It was the 21st episode of The Bill Walton Show, but there were a lot of firsts.
For the first time, we warmed up for a show. It was not the cacophony of listening to an orchestra prepare to perform, although the difference between the sounds made during the warmup and the actual performance were almost as dramatic.
Instead, there was deep breathing, sighs big enough to be felt in every bone in the body, and burbling. Yes, burbling.
There were questions directed from the guest to the host … and instructions, coaching, encouragement as well. Our director’s weekly exhortation to be natural and just have a conversation as if no cameras or sound equipment were in the room never seemed so unnecessary.
Shakespeare was quoted. MacBeth’s name was uttered, even though that is supposedly bad luck. Murderous plots were hatched, then abandoned. And a different kind of athlete – one whose stock in trade is emotion, not exertion – was discussed.
But that’s what happens when Leigh Wilson Smiley drops by. Leigh is the director of the School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland and a professional voice, dialect, acting and presentation coach. She has worked with artistic teams from Center Stage, Everyman theater, Round House Theater, Ford’s Theater, Arena Stage, the John F. Kennedy Center and Folger Shakespeare Theater.
She has coached on-air talent from NBC, performers from Cirque du Soleil and lawyers, doctors, scientists and other professionals on how to get more out of their careers by putting more into their personal presentation skills.
Her job is to bring out things within people that they wouldn’t know how to express on their own. The deep breathing is both a symbolic and realistic way of reaching deep into one’s personal being.
She does this with the joyous ebullience of someone who discovered not quite at the beginning of life what her true mission was. Leigh had been performing since high school. She studied acting in college, moved to New York City to continue her studies, then moved to Philadelphia because its less-heralded theater community provided more opportunities to perform and hone her craft.
Then, in her 30s, she attended a Shakespeare and Company program in Massachusetts, where she was introduced to the Linklater voice techniques.
“It transformed my acting, but it transformed my direction in life also,” Leigh said on the show. “I really wanted to teach it, so I spent the next five years learning to teach with Kristin Linklater.”
The Linklater program is the creation of Elizabeth Linklater, a co-founder of Shakespeare and Company, whose theory is to rely on the natural function of the vocal mechanism as opposed to developing a vocal technique – to “sort of bring the whole body [into the voice] – the mind, the breath, the heart, the voice,” Leigh said.
The idea becomes to emphasize that the “actor’s instrument is the whole body,” she said. Actors have to know their bodies and minds and what’s in them as a violinist knows the strings of his instrument. “Anything that’s held in the body is going to be held in the voice and held in the imagination,” she said. “So, actor training is serious because you’re working through all these parts of your instrument – your mind, your emotions, your breath, your voice, your body.”
That’s why, when approaching a character, actors need to be in touch with the five emotions most commonly expressed in theater – happy, sad, fearful, angry and lustful. They need to feel a “burning desire … a deep, deep, life or death need to get the objective,” she said.
And it’s hard to feel a burning desire unless you’ve had a good warmup. A deep breath. A long exhale. And some good, productive burbling.