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Make plays audible

I’ve seen several plays recently (no names no pack drill) in which I have missed an occasional line. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, wrong with my hearing. It’s simply that some actors sometimes fail to make themselves heard in the theatre.  I am not morphing into Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and of course I understand how naturalistic 21st century theatre works.  But I think we should consider the issue very seriously because there are implications both for the way we train actors and for the future of live theatre, which will die if audiences give up – as they surely will if they can’t hear the dialogue.

Ah yes. The audience. Let’s think about that word for a minute. It comes from the Latin verb audire  which, of course, means “to hear” and lives on in English words such as “audiologist”, “audible”, “auditory” and so on. Traditionally a group of people came to a play to hear it rather than see it. When Puck says he’ll be an auditor he isn’t planning to check anyone’s accounts. He means he’s going to eavesdrop at the Pyramus and Thisbe rehearsal in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 In a sense, audiences still come to listen.  If the piece is text driven, as nearly all plays are to a greater or lesser extent, it’s the words which provide the crux of the plot however much accompanying visual spectacle there might be.  If people who’ve paid to be there, even in the cheaper and more distant seats, can’t hear the actors then they’ll vote with their feet and their money. Result? Even more unemployment in this industry than there already is.

Part of the problem is, I think, that a great deal of actor training now relates to screen rather than the stage.  Naturalism – often with a hint, or more, of “method” acting – is the key word. It’s what TV casting directors are looking for and that’s the work which most graduating drama school students aspire to. “Realism” drives most work opportunities for actors.

Obviously some of that intimate realism transfers to stage very successfully especially in smaller, more intimate spaces. No one wants declamatory Shakespeare or samey, twee drawing room dramas and formulaic farces any more. But surely we could still train actors to speak in a way which fills the theatre?

You cannot speak at the same pitch on stage in a big theatre as you can in, for example, a bedroom scene in a film. We still need stage whispers. Moreover there is something to be said, even in 2019, for  stage directors’ insisting that actors don’t, in general, turn their backs to the audience when speaking unless there’s a very good reason for it, in which case pitch adjustments must be made – old fashioned and unsexy perhaps but still relevant. It’s – literally –  a completely different scenario from a film when you can move the camera with the actor.

It can be done too. Shakespeare’s Globe is a cruel space to fill with voice. Not only are there all the problems associated with a roofless acoustic but actors have to compete with aircraft coming up the Thames into Heathrow, surveillance helicopters, sirens, revellers on the river path and mewling seagulls. But voice coaches and directors are evidently scrupulous about articulation and pitch and I have never had difficulty hearing at The Globe although I often do elsewhere, especially in larger venues.

Another part of the problem is the current overriding popularity of musical theatre for which every actor is fitted with a radio mic.  It works well and, obviously, the amplification is part of the style. No wonder, though, that some actors then find it difficult to do a “straight” play and fill, say, a 1000 seat theatre with voice alone. Are we inching towards a world in which every actor will need to be amplified irrespective of the style of the piece?

For years, and with good reason, drama schools were criticised for turning out mannered (hammy?) stage actors lacking the skills to adapt to screen, an issue which some of these institutions seemed to think was beneath their notice. And musical theatre was barely acknowledged in vocational colleges as a serious form of theatre. Have we now swung too far the other way?


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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