by John Henny
One of the great challenges that actors face is bringing together different disciplines into a single, masterful performance. Acting, movement, and vocal training often occur separately, leaving the actor feeling out of balance, with one skill dominating the others.
Fitzmaurice Voicework was developed to address this issue, to give actors a fully integrated approach to their vocal instrument and performance. Lisa Pelikan is an experienced stage and screen actor-director who is bringing this approach to students and working professionals in master classes and private sessions.
Take a Breather
Fitzmaurice Voicework was created by Catherine Fitzmaurice to solve the problems that actors face in being vocally expressive. “Catherine has a fabulous voice and couldn’t understand why everyone couldn’t do what she could do,” says Pelikan. “She went back to the very beginning to figure out how to help people find their voice.”
The search for vocal freedom led to very basic questions. “We go back to the question ‘Why do we even breathe?’ ” Pelikan says. She then looks at how the actor is breathing. “Are there any places in your body that are locked or held, so your body is not able to breathe in a free way before you even make a sound?”
Pelikan has found that one of the problems faced by many actors in trying to be heard on stage or even on film is that their voices have no “vibration” to them. “These vibrations are vital,” she says, “because if the sound is not vibrating off the bones and through the muscles, it’s not reaching us.” She has noticed that actors in Los Angeles in particular struggle on stage, as so much of the focus there is on film and TV. “Often actors in L.A. are caught in their throat,” she explains. “Their breath production actually gets stopped in their throat; they are not allowing it through and out.”
Pelikan allots two hours for a first lesson. The first hour consists of questions designed to really get to know the student. The second hour is when the real work begins. “I like to get them down on the floor and get my hands on their ribs and certain acupressure points that help release the lungs and the breath,” she says, “to give them a sensation of free breath and what they will be working towards.”
Pelikan will show the student where hidden tensions lie. “The most obvious place people will feel this tension is in the throat or neck,” she says. “However, for me, the primary place is in the ribs.” This tension can interfere with breathing. “Most actors don’t get a really full breath by allowing their ribs to fully move or to allow the inhale, or inspiration, to come into their body.” The problems can continue when exhaling, she adds. “They can tend to squeeze the ribs, so the sound produced is not a free sound but more of a forced sound.”
Pelikan’s teaching focuses on each student’s individual needs. “The vocal work that Catherine has developed is so individual to each person,” she says. “I do completely different exercises with each student. It’s not just about the ribs opening. It’s how they open; it’s how they move and flow. It’s more complex.”
Students must also be willing to give themselves over to the process. “It takes enormous curiosity to delve in and find those places where an actor can really let go,” Pelikan says. Ultimately, she seeks to create a place where actors “are more emotionally available to communicate in all the different heightened states of emotion that we as actors must give voice to.”
Break It Down, Build It Up
Fitzmaurice Voicework has two phases: destructuring and restructuring.
“Destructuring is about letting go, where the exercises help the automatic nervous system take over,” Pelikan explains. “The mind gets out of the way, and the breath can just come in naturally, in a way that is a free breath.” This breath is called the “surprise breath.” “The surprise breath is the key,” she notes. “It is a breath that is not controlled, not held by habit or unconscious emotions or fear from the past.”
The next phase is restructuring, “which is about producing,” she says. “It’s about being the character on film or on stage.” This is where Pelikan will ask very focused questions. “Why are you producing sound? What are you trying to say? Where are the thoughts vibrating off the bone? Your whole body is a free instrument to produce not just sound but the whole character.”
Many actors struggle in performance with extreme vocal sounds such as screaming or shouting. Pelikan insists that these sounds should never be an issue: “Once you know how to produce sound, it’s not something to even worry about. You’re going from the gut out through the mouth, and the throat is merely an open channel.”
Ultimately, all this work should result in a completely unfettered performer. “As actors, we strive to be present,” says Pelikan. “If the actor has continuous free breath and an open throat, and they know who the character is, what they want to say, and why they are saying it, the sounds they will produce will take care of themselves.”
Lisa Pelikan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and through her website, http://www.lisapelikan.com. She will conduct a voice workshop through the SAG Conservatory on July 31 in Los Angeles and a vocal intensive this August at L.A.’s New American Studio for Actors.