choice

Choice

So I’ve been reading the many articles that have been appearing on HowlRound recently about women directors

First this one

Then this one

And finally this one

All of these to some degree are about the language we use as female directors in our rehearsal rooms.  I’ve been thinking, brewing, about this for a few days now. Thinking about my own rehearsals as a female director. Of my responses to the article and responses to the responses, and then if humanly possible my response to the response’s response.  I’ve been formulating my own opinions about how I feel in response to these articles. And it occurs to me this afternoon that to explain my feelings about how to talk about language, I need to first talk not about words but about voice.

This semester I have a student named Maranda who has the most amazing voice.

Her sound is generally placed pretty low in her chest. It’s not raspy or throaty but it’s lower and further back than the typical standard of placement for most American speakers. I should probably mention she is Jamaican and sports a relatively thick Patois accent, too.

She is usually one of the first to arrive so on the days I teach at her school, I watch students walk into the black box for voice class and greet her sitting in the second row of the seating area.

“Hello, Ma-RAAAN-dah,” most of them say.

“Hello,” she says back and smiles. 

So far this semester I’ve led Maranda and her classmates in exercises on playing resonance in different parts of the body, in articulation exercises, and projection. I’ve tried to give them skills to open up access to all the sounds their voices are capable of.

One of the first realizations to come in my class is there is no such thing as a person’s “voice” in the singular sense. Around week 3 my students always begin to write about their voices in plural. They talk about how their sounds change over a range of different contexts and in relation to different people. The voice they use for a boss or teacher is quite different than the one they might employ for their friends, entirely different from the one they use with their parents, and different still than one for performance. These voices, they are begin to realize, are not the same. Consciously or not they are employing different sounds to try and achieve a different relationship with the listener.

And it is around this time that they read an article about vocal habits and explain what the author Patsy Rodenberg means when she says that habits are only a problem when they are no longer a choice. It is also around this time that I begin to hammer home a point that I will make through the rest of the course, a moral that underpins everything about the way I approach voice work: there is no such thing as a voice that is “better” than another voice. Ethically, morally, aesthetically, there are no “bad” voices.

There are simply voices that are useful in communicating and achieving what you want, and voices that aren’t.

Which means a high-pitched tiny “girly” voice can be fantastically useful in some contexts just as much as a low basso commanding one. A quiet sound just as powerful as a loud one depending on what you’re using it to do. It just depends on what you’re after.

Most of the students, to some degree, read the article and understand that the point I’m after is that your voice, your tendencies, your style is just as “good,” as long as it’s serving you to get what you want and as long as it is your choice. So when they start making sounds that at first feel funny in their bodies and mouths I say that I don’t care if they talk that way, but I do care that they have the option. When I make them stand in front of each other and speak I ask them constantly what they are trying to make the audience think and feel. The class and I collectively listen to each person and think and talk about ways we can use the voice to get us to the goal the speaker is aiming for.

Each vocal quality is a different choice that will provoke a different effect. That effect is their choice to make. I’m simply trying to give them tools to have as many ways to do that as possible.

This is what I think about when I think about the conversation regarding language and female directors. Each kind of language is a choice. Each one will elicit a different response. Each one is useful in some ways and not in others. It just depends on the tactic the particular directing is using to get to the end goal.

Can assertive language be effective? Sometimes. It can also be aggressive and off-putting.

Can accommodating language be perceived as weak? Sometimes. It can also be welcoming of a variety of perspectives and lead to an open and collaborative environment.

There are processes where I mostly ask questions. There are others where I mostly tell everyone what to do. And I don’t think the answer is picking an answer as to which is “right.” Because inevitably that “right” won’t be right for some people and some works of art. What troubles me in the task of trying to define the best type of female directing language is that it actually removes the choices that we so desperately seek to empower these female artists with. Better, I’d say, to ask whether the kind of language you use is getting you what you want. Better, perhaps, to ask if the language you use is one that you feel you own and have agency over. Better, I’d propose, to ask if your language is a habit over which you have choice.

Most recently, my voice class has been focused on an assignment where students bring in pieces of text that they have to present in front of each other. The text cannot be their own writing and this means that each of them must think about how to shift their voices to best communicate the language they have chosen to share with their audience. Last week, when Maranda went up she looked just a tiny bit nervous.

“Can I ask something first?”

“Sure.”

“The character in my book… Do you care if I talk like a white girl?”

Everyone giggles for a second.

“You can present the text however you want to.”

And Maranda’s voice, with its resonant and lilting Jamaican accent that has charmed the class for weeks, transforms into a nasal flat Midwesterner. Close your eyes and you literally wouldn’t believe it was the same person.

Our mouths collectively hit the floor.

The next class I watch again as the students enter.

“Hello, Ma-RAAAN-dah,” they say as always. And she laughs as I tell her it’s obvious they are jealous of her sound.

And she smiles because she I can see she knows it is true. And I’d guess it’s not only because of the beautiful voice that comes naturally but also because she has the power to shape the way they hear her. She could sound a different way if she wanted to. She can be those other kinds of voices when she chooses. She can go to all the places my exercises ask her to. But when she finishes, she doesn’t stay in those other sounds.

She goes back to the accent.

Because she has the choice.

– A

Cat Doctor

 

2011-01-10-doctor-cat

In order to pay my mortgage I currently still have to have jobs outside the creative sector. And the one that I work most often is for U Penn School Medicine’s Standardized Patient Program.

A standardized patient or SP is a person who portrays an illness or medical situation in order to allow medical students to practice their skills. So that for example, the first time someone has to give a life threatening diagnosis, it can be to an actor and not a real person. And the mega bonus of this system is that the “patient” can then come out of character and have a substantive discussion about how what just happened affected them. So that the medical professional to be can get some insight into the patient perspective. And in doing this they can start to see cause and effect – when you do this particular behavior it makes me feel a certain way, has this particular result.

It’s kind of satisfyingly scientific actually. It removes the judgment and anger from critiquing interpersonal skills and reduces it down to inputs and outcomes. Try this particular tactic to gaining my trust? I can tell you what the emotional output is in this scenario.

I like this job in part because it has taught me to listen. It has taught me the value of the subjective experience. It has taught me that intention is often not a useful tool towards substantive change. I can want to make you feel better but if my choice of words in expressing that is offensive or off-putting then my intention is a moot point.

When I train the performers I use metaphors of theater a lot. And when I get back into the rehearsal room, I have started using the tools of this SP trade in return. The language of linking action and behavior to some relatively objective measure of emotional outcome is really really useful.

Lately though, I’ve been noticing this trend in my day job that is puzzling. And it’s one that I’ve been subsequently trying to untangle in my theatrical work.

I’ll call this thing “Cat Doctor.”

Fact: I love cats. Love them. Seriously, if that toxoplasmosis parasite that makes you love cats is real, I have it. If there is a cat in a window, I will stop and talk to it. I literally want to smash the small furry bodies into my face.

And that’s weird. And very unique to me.

So if were in a doctor’s office and a cat in a little white coat and stethoscope walked into the room I would be overjoyed. I would be so pleased to be treated by cat doctor that I’d be a little beside myself.

But that doesn’t mean that cat doctor is a good doctor.

And so when I train my SPs I tell them that they have to watch out for the cat doctors – the students that they love for reasons that aren’t really anything to do with their medical skills. This can be because it reminds them of their best friend in 8th grade, or because the person is really attractive or has large ears and that’s just funny. Whatever the reason, when cat doctor syndrome occurs, I tell my SPs to be on double watch for their scores, because they need extra vigilance to make sure they can back up with substance why they are rating this person high.

I’ve been throwing this term around a lot in auditions lately. And I think about it in relation to collaborators.

Does the same cat doctor rule apply to the arts? If I see an actor who’s a bit of a mess, who’s a little bit off, but for whatever reason tickles my fancy, am I a fool to just trust that gut instinct? Should I resist casting the catactor?

If I love to watch them, can I trust that others will as well?

Every director I know has an actor that they love to work with that I just don’t see the charm of. Someone they just want in the room. Maybe they’re just blinded by some intuitive thing… Or maybe the particulars of an artistic process aren’t supposed to reduce down to objective quanta in the same way as a med school exam. And perhaps whether or not the audience can see exactly why, that cat doctor has a magic or influence that matters. They treat the problem with a strange and unconventional approach that just happens to work, even if it looks crazy.

Or maybe I’m just too distracted with the cuteness.

A