Lately I’ve been experimenting with playing an ageing woman, and voice-wise have found myself lapsing into Catherine Tate’s Nan – how does that happen?! I do hope to become an ageing woman one day (!) but in the meantime how do I achieve the breathiness, roughness and tremor characteristic of elderly voices?
Around 25 years ago I went to a lecture given by the impressionist Rory Bremner and an eminent ENT Surgeon. Spellbound I listened as they dissected (metaphorically!) Rory’s different character voices and revealed where and how the vocal tract was being manipulated to create such a variety of sounds and voices. This had a profound effect on my voice work and teaching.
As an actor, the importance of playing around with your own voice and speech and discovering those parts of a voice you didn’t think you could reach cannot be underestimated; have you been to the dark side? (impersonated Darth Vader I mean?!) For example, at The Actors Centre, London, I teach a course on playing characters with speech and voice problems (‘impediments’ to use the outdated word) – these can be some of the most challenging aspects of a character, aspects that take you out of your comfort zone: Can you recreate a stammer? Can you access the slurred speech of someone with a stroke? Can you let yourself spit or dribble?
And how do you ensure these voices, which are unclear by their nature, can still be understood and believable on screen and especially stage, especially if – in addition – the role demands emotion or access to something more primal?
It is invaluable not only to profile the voice of the character you are portraying, but also your own! The ‘Playing the Altered Voice’ workshop looks at exploring your own natural speech setting, partly your accent but mostly physiology. John Leguizamo arrived at the ‘lateral lisp’ of Sid in Ice Age due to his own natural tendency to an open, lip-spread speech setting, and realising that, like him, the character of Sid had a wide, toothy grin! Knowing your own equipment – your vocal tract’s natural tendencies – can help lead to a greater understanding of the character voices you could reach for.
Going for a run? – you would get fully acquainted with how to warm up and cool down large muscles; the same applies to the voice and speech muscles, especially if you are about to be a bit more athletic with them which, 9 times out of 10, an actor usually is. Individual coaching sessions, and courses I run, will by necessity always include a refresher on the anatomy involved in voice and speech production and on how to care for your voice. As an actor it is imperative to monitor your own daily vocal qualities, not just those of your character voices.