accent in these articles was always on the ‘phenomenal’ nature of this increase in vocal range, hence its inclusion for many years in the Guinness Book of Records for highest and lowest human sound! Even today, you only have to look in a dictionary to see ‘falsetto’ described as an unnatural sound, or above the normal. Of course, there is nothing phenomenal about the multi-octave range: any of you who have young children at home will know that. The real phenomenon is that many of us, and certainly the average man or woman in the street, particularly, let it be said in the urban setting, use so little of our vocal range and power.
The second misnomer is the idea that the work that I do is some kind of specialist training. The range of people who are attracted to it reveals just how unspecialized it really is. For “Extended vocal specialist”, read “normal voice non-specialist’.
If specialization occurs, it does so as an individual process, as that process begins to apply itself directly to any specific repertoire or have repercussions around former or existing training.
For example, at the Banff Centre, we have one notable interdisciplinary training program, which is designed for young emerging classically trained singers to equip themselves for the demands of contemporary opera and music theatre repertoire. 12 singers are chosen for the six-week program, from over 200 who audition. The faculty and coaches are as numerous as the students are, and a singer who arrives wearing the label of their voice type, (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, etc.) finds within a short time that they are relaxing its historical limitations. Not just because the repertoire demands it, but more because they are confronting the wealth of information within themselves that their voice, as its coded manifestation, generates. Classically trained singers find that the training brings great therapeutic benefit. There is no damage to the vocal cords, and the limits of the traditional voice are gradually extended to its full and normal range, not least through a release from the elemental fear of height and of depth.
This unchaining process is just the same for the anyone who follows my work.
Now, to refer directly to the questions proposed in this session, you might have gathered that the way I approach the training of the voice is not ostensibly through a method, or systemized technique. Technique is a word I never heard in my own training.
I began as a painter, studying Fine Art in the 60s at the University of Newcastle within the ferment of British pop art, with teachers like Richard Hamilton and Joe Tilson. I had grown up not only painting and drawing, but also acting. Now that I think about it, I don’t think it was ever called acting. I think it was just called “being in the play”. This happened both at school and at church. Unusual as it seems to me now, the newly built Methodist Church I attended in the 1950s had been constructed with a simple altar at one end, and a fully equipped proscenium theater at the other. It became a normal and frequent activity for the whole congregation to stand up in the middle of the service and turn their chairs around to watch a production, then turn them around again, to continue with the service. Some of these productions I performed in, some I directed. This activity was just what you did, and it was exciting and fun.
The acting I did as a child and adolescent was a deep and consuming need. I had to do it, and found ways to continue while at university. I played Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, Jerry in The Zoo Story, Joseph K. in The Trial.
After University, the need was still there, and I applied to the four major drama schools, RADA, LAMDA, Central and the Bristol Old Vic, and was rejected by all of them. I had by then conceived of a school like the Church of my youth, where physical theatre and spirit would not be at either end of the church, but integrated. I grandly called it (mostly to myself), the Richard Armstrong School of life, and imagined myself as a venerable old teacher helping students to combine music, theater, singing, and painting, into an original form, where the curriculum was life itself. (Science and mathematics were not even thought of, let alone included, and my explanation in my drama school entrance interviews of why I needed to qualify myself for a school of life, mystified the teachers interviewing me).
My first visit to Roy Hart’s studio in north London in 1967, was at one and the same time, both of an answer this dream, and, within minutes of my arriving, made it no longer necessary. That first night, with some 17 people in the room, nobody sang, nobody acted: people talked. They talked about their feelings and relationships. That was unusual enough to me as an inhibited twenty one-year-old, but above all, what drew me back from then on, was the quality of listening. There were long silences of palpable content. Later I discovered that indeed people did sing, make sounds, work on songs and scenes, and that even a full-length version of Euripides The Bacchae, was underway.
The fundamental and guiding principle of this odd assortment of people from all backgrounds in the soundproofed living room of a semi-detached house in north London, was that which I began with. Work on your voice, and you work on yourself. Work on yourself, and you work on your voice. That the voice held the key to the psyche, that it was, as I said, the muscle of the soul. Martha Graham said the same thing when she described a dancer as being “an athlete from God”. It is the same thing that the church offered within its one room: the world of the spirit, and the world of theatre. For me, the sounds we make are the audible glue that binds these worlds together.
The work done in Roy Hart’s studio paralleled other liberating social, political and artistic trends that reached fruition in the 1960’s. Between 1967 and 1974, an extraordinary roll-call of luminaries visited that studio, their range of activity revealing the timely nature of this research: the Huxley brothers, George Steiner, Edith O’Brien, Harold Pinter, RD Laing, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brooke, Jerome Robbins, Irene Worth, Colin Wilson, Jean-Louis Barrault, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Jack Lang sent Michele Kokosowsky to scout for the Nancy World Theatre festival, where we performed in 1969.
The word technique was never mentioned.
Then one particular night in 1975, while on tour in Austria just before Roy Hart’s death, I spoke to Roy after a performance of Serge Beha’s L’Economiste. I expressed frustration with my performance that night and complained of not having felt in the role.
He looked at me with a smile, and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of technique?”
I would say from my experience as a teacher, that if you focus on technique as a prerequisite to making good performance or interpretation, you miss the point. As a voice teacher, I continue to avoid the word, knowing that the individual’s journey will eventually consolidate itself into something you may, if you wish, call by that word, but that the freeing process must come first, and that it must be an individual process.
In well over 40 years of teaching, I have never given the same lesson twice. It is impossible. If you believe, as I do, that teaching, at its best, works from the privileged vantage point of the teacher knowing nothing, then all the information you need to generate that individual’s process is laid out in front of you. It is revealed, like some never before imagined building, single brick by single brick. To try to fit a finished design for the building on to all the various students in the class will lead nowhere.
So I would say in answer to the second question, does technique really free the actor? that it is really the other way around. Freeing the individual will lead to technique.
The question is posed as to what role exercises play in the training. In my work, the exercise per se is not very useful in itself. If you believe as I do that the best teaching comes from this source of knowing nothing, then it stands to reason that what we call exercises must dissolve and be reborn at every moment in the training. Some of the things I do have evolved from Roy Hart, or Alfred Wolfsohn before him. Some have absorbed elements of dance training and other disciplines I have followed. Others I have invented. However, in themselves, the exercises are uninteresting.
I have occasionally gone to teach in a place where a former student has prepared the students by teaching ” my exercises “. The students will sometimes say after class that they had not understood the exercises until they did them with me. This is because the former student had taught the exercise, rather than using and adapting its form to reveal the information from which the real teaching can then unfold. The exercises in themselves are only the plans for the building, not the building itself. Like the local builder at my house in Corsica holding the architect’s ground plan for the renovation.
“I’m not going to do what your architect wants me to do “, he said, holding the plans away from his body like a dirty dish cloth. ” How old are your parents?” he went on, with no sign of a non sequitur.
The builder was creating a staircase to the guestroom that when my parents visited would be easily negotiable for them. Plans, like exercises, are only useful up to a certain point. Beyond that point, it is the information that counts. When my parents visited later, they were able to get easily to the room to sleep.
distinction as teacher, director, and performer is recognized throughout the world. A pioneer of the extension of the human voice, his unique abilities have taken him to over 30 countries, and inspired a whole generation of performers and their work. He has been part of the music theatre faculty at the Banff Centre, Canada since 1885. He is currently Associate Arts Professor for New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing at the Tisch School of the Arts and teaches for theatre companies, universities and opera schools around the world.
He is one of the founding members of the Roy Hart Theatre.
Published in 2002 in L’ecole du jeu / former ou transmettre? ed. Josette Feral, Montreal and again in 2012 by Le Théâtre de la Vie, Brussels, Belgium in their magazine VIS A VIE n°5 Art trimestriel Théâtre de la Vie
Photo © Thierry Casias