The oldest and most important piece of sound technology in theatre is the human voice. The voice tells us so much about a character, including where they come from, their personality and how they’re feeling.
An actor’s voice must be able to convey a range of feelings. It must also be powerful enough to fill an entire theatre. At Bristol Old Vic, this means an actor’s voice must be able to reach over 500 people. An actor also needs good breath control so that they won’t run out of steam midway through a sentence.
Listen below to Timothy West (pictured above) deliver a monologue from Act 3 Scene 2 of King Lear by William Shakespeare. Timothy performed this monologue on our stage in 2016. How does he use his voice to do all of the above?
In this activity, we will explore how actors like Timothy control their voices. First, we’ll go through some vocal warm up exercises and then we’ll look at some simple ways to communicate meaning through intonation, tone and volume. After practising these you’ll be ready to perform your very own dramatic monologue.
Get Warmed Up
Early actors didn’t have microphones, so they had to train their voices to be loud and clear. Today, even with microphones and other sound-enhancing technology, actors still have to train their voices to survive throughout the duration of a performance, or a series of performances.
For actors, warming up their voices before they go on stage is just like athletes warming up their bodies before a competition. Our diaphragms and throat muscles all need stretching so that we can perform our best.
Here is a simple vocal warm up demonstrated by actors from Bristol Old Vic. Listen to the recordings then have a go yourself.
1. First, try taking some long deep breaths.
2. Next, warm up your chest by pushing out consonants from your diaphragm.
3. Now, try practising some scales to warm up your pitch range (how high or low your voice is).
4. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to stretch out your tongue.
5. Finally, practice your articulation by giving this tongue-twister a try.
At Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Head of Voice Carol Fairlamb teaches the next generation of actors how to protect and project their voices.
You can listen below to some of Carol’s students experimenting with the different ways the voice can be an actor’s most treasured possession.
1. Speaking clearly: The ability to make every sound and consonant clear is essential for actors. Audiences need to be able to understand everything that is being said onstage.
2. Shouting: By changing the volume of your voice you can communicate a range of emotions and situations. Anger or excitement might be communicated with a loud volume while fear could be shown by using a quiet voice.
3. Stage Whispering: If your character is scared, or trying to pass on secret information, you might show this by using a stage whisper. You aren’t changing the volume of your voice here, but you are changing its tone and pitch.
4. Conveying emotions: When performing you must identify your character’s emotion at each given moment. You must make sure that your tone of voice matches what you want the audience to know about their feelings.
5. Putting on different accents: In order to let the audience know where your character is from, you’ll need to master the correct accent.
Now it’s your turn, using what you’ve learnt can you perform your own dramatic monologue?
Make sure to try out some of tricks Carol and her students showed you. How does changing the volume or intonation of your voice alter how your monologue is received and understood by others?
You could try performing the same monologue from King Lear you listened to Timothy West perform earlier. Here it is:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
If you don’t fancy trying your hand at some Shakespeare, why not attempt this monologue from 1766.
These words, written by David Garrick, were the first ever spoken on our stage. Today they are inscribed on the shutters on the front of our building for all the world to see (pictured above)!
Before you, see one of your stage directors
Or, if you please, one of those strange projectors
Whose heated brain in fatal magic bound
Seeks for that stone that never can be found.
But in projection comes the dreadful stroke
The glasses burst and all is bounce and smoke.
Though doubtless still our fate, I bite my thumbs
And my heart fails me for projection comes.
Your smiles would chase our fears, still I could dream
Rich as a nabob, with my golden scheme!
That all the world’s a stage you cannot deny
And what’s our stage? A shop, I’ll tell you why:
You are customers, the tradesmen we.
And well for us you pay before you see.
We give no trust, a ready money trade
Should you stop payment, we are bankrupts made.
To feast your mind and soothe each worldly care
Ye’ll largely traffic in dramatic ware.
When swells our shop a warehouse to your eyes
And we, from small retailers, merchants rise.
From Shakespeare’s golden mines we’ll fetch the ore
And land his riches on this happy shore
For we theatric merchants never quit
His boundless stores of universal wit.
But we in vain shall richly laden come
Unless deep water brings us safely home,
Unless your favour in full tides will flow
Ship crew and cargo to the bottom go!
Alternatively, you can try reading out loud from your favourite book, or even write your own monologue about something you are passionate about.