3 April 2022 / Grants and Awards

Explorations in Voice – Anna-Helena McLean

image by Francesca Cambi. The photo was taken during a 10-day workshop residency in Italy in August 2021. The actors are Rea Mole and Noah Silverstone exploring the ‘Feminized Alphabet of Gestures’ and scenes from Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Orlando’.

Anna-Helena McLean received a Practitioner Research and Development Grant in 2021 towards equipment for working with multimodal documentation to stage the living, participatory process in her ACT (Actor – Chorus – Text) Ensemble Theatre Practice. The project aimed to demonstrate the important work of women in actor/voice training via multimodal autoethnography and performative events.

As a response to working from home during the pandemic, AV documentation, vlogging, video analysis and home editing became core to my professional and research-based practice despite having always valued liveness as the primary material and measure of quality in my work. How might I use AV in my practice as an instrument for capturing the liveness of a process while revealing the important work of women? With the funds to acquire a DJI Pocket 2 device (a tiny hand held AV camera with an AI rotating lens) I was suddenly able to film my practice in a way that was far less obtrusive than a regular camera.

The little DJI robot began to feel in fact relational, becoming an extension of my body and a means of staging and engaging with broader conceptual frameworks and underlying existential desires that drive the devising process. Over the course of various formats of exchange, the device enabled me to engage reflexively as I shape shift from coach to director to musician to writer and dramaturg. Morever I was able to perceive myself as incredibly vulnerable and under equal critical, relational observation when control of the camera, and its gaze, is handed over to the actor. The camera itself became a tool of agency and measure of equality within my processes and enabled me to imbricate my conceptual research into the aesthetic world of my emerging methodologies and performance.

Within the time-frame of this award year I was able to develop my approach to multimodal documentation relevant to my doctoral research, using the STR funded DJI device in the following key ways;

  1. Developing an artist’s work book to diarize my reflections in a way that incorporates physical training, captures free flow verbal reflection directly after training and interviewing myself to help direct ideas toward my research questions
  2. Documenting a 10-day residential workshop exploring my professional practice known as ACT and staging scenes with core consenting, and diversely representative actors to demonstrate key areas of interest for my research i.e The ‘Feminized Alphabet of Gestures’, selected extracts from ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf that explores concepts regarding ‘the break’ and ‘transformation’ in female, non-binary, trans, queer and multi-abled bodies
  3. Coaching a series of one-on-one lessons with an actor to develop one scene sourced during the work in the 10-day residency (namely the famous text from Orlando called, ‘Nature’s Bride’). Using the camera as a third eye in rehearsing the text, as a way of shifting and decentralizing ‘the gaze’. Working to reveal the live, embodied experience of a female artist inside that process’

This project set out to develop a new, multi-modal methodology that centres around my body and voice as core to my analytical writing and autoethnographic performance practice. In the above ways I have been working with texts from Ancient Mesopotamia (The Descent of Inanna), Ancient Greece (Sappho) and also Virginia Woolf (Orlando) to explore the way women have documented their work as an holistic and creative practice in itself. Through the application of feminist conceptual frameworks my project aims to stage a living, participatory process that demonstrates the important work of women in acting and voice training in an accessible and meaningful way.

One of the core actors in my research Lab is Rea Mole who has been training with me one on one, developing a small section of text called, ‘Nature’s Bride’. The text offers a playground for the actor to explore their identity, the extended, embodied voice work and the sensuality of breath in the form of exclamation and simultaneous physical release through the spine. As we worked on the text I would film myself setting up the room, handing the camera to Rea to film me and what I am saying and doing to support her in focusing on and preparing for the exercise/scene. Having the device in my hand as I coach, as I respond to Rea’s proposals and creativity as an actor and as I watch and shape her through my directorial gaze I am constantly reminded of my responsibility to Rea’s body, to her identity, to the conceptual frameworks of my research interlinking with those of my practice and what they offer up to the text of ‘Orlando’, and how the text reacts to these manifold layers of liveness. I also film Rea and I discussing her lived experience and I am able to listen back and analyse the way I manage the room, and pace the work, articulated by my own emotional, embodied rhythms and driving forward Rea’s process of opening up to me, and ultimately the practice and text.

She reflects on this collaboration as follows,

“It felt freeing not to always lean into the imposed stereotypes of being a female performer (whilst having permission to explore those territories too), by seeking a connection with a fuller range of embodying womanhood through the voice”

So far this study is successfully stimulating interest, enthusiasm, affirmation and greater awareness about the important work women do and through funding and partnerships I am beginning to be able to profile strategies for making a felt and significant mark in his-stories. It has been designed to meet an existing passion, shared by all participants, to profile women’s work in this field publicly for the first time. In doing this the project aims to define the tools, methods, strategies and working environments that allow marginalised voices to take space and sustain meaningful and progressive creative expression that becomes an increasing matter of urgency in a climate changed, technology dependent future.

I am thrilled that out of this project I have been able to secure a residency as a Britten Pears Residency Artist 2022 to develop and stage the above multimodal research and practice in the form of a lecture demonstration for which I am using the working title, THE VOICE LESSON. This is the brief introduction to the project and it will be staged with a focus on the work described above, with Rea training with me over Zoom before going through a form of transformation evidenced through my research and practice.

‘A coach is conducting a voice lesson via a projected video call when a song dating 1450 BC instigates a breakthrough in her student and subsequent realisation about their identity. THE VOICE LESSON is a poetic exploration of agency and the female voice drawing on multimedia, physicality and original music to slip between the inner and outer worlds of the artist. Vocal acrobat and electronic cellist, Anna-Helena, leads ensemble acting training and draws on this background to deconstruct the liveness of her creative process with an interactive audience. Staging writings by women spanning 4000 years (Inanna, Sappho, Woolf), the lesson positions audiences as one of many listening parts in a chorus of continuous becoming, sensitizing mind toward body and voice in an urgent reframing of the important work of women today’.

This work in progress will be presented at Snape Maltings at 7pm on Friday July 8th and the material developed thanks to the generous support of STR funding.