How We Met: Harriet Walter and Patsy Rodenburg

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The Independent Culture
Patsy Rodenburg trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, spent nine years at the RSC, and has been Head of Voice at the National Theatre and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama since October 1990. She has written two books on voice and speech. Harriet Walter trained at LAMDA, is a member of the RSC, and won a the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award in 1988. She has recently accepted a position as an artistic director at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and is currently appearing as Lady Croom in Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia' at the National Theatre.

PATSY RODENBURG: When I first saw Harriet, I think it was 1981. She was doing Helena in Trevor Nunn's production of All's Well that Ends Well. I had just joined the RSC as the voice coach and was a very minor person. I remember watching her and thinking 'This is an actress who is going to be stunning.'

I first worked with her on a production of a Howard Barker play called The Castle, I think that was 1983, and then we worked together very occasionally until 1989, when the Rose Theatre was being threatened, and we were both down there for the night trying to save it. We started to talk, and she said: 'I really feel I want to come and work with you privately', and that's how we bonded.

I'm not one of those voice teachers who frighten people, but I think she was very nervous when she first came. I think she thought it was going to be some sort of terrible wheel she was going to be minced up on. I found it very moving because she was so vulnerable. When a lot of actors, particularly successful actors, are scared, they come in with all the shields up and it takes much longer to get in there. But she didn't close down. So I immediately felt that this was someone I wanted to work with on a long-term basis, and to know.

Harriet has a very obvious voice, you know immediately when you hear her that it's Harriet Walter, and I love those sorts of voices. Some people might say they are flawed in places, but in fact I think that it adds a richness. A lot of the old actors would have had her particular speech qualities wiped out, which is rather sad. She is also very specific in the way she speaks verse, which again, a lot of actors of her generation no longer speak it in that way.

This is someone who cares about the work. It's great when you can actually say to someone you're working with 'Oh, don't fuck about' - some actors, their egos are so big that you have to stroke them, you spend hours saying 'well that bit was wonderful but actually, this bit . . .' I have to find very tactful ways of saying those things to actors. A lot of my work is about creating a feeling of safety so that you can say things like 'can't hear you'. With Harriet that's not been the case.

Voice coaching can be very intimate. I think you have to create boundaries and safety nets because, if you're working on somebody's finding of their own voice, you're actually touching something very close to their whole being. When I first trained, about 20 years ago, nobody mentioned these things, I had to find out for myself.

I look at somebody's body first of all - how they sit, how they stand, how they walk - because tensions around the neck, the shoulders, the jaw, all those things will stop the voice. Harriet's very aware of this, I can see when she tightens up. But then she can laugh - she's got a great sense of humour. Then I work on the breath. Harriet's an interesting case because she does television, radio and stage, and if you're going into theatre, your breath gets weak. You have to do a lot of stretching of the rib cage and the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles. So Harriet started to work very early on that.

Great actors have to work on themselves as people. That way they actually transform - and understand text much better than people who just perform. Harriet's not a performer, she's an actress - there's a big difference. You can divide people that you're working with into those camps.

Any form of friendship in this business is terribly difficult because everyone's so busy and people are flying off all over the place. Working with anybody, it's intense - that sometimes means you don't want to see them. There are a lot of actors that I work very well with but I just don't want to be around them after finishing. But whenever I see Harriet outside a working situation it's always great fun. I suppose, if you're in theatre, it's a great joy not to have to do anything that is about watching, just to relax with a glass of wine and chat.

I don't think it's a relationship that's about 'I must see Harriet every week' or anything - it's more about branching out from wherever you are, but that's how relationships in the theatre go. It's quite intense, we talk about issues to do with whatever we're working on, things come up about background or parents and that just drifts on. It's not gossip - I don't have gossip sessions with Harriet, it's about sparking ideas. Whenever we've worked together the plays have been of such substance that they just spin off other ideas.

I teach about 60 hours a week, so I've trained myself - when I stop I really have got the ability to put a barrier down, bang, and not listen to people's voices. So when I'm off duty, I'm off duty. I switch off - I have to. My ears just stop.

HARRIET WALTER: A really outstanding voice teacher is hard to come by. I'm not sure what play it was, but one day Patsy came in to do a group warm-up. And after just this one session I remember very consciously feeling this huge relief that I'd found this teacher. It's extraordinary to have that impact just from the one session in a large group.

Cicely Berry, who'd been the mentor before, couldn't be everywhere, and I thought that there must be someone else out there, with that same understanding of how the voice is tied up with an individual and their emotions. I have always had hangups about my vocal inadequacies, and I thought 'Phew,

I'm saved.'

I don't have a great, on-going, see-her-every- day type of thing because one session with her seems to unlock a whole lot - she makes things terribly

simple, then you can go away and do it yourself.

A session lasts an hour or so. Half an hour is to chat. You do have to talk it through, it's not actually endless exercises, it's putting you back in touch with things you've already done. It's like getting back on a bike. There is always a reason why you can't project, something physically or emotionally inhibiting you, you can't simply remove that inhibition by exercise, you do have to talk about why and you may find something very interesting.

The character I'm playing now, I just went to one session with Patsy at the beginning and I said: 'This woman is totally confident, she's never had a moment's self doubt and I keep reading the script and thinking she should have this booming voice which I don't have.'

And Patsy said: 'Well, you've said it, she's very confident. So you don't have to sound like Edith Evans, you have to breathe confidently - a woman like that doesn't catch her breath, she waits until she's ready to speak, and if her voice breaks or sounds funny or does something quirky, that's not to be corrected or held back, that is her.' Physically we worked on breathing - but she had unlocked all my phobias that I should be sounding like somebody else.

She's interested in the psychological patterns you set up as a child as an interesting science and so am I. I find it fascinating the way the voice connects up with the emotions. It isn't just a technical instrument that you can instruct to do certain things - that's more true of the body.

If you say to a group 'Everyone stretch their left arm' everyone will stretch their left arm, but the voice is so subjective. It's a channel for your emotions and your personality and it's a very vulnerable thing, exposing yourself vocally. That's exactly what the actor's dealing with, that bridge between what's going on inside you and that impression you're giving on the outside.

There's a kind of bond between the people who went through the first all- night vigil at the Rose Theatre and shared that experience. I remember meeting Patsy there and thinking 'Oh, that's interesting, that she's here' - but Patsy's interested in the whole actor, in the whole theatre, she's not just committed to isolating the voice as an instrument.

Ours is a professional friendship, but you do very quickly talk about quite personal things, there's a lot of trust in those voice sessions. To have someone who's approaching the same work but from a different angle is very interesting. You giggle quite a lot, and I think humour - the ability to lighten things up - is such a basis for friendship. I like people who are connected with the child within themselves.

I also like people who are honest with themselves. That makes me trust them and it makes me believe that they will see through me as well.

We're all self-deluded to a certain extent, some more than others, but people who are acting, who use you as a friend to support some delusion - I very quickly see through that and don't want to play. If there's a great deal of honesty in the person then I open up and trust them. But I'm quite cautious, they usually have to make the first move.

I find that kind of honesty in Patsy. I haven't analysed it but I must have picked that up from day one because it's a reaction that's set up before I've even thought about it.

I don't give much away to somebody I don't think has got that quality. And Patsy certainly gets a lot out of me. There's no bullshitting in those sessions.

(Photograph omitted)