The topic has come up because this columnist recently attended an Acting Company matinee performance of William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" in which actor Stephen Pilkington, playing one of the Dromios, was sidelined until the final reconciliation scene, while John Skelly, playing the other Dromio, assumed both roles. The emergency situation involved Wade to the extent that—voice director for the entire undertaking—he was commandeered to get Pilkington in shape for the evening frame. This writer wanted to get the lowdown on just how he went about that. How does a voice coach tackle such an urgent matter?
Five Steps From Pharyngitis
What Wade had to decide before beginning his procedure was the nature of his charge's affliction. "People tend to think any problem with the voice is laryngitis," he says. "They almost never think of pharyngitis. The difference, as I understand it—and I'm not a doctor—is that pharyngitis is an accumulation of mucus on the pharynx. Laryngitis is an infection. They're treated differently.
"Stephen had pharyngitis, which is treated more easily. As a vocal coach, what I wanted to do was practically work with him. I start with breathing, and turning breathing into sound. I wanted him relaxing, to find his voice. I had him breathe in steam. There are little steamers, and every actor should have one. I had him drink water. Again, it's about lubrication. Then, humming. It's a useful way to develop resonances. You should feel it on the lips. The other thing we wanted to do was have a medical check."
So there are five parts to Wade's immediate approach: breathing, steaming, drinking water, humming and—just to be certain suspected pharyngitis isn't actually laryngitis—see an ear, nose, and throat physician.
As anyone would guess, Pilkington's temporary setback—"I really felt for him and respected his drive and determination," Wade says—is hardly the first time the coach has had to deal with a sudden worrisome condition during a play's run. Asked about other challenges, he immediately thinks of the great English actor Clare Higgins, seen in New York several years ago helping to distinguish Nicholas Wright's "Vincent in Brixton." Wade remembers that it was opening night of an RSC "Antony and Cleopatra" when Higgins discovered she had no voice.
What did Wade—then head of the Royal Shakespeare Company voice department, as he was from 1987 to 2003—do? "I took her to an ENT," he says, "who told her there was nothing wrong. It was psychological, but I knew she would believe a doctor and not just if I said it. He said to me, 'What do you want me to say?' He told her he'd never seen a healthier pair of vocal cords. Her voice came back, and she opened."
Wade mentions that the story has a P.S. having to do with the ENT's noting that Higgins had a polyp developing on her larynx that he judged nonthreatening. When its presence was bruited among other impressionable actors in the company, Wade recalls, "I felt we were having an epidemic of them."
Acutely aware of the psychological implications of such events, coach Wade talks about them with understanding. "Our voice is such a sensitive area of ourselves. Any change is extremely frightening. Our voice is our identity, our own perception of ourselves." Taking that into account, however, Wade also says, "It's always important not to nursemaid actors. We have to be our own person."
Blame it on Shakespeare
Remembering himself as "a shy, inarticulate child," Wade explains that his career is a result of his own psychological development. "I found my confidence through Shakespeare," he says. When a teacher named Rose Bruford suggested he begin reciting and he took her advice, he realized, "It's language that excites me—having Shakespeare's language in my mouth."
He later studied with Gwyneth Thurburn and then commenced climbing the vocal-coach ladder, eventually succeeding the revered Cicely Berry at the RSC. Leaving there eight years ago, he determined to come to the States, where he now claims he's "peripatetic." In addition to the Acting Company and Juilliard, he works regularly with Theater for a New Audience and the Stella Adler Studio. He also has a project at the Guthrie, and that's not the end of the list. Considering the opportunities coming to him away from his homeland, he says, "I enjoy any theater position out of my comfort zone."
More than that, as someone relatively new to the United States, he is extremely positive about what he sees taking place here, especially among the young. He insists that he senses "a renewed interest in the classics, a renewed confidence in the spoken word." He adds that he suspects something of this change is due to President Barack Obama, or, as he puts it, to "a leader who is very articulate."
Returning to the discussion of difficulties during runs, Wade makes a point of addressing a particular dilemma faced between theater gigs. Working with actors who do movies and television or are simply back from vacations, he finds that they often need to build their voices again. As he talks about the process, it's obvious he relishes the required basic work.