Stand up and be heard


Fancy a chance to stand on the Abbey Theatre stage and test your vocal range? LAURENCE MACKIN signs up for a workshop with voice director Andrea Ainsworth, to work on his plosive pronouncements

PEOPLE ARE HUMMING in low unison, bouncing softly on the balls of their feet, kicking up little plumes of dirt. Andrea Ainsworth is leading proceedings, chanting and hopping, popping consonants and swinging her arms, while around her more than a dozen disciples try to find their own inner rhythm.

The group ranges in age from late teens to mid-60s, and all are “mumming” enthusiastically, then shouting out little “pahs”, picking points at which to launch their plosive pronouncements. This is not a cult, or if it is, it’s a benign one.

Ainsworth is voice director with the Abbey Theatre, and since 1995 she has been helping actors craft their accents, project their vocals and enunciate their speech in the National Theatre. She holds regular workshops in the Abbey that are open to the public, part of the Abbey’s ongoing educational programme. On a fine summer Saturday morning, we are here for a vocal workshop, which aptly enough is taking place on the main stage amid the set of Brian Friel’s linguistic masterpiece Translations(which follows hot on the heels of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the humour in which also relies heavily on diction).

Ainsworth has been warming up the group with a series of vocal exercises, encouraging us to pick a spot and launch a percussive syllable at it, or rolling soft consonants around our mouths as if they were marbles. The voice, she tells us, is just another muscle that needs a little exercise and a tune-up every now and again.

The effects are immediately apparent; it is a useful workout for amateur actors, everyday public speakers, such as teachers, or perhaps parents who simply want to roar at their children with a bit more effectiveness.

It is not about being simply loud, though. “What you are looking at, is for the voice to be flexible and responsive. It’s quite easy for anyone to be loud; it’s much harder for them to be heard,” says Ainsworth.

“It is to do with developing the voice, opening up its potential, and that includes direction, articulation, general dynamics and energy.” As you would expect, her own accent is gorgeous; dark and throaty, with the kind of cadences that make people go weak at the knees. She acted early in her career and did some directing before settling on vocal coaching.

Has technology (or microphones specifically) eroded the need for strong voice projection? She is politely appalled by the question. “No, there are no microphones. Except maybe if someone is speaking off-stage, but there is absolutely no need in a space this size. You want the live voice in all its glory.”

Most people might be a little shocked at this; the Abbey Theatre has 628 seats and, especially when viewed from the stage, it can feel cavernous. But the room’s acoustics, which got a heavy working over when the theatre was upgraded in 2007, help the voice to travel up to the back row, with plenty of work from the actors, and more than a little help from Ainsworth.

Ainsworth’s work has extended beyond the stage, and she has also worked with people who wish to, as she diplomatically puts it, “soften their regional accents”.

“Yes, there are people who for professional reasons want to modify their voice. There is a lot of attitude and prejudice to regional accents and sounds.” There isn’t time for much individual focus in these workshops, and, coming from Dundalk (the Paris of the northeast), I don’t think Ainsworth could really hammer my flat brogue into something sonorous. So does she have a preference, when it comes to Ireland’s linguistic diversity? “My favourite accent, I think, [would be from/ Cork or Donegal. Some accents have an extraordinary amount of tune in the voice, when you analyse it.”

The workshop is in two parts; the first involves the physical aspects of making yourself heard, and the second is an analysis of a few passages from Translations.It’s a privilege to climb on to the Abbey stage and root around on the set; at any moment, we’re expecting security to escort us off the premises.

Ainsworth has selected a passage from a scene in which Maire despairs at the relentless pessimism of the locals, who are eagerly on the lookout for the first signs of potato blight. It ends with her raging: “Honest to God, some of you people aren’t happy unless you’re miserable and you won’t be right content until you’re dead!”

The group reads it back in a circle, relaying the script at each punctuation stop. It makes you aware of the rhythm of the sentence, how its internal beat is crucial to the delivery of a line; and it makes you appreciate just how hard good playwrights work at perfecting these lines, moving words, shaving syllables, adding a verb here, tinkering with a beat there, until the script cranks into life and purrs along with its own internal logic, fuelled by a fine actor’s combustible emotion and delivery.

This tinkering of the script has no end point; one Abbey insider tells me that even now, 31 years after finishing the play, Friel was still making suggestions for this current production.

The group then works on a scene where the English military engineers are introduced to the locals for the first time, and they attempt to explain the job in hand, which is a comprehensive survey of the land that will include Anglicising the area’s place-names. Ainsworth makes the group mime some of the passages, replacing the script with nonsense, but still trying to convey its inherent meaning. It’s a neat, revealing exercise – and it’s tons of fun.

Later, after lunch in the bar, we watch the show (€45 gets you the workshop, lunch and a matinee ticket). The actors’ delivery for these scenes is completely different to how our group handled it in our ad-hoc rehearsal.

With all due respect to the group, I think the professional cast might just have the edge on us.

Translationsis at the Abbey Theatre until August 13th. For more information on the Abbey’s educational programme, see engage_and_learn