Placement in the Mask

My apologies, Constant Reader – my work schedule this past week was so hectic that, although I had a blog post written, I never had the chance to post it. As my Labor Day weekend is being spent curled up with library books – useful, informative, but not the stuff of an exciting narrative – I’m posting last week’s post today. Check back next week for all-new musings!

Say it with me, everybody:

Amidst the mists, and coldest frosts, with stoutest fists and boldest boasts, he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.

Yes, Constant Reader, I’m one of those actors.  In the half hour or so I’m backstage prior to a performance, I’m running through a litany of tongue-twisters, poems, nonsense phrases, and other thoroughly unclassifiable sounds as I warm up my voice.  It’s definitely the sort of thing that attracts funny looks from onlookers; the particularly cynical or churlish, listening to a strange barrage of lip-pursing and tongue-trilling, might view it as an affectation.  I can only assure you that it’s not, and that there is genuine value to this backstage babbling.  Some of that is psychological – these oft-repeated phrases function as a mantra, and can easily be taken as a weird form of secular prayer.  But if you do them correctly, they are hugely important from a mechanical perspective, getting your vocal apparatus ready to generate sound easily in a large, theatrical setting.

Which has, of course, been a purely academic consideration for the past few years, as we’ve all been trapped in our apartments and forced to emote through our laptops in zoom readings.  The built-in microphones are surprisingly effective – but the corollary to that is that theatrical projection and articulation haven’t been as important.  Although not by choice, we’ve been in an extended on-camera workshop all this time.  This month, however, I finally got to be a stage actor again, in a one-act festival by New Ambassadors.  I finally got to be backstage, declaiming about ‘Arthur’s fish sauce shop’ and repeating ‘baddagadda baddagadda’ to myself ad infinitum, to get my voice back into theatrical shape.  Just the way I used to.

Except, of course, it wasn’t the way I used to.

We’re still in a pandemic (actually we’re in three simultaneous pandemics right now what the hell is going on CDC come on people), and New Ambassadors was extremely vigilant about protecting its performers.  We took rapid covid tests on a regular basis.  Our audiences were asked to remain masked at all times.  And we ourselves remained masked throughout, except when we were actually on stage performing.

Which means, of course, that I was doing my traditional pre-show warm-up through an N95 facemask.

In order to gain a mechanical benefit from these kind of warm-ups, you have to commit to them vocally.  Simply mouthing them halfheartedly –  like someone in a beginning acting class wondering what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into – accomplishes nothing.  You need to speak them at full voice, with proper breath support, to train the diaphragm properly.  You need to overarticulate and overenunciate, to train those facial muscles.  Ideally, you’re looking in the mirror as you do this, to help reinforce the mind-body connections you’re making.

We had a mirror backstage, of course.  I just couldn’t see my face in it.  Not below my eyes, at any rate.  And the sound coming out was muffled by the mask.

It seemed they could hear me in the back row, when it came time to actually perform.  And they laughed at all the laugh lines, so I guess my articulation was suitably crisp.  But it was strange to be out there without the usual security of having done my traditional pre-show warm-up mantra.  Strange to have that familiar ritual not take place.  No, strike that – the ritual did take place, I recited all my usual tongue-twisters, even though the circumstances were so strange and altered that any effect, any benefit was dubious at best.  I went and did them anyway.

It’s as if I still insisted I could see the ghosts.  

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