a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh
Yesterday I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon. After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-
‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way, that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.
My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English, who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here. After a talk with her I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.
Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.
The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.
Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.
Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…
Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.
On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.
As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.
This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation as you might be in the college environment. I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.
And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.
That’s certainly been true of my own learning.
Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!