This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Lauren here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto. This week I’m pleased to bring you a small interview with Cindy Block, one of the faculty at Canada’s National Voice Intensive. This year the Voice Intensive will be taking place in Ontario, using the facilities at York University.
I currently TA with Cindy at the University of Toronto, and she was kind enough to sit down and chat with me a little bit about the Voice Intensive and its use of Shakespeare’s language; the most interesting conversation I’ve had for a while to be perfectly honest. Cindy reinforced, for me, the need for community (youth, adult, professional, amateur, and more…) engagement and exposure to Shakespeare’s language. He explores the need to speak sought by actors and regular Joes on the street alike…
And now for our conversation:
Cindy, can you tell us a little about the history of the Voice Intensive? When it started and what its core principles are?
This is the 30th anniversary of the Voice Intensive, so it started in 1985. The core principles of the Voice Intensive … I would have to say, the embodied voice. The work has always been based in sensation … you know, on the one hand the principles are the physical anatomy, but I would also have to go back to Iris Warren’s principles of voice – that “voice is response” and then, as David Smuckler would say, “voice is your response”. Voice is rooted in the body. And voice reveals us, reveals our thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions. As David says, “It’s not the colour or range of your voice, its the colour and range of your thoughts and feelings and sensations”. I think it was Iris Warren who said, “we don’t want to hear your voice, we want to hear you”.
Those principles are really what the Linklater work was based on – what Iris Warren began to develop – and things that I’m probably quoting from Linklater’s book! The Voice Intensive has certainly challenged, developed, and responded to the needs of actors over the last 30 years. I think what the Voice Intensive probably does best is bringing the physical work and vocal work together into the text. And Shakespeare is the conduit for the rich language; the immediacy of the language. You know, you can’t play ahead in Shakespeare. You have to play the words you’re actually saying – that’s where Shakespeare came in in the first place to the Voice Intensive. Lots of participants in the Voice Intensive have never done Shakespeare in their life – so there’s a lot happening from what they learn in the text itself, and then how to align your own body and voice – speaking muscles, body, skin, bones – to the speaking of that text.
And ultimately we’re there to research the actors’ performance and training, and to respond to the needs of the contemporary actor. I think that’s probably most important. We’re there to respond to the needs, and we’re looking at the embodied voice.
What or who drew you to this work?
The Voice Intensive! That’s it! I was an actor, and I was a participant in 1992. I met, as a participant, many of the faculty that are still there – and, I understood for the first time in my life what a teacher was – at the voice intensive. And for me, it was the fact that those teachers saw me. And they just didn’t look at me, they didn’t watch me, they didn’t critique me, the really intuitively empathetically, you know, I just felt completely seen at the Voice Intensive. And in that seeing, in the being seen, I began to really see myself. Because what I was receiving as information from them was a clear directive to see myself, and that became power. That became everything. I actually felt like I turned a corner from being an actor into being an artist; I actually looked at transcending myself into the universal task of theatre, of theatre itself, the act of theatre. So then I kept working as an actor, but the voice work just kept coming back – eventually I made my way through a theatre career into teaching, and it just naturally came about that I was going to be a voice teacher because of my mentors – and then just following through and ending up back on the faculty that had inspired me. And I think that everyone on the faculty is there for that reason; we’re there with each other.
How has that influenced your own/personal practice?
The Voice Intensive is … we call it research there. We never refer to our participants as students. The participants are coming to participate in the research that we are in. And there’s no other place that we do, as a faculty, as much research as there. And the research is happening in the bodies right now. So we come from all different kinds of teaching situations, and university situations, and we come, and in our time together we meet and meet and meet, and clarify, and oh my gosh – hate to use the word discuss – but dialogue on the vocabulary that we use. We have gone eight hours on maybe one word, discussing as a faculty the impact of using that one word in actor training. So our research is both our own, our individual things that we bring to our individual sessions, but also when we come together as faculty we ask questions of ourselves. We might never find answers to those questions, but we keep questioning the work. Just the openness and the rigour, that we can dive in together with each other in that – it’s not something that we can find anywhere else.
And from a participant perspective, it feels that nothing goes unseen or undone, it goes attended to, even if unanswered. Everything for the participants becomes an invitation to explore the language.
How do you specifically incorporate your own practice/research into the Voice Intensive?
Well, everything about the research, for me, is about articulating it. Whatever it is. So, when I’m there, I’m coming in, and I attempt in my best way to articulate what I’m curious about, and in that articulation of what I’m curious about, you know we move, we sound, we do something, and then we can articulate it further. And most of the time, I don’t know where its going. I have an idea of what I intend. I think there are intentions and then there’s the research. My intention is always presence, for now, that’s just a word that I’ve been working with for the last five or six years or so; presence and all that that implies. I look at the root of the word presence, to me its sensation. So that’s a starting point. There’s an intention in the room, definitely. Whatever I bring to explore, I’d say that’s an overall objective or intention; presence. And then we figure out how we’re going to get there. Then, when there is a presence, a notion of presence that occurs, we can attempt to articulate what the presence is, and what that presence consists of. Presence is momentary. Because then, the next moment is a new presence. So if the participant, if we, can move from presence to presence, moment to moment, the participant is asking: where am I now? what am I now? how am I now? Then we guide them to find the articulation of that in a physical framework. Because again, the voice is in the body, so we have to go back to the physical framework. What am I sensing? That sensing, that presence, whatever it is, is the truth. It’s always true. Whatever the person is becoming conscious of, that’s their level of truth in the moment. And there are many levels of truth.
How significant is the use of Shakespeare’s text in the work that you do both within the Voice Intensive and in your own practices/teaching?
I think the Shakespearean text becomes more and more important every year because the text is more and more difficult for the young actor to access and attend to, and that’s why it becomes more and more important. The contemporary speaker seems to have less and less access to image, and to vocabulary, and to complex language into complex image. You know, we’re in a world of texting – that’s the truth – in a world of sound bites and letters. O. M. G. So it becomes, “you know” – we can do contemporary text, but the language, the immediacy of the language, the ability of the characters speaking from their true sensation of now, from their sensation of who, how, and what, and where am I in this moment – again just offers that sense of present language.
Sometimes the young actor talks a lot about “well Shakespeare is just repeating. Why are all these words necessary to say this simple thing?” And so there’s all these kinds of paraphrasing of Shakespeare into just a few things, and there’s something about that that is a little disagreeable to me. It doesn’t just mean that, its not a paraphrasing into something more simple. How do we manage the complexity of the articulation? And again, that articulation I have been speaking about, there aren’t enough words to say, in Shakespeare’s world, the needs are so great, the circumstance is so wide and deep, that there are not enough words to say “how much I love you”, you know? So this complex language is necessary to even attempt to articulate the love that I feel, or the revenge that I want, or honour…
So if we look at it all those complex thoughts [and] words that Shakespeare gathers, and we look at it as if its not enough, then I’m always in the presence of the full articulation of those words. And then it’s always unsatisfied. There’s always going to be a need to speak because the presence is unsatisfied. It takes a lot to satisfy the thought. Then you become more curious, more muscular, more involved in what you’re saying. In a way Shakespeare gives you a lot to involve yourself with.
The satisfaction of speaking, of having language, I think that that is a real gift that the Voice Intensive attends to for the participants. A lot of the contemporary participants are not given a lot of language to use in the world, and in the ind the best that they can feel is satisfied that they can have all these words in their mouths and bodies, and speak from their own bodies, and muscles, and skins – these words have bones, and muscles, and skin, and shells.
We ask the question every year, Why Shakespeare? And I guess, we’re not finished with it yet!
So I hope you have enjoyed our little discussion on big embodied voices and the use of Shakespeare! I hope that you will consider the Voice Intensive for you own personal training, or at the very least look them up and see what they do, and how they respond to the needs of performers. Shakespeare’s language, his stories, his text, everything about it, is still so useful and necessary to our lives today. Its nice to know that contemporary programming is still making an effort to not only engage in conversation about whether he is necessary but reinforce the use of Shakespeare to help actors access basic fundamentals in their training. He may create complex language and image but he also allows the actor to strip down to the basics and start from ground zero; embodying their voice, and being present in the sensation.