As actors we use our bodies to express our mood, our thoughts and emotions – and of course the essence of the character we’re playing. Gesture, posture, the way you walk, the speed of your general movement is a powerful way of expressing yourself. The way you use your body speaks volumes to the observer showing your age, your personality and even your outlook on life without you having to speak a word. The way the body works is an essential part of character creation – let’s face it, Charlie Chaplin’s whole career was linked to his unique walk.
We are all increasingly aware of the value of exercise and keeping fit and while many of us are interested in improving our physical appearance and stamina, traditional keep fit and gym training doesn’t necessarily give us the kind of workout and body training that fulfills our needs as performers – needs which are quite different from the kind of physicality needed to be an athlete.
For an actor the emphasis is on flexibility, stamina, expressiveness, characterisation, on motivated movement with purpose as well as on posture, relaxation, stillness and control. But what relevance has this for a voice actor?
An actor’s body is on show and under scrutiny and unless the intention is to draw attention to a character’s particular physical attributes, then the ability to move in an easy and fluid way that doesn’t distract the audience’s eye is a valuable attribute. An actor needs to develop a healthy body and maintain it in good working order – a actor’s body needs to have an extraordinary level of control and stillness and be flexible and expressive. For an actor, any exercise regime is targeted on a different set of goals than simply gaining strength or losing weight; strength and stamina are obviously important; acting can be physically challenging – dancing and fighting occur in a great many plays and films! Movement training for an actor will normally include dance (incorporating period dance), gesture, fencing, stage fighting and tumbling.
Dancing, fencing and tumbling have no immediate relevance to voice acting; indeed you may wonder whether ‘the body’ and its fitness and flexibility has anything at all to do with voice acting. When you’re in a small padded room in front of a microphone, you can’t move around very much, you can’t gesture and no one can see your posture or the physicality of your character.
However – especially for long form narration, stamina is vital – so is the reduction of physical stress which affects the voice, so body training and awareness combined with specialist forms of movement and relaxation such as the Alexander Technique and the Laban method are relevant and play a significant role in a regime that helps to build stamina, good breath control and vocal flexibility – all vital requirements for voice actors.
Your body is part of your vocal equipment and you owe it to yourself to stay generally in as good a shape as you can manage. Being generally fit is a great blessing and an asset to all performers and aids stamina and the ability to breathe properly.
The Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique works through re-establishing the natural relationship between the neck and the back – the core of the body – which supports the strength of the limbs, and which provides the structural environment for breathing and the internal organs. For voice actors getting this relationship right helps to release the voice, reduce strain and extend vocal range and tone – and aids supported breathing.
The natural working of the head in relation to the neck and of the neck in relation to the back is seen at work powerfully, beautifully and effortlessly in small children – as we get older, life gets in the way and we lose this natural balance relationship. The Alexander Technique, which I learned at Drama School, helps you to re-discover your body’s natural alignment which you instinctively achieved as a child but which is lost with time.
The Alexander Technique (AT) was invented by Frederick Matthias Alexander in Australia at the close of the 19th century. Frederick Alexander was a Shakespearean orator, who found that his voice would quite literally ‘disappear’ during the course of a performance becoming hoarse and losing its normal tone and variety. When his doctors told him that they could find no physical cause, Alexander reasoned that he must actually be doing something to cause the problem.
Using multiple mirrors, he observed that he was contracting his muscles, particularly those in his upper torso, neck and shoulders, before beginning to speak. He developed the hypothesis that his habit of pulling the head backwards and downwards was disrupting the normal working of the vocal folds, hence the loss of voice. He exercised and practiced and managed to break the habit and his voice problems were resolved.
While on a tour of New Zealand in 1895, he began to realise that the way the head was held had a direct impact on the overall physical functioning of the voice but also other activities. He also observed that many people tensed the muscles of their shoulders, neck and upper torso, as he used to do in anticipation of many other activities, besides speech. He reasoned therefore, that if bad habits could be unlearned and were instead replace by good habits, the body would achieve perfect balance and poise, with little or no tension so that speech and many other functions would be improved – and that this would lead to an overall improvement in an individual’s health and well being.
And he was right! As a tool for the performance artist, AT is invaluable. It helps to improve stamina, increases clarity of perception, frees up spontaneity; it is even claimed that because tension is reduced, it helps to manage stage fright and improves self-awareness. Vocally it leads to the free alignment of the vocal tract by consciously increasing air flow, vastly improving resonance and vocal tone. Since the technique was first developed, AT is taught in all the major music and drama colleges in the UK, and many in the USA and elsewhere. AT is also incorporated in classes by many vocal coaches, voice and acting teachers in less formal situations.
Of course, you don’t need to go to a special drama class or college to learn AT. There are many specialist AT teachers across the UK. Those recognised by The Society of Teachers of The Alexander Technique (STAT) have undergone three years’ training.
More information and details of teachers across the UK can be found at:
Information about the Alexander Technique Worldwide can be found at:
Many actors advocate the Alexander Technique including Paul Newman, Jeremy Irons, Joel Gray, Mary Steenbergen, Julie Andrews, Patrick Stewart, Kevin Kline, Joanne Woodward, John Cleese, John Houseman, Robin Williams, James Earl Jones, Christopher Reeve, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, William Hurt, Keanu Reeves, Hillary Swank. Heath Leger, Pierce Brosnan and many more.
The Laban Technique
Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a method and unique language for describing, visualising, interpreting and documenting all varieties of human movement. LMA is used as a tool in the arts by dancers and actors, but also by musicians, athletes, physical and occupational therapists, psychotherapists and in peace studies, anthropology, business consulting, leadership development as well as in health & wellness studies; it is one of the most widely used systems of human movement analysis today.
The Laban training technique for actors was developed in the UK by John Blatchley, Christopher Fettes and Yat Malmgren when they broke away from the Central School of Speech and Drama to form Drama Centre London in 1963. Drama Centre was at that time considered to be one of the first ‘Method’ acting schools in Britain. The Laban technique is now taught more widely in Drama Schools in the UK.
The Laban Technique was not part of the main curriculum when I studied at Guildhall, though Ben Bennison who taught mime and movement as well as acting did touch on it. There are many books on the Laban technique and many teachers who incorporate the work of Laban and Malmgren into their teaching. I wish I had come across them earlier in my life and had learned more about this technique.
I have been lucky enough to have worked with several directors who were graduates of Drama Centre, and although I found the approach initially to be complex and confusing (perhaps because I was trying to cram two or three years’ worth of training into a three week and a half week rehearsal period) ultimately I grasped the basics … and found it to be an intriguing and immensely helpful way to interpret text and to create complex and multi-layered characters. I can absolutely see why actors who have experienced the Laban technique as part of their training continue to use it throughout their careers.
Drama Centre Alumni include: Pierce Brosnan, Simon Callow, Danial Cash, Emelia Clarke, Anne-Marie Duff, Frances de la Tour, Joe Duttine, Michael Fassbender, Colin Firth, Tara Fitzgerald, Geraldine James, Jack Shepherd and Don Warrington.
There are several drama schools and colleges that run short courses in the Laban technique for actors at summer schools, including ALRA, Trinity Laban Conservatoire – and there are an increasing number of Laban teachers offering Laban training. Though Laban is primarily a movement based training of actors, there are elements that I use when narrating if I am stuck in finding a character’s voice, it can help in finding the character’s energy and flow, their pace and their intensity.
For actors, walking naturally is one of the hardest things to do in a performance. This won’t normally bother a voice actor as we’re tied to the microphone – but many of us also work in a more physical environment from time to time. In life, we ‘walk’ so automatically that it seems straightforward, but when walking becomes the centre of your attention, you suddenly lose the ability to do it naturally and with purpose.
And it is not just about motivation, the mechanics of walking also often go awry! Watch how often actors in films and on television walk awkwardly. Both arms swing forwards and backwards at the same time, moving forwards then both swinging backwards again without opposition. When we walk normally and are not thinking about it, our arms swing in opposition to our feet, so right foot forward, left arm forward and so on. The natural heel toe walking action also seems to elude actors from time to time, there is sometimes a strange balletic movement, toe first with toes turned out.
Both of these mechanical errors look totally unnatural. It seems that as soon as we become aware that people are watching our ability to move naturally disappears and an awkward and unnatural gait is seen time and again in movies and on television, and on stage too.
In life we don’t normally wander randomly around the room in the middle of a conversation. So why is aimless wandering such a feature of so many stage performances? I don’t normally feel the urge to leave my armchair, and walk from A to B in the middle of saying something … unless there is a good reason. If I am feeling anxious or angry … or moving away from someone, or avoiding an angry wasp, or am trying to get close to someone, or am heading to make a cup of tea, then I will move; but there is a reason for me doing it. This is not the aimless wandering that I see on stage so often. Why are the actors moving? Have they been told to? Perhaps because they (or the director) are frightened that the audience will be bored if they sit still for longer than two minutes.
You need a reason to move … that reason may be emotional, fear, the desire to be near another character, or to distance yourself from someone else … or something as mundane as going to answer the telephone to get a cup of tea … but there must always be a reason!
Movement – for the voice actor?
How is it possible for movement to be part of voice acting? Surely, during a voice performance you just sit or stand talking into a microphone!
In fact, I find that I actually move quite a lot … even though I don’t move very far … particularly when recording audiobooks and video games. I use gesture; I lean into the mic … or away from it. I use a different stance for different characters. I imagine a character’s walk … and though I can’t actually do it, imagining the way a person moves, whether they are fluid and easy in their movement, or stiff and upright really helps the character’s voice to come alive.