I was fortunate enough to see The Height of the Storm this past weekend on Broadway, with a cast featuring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins. I may write about the playscript at some point—it’s a difficult and interesting script, one of several that in the last several years to address aging and/or mental illness in provocative ways—but what impels me to write at the moment is simply this: the performers spoke with tremendous clarity.
Was the acting good? It was terrific. The timing, the power, the attention to the other characters, the believable naturalism, the storytelling, all superb. A fantastic set of performances. But what impels me to write at the moment is simply this: the performers spoke with tremendous clarity.
People have been mocking Method actors for mumbling for as long as there have been Method actors to mock. You certainly don’t need to be a Method actor to mumble, and you certainly don’t need to mumble to be a Method actor. But to speak clearly, to speak quickly and quietly and still be understood in a large theater that may not have perfect acoustics requires good technique. It takes training and practice and perhaps most of all it takes attention.
In the amateur theater community I am part of, I have increasingly become irritated by the tendency to treat mushy, unclear speech as either a minor problem, not worth spending time on, or as an insurmountable problem, not worth spending time on. I know rehearsal time is at a premium, and we really don’t have much time that isn’t for blocking or character work. And indeed, most of the practice that we should be doing isn’t a good use of rehearsal time—there’s a lot of one-to-one training and a ton of individual repetition. So I don’t have any sort of solution to the problem. Still, it makes a huge, huge difference to the audience. And it’s so delightful to hear dialogue spoken so clearly.
I have to admit, I wonder also if many amateur actors just don’t want to be bothered with the work of clear diction. It’s not creative work. To be clear, I don’t do it myself, to the extent that I ought to, to keep my vocal instrument (as it is so pretentiously called) at its peak. I don’t do half an hour of vocal exercises daily, or weekly, or even monthly. My vocal range has become narrower in pitch. My breath control is not what it was. I probably would enjoy doing some exercises for my voice—I certainly would enjoy them more than I enjoy the daily exercise for my shoulders that I don’t do either. But I don’t. As I make my choices for what to put in to my daily twenty-four hours and what not to, vocal exercises don’t make the cut.
Which is why I appreciate the amazing levels of skill that I hear in the people who do put in the effort. In (the cinema broadcast of) The Lehman Brothers Simon Russell Beale has a remarkable monologue very early in the play that delivered a tremendous amount of information, factual and emotional, and he did it quickly, quietly and clearly. It was magnificent. To shout it would leave the audience alienated and disinclined to sympathize with the character; to do it slowly would leave the audience restless (at the beginning of a very long play); to do it unclearly would leave the audience baffled throughout the play. It’s a difficult thing—you know, when someone has a longish monologue, people ask how to you remember all those words, when the really tricky part is pronouncing them properly.
Still, while we won’t all be Eileen Atkins (more’s the pity) we can certainly do a lot better than we’re doing. I’ve heard many, many jokes not land because the audience didn’t make out the words clearly enough. Clever references late in the play to something set up earlier don’t seem clever if the sound was too mushy to connect. And those moments of hush that are the amateur actor’s real reward simply do not happen if the actor is not able to drop lucid words into it. It’s worth the effort.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,