April 30, 2007

Transferable Skills of an Actor


Spent this morning at the CAPITAL Centre (‘Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning’- a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the University of Warwick) on a course called ‘The Transferable Skills of an Actor’. It was led by 2 voice coaches who work with the RSC’s actors and it was quite simply brilliant!

Particularly helpful exercises and insights:
- The effect of tension in the body on the voice. We did various exercises working from the feet upwards. I think as preparation for presentations it’ll be particularly useful to do the “shoulder-dropping” exercise, the opening the mouth/releasing the jaw (the coach commented on how tight my jaw was during a 2 minute speech I gave to the group), and “being grounded” using awareness of feet, soft knees, “neutral” pelvis, open shoulders/chest, helium filled head (so “lifted” off the neck). Posture is very important on how people perceive the message you’re putting across too. I knew it before the training but actually observing others and experimenting with different postures was very interesting!

- The coach kept saying how good yawning is. There was one stage of the morning when we were working on tension in the neck/mouth and breathing and we were all yawning incessantly. I feel like yawning just remembering it. The worst thing is to stifle a yawn… so the coach said. Unfortunately I don’t think freely yawning in a committee meeting would impress!

- The coach also commented that she could hear my breathing as I spoke to the group. I never realised that! I know Jo used to comment on my sighing during exams at school, and others have made me aware of the need to hold the telephone correctly so that the listener isn’t subjected to great sighs… but I didn’t realise I was so audible during normal presentations!

- Awareness of the fight and flight effect of nerves, which create tunnel vision, amongst other things – so we need to deliberately look around and expand our field of vision

- Use of tone of voice (we did lots of silly tongue exercises (sticking them out, gradually pulling them in, wagging them) Plus another exercise “angry bees” (lifting/lowering hands whilst going zzzz and raising/lowering the tone as you do it)

- It was so interesting how what we perceived we were doing was actually observed as by the group. For example, we were each given a slip of paper with an instruction on it. Mine was to talk to just one person in the room. I’m usually quite good at looking at everyone in the group (comes from monitoring a classroom for misbehaviour!) and so it was quite an effort. People came out with all sorts of suggestions for what they thought was on the paper (eg smiling a lot, using hands a lot, clenching buttocks(!!!) was what they “observed”), when in fact I was concentrating on talking solely to the coach!

- One skill of an actor is observation. Apparently drama schools send their students to zoos to observe the animals! Certainly it made sense that in order to communicate better (at meetings, and through presentations) there needs to be a heightened awareness of our own bad habits. She talked through the process of becoming aware of my bad habits, then try changing them (we are creatures of habits so that’s v hard!) and using observations of other people to feed into that, so that the desired new behaviour will eventually become subconscious.

- We were asked to say about someone we think is a good communicator and why. I immediately thought of Jean Vanier (*founder of L’Arche. I worked with him on translating his book “Our Journey Home” and have simultaneously interpreted for him on numerous occasions) and his wonderful hands. So expressive. So open/ welcoming… It’s daft but I felt quite emotional just thinking of Jean – tears came to my eyes. Richard mentioned Mark Thomas (activist/protestor) whose during his performances fills the entire stage through open arms, striding etc.

All in all an excellent course. The coaches, Lyn and Alison, were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable, it was infectious. The others in the group were from varied backgrounds- some were lecturers or researchers, others used communication for encouraging Warwick alumni to make donations. It really helped that everyone was so keen to join in, try the exercises…

Lyn mentioned that the next stage would be a course on Rhetoric. There’s a good book (but I can’t remember the title- something like “Our Masters’ Voices”) that she recommended on how politicians use rhetoric that sounded interesting. Certainly, using repetition, similes, metaphors, particular syntax etc are v effective ways to engage the audience and perhaps I could put some thought into how I use that, even when it’s just a question of “How to induct new staff effectively” (my next training session I’ll be giving)!

The workshop took place in Millburn House which is being refurbished by Estates- first of all in one of the studios (quite an austere room, felt more like a small gym) and then one of the writers’ spaces (with sofas and comfy footstools). As CAPITAL only moved in last week, it still feels (and smells) very new. Good to see what I’ve heard about so much in our Estates Office meetings!

And as a last comment- isn’t it WONDERFUL to have access to training with some of the top voice coaches in the country? It’s one of the great advantages of working at a large, very respectable institution like this one!

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