Playing with your voice

Julia has been back in London, and we managed to cram together a string of shows, from awkward to joyous. We learned a lot.

Firstly, a reminder that improvisation is all about connection. As well as raw time spent together, we managed to fit in two rounds of contact improvisation and pulled some solid rehearsals, which began after the first two (awkward) shows and took us to a good place together, with better performances as a consequence

One of those later, fun shows was a duo set at Hoopla’s crash pad, where we performed Postcards from the Edge, something we tried in Marburg and inspired by Moon’s Pocket, a show we watched on our arrival to the W├╝rzburg festival. The form is sitting really well with us now, and I’m hungry to get back to it. My learning from that show was if you honestly talk about sex it is the best kind of funny.

The other two shows we trio’d, the first with Ed Bennett in a family gathering form we’ve toyed with before and the other with Brandon again, a montage begun with a painting of a two-dimensional picture at stage front. The former was simply wild fun, with the three of us in hysterics after finishing the show, the second had some magical moments, from slow discoveries to gentle monologues to steamrollering our scene partner (yes I did but it’s ok).

My learning from those is just how important voice is for me to get out of my head and be active. In the family gathering opening scene, when I opened my mouth I made an arbitrary choice to sound Russian. Now, I’m not good at accents. I want to be better, am even doing accent classes, but I know it’s not a strength. And my Russian simply wasn’t good enough to be pleasing as an offer in itself: I could feel it from the audience after a few lines, an almost disappointment ‘oh. It’s an accent but not really, and not in of itself funny’. And I could feel the pressure to drop it, to accept that I’m not delivering something useful there, but stuck with it.

One thing to note is that as the character became more familiar across the show and his turns of phrase became reused, then something that wasn’t funny became funny-ish and then plain fun. Stick with your details and give your audience the gift of familiarity. But my main point is what the voice did for me. It took me out of my head. How?

Firstly, a booming, clipped and jolly diction is simply distinct from myself naturally. When I use my natural voice, the voice that I buy chips with and talk to customer service reps with and probably have anxious thoughts about improvisation with, I’m holding my own identity close. A different voice doesn’t so readily cue those memories, and once the character has started rolling the voice will cue character memories, which are far more useful. As a case in point, my Russian had at least three games running (talking about life on a Gym Ship, finding wisdom in Dumpling-making, and preferring to examine people indirectly through a mirror) and I never felt myself trying to remember any of them, they just kept returning.

Secondly, the voice was strong and diaphragmatic. I’ve done Trance Mask work for coming up to four years now, and it’s clear there that the state of effortless trance that the masks allow you to discover is accessed in part through bodily vibrations from the sound that each mask possesses. In a sense, simply speaking louder gets you some of the way there – which is what I discovered in the steamroller scene I played with Brandon, and is akin to Christian’s scene mentioned elsetumblr. Even more fundamentally, the quieter you are the more inward you are retreating, and the louder the more you approach and mix yourself with the outside world.

A final caveat to myself. Julia reminded me afterwards that techniques such as voice, physicality and stream of consciousness (which we rehearsed heavily to great benefit – do it if you can!) were just one approach to staying out of your head, with another being to simply be present and not want anything, just let it come. I know that’s true – we had found that on stage the day before – but I can easily find myself worrying that I’m not giving enough to my partner, or indeed the audience, if I’m not bringing at least a specific energy to the stage, if not a more explicit offer. Devolution into ‘you-first’ improv, essentially, the crime of the polite English. The fact that I’m resisting this evident second wisdom as being so useful to me makes it certain that I need to approach it more, and be, shall we say, present in active emptiness.

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