How We Met: Harriet Walter and Patsy Rodenburg

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor