Last autumn I presented two projects to a gathering of artists, actors, poets and Nigel, a British theater actor who has worked with the likes of Judi Dench and John Hurt. One project was my first photography installation and the other was an excerpt from a book I am writing. No matter how certain I am that they are worthwhile, I have never been a confident orator of my own creative endeavors. In critique, Nigel, in his clearest British eloquence asked, “Have you ever taken a drama or acting class?” And without waiting for my reply he continued, “Because you really should. It will help you loosen up your mouth and maybe work on this talking through your teeth thing you do. You are holding back your words.”
He is right. I mumble. It is probably because I am never sure if what I have to say is worth hearing. Which can be a bit of a problem as a Writer.
So after putting it off for too long, this spring I signed up for a Voice and Speech class through the Denver Theater Company. I made my way up to the third floor studios in downtown Denver and crossed through some looking glass into that side of the arts– the side I always observed with the curiosity and wonder of a child, face pressed up against the glass in the wildlife exhibit at the zoo. I joined the eclectic mix of other students in the stuffed, silent performance room, huddled in chairs near the A/V equipment. The awkwardness broke when an older man next to me asked in a radio DJ-like baritone, “Is this Voice and Speech?”
The instructor arrived and pulled us out of our silent grouping and onto mats in a circle as if it were “Quiet Time” in kindergarten. We needed to learn how to breathe, or better put, how we each breathe. We would spend three classes on breathing. Breathing on our backs. Curled up in a fetal position. Sitting. Standing. Crouched over as if an unplugged robot. And the only two or so words we spoke for the first few weeks were “hey!” and “hello,” more as sounds than enunciations. As it turns out, all those years of running long distances taught me to breathe from the very place our instructor is trying to isolate, but that only means I carry my tension elsewhere.
As it turns out, most people speak from their upper chest or even their throat, hardly using their breath at all, because speaking means putting the self out there, and none of us, I discover, not just me, are too comfortable with that. To speak with my full breath means to say not just words but to give and have full control of my self. It means being comfortable in my own skin, literally, enough so that I am comfortable in my own voice.
The instructor tells us that actors will spend six months just lying on their backs, becoming aware of their breathing, their body, their quirks and compensations.
I soon discover that the mumbling and teeth-talk is from all the tension I carry in my face and jaw when speaking, never allowing my mouth to open enough to make strong sounds. All this breathing is rattling the steel girders in my face, and the resonance is shaking the tree loose. By my third class, I am feeling sore in the face. I am stretching muscles there I didn’t know existed. It’s even opening up sinuses, changing the resonance of my voice. In my head I am trying to be aware of numerous moving parts: from which part of my body am I breathing; trying not to stop breathing when listening to another; how am I carrying my posture; etc. It’s like trying to play the drums while reciting poetry and walking down the street chewing gum.
I ask the instructor how actors keep all these things in mind while on a stage: exchanging lines and actually listening to what each other is saying, while staying in character. She points out that this is no different than how we interact with each other in regular life. If we breathe while the other is talking then we are likely listening to them, taking in with each breath their words– and not just waiting for them to finish so we can say our “lines.” So if I hold my breath in a heated discussion, (because I am waiting for my chance to give my two cents) then I am not listening at all.
The Rabbis say that when God spoke his Name to Moses, it was the sound of breathing. And of course, when God gave life to the dirt clod that became you and me, He breathed His breath to animate the mud. It makes sense then that when I am insecure or stressed or anxious and can’t speak, I am, in essence, holding back the life I am given to be creative.
Writers often talk of finding their “voice” — that way of writing that is unique to the individual writer. So many of the great writers write the way you hear them speak. You can hear their voice in the words on the page.
As this Voice and Speech class ends, I not only find my voice in all the ways it has been held back audibly, but I am discovering a new hue to the voice I write in words, embodying a more full humanity as I breathe the words I write. Before entering the theater side of the arts, I was one of those spectators that might say of a certain actor’s performance, “Oh I could do that!” I am coming to see that one of the hardest things an actor will learn is to be fully human. And it starts with breathing…