Sound Advice: Trade Secrets from Leading Stage Actors

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I’m a voice and dialect coach who has worked on over 80 productions in four different countries over the last decade. Over the years, I’ve created a list of what the best actors do in order to be heard. Keep these principles in mind the next time you audition or are on stage and increase your chances of getting hired and rehired.

Practice good breath support.
Use an easy, full-bodied breath to support your sound. I’ve worked with actors who are able to fill the theater with their voice but not their feelings and connection. Other actors had great emotional connection, but no one could hear them. An easy, full-bodied breath is needed to achieve both of these.

Use clear, open sound.
Work toward a clear and open sound, not breathy or tight. It’s tempting to become breathy or start to squeeze the sound out, especially at emotional moments, but the best actors on stage know that the more they use a clear sound, the more we, the audience, feel.

Find the right pitch.
Every theater has an optimal pitch; find it and use it. While working in New Zealand, Ian McKellen stood on stage at the St. James Theater and said, “huh” a number of times at different pitches. After a while, he said, “That is the pitch we will play.” That note had the most pop or power on the stage. He found the optimal pitch to play in that theater. Try this yourself in different rooms or theaters before rehearsal.

READ: 8 Tips for Optimal Vocal Health

Use forward focus.
This is what lots of people think of as projection. Actors can actually hear and feel when their voice is traveling forward and out into the audience. They know this from the sound hitting the back wall of the theater and coming back to them, but they also can feel the sound their vibrating in their face. Hum for a moment to feel this sensation. Focusing the sound forward will help you fill the theater without strain or shouting.

Direct the sound.
If you “point and shoot” your lines in one direction at a time, we’ll hear you better. Some actors will “spray” their sound by talking in a general direction or moving their heads around while saying their lines. Direct the sound in one direction for each thought and if you can, direct it downstage.

Use the vowels.
Vowels carry the sound and help you emotionally connect with your audience. If you clip all your vowels, your sound won’t land on your audience. Extend your vowels a little more than you would normally.

Use final consonants.
Consonants carry the meaning, so make sure you release and use your final consonants. This is especially important in close, intimate scenes where you need to employ a stage whisper.

Go to the end of the line.
The best actors commit their vocal energy to the end of the line. If you listen closely, you may find that in everyday speech we drop the ends of our sentences. This might feel normal and natural to you. On the stage, however, this can lead to key plot points being missed or a punchline with no laughter!

Employ your body correctly.
A good rule of thumb: The lower body distracts, while the upper body can support what you’re saying. If you move your feet around in an unspecific way, it’s harder to understand what you’re saying. Keep your movement motivated and specific so your gestures help, rather than hinder, you.

If you struggle to fill a theater or feel that you’re losing your voice—especially on a regular basis—seek out a qualified voice coach or doctor. Knowing how to keep your voice healthy is one of your primary jobs as an actor.

Now, practice these tips in rehearsal, in the theater, or at home! For more in-depth detail check out my video series here.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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D’Arcy Smith
D’Arcy Smith is an associate professor of voice and speech at the University of Cincinnati, CCM. As a voice, text and dialect coach he has worked on over 80 professional productions.
See full bio and articles here!

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