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Singing Advice

Mistakes Better Not Be Made

Mistakes Better Not Be Made
Photo Source: Ari Mintz
Michael Shannon talks pretty much nonstop through Craig Wright's "Mistakes Were Made," currently running at Off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre. "Talks," however, is a feeble verb for what Shannon does as Felix Artifex, a fifth-rate Broadway producer putting all his eggs in one basket: a production of a play set during the French Revolution and also called "Mistakes Were Made." In a performance that Back Stage critic Erik Haagensen labeled "a tour de force turn" and likened to "Leonard Bernstein conducting a piece of Mahler's," Shannon crows, cajoles, screams, whispers, wheedles, blurts, shouts, hollers, shrieks, blasts, foghorns, whines, whimpers, and gently banters.

Most astonishing is that, though portraying the comically pathetic and somehow terrifying Artifex is clearly testing the limits of Shannon's voice, the actor never lets it seem as if the pyrotechnic display is endangering his vocal cords. How does the guy—also showing up on HBO these days as Internal Revenue Service agent Nelson Van Alden on "Boardwalk Empire"—do it?

Not a Classically Trained Actor

Asked during an interview at the Barrow Street Theatre, Shannon makes it sound easy. He has arrived in street clothes, wearing a backpack and carrying a plastic container of Odwalla Strawberry C. He says he picked up the drink because "everybody in the subway I came down on was sneezing." Holding the bottle aloft, he praises the vitamin C in it, but adds, "Vitamin C can be a problem too, because it's acidic and goes up into your throat."

As for his vocal care, Shannon says, "I have to be honest: I am not a classically trained actor, and when I started acting, I was criticized for my voice—mumbling. My first show at Steppenwolf, I started practicing with a resident coach. I wasn't breathing properly. I learned breathing has to come from the diaphragm. My shoulders were tense. I had to learn to relax them."

Thinking quickly and rubbing his craggy square face as he does, Shannon remembers that he had a high school teacher who taught him an exercise he still does: humming. "You have to make sure the vibrations are in the teeth and the lips. If it's in the throat, you're doing it wrong." The actor stands up to demonstrate what he means, humming in a high tone.

"I start with a high tone, higher than the character needs, and work down," he says. At the same time, "I start to massage my neck and the tendons." He illustrates that as well, applying a certain amount of force and saying, "Coming up into here," as he reaches his chin.

When confronted with the script for "Mistakes Were Made"—which Shannon liked immediately, not in small part because "my sense of humor matches up with Craig's," he says—did he worry about the challenges to his voice? Nope, although he admits to being terrified during previews. Nor did he think about consulting a vocal coach. One reason is that he worries that vocal coaches, as he puts it, "tend to come up with performance ideas. They lose the boundaries."

Lots of Water and No Phone Calls

So how does he approach each performance from the voice-coddling aspect? He points at the stage, to a cardboard carton of bottled water that spectators might notice while scoping out Tom Burch's amusingly run-down set. "I'm allowed to drink from it," Shannon reports. "But Felix is always engaged. Drinking water seems too casual. I do have a cup of coffee, and I drink that. It's mostly water with a little bit of coffee." During the day, "I drink water constantly, though I have a cutoff point—about an hour before the show. Just before I go on stage, I have a bottle of water just offstage, take some, and swish it around in my mouth." The water is room temperature.

He's also happy to share a couple of pieces of advice he got sometime past. One is that he avoids whispering. More important, he tries not to talk on the phone much—or at all—when he's performing. Miming holding a phone to his ear, he says, "Most of the time when you're on the phone, your voice is in your throat. You're not projecting, because you think you don't have to project."

Curiously, Felix Artifex and Nelson Van Alden of "Boardwalk Empire" have a few things in common: Both spend time badgering people, and both are driven. But Shannon admits that movies and television are easier to tackle, so he has to keep fewer voice concerns in mind for the series, which he starts taping again in February. Still, he says, "Every once in a while you do have a speech like one you'd have in a theater, and then you have to think that way."

He'll be doing the play and the series during a short overlap and has no idea how he'll handle that. He mentions that he likes to keep Ricola throat drops handy to suck on in order to produce the necessary saliva.

Unless they're playing Hamlet, few actors have to test themselves as Shannon does in "Mistakes Were Made." Yet, he says, "My body learns how to do each show. Once you learn it, it gets easier to do physically and vocally."

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