On my bookshelf

  • "The Breathing Book" by Donna Farhi
  • "Confessions of a Public Speaker" by Scott Berkun
  • "My Freshman Year" by Rebekah Nathan
  • "Power Presentation" by Patsy Rodenburg

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Speaking Shakespeare

"Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."

My Uncle Tim and I had a debate several years ago (he's an award winning high school English teacher), it centered around this key question, "Is Shakespeare over-rated?"

My answer continues to be: "NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!", but my students, along with my uncle, would disagree. Most of them feel that understanding Shakespeare is not worth the effort. Although I may spend weeks guiding them through the text, allowing them to put the images into their bodies and their own words, in the end their presentations can lack specificity and understanding.

Every time I explore Shakespeare, my respect for language, communication and words grows. I continue to use sonnets, soliloquies and snippets of dialogue to open the voice and connect it to thought. As a thirteen year old, I refused to sunbathe because, "I want to be a Shakespearean actress!" That feeling hasn't changed and although I have spent the past fifteen years trying, without success, to convert my husband, my uncle and my students, I haven't been as successful as I would have liked.

I shall continue with my mission and as the summer wraps up, I suggest trying out a few lines. The lines above work splendidly spoken to the stars at night or used as a warm-up to try out the accoustics in a new lecture hall.

While you are at it check out Patsy Rodenberg's "Speaking Shakespeare" for great exercises in opening up your range of expression.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Eyes and Breath

Every week, or sometimes every other week if life is too crazy, I talk to my dad on the phone. We usually talk for about an hour and our conversations meander through the events of our lives, movies we've seen, gorgonzola, Miss Petrona (his racing horse), family activities, Rosie and Harpo (cats) and eventually, eyes. Why eyes you ask? Eyes end up being my favourite topic. You see my dad is an optometrist and I spent much of my childhood in his office. First, playing on the big green leather chair that adjusted up and down, getting my first pair of glasses, then my first pair of contact lenses, and finally, working as his assistant one summer. Being extremely near-sighted, I have spent many moments of wonder in his office as I receive a new pair of glasses or contacts and suddenly see the world with new clarity. The leaves of trees are distinct and I run around reading every word on every street sign. The world feels exciting and new once again.

One exercise that we do in voice work is a very simple one. We close our eyes and focus on the breath. Once the breath becomes more even, relaxed and deeper, we are asked to open our eyes and look around. If I lead the exercise, I will ask people if it was harder to stay connected to the breath with their eyes open. The answer is invariably, "Yes!"

Dad says that one exercise he suggests for the eyes is to place a #2 pencil in front of you. Begin moving the pencil around and try not to "look at" the #2, but allow your eyes to follow the number. Most people are confused by the idea, but as I was observing my breath this week I noticed the same thing, for the first fifteen minutes I was "trying to breathe". Then all of a sudden I didn't have to think about it, the rhythm became natural and easy and when I opened my eyes, it took a moment to re-discover the connection, but when I did, everything looked a little clearer. Like getting a new pair of contact lenses.

Sometimes I work so hard to see things that I forget to breathe. How about you?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Slow and Steady

I told my husband I would be done teaching by 5:10 pm sharp. "I'm never late!" I assure him.

5:35 pm and he has driven around the block six times, our one year old is pulling at his seat belt trying out his best Houdini moves-- and shrieking.

"You said that you are never late!" My husband accuses as I slip into the back seat, trying to avert the crazy rush-hour drivers.

"Sorry," I say, while attempting to soothe our one year old, "there were tears." On the ride home, I try to explain to my husband the students' frustration as the term comes to an end. Final performances are looming, they want the work to be perfect, but find they are still struggling to find some release in their throat or an emotional connection to words or freedom in their range.

Voice work is challenging because it requires exploration and sometimes just plain dedication. After four or five months of taking classes, a student may begin to understand what is possible but feel very far from achieving that possibility.

* * *

In a beautiful suite above Coal Harbour, we sit on chairs along the perimeter of newly washed living room carpets. We massage our jaws and flex our tongues, experiment with the rhythms and music of commercial tag-lines. My accent reduction pupils feel the same sense of frustration as the acting students. It's just good old-fashioned hard work today.

What we lose sight of is that tomorrow there may be a revelation, a giant leap forward, a triumphant step into new and exciting territory. That land can only be reached through the work, day after day, after day, after day, after day the work begins to unfold and flourish.