Tell me the story of your voice. Write a poem about it. Describe the way it sounds. Has it ever saved you? Has it ever betrayed you? What are the worst/best things you’ve ever said? Where do you feel your voice in your body? How has it changed? What does it sound and feel like in your dreams?
A lot of my written work and inspiration comes from the idea of voice; artistic voice, empowered voice, my voice as a woman. As a spoken word artist this is no surprise - my performance practice relies on my embodied voice to deliver my stories, passions and ideas.
For me, my voice is something I’ve grown into, which is odd, because most people who knew me as a child would say that on the whole I was an outspoken, outgoing and confident kid. I loved telling stories and putting on plays and had all the trappings of a show off. I was impatient and hot-headed, bossy even - I kept an army of five younger siblings in line on a daily basis. I know that at times I was gobby and I was (and still can be) fantastically foul-mouthed. It was no surprise when as a teenager I went to off to drama school to become an actor.
At drama school we learned lots about the mechanics of voice, how to breath, where to place it, head voice, chest voice, brightness of tone. We had a ‘rib swing’ exam in one voice module (to make sure our breathing was correctly supported from the diaphragm) and to pass the exam we had to recite Hilaire Belloc’s poem Tarantella with prescribed breathing points in it (believe me some of the phrases were loooooong). We had to wear nothing but a crop top on our top halves to best show off the action of our ribcages to our examiner.
At drama school we learned about phrasing, rhythm and meter, how to research and replicate accents, how to write our scripts phonetically, how to take care of the voice, how to warm it up, how to use saline solution to keep our sinuses clear. Everybody on the musical theatre course was terrified of dreaded nodules on the vocal chords. For three full years I practised and hummed and laaa’d, and deep breathed, training the muscles of my voice and body to be able to project properly on stage so that I could deliver story and character with emotion, nuance and skill. But underneath it all I knew my voice was unfulfilled. It didn’t blossom. I felt phoney. Despite my developing technical vocal ability, my deeper voice was suffering. I felt I never really had control and access to my voice from a truly authentic perspective. I was never really me. Not properly. It wasn’t until, many years later, and my work and artistic practice evolved, and I started to perform my own words as myself, that I truly felt like I was accessing a more authentic part of my voice.
Our voice doesn’t just operate on the physical level. It’s something much more deep-seated than that. It is intrinsically linked to our bodies, our dreams, our hopes and desires and our deepest fears. It grows and changes with the seasons of our lives.
One my most severe experiences of stage fright happened at drama school. It was in a singing concert. The piano played, I sang the first verse and a chorus (a Stephen Sondheim song I think), but then something happened, my mouth went dry, my knees locked, my throat froze, and suddenly I had the experience of being above myself, instead of in myself. The pianist repeated the phrase and gave me a stern look, but I stared down at myself, exposed and clumsy on stage in front of a room of blank faces and I hovered in silence and terror for what felt like an age, but was probably actually only a few seconds, if that. Then somehow (this may have been the benefit of all the training I’d done up until that point), I managed to clamber back into some part of me, and find something of my voice, just not the bit that was carefree enough to sing a rousing musical number. This was a different, easier part. I blurted out: ‘fuck this bullshit’ (or something similar) and I stormed off stage to hyperventilate in the dressing room. Needless to say, I did not pass that exam. Instead I went home, sank a bottle of red, sobbed in private and went to bed.
Bizarrely, when I left the stage that day, the audience applauded and whooped, and over the next few weeks I received smiles and backslaps from my peers who had misread my exit from the concert as some kind of bolshy protest about the fact that I hated musical theatre and resented being made to sing it. This was kind of true. I never really liked the song I was singing and I am not a fan of musical theatre on the best of days. I enjoyed our speech vocal classes and choir classes, and I LOVED our radio and mic technique classes, but I never truly enjoyed my one to one singing lessons, largely because they took place in a tiny claustrophobic room, just big enough for two people and a piano and my teacher often made me sing in front of a mirror which I found deeply uncomfortable. But this was not the whole story. Another contributing factor to my stage fright (let’s be honest here), was the fact that I had spent the weekend prior to the concert at Glastonbury festival, sitting in a field getting completely and deliberately out of myself which was a lot of fun, but not the best self-care practice, as the singing concert was on the Monday night. I was barely out of my wellies when I got on stage that night.
I learned several things from that experience of stage fright. Firstly, that the gap between what the audience sees and what a performer experiences on stage can be at total odds with each other. This is an essential lesson for a performer and anyone who wants to present their ideas in public. Secondly that my swearing, protective ‘fuck you’ voice was much easier for me to control and access than my ‘vulnerable singing’ voice. Thirdly, that the voice doesn't exist in isolation, what we experience, think and feel all has an effect on it.
The image of a young girl stuck on stage cursing at a singing concert could not be further from how I feel about myself and my voice these days. Since my drama training, I have spent many years as an actor on the stage pretending to be other people and that has been a lot of fun, but as I have moved through my career, my practice has honed and distilled to something much different. Now I take all my training and experience and step up to a microphone as myself.
Since graduating from drama school, I have worked a voice over artist (BBC Radio Drama Co.), an actor for stage and TV, and have written and performed in several of my own solo theatre shows. I have lectured in theatre and writing at Universities, crafted my own artistic voice as a playwright on the page, and supported fledgling writers who are exploring and discovering their own artistic voices. I regularly perform my own spoken word poetry at slams and events and I’m now in a place where I love to sing and write music and songs, so I really do feel in control of the voice I struggled to find when I was younger. A couple of years ago I was threatened with arrest for a Public Order offence after delivering a blazing anti-Trump poem at the Women’s March. I think that’s a pretty good marker of me now owning the true power of my voice. But that’s another story.
P.S BEFORE YOU GO...
I am really excited to be launching a new type of workshop and share my skills and experience in this area. It’s called YOUR VOICE... Find it. Use it. Own it. and is designed for women business owners and entrepreneurs who wish to develop their confidence and skill in public speaking. Drawing on my years of experience on stage as a performer I have put together a day to help women feel grounded and in control when talking about themselves, their work and their businesses. I use a playful and freeing combination of writing, vocal and storytelling exercises to boost confidence and expand skillsets. It will be a small group with an experienced and sensitive mentor (that's me by the way) and it will (I promise), be lots and lots of fun.
I hope you can join me. More details about the course here.
*** Early bird discount*** £120 *** when booked before the end of JUNE *** (Full price £150)
Workshop takes place at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York
25 July 10 am - 4pm (registration at 9.30am).