If you are a stage actor, whether you focus on classical works or not, the work of Cicely Berry has had a huge impact on your life. The legendary vocal coach joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1969, and became the first permanent voice director of a major theatrical company. Her books, including The Actor and the Text (1987) and Text in Action (2001), are standards in the field. Her approach involved freeing the actor to reveal their natural voice in its fullest strength, rather than putting on any sort of artificial “classical thea-TAH” voice. This makes her a major twentieth-century theater pioneer, creating an approach that honors the traditions of Gielgud and Olivier but makes a more naturalistic aesthetic possible within it. We perform today in a theatrical world that she had a large hand in making.
Cicely Berry passed away last Tuesday, October 15. And there’s a good chance that this blog post is the first you’re hearing about it.
It’s not like her death went unnoticed. There have been remembrances and outpourings of grief throughout the British theatrical world. You can read her obituary in The Guardian here. But you won’t read her obituary in the New York Times, despite being the “paper of record” in cultural matters, because they didn’t run one.
Now, I do understand. It’s been a hectic few weeks in the news. We have elections coming up, and horrific levels of voter suppression underway. An American journalist was murdered by a foreign government with the apparent approval of our own. The most cataclysmic aspects of climate change are now thought to be only a few decades away. (We’re all agreed that all of these are VERY BAD THINGS, right? And we’ll do whatever we can to stop them, right? Okay, good. Moving on.) So I’m willing to cut the New York Times some slack – they’ve got a lot on their plate right now. I understand if, for all of Cicely Berry’s long career and influence, the New York Times didn’t have the chance to note her passing. Providing comprehensive world theater coverage isn’t their job.
But you know whose job it is? The websites which are specifically devoted to theater. And they didn’t note it either.
I saw no mention on the Playbill website.
I saw no mention on the Broadway World website.
I saw no threads dedicated to her on any of those theater chat sites.
And it’s not like they ignore the British theatrical world, because this past week, they were all breathlessly reporting, for days on end, that Dame Judi Dench had been cast as Old Deuteronomy in the long-awaited movie version of Cats. (Um, yay?)
I get that people are focused on their own little worlds. But those worlds are interconnected. Berry’s work as a vocal coach has had a profound effect on acting in general. Given that playwrights have to write for actors (we haven’t invented a substitute yet), it’s had an effect on playwriting as well. And the culture at large. And on and on. We can’t afford to be so myopic, so focused on our own little corner of things, that we ignore what’s happening elsewhere. Hell, that’s part of how we got to those other Very Bad Things I mentioned earlier.
Rest in peace, Ms. Berry. Everybody else, do better.