Thursday, January 19, 2012

Voice Use and Costumes at Theatre Royal, Barkerville

On Voice Use, Workshops and Costuming
Amy Newman in Barkerville in another of her costumes. Richard Wright photo.

For actors, singers, musicians and dancers at Theatre Royal, in Barkerville, B.C. it is safe to say that our work is extremely demanding (both physically and vocally) and one must have a well-tuned and well-trained voice (instrument) to withstand our rigorous show schedule, which runs from early May until the end of September. Whenever I have particular questions and concerns regarding my voice, I go to Shelagh Davies, a registered speech and language pathologist who specializes in vocal issues for performers.

The Theatre Royal cast 2011. Richard Wright photo.

For over 20 years in her practice in Vancouver, Shelagh Davies has helped people overcome vocal injury and reach their full potential as professional voice users. She is internationally recognized for her work with the voice and its disorders. In 2008, she was awarded a grant by the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists to undertake a clinical research project. Shelagh is a Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

I have known Shelagh for many years and consider her a mentor to me in my work at Theatre Royal in Barkerville, whether it be for a back-to-basics vocal “tune-up” or to work on specific repertoire for our shows. The expertise Shelagh offers is highly valuable and it is not an overstatement to say that she has saved my bacon on numerous occasions with her techniques, encouragement and advice. (Of course, half of the year I am not in town to seek her help in person, so many a time we have discussed issues over the phone, me in Barkerville, Shelagh in Vancouver.)

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to assist at a workshop for graduate students in The School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia with Shelagh Davies. It was a natural step for me to offer Shelagh my services as an actor at her workshop. My appearance allowed Shelagh to show the students someone working as a “professional voice user” in show business. I was also on hand to answer questions regarding voice and performance and how the demands of the work play out in the real world.

I prepared a few short monologues and songs to illustrate my work as a performer. I took speeches (which I had written) from a few of our past productions at Theatre Royal for this purpose. In choosing material, I looked for the most challenging and contrasting moments vocally to display to the class. I also did my best to choose moments that would stand on their own, for people who have no idea about Barkerville or the Cariboo Gold Rush, so that it would be entertaining as well as educational.

Right away I began to think about what I should wear. If I was going to present myself in the context of the 1860s Gold Rush period, then I must appear in appropriate attire, I thought. Hmmm. All of my 19th costumes are in storage at the theatre for the winter, so it would have been a little tricky getting one sent down in order for me to wear it. Richard is back home in Wells now; however, I knew it could prove difficult for me to give him directions about which dress to pick up from Barkerville – and to ship it down here in time for the event – that all seemed so silly to me, next to the idea of creating a brand new dress!

With just six days to go before the workshop, I set to work thinking: what would I make? What pattern should I use? And what can I put together quickly? 19th century women’s clothing is not the first thing that comes to mind when you are trying to construct a complete outfit in under a week.

The creative juices were flowing as I opened up one of my old storage trunks of fabric. As I looked through the pile, I found a partially cutout bodice from last year. The fabric itself had been purchased some years before and last spring I tried to get it made at last, but no dice. This looked promising. Then I continued through the pile and found more fabric, which would match up beautifully with the bodice fabric. Great. It was actually an old bed sheet and bed skirt, which had been sitting in that trunk for about five years. 

The bed skirt was a maroon velveteen with pleats. Perfect for the bottom of the skirt. The ivory-background-with- red-and-green-leaves patterned cotton (the old bed sheet) would do well for the body of the skirt and for pieces of the bodice. The final fabric I added to the project was a gorgeous piece of russet-coloured raw silk I had bought for another costume project that I never ended up doing; it had also been sitting in the trunk for a while. That would work for contrast sections of the bodice.

After cutting, measuring and sewing like a mad fiend for the rest of the week (and staying up until 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning), I had the outfit ready to wear for Saturday’s event – except for one important point: I had had no time to put in the buttonholes and hand-sew the buttons. So, I decided to pin myself into the bodice and hope for the best! Here are the results below:

Amy's new costume, after the buttons were sewn on. Photos by Amy Newman.

 As for the workshop, it was a wonderful learning event for the students and a pleasure to be part of. In addition to my involvement, Shelagh had a wonderful singer/songwriter named Melisa Devost on hand to talk to the students about her experiences of being a touring musician and music teacher. The demands on the voice when one wears different hats can be as challenging as being strictly a performer. Her insights were of great value for the students to hear and her lifestyle as an artist is different enough from mine to create a full picture of the pressures we all encounter as professional voice users.

Shelagh gave the students lots of hard science surrounding voice use for performers and then interspersed that with up close and personal demonstrations using me as the guinea pig, which I was most happy to do.

A highlight for me came after I had done my performance bits and was fielding questions regarding the work and its load on the voice. One of the students asked me about one of the characters I had portrayed (a man) called James Kelso, a miner from the 1860s.

Prelude to her question: the voice I use for this character is actually based on a real person, a wonderful Barkerville interpreter named Dave Brown. Dave runs the interpretation programming at the Cornish Waterwheel and has a particularly memorable vocal quality that I try to mimic every time I pull out the character of James Kelso (or really any male miner for that matter!).

The voice when I produce it for Kelso, is gravelly, gritty – and while quite humorous to listen to, is tremendously taxing vocally; it would be impossible for me to produce this particular vocal quality in a “healthy” manner. The only way I can do it is for a very short time. If I were to try and perform as this character with this voice for an extended period, I would do harm to my voice most certainly. And this is precisely why I wanted to demonstrate his voice: to show the students what it is like to be a professional voice user in the real world.

The student’s question was: “How hard is it on you to produce this voice? Would you recommend using your voice in this way to other actors?”

I answered with a decisive: “No. Not at all!” I looked at Shelagh as I qualified my response. “I remember when you and I talked about this character when I first created it some years ago.” (Shelagh nodded as I turned back to the class.) “Shelagh’s advice to me then – and it would be the same now – was that since Kelso only appeared for about 3 minutes in the show, it would probably be just fine to use my voice in this way. I decided to keep Kelso as a “bit player” only.

“It is certainly not the kind of voice use I would ever recommend to anyone, especially someone with little training or experience who doesn’t know his/her own limits vocally. You need to be an experienced performer in order to take on risky vocal techniques – and even then, they are just that: risky.”

With our schedule at the theatre, we cannot afford to take too many risks with our voices, so there is continuing dialogue with regard to show material choices vs. healthy voice use. It is a tightrope walk at the best of times. I never forget Shelagh’s words to me on this subject: “Amy, you and your troupe at Theatre Royal are vocal athletes. Your performance schedule is one of the most vocally demanding I know!”

Once the workshop had concluded, Shelagh and I discussed how it had gone. She was delighted with the event, saying, “With a few words you created a total character and place and mood and I know the students enjoyed it. You showed them the magic of an actor, and what’s possible with just the body and the voice. It made a huge difference having you there; it brought to life all that dry technical stuff. Now if they ever work with an actor or singer they will have a totally different baseline than what they had before coming to this workshop.”

Melisa Devost, Amy Newman and Shelagh Davies.
All of us at Theatre Royal look forward to working with Shelagh in the future as we struggle to bring the best of Gold Rush theatre to our audiences.

Shelagh Davies can be found at:
Melisa Devost can be heard, seen and contacted at:

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