We're all born knowing how to breathe and how to use our full voice, but somewhere along the line, social conditioning and habits get in the way. Most people can get by, for the rest of their lives, with survival breathing and a quiet voice, but if you want to be an actor, you kind of have to go back and retrain yourself in those early ways.
On Saturday, I had an incredible voice class with Julia Lenardon, a former voice teacher with the National Theatre School and now an independent voice and dialect coach. I was so blown away by this course that I've already signed up for her advanced class in February.
We started things off, after a quick intro and chat about the voice, with some breathing exercises. We laid on our backs on yoga mats for almost 3 hours and just breathed. Yup, 3 hours. And it was awesome!
Ok, not always awesome. Julia likes to call them "thresholds" but I hit what I like to call the Five Stages of Resistance. Here they are, in no particular order:
Bored/Numb: "How long are we going to be doing this? I can't feel my feet."
Anger: "This is fucking stupid. Why am I doing this?"
Panic: "Oh my God! I can't breathe! How can you expect me to just lay here and breathe?!?! My body hurts!"
Tears: "My throat hurts too much. I can't do this."
Giggles: "Hee! Hee! Hee! I think I need to pee."
All of this is your body's reaction to something new happening within it. My main problem area was my throat. It was painful and I wanted to stop. But really, what was I doing that was so terrible except breathe? When we finished the breathing exercises, we did some grounding work, some posture work and I learned the real reason behind my sore throat.
Put it this way: Take your hand and squeeze it tightly into a fist. Now imagine holding it there for a couple of years. After a while, you'd start to think this is how your hand is suppose to be since that's how it's always been. Then imagine that after all those years you tried to open your hand up again. There's bound to be some stiffness and pain. So much so that you'd be tempted to squeeze your hand shut again to make it go away. But your hand your hand is meant to be open...
In the second half of class, we got some one-on-one monologue coaching. After watching some incredible work from people with very little stage experience, but an incredible amount of heart, I went up with my tried and true Shakespeare.
After sharing my piece with the class, I was given some special activities to do. First, I was asked if I sung. I paused for a moment because I'm pretty self-conscious about my singing voice but then simply replied: "I want to sing."
Good answer, apparently.
I was told to do my monologue again, but this time to sing it in my biggest, boldest, diva-est operatic voice. Oh, and there would be props! Julia loves props. So quickly armed with a fluffy orange pillow (my shield), half a coat rack (my spear), and a sweater wrapped around my head (my viking helmet. or course), I wholeheartedly committed to belting my little heart out of Helena's How happy some o'er othersome can be. You'd think I was auditioning for The Fools or something.
That finished, no time to think, just go and do the monologue again normally. Boom! That's done, here! I want you to throw an item from this pile of junk on every end of a thought. No, that's no working. Hurry! Go run around the dressing rooms. Run, run, run! Faster! Use those legs! Quick, run again! Ok, now go! Grab the junk and throw!
And once that was all done, I did my piece one last time. I can honestly say it was probably the best I'd ever done it.
Crazy, I know and you may be wondering how the heck I would apply all this in, let's say, an audition situation, but I learned a lot that day. I realized that my true voice is deeper than what I normally go around with. I learned that I have a lot of power and that I don't need to push out and strain against my throat to be heard. And I especially learned that I have to stop thinking so much. I also took away some great breathing exercises to keep this momentum going and was told that I should recite lines out loud while running. This last one makes absolute sense to me and reminded me of a documentary I saw on Destiny's Child where they would sing while running on a treadmill to increase lung capacity.
When I told Julia that I was actually a runner she retorted with "But I bet you never really breathed while you were running, yeah?" Yeah, I totally believe that.
A big thank you to the fine folks at the Ottawa Little Theatre, as well as my friend Chantale for bringing Julia in. I can't wait to work with her again in February!