The workshop was held in the black box studio of my alma mater, a room where I had often felt like a total failure but simply applied hard work and diligence and eventually I'd come up with something I could put in front of an audience, at least for one weekend. Outside the room, memories of British teachers telling me "I can't understand a word you're saying, dear" and dialect coaches giving up on IPA and moving straight into "just repeat after me" flooded my head. I walked in, ready to take notes and study hard. There were mats on the floor. Oh no. It'll be one of THOSE classes.
We started with a brief history of teaching speech, which I found incredibly interesting and useful. I learned the word "idiolect", and I like learning new words. Then our teacher welcomed our impending frustration, which is usually a red flag to me that in a couple hours he'd would be looking at me, puzzled, stumped, thinking to himself "this student just does not want to work today," and letting me sit out. I usually excused myself from these types of things, explaining "I'm a BA, not a BFA," which seemed to be all the information my peers and teachers required. My whole body was ready to run. Indeed, what followed was a lot of what I call "rolling around on the floor and feeling your feelings," the typical Bachelor in Fine Arts education where there are no right answers, there's only exploration. It's vulnerable and terrifying. When I teach exploration, it's usually in the form of games that are at least fun and silly - we play, we compete, we laugh a lot and get distracted, we don't take the work too seriously lest we start taking ourselves ultra-seriously and become Those Actors. The kind of exploration I had gotten myself into in this workshop was all about breathing colors, or letting your elbow talk, the kind that is uncomfortable. The lessons that are more about how you relate to yourself than how you relate to your class, although it's impossible to forget that there's an audience of peers all around you, even if you have your eyes closed. I did a lot of standing around, frozen, or laughing uncomfortably, trying to participate at the minimal level without being a distraction. I felt our teacher must be looking at me the way I look at teenagers who have that "too cool for school" attitude. Why is she refusing to have fun? Can't she see how beneficial this exercise is? Get out of your head!
Here's what happened: Our teacher, Louis Colaianni, told me that my frustration and anger and resistance belonged in the classroom. That is so huge, let me reiterate: he looked me in the eye and said "well, yes, of course you're frustrated and confused, because that's where art comes from." He actually lived up to his word and told me that being frustrated is okay, that it's not my resistance to work or a refusal to process, it is PART OF THE PROCESS. I can't describe the relief I felt. I spent most of the class feeling A LOT of feelings. Probably not feelings the exercises were intended to produce. And they were all welcome.
< This video is not only a really comical and accurate representation of an acting teacher taking himself way too seriously, "I'll yell at you until you feel the feelings I want you to feel!" ...but also one of my favorite things on the internet.
The spectrum of theories on how to teach speech is pretty vast. I've taught speech classes before, where we mostly work on giving meaning to nonsense words- hilarious fun with eight year olds. I had always been aware that other voice teachers do very serious vowel drills, and "repeat after me" exercises for learning dialects - eh, not my game. I had never looked up exactly why all of that was part of my own education.
"Freeing the Natural Voice" (1976) by Kristin Linklater, Louis' teacher, contains exercises about swaying in the wind like a tree or imagining your breath as water or whatever. Patsy Rodenberg linked speech with social politics in "The Right to Speak," (1992), which might be my favorite book I found, because I need my exercises to have some kind of end game... and a smattering of 90s feminism doesn't hurt. And then there's the "Pronouncing Dictionary of American English" by John Samuel Kenyon and Thomas Albert Knott, written in 1944 and still used today to teach English overseas, which includes this in the introduction:
Of course I have an immediate averse reaction to this ideology. The very idea that the way white mid-westerners talk is inherently "better" than anyone else's speech smacks of racism and bigotry. Of course, I have recently discovered (though a conversation riddled with painful white guilt) that, gee, what else was happening in the 1940s? The rise of radio broadcast... so, ugh, perhaps there IS something to the idea that the invented General American dialect (that no one is raised with) is easier to understand, especially over static, and especially when speaking to an entire nation of dialects. Maybe I'll concede to that. But alongside this ease of clarity is the underlying attitude that sounding white and northern sounds well-educated and trustworthy. We reveal a lot about ourselves with the way we speak - our families, the place we grew up, our education, our background. Erasing all of that so that a listener doesn't get "the wrong idea" has just been easier than trying to change the social landscape to accept all types of speech.
So. Here I am chipping away at mountains. Clarifying the distinction between "that's wrong" and "you have a particular way of speaking - learn more tools so you're aware of it, and can make a choice about it, feel free to code switch with fluidity." All the while reminding myself, "Your frustration is welcome."