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Vocal workshop

So we’ll be working on this text from the Duchess of Malfi using some of the techniques of
Arthur Lessac. He is particularly relevent because he works towards freeing the voice
allowing for exploration as apposed to trying manufacture a performance - similar to the
way we’ve already been working. This will help us continue working in the
Jacobean/Shakespearean style we’ve already been applying but in a new way that should
fresh for you.

Webster was influenced heavily by Shakespeare, so rather than attempting to divert from
what we’ve been doing, we want to compliment and build on it. To give you some context,
the play is centred around the Duchess and her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who
both believe that she should remain unmarried following the death of her first husband.
However she soon falls in love and marries her courtier Antonio, becoming pregnant by
him. They attempt to hide this but unbeknownst to her, her brothers hire Bosola as a spy to
find out what is happening in the court. At this point, after taking out his frustrations with a
corrupt court out on an ugly old woman and the elderly Castruchio he reveals his plot to
prove his suspicions about the Duchess’ pregnancy.

The first thing we are going to explore is vowels. Lessac uses the image of a sound box in
an instrument to comment on the human voice. There larger the sound box, the fuller and
richer the sound. What we do in our normal patterns of speech is slowly reduce this space
down, causing diminishment in the richness of the sound. To illustrate this everyone make
an ‘AH’ sound and slowly change it to an ‘OO’ as Sammy will demonstrate. (PAUSE TO

Who noticed their teeth starting to close? Anyone notice the oral cavity reducing in size?
Lessac argues that if this was necessary, this principle of the sound box would be negated.
So what we need to start with is finding this nice open space. We’ll use three methods to
start feeling this space. First the forward muscle yawn. (SAMMY DEMONSTRATES,
COPIES) and finally finding the forward facial posture, for which we will use this (cork)
(SAMMY DEMONSTRATES, EVERYONE COPIES). Let’s try adding the following vowels
the cork, try the vowels again and use the image of the megaphone to maintain the space.
You can check on yourself by placing two fingers between your teeth like so (SAMMY

We’re now going to have a conversation with each other using these five basic vowels.

So now we’ll split up into pairs. Pick out some words from the text, speak out the vowels to
your partner then the whole words. Find a movement to express the words. Partners
repeat the word back then add your own with movement and so on, like so (SAMMY AND

Find one line of the speech that has lots of interesting vowels and speak out each vowel to
your partner. When you’ve got the vowels, try again with the whole words. Partners give
constructive feedback as you go.
Now we’re going to move on to working with consonants. Lessac believes they are very
important, as he demonstrates with words such as ‘seats’, which could be misheard as
‘seeds’ if the consonant is not pronounced properly. Another example is ‘wrote’, which
could be misheard in many ways, such as ‘rode’, ‘rogue’ and so on. Lessac assigns each
consonant an instrument and has arranged them into a ‘consonant orchestra’ (SHOW
PROJECTION). They have been grouped into melodic consonants (SHOW WHERE),
percussive consonants (SHOW WHERE) and sound effects (SHOW WHERE).

So what I’d like you to do is everyone with a copy of the text find a partner without one.
Pick out a few words of the speech and experiment with barely pronouncing the
consonants, being very lazy with your articulation. (CHRIS DEMONSTRATES) Speak
these words to each other and listen to how unintelligible words can become without
consonants. You may find this hard and that is because we are used to speaking with the
life and energy consonants bring to our speech.

Now I want you to attempt the opposite, taking a couple of lines and really exploring the
consonants, letting the breath just softly slide over the vowels. (CHRIS DEMONSTRATES)
You will hopefully have noticed just how many consonants there are in this speech and
therefore why Lessac’s techniques are so relevant here.

Find a new partner and now I would like you to have a consonant conversation, similar to
the earlier vowel conversation.You can refer to the consonant orchestra, using double
consonants as well as the more obvious ones. Each should be thought of as musical
sound and so make sure to experiment with tone and pitch and, as before, repeat each
other’s sound and movement before responding with a consonant you feel is appropriate.

When two consonant sounds are found together, such as in ‘suspect’, it is highly important
to pronounce each separately, as we have been doing, because the meaning can be lost if
one of these is dropped. However, this does not apply when two similar consonant sounds
are found together, in one word or across two. We link these sounds in our everyday life,
aiming to produce a ‘smooth utterance’, as Lessac calls it, making our speech more
understandable. An example of this is ‘take care’ or, from text, ‘Jews’ spittle’. So now,
individually, take a chunk of the speech (perhaps six lines or so) and read it making a very
deliberate break between each word (CHRIS DEMONSTRATES).

Did this feel different? Maybe you felt the rhythm was altered by taking this approach? Now
read the same chunk smoothly, as you normally would (though remembering your
consonants!) and see if this is more rhythmical? Lessac believes this approach allows us
to communicate rhythm more effectively and make speech more intelligible, whether it’s
our own or Webster’s!

If you hadn’t already noticed, Webster, like Shakespeare, writes in both prose and verse
and this extract contains both. On the line, “observe my mediation now”, Bosola’s speech
turns from prose to what appears to be iambic pentameter. This also occurs at the end,
after the line, “I observe our Duchess”, a reflection of the earlier shift. A Lessac technique
for rhythm is to focus on what he calls the ‘neutral vowels’. These are the shorter,
percussive vowels, such as ‘uh’ ‘e’ ‘i’ ‘eu’. Some examples of the use of these vowels from
the text are the lines, “Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet” and “A rotten and
dead body, we delight”. Pair up again and say these lines to each other, emphasising the
short vowels. We feel that this work can be combined with techniques aiming to explore
iambic pentameter as both attempt to put the rhythm into the voice, one by focusing on the
mouth, one on the body. So now let’s try reading those same lines to each other while
skipping, as we’ve done many times before. Now let that go, and say the lines without
trying to put in the rhythm, keeping that sense of energy in the voice. This shows us that
there is reason for Webster’s changes into verse from prose as the energy found through
the rhythm applies to the character as much as the actor. Bosola has that heightened
energy to make his observations to his audience.

Finally, can we have a volunteer to deliver the first half of the speech taking into
consideration the techniques we’ve explored today.

What have you noticed from this? Its worth noting that like Linklater and Rodenburg, this
method is about process, so we have only been able to pick out the most relevent
exercises for you. Thanks a bunch, now go home!