An ongoing obsession is drawing out the voice of the physical performer. This has helped nurture my love of writing speech, especially monologues, and encourage performers and students, that I work with, to open up their mouths and let the sounds out.
Many years ago I was involved in a project Deadpoint which had the fabulous Bryony Lavery writing the words. I say fabulous because her approach was a pleasure to witness. She watched rehearsals and listened for days, asked questions and came back with words that reflected what was going on between myself, as coach, and the performer Matilda Leyser, on the cloudswing, yet with a poetic quality that told of other stories and imaginings. We then worked on extrapolating the rhythm of the swing from the rhythm of the words – not an easy task. Like trying not to walk to the beat when listening to Reggae.
Much as I love Cloudswing, it is pretty boring. I used to live and breath it. I used to dream I was swinging backwards and forwards and sometimes awoke just as I was floating off the front of the swing. And it was always silent.
As a performer I was a mute. I never said a word on stage, or above it. I would declare to choreographers tasked with directing me, ‘I do not talk.’ Where that shyness came from I don’t know, but it was crippling. I never enjoyed performing, which is why I stopped. I loved the physical action but I hated that everyone would watch me, my every movement. I used to get sick with nerves that I would get found out.
Nowadays, as a director, and a teacher, I revel in the voice. I aspire to be the director that I wish I had worked with when I was performing. Cajouling the voice out of circus performers, giving a persona to the otherwise anonymous aerialist. Now I have discovered what a wonderful marriage voice and physical exertion is, I am quite simply addicted.
During making Stumble’s first show ‘An Evening of Instability’, with the help of voice coach, Beth Allen, we passed many an hour seeing what sounds being unstable created from the body. The sounds that escaped inadvertantly. What does it sound like to wobble ? to be upside down ? How is the voice affected by falling ? We sang on wobble boards, conversed along wires, dueted with percussionists. One performer, Natalie Reckert had never used her voice but was game for trying. It turned out that she has a wonderful spontaneous ability to conjour up images and together we made one of my favourite pieces of my work ; The Handstand Speech.
Natalie had this to say about the experience :
Before and during working with (Stumble) I felt awkward about my voice on stage. I had the courage to use my voice because it was within the context of someone else’s work and I felt like (Mish Weaver) carried the artistic responsability. My voice felt like something too private to expose. My voice tells all about me even if I dont say very much. At the same time I lacked “vocabulary” as in “movement vocabulary”, I lacked “voice vocabulary” topics or fragments or ways of working with voice. The handstand speech translated all that I usually only vaguely felt into words. It made me see and wonder about all that is going on inside me. It is just a handstand but there is a full on story, a drama, a struggle a dilemma, everything. I think having to name it and find words for the physical made me listen very carefully, be more aware.
Later, learning from Thomas Butts, teaching in Essen at the Folkwang school, Natalie found that :
Finally I can communicate and be as big as I want to be, as clear as loud as present as I always wanted to be on stage. My performance has an element of spontaneity, like a direct feedback that it never had before. I can react to everything that happens, I can react to how I feel. Before I talked on stage I was limited to what I rehearsed.
There is this saying it goes: What you really are shouts so loudly in my face that I cannot hear what you are saying.
I dont fully understand what happens when I talk on stage and that is fascinating as my performance ususally involves total control over my body. I dont understand what happens, but I feel that everyone listens and I get the type of full attention of the audience that is very exciting.
Spoken word is part of everything I do now and might take over completely.
As a result of starting to work with performers with their voices I inevitably became heavily involved in the words that they spoke, or the sounds that they made. One of my other favourite pieces was a speech performed by Lauren Hendry in Box of Frogs, (which I hope soon to edit archive footage of and place up here). The words we used were pulled out of psychiatric assessment multiple choice and directly contrasted with the acrobatic feats that she was carrying out while she spoke – no easy task.
Lauren describes vocal play during various rehearsal processes:
Kaveh (Rahnama) and I conducted each others voices with our bodies- both parts of this equation felt extraordinarily free. I remember feeling that Kaveh was doing the difficult part by conducting me, as new and rather extraordinary sounds came out of me. But then conversely when I was conducting, I felt that his role as the noise-maker was much more difficult than the silly nonsense I was doing with my body. This fun and lightness in this form of experimental collaboration meant that it all felt as though I could have explored it for weeks.
Years later in 2011-12, we were lucky enough to be a part of Box Of Frogs, which explored the extremities not only of the emotions of those with bipolar disorder, but also of the sounds it were possible to make with one’s voice. Exercises in which we as a group were to balance and harmonise a soundscape using set phrases as well as sounds.
In the final show, I was largely performing high pitched squeals, which complicated my usual warm-up- now having it include a lot of vocal warm-ups as well as the physical.
Another performer who was pushed to use her voice in Box of Frogs was Lyn Routledge who had the pleasure of depicting extreme rage that can emerge out of mania. As if it was not enough that she was thrashing about on a corde lisse, she also had to keep the sound coming out of her mouth.
Lyn describes using her voice in Box of Frogs as:
… a liberating experience. On the ground, I got to say things I would never say “in real life”. Things that were pretty harsh, said without fear of actually offending or upsetting anyone. I enjoyed this probably more than I should.
In the air I used my voice in ways I never have in performance. I wasn’t addressing the audience or anyone else on stage. In one piece I was using my voice to block out the noise of another performer and prevent his incessant chatter from reaching me. In another piece I was ranting away to myself, it didn’t matter if anyone heard or not.
In both cases the voice accentuated what was being expressed physically- staying in control or not staying in control.
Aswell as how the voice affected the movement how the movement affected the voice was also very interesting. Usually an aerialists job is to make what we do seem really effortless, it was liberating to not do this but to let the difficulty, exertion and pain be heard by the audience.
For myself, as Director and now – as a result of my explorations of voice – writer (a recent foray into writing monologues), I find that the mute language of aerial no longer satisfies me. The silence is only of interest if it is purposefully without a voice, as opposed to just not daring to speak or sing.
I was recently asked to run a workshop at BE Festival 2015 – which incidentally is a king among Performance Festivals – and attended a voice workshop led by Simon Ratcliffe. For three hours we moved and played and muttered and sang out and talked and listened and enjoyed all things audible. By the end I was lolloping about in different characters with their individual voices, improvised out of a simple turn, thinking to myself ‘I love this character!’, ‘I love their voice!’ and knowing that not in a million years would I have come up with those sensations via any other path. Absolute joy. The sheer pleasure for me, decades after stopping performing, to find myself able to free up the sounds coming out of me, almost, I say almost, made me want to run away and join the circus all over again – but this time with a chattering dialogue.