Cold Read, Warm Heart

Reading aloud with Ian Raffel & Gerry Trentham at Canada’s National Voice Intensive, U.B.C., 2009 (photo credit: Marcus Wu)

Reading aloud with Ian Raffel & Gerry Trentham at Canada’s National Voice Intensive, U.B.C., 2009 (photo credit: Marcus Wu)

When I was growing up, my family used to have a holiday tradition of a reading of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. At some point in the afternoon on Christmas Day, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would arrive, and, as my father cooked the Christmas feast, we would gather in the living room with copies of the story, all taking parts and reading it aloud. My father liked taking the role of Marley’s ghost, especially when he discovered he could enhance his performance by bashing cooking utensils and pots for sound effects. “I WEAR THE CHAIN I FORGED IN LIFE!!!” he shrieked from the kitchen, nearly giving my grandfather a heart-attack.

At the time, I just saw it as part of our weird English family’s old-fashioned ways - like the carols we always sang together while my mother accompanied us on the old upright piano.

But those readings have done more for my career than I knew or appreciated at the time. Any actor worth their training knows the value of good cold-reading skills for tv, film, or theatre auditions. And they are essential for voice-over work. When you get called to the studio for a voice-over audition, you may or may not get the script or copy in advance. Mostly you just show up, head into the booth, and fire away. In these situations, you’ll make faster friends with the engineer and director if you don’t waste time stumbling through long passages or struggling to grasp the sense of a phrase.

As a coach, I advise actors to develop this skill by, you guessed it, practicing. The simple and obvious truth is that if you read aloud every day, you get better at reading anything aloud. It doesn’t have to be painful, you don’t have to make it a race – like the novelist Donna Tartt says, “if you’re not enjoying something, it’s almost always because you’re doing it too fast.” And let’s not get mired in questions about talent or artistry. As the plié is to the mover, so reading aloud is to the speaker. It’s your barre work. Read Charles Dickens, read Toni Morrison, read Marie Clements, read any writing you love…just read good words and speak them out loud.

Do it every day, so that it becomes as natural as breathing.



The Gravity of Your Words


When I’m studying Shakespeare text, I try to start from a neutral place, as much as possible. This is a challenge, given how loaded words are. I am far from objective, and words are evocative. But I do my best to step back and look at the words on their own terms before making big decisions about them.

In his excellent book ‘Shakespeare On Toast’, Ben Crystal talks about what he calls the “false friends” – words Shakespeare used in the 1600s and which are still used today, only the meaning has changed. And the change, I’ve noticed, is often a negative one. There is a downward pressure on language, as if the words, like humans, are giving in to gravity. A downward pull to an adverse place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘rhetoric’ as the art of using language to persuade. But today, that word is mostly used to describe empty, meaningless talk meant to confuse, obfuscate, or deceive. How did it go from being a valuable skill set to simply a fancy word for ‘lies’?

Or, take a word like ‘doom’. It pops up often in Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo asks the Friar, “what is the Prince’s doom?” Cleopatra says she will kneel “Till from his all-obeying breath I hear / The doom of Egypt.”

One’s doom was one’s fate. It could also mean a decree, judgement or decision. Yes, some of the Shakespearean examples turned out to be pretty serious, but that wasn’t necessarily built into the word itself.

In current times, we don’t separate the gloom from ‘doom’. We say the failed relationship “was doomed from the start”, or “that spells doom” when things look really dire. The word is now synonymous with disaster.

Changed meanings can be subtle yet powerful. The word ‘sad’ used to simply mean ‘serious’ or ‘solemn’. Two people “in sad conference” were just people having a serious talk. No weeping required.

The small, seemingly innocuous words are especially fascinating to me. ‘Should’ is an auxiliary or helper word for verbs, and not nearly so important as the verbs themselves. It’s doing its job in a statement like “I should like to meet her” – it’s about liking and meeting (and her, probably). In the Taming of the Shrew, when Kate says she is “as heavy as my weight should be,” Petruchio picks up on that ‘be’ and responds with “should bee? Should buzz.” It’s the “be” part that makes a pun.

But modern actors often emphasize “should”s in their texts, adding a sense of obligation or of being compelled. That might be appropriate in, “I SHOULD do my homework though I’d rather play outside,” but in many other instances, it colours the thought with a feeling of being constrained or doing something against one’s will. And that’s a downer that Shakespeare’s characters might not need.   

In a world of inflation (economic, academic, ego), we respond with linguistic deflation. When ‘amazing’ has become a synonym for ‘good’, and ‘awesome’ is really just ‘fine’, does joy have any meaning? Words are products of their time, and a robust language like English is constantly changing – that’s good. Through the centuries, meanings can start to slide around a little – that’s natural. But what does this hopeless slide say about us?

May we never lose our ability to feel the raw power of words. As James Hillman says in ‘Culture and the Animal Soul’:

“By means of speech we enact what animals do in

behaviour. With speech we warn, claim territory, challenge

and destroy. With speech we court and seduce a mate, and

by means of speech we instruct our offspring and organize

our group disciplines... Like tigers losing their stripes, like

beached whales and blind eagles are we without our

rhetoric.. “





Written in the Body


When I was completing my master’s degree, my advisor told me that her wish for me going forward was “that you spend time every day just being in your body.” She had noticed my habit of intellectualizing voice work. I believe this can be a strength for a coach: investigating the structure of languages and researching the meanings of words. I value the clear articulation of complex thoughts through the spoken word.

But the human voice is bodily process, a physical action. I do now spend time every day being in my body, and I seek new ways of developing and honouring this physical side of voice and text work.

Recently, I had an opportunity to work with Deaf artists on Shakespeare text. This extraordinary group of performers challenged my traditional approaches to text work, executing exercises in ways that were completely different from what I’d experienced before, adding new meaning and resonance to the texts. As I perceived through interpreters, the signed languages were communicating something far beyond a literal meaning. And this turned my phonocentric exercises - used by hearing actors to uncover layers of deeper meanings - into something of a game of catch-up.

My sense is that ASL expresses, through the body, not only poetic structures, grammar, and images, but even metaphor, temporal aspects, or emotional states. Of course this is particularly exciting in Shakespeare performance, which is always a process of interpretation – there is no objective ‘Hamlet’.

For me, it’s also a fitting reminder that words and ideas don’t reside solely in the brain. I have often thought of words being physical: muscular and filled with kinetic energy. But it’s also true that our bodies are linguistic. Now I find myself circling back to hear my mentor’s voice, “be in your body”. So maybe that’s my homework: investigating the structure and meaning and signs in the language of the body.







The Words We Use Matter.

Today I listened to an interview with a woman who is a researcher at a respected Canadian university.  The topic was the reporting of terrorist attacks.  Her assertion was that words matter – that the words chosen by reporters can define as well as describe the event, and therefore affect public reaction and political response.

She was an intelligent woman and she made strong points.  But it was her own use of words that struck me.  She frequently used “fillers” -- the umms and uhhhs, those little habitual placeholders we throw in while organizing our thoughts.  “Y’know” was a biggie, but the one that really got me was “sort of”.  It got me partly because she used it a lot, but more in her particular placement of it.  

Each time she made a strong assertion, she preceded the strongest or most definitive word with “sort of”:

“…an act is terrorism if it, sort of, clearly provokes terror and fear…”

“The, sort of, actual risks…we’ve all seen those charts that show the, sort of, actual statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack…”

“…in the, sort of, immediate coverage…”

 “The recent shooting was…a typical example of the, sort of, folly of, y’know, hasty and careless reporting…”

How is something done “sort of” clearly?  Can statistics be “sort of” actual ?

I want to be clear: I do not mean to ridicule her or diminish her arguments in any way.  They were rigorous, observant, well constructed and backed up with good evidence.  She was articulate and well educated, clearly an expert in her field.  Yet when she spoke, she undermined her status.  Her “sort of”s served as apologies for her statements.  Ever so subtly – maybe subconsciously – she was ensuring that what she said wouldn’t make her appear too strong, too assertive.
Of course men use fillers when they speak as well, but in my experience they generally place them in between thoughts: “So, y’know, the point I’m making is…” and so on.  Once the thought has been formulated in the brain, it’s spoken without being subverted or undermined along the way.

So is this another form of “don’t speak up too much or too often”?  “You don’t want to come across as a strident, opinionated harpy”?  Do we need another hashtag, #TalkLikeAWoman, to go with #DressLikeAWoman?  Because I’m not crazy about #IAmSortOfAStrongConfidentWoman, or #IAmSortOfAnExpertInMyField.  When women own it, as they very much and very often do, I want to hear them own it.  Full stop.

The famous voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg says, “we have to stand by what we say”.  It’s a big thing to do, to commit fully to the words we utter and the ideas carried through them.  It’s not always easy.  But we are living in adventurous times and, as uncomfortable as it is to put ourselves on the line, our lives may get much more uncomfortable if we don’t.



Summer is Over But I Still Can't Stop The Feeling...

The Kid informs me, with an epic eye roll, that I should have tired of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’ months ago.  It's true, this ain't usually my kind of music.  But thanks to a funny and insightful podcast called 'Switched on Pop', I now understand why I’m still going electric wavy over this pop tune...text painting!  A synesthete's dream, text painting makes me think of Shakespeare -- how sounds and rhythms often reflect or underscore the literal meaning of characters' words.

Pick it up at the 15 minute mark for the specs on how exactly JT text paints this song, or listen to the full podcast for the broader discussion.  Plus, MC Hammer and Elvis Costello too:



The Gap of Time

Okay look, I know there has been an onslaught of Shakespeare Anything "because 400th", but the Hogarth Shakespeare Project is actually a great thing.  A bunch of award-winning authors are writing novels based on Shakespeare plays.  Like peanut butter and chocolate, put two great things together and there's just no downside. 

Jeanette Winterson's novel is called 'The Gap of Time', based on 'The Winter's Tale'.  I have my own reasons for wanting to read this particular story at this particular time.  But I'm compelled to tell everyone I know to read it too, whether or not you ever intend to see a production of this play again. 

Winterson's modern take will crack this old fairy tale open like crazy for you.  In London's financial district: a digital camera lens into Leontes' insane and terrifying jealousy.  In Louisiana: piano bars, car repairs, and families.  The confusing and complex nature of love. 

And in the end, the possibility that what is lost can, in fact, be found. 

Don't They Realize I'm An Artist?

Today I read an op-ed article by a voice-over artist describing, with weary condescension, a “pitch” recording session.  In Canada we call these demos -- rough versions of commercials recorded on spec for a client who will decide if the spots should be made for real.  If it’s a yes, the same voice artist may be brought back, or the job may be re-cast, but the original artist is paid for their time regardless.

In this instance, it seems the agency executives were too focused on their phones, they didn’t give the right kind of direction...the artist felt under-appreciated. 

I get it.  It’s not always easy to relate to the people on the other side of the glass.  Often I’m twice the age of the agency creatives (they’re mostly millennials).  And sure, we all like to joke about the kind of direction we’re given in sessions:  I do, my colleagues do, and so does Joe Cipriano in the movie “In a World”.  But we do it with respect, I believe.  And appreciation -- most important, appreciation.  I’m grateful to be able to earn a living on the mic.  In my work as a voice artist, I have not only been challenged and supported, I’ve also learned more about acting, about the human voice, and about listening than I could have imagined. 

I hate the cynical attitude.  I know not every session is ideal.  The people you work for sometimes seem disengaged.  I know it’s advertising, and it’s hard not to feel cynical about that sometimes, even when you have chosen to work in this industry (and there are many people out there who’d love to get work in this industry).  And we are talking about a job that pays well above minimum wage for work that involves no more heavy labour than lifting a pencil.  It’s not a huge hardship.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says you can bear anything by taking it in ten-second increments.  “Just count to ten.  And when you’re done, start over and count to ten again.” 

I know that’s what I did when I finished reading the article, and it seemed to help.  

Play Dead


Waking up this morning, it drifted through my mind how Shakespeare liked to have actors play dead. Of course, the actual death toll in the Complete Works is substantial, and people have compiled lists, created pie charts, and performed new plays to illustrate the many ways characters are sliced, diced, pummeled and poisoned.

But there are also characters who only pretend to die, and that event is usually the turning point in the story. There’s Hero in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: she ‘dies’ because of being shamed at the altar, and so that Claudio can feel the grief and loss and regret for his mistaken punishment of her. In ‘A Winter’s Tale’, Hermione is another virtuous woman accused of being false. She too must appear to be dead until her husband truly recognizes her innocence and mourns his loss.

This summer at Bard on the Beach, you will see Juliet pretend to die to avoid marrying Paris. In ‘Pericles’, Marina will be thought to be killed by the evil Dionyza’s henchman, and Thaisa, believed to have died in childbirth, is thrown overboard a ship by Pericles.

Sometimes the audience is in on the secret although the characters are not. The deaths, real or pretended, are always important. Men really die and their ghosts often return to haunt the killer (or an indecisive child). When the women die they don’t haunt anyone. And sometimes they have to pretend to die just so the men can grow up.