Tag Archives: lost voice

Stay Classy: Three Performance Courses to Take in Atlanta

1 Jun

The serious professional in any industry knows the importance of continuing education, and artists are no exception. But after an entire college education in theatre performance, in everything from storytelling to Shakespeare to sketch (not to mention dance from kindergarten), you can get a little over going to class. For a considerable amount of time, I rested on my educational laurels, relegating my training to the school of hard knocks that performing in real time affords (which let me tell you – are neither small nor few).

But earlier this year it struck me that after *cough* years out of college, it might be time to brush off the books. I had just finished a writing project and a large production, and had only a small choreography project going for the winter. So when my friend M asked if I wanted to join her in an acting class, the time seemed ripe. After that I was having so much fun I didn’t want to stop.

So for any of you who may have a gap in your schedule and are looking for something to sharpen the tools in your box, check out my review of the following classes around town.

The Alliance Theatre Education Program

The Skinny: Befitting the regional mecca of theatre that it is, the Alliance offers the most comprehensive set of classes, serving all levels and all ages.  They’re also probably the most traditional. For adults, classes are offered in three levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I took the intermediate class, which at four weeks is the shortest and least expensive course. Each level covers slightly different material; intermediate level is a scene study.

Who to expect: People from related industries with limited acting training. Business people who want to break out their shell. People who Googled “become an actor” last week.

What to expect: There are several instructors employed in this program, all qualified and experienced. The instruction is more or less from the classic Stanislavsky-Chekovian school. There is a small formal lecture component so bring a notebook and pencil (or a camera to snap the whiteboard). You will do some actor-y warmups – nothing too off-the-wall, but it involves yoga so don’t wear a skirt. The course will be spent applying the lecture concepts to a short two-person scene from a classic stage work (ours was Glass Menagerie, and yep, you have to memorize it). Be prepared to find a new scene partner after your original one ghosts the class (adaptability! it’s a skill).

My favorite part: Although I’d already covered most of the ground with my degree, there was one neat technique we learned in the very last class that involved using physical hot spots in the body to reflect various emotional centers (head, heart, and groin). It’s a handy shortcut for when you get the nebulous “can you try it another way?” in an audition. As dancers M and I could really get down with the kinetic aspect.

Tip: Take the free intro workshop first – not only will it give you a sense of whether this is what you’re looking for, but you’ll also get a discount code to use when signing up for a full course. Details and info.

Meisner Foundation at Pinch n’ Ouch

The Skinny: Pinch n’ Ouch, named after a core concept of the Meisner technique, is a tiny professional theatre that presents edgy contemporary works. The Artistic Director, Grant McGowen has fingers in multiple pies including video production and headshot photography – and of course, teaching. Meisner was a school of acting I’d heard of but never studied, so when Grant suggested I audit during our headshot sesh in January I was all about it.  PNO offers other classes in film acting and scene study but the Foundations class is a required prerequisite unless you’re already a working Meisner actor.

Who to expect: Film actors who want to get into stage, stage actors who want to get into film, people who have met Grant personally through other avenues (the dude’s guerilla marketing strategy is on point).

What to expect: Bring a pencil and paper here too, but only to capture tidbits from Grant’s non-linear notes given after chunks of activity. You’ll spend the first several classes of the 12-week program working on variations of one single exercise – the basis (foundation? ha) for more advanced work. The commitment is pretty extensive – the class itself is three hours long, and you’ll be asked to get together with classmates outside of class time for 2-3 hours of practice. Many actors don’t care for the Meisner technique, and PNO isn’t the only shop in town offering it, so you’ll hear mixed reviews. Personally I found it helpful and interesting, and also very challenging. If nothing else, it’s another tool to have in your kit.

What I love: The Meisner technique is excellent for the overly analytical actor (hello, Stanislavsky training) because it’s all about getting out of your own head and focusing on pure reaction to a partner. (By the same token, if you’re more of the instinctual actor you might benefit more from Chekhov). You don’t even use written material. I also love that the PNO circle is very cozy, but not in an exclusive way. You’ll be welcomed in to this little community with open arms.

Tip: Even though the time commitment is huge, don’t let it scare you off. Grant knows many of his students are working professionals and allows you to make up missed classes in other sessions. Details and info.

Listen Up! Audio Narration

The Skinny: If you’re looking for something a little bit different (and a lot less emphasizing on physical type or ability), you could do a lot worse than this series on audiobook narration. Audiobooks are a huge market right now, and we have a little share of that pie right here in Atlanta.

What to Expect: The class is half lecture half experiential, and the small class size affords ample time to practice and ask questions. Bring a mobile device to read your practice sides. You will go on-mic and read a short piece, but try to get past the actual sound of your voice – it’s totally not the point. The focus is all about giving life to the story – acting through the voice. You’ll be learning what makes people late for work sitting in their car listening to a book.

What I Love: I’ve been wanting to get into audiobook narration since I first visited a studio during a Maymester in NYC my senior year. I’m good at cold reading (my primary audition skill), I have an acting and storytelling background, and I love books. As I found out during class, there’s more to it than that, but in a way…there’s also not. You don’t even need to be an actor or have an NPR-worthy voice to be a good narrator. My mom, who has never performed a day in her life, even came with me to the last class and knocked it out of the park! (Guess where my reading and storytelling skrills came from?).

Tip: This set of courses can be taken a la carte but there’s a small discount for purchasing all four as a package. If you don’t take all four, there is still a discount code available for signing up for the next in the series. Also good to note: these classes are NOT offered on a consistent and regular basis – it’s up to the discretion and schedule of the instructors – so if you see the class come up, jump on it quick!  Details and info. 

In addition to these, I also picked back up on voice lessons where my vocal therapist left off. I’m fortunate to be working with the fabulous and lovable Lyn Taylor. Lyn has done considerable work with youth and schools, which means her teaching style is right up my alley – broken down into small chunks and explained in five different ways with vivid imagery and a heaping helping of encouragement. But make no mistake, this lady really knows her stuff, and is super organized too boot (think lesson plans and recorded warmups). Vocal coaching is a very personal thing, depending on your needs and your level, but in general I recommend finding someone who can a) play the piano well, and b) has a good ear. Because those two things are nearly impossible to do for yourself when you’re training your voice. Everything else really just depends. I’m well on my way to getting my voice whipped back into shape, hopefully in time for some fall auditions! Lyn doesn’t have a website, but if you want to know more email me at cushioncut at gmail dot com.

Taking class is a great way to experiment; to get out of your comfort zone without the high stakes a tight timelines of an actual performance. It gives you rooms to stretch your legs, both figuratively, and in the case of dance classes, literally. Things are picking back up for the summer (choreography rehearsals for my next project, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at OnStage Atlanta, started this week!) so alas, I may not get another golden opportunity to indulge for a while. But if you have the time (and the funds,  WAH for all time) do yourself a favor and get in a course or two, or at least a workshop. You won’t regret it!

Keep it classy, friends.

Why I Quit Coffee Part I: The Symptoms

8 Oct

The chest pains were what took me to the doctor in the first place.

Six years ago I was doing my first production as an officially married woman: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Musical Barber of Fleet Street. I mention the show because it’s difficult to sing. Sondheim is a lover of dissonant chords and screeching harmonies. I was on mezzo soprano. Sometime during the harried weeks leading up to opening, I noticed my voice was sometimes cracking, and it felt thin and reedy. Sometimes it was like singing through pudding, or perhaps through a sieve–like my voice was trying to pour out through thousands of tiny holes. Then came the chest pains.

I hate going to the doctor but I’m also a hypochondriac. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was probably dying of congestive heart failure. So I saw my doc and got an EKG. I remember that day because I had to strip for the test and was really glad I’d worn a matching underwear set. I also remember it because the EKG was clean. Dr. Maxa suspected heartburn.

I really don’t want to bore you with the minutiae of my health history. (For reference: I wrote the entire saga down and brought it to my new PCP a few weeks ago, and I could see her visibly shrink when I whipped it out. And she’s my doctor!). But suffice it to say that since that time, I struggled with what I thought was an inherited case of gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.

My symptoms weren’t very typical. Hiccups, wet burps, dry cough. A lump in my throat like I was constantly holding back tears. Hoarseness and cracking. I found it difficult to talk loudly or for a long time. Sometimes I would lose my voice completely, even when I wasn’t sick. I also had stomach aches, particularly in the morning, and weird fluttery feelings in my chest. I was sick all the time, struck down with upper respiratory crud at least four times a year.  And the bloating–OH THE BLOATING. Even before I had a baby my stomach looked postpartum while the rest of my body stayed curiously slim. I almost never had heartburn.

The worst of it though, was the loss of my singing voice. The problems I experienced during Sweeney Tard-I-mean-Todd got worse. I used to occasionally get cast in principle roles. In Sweeney I had several solos, and had actually been called back for Mrs. Lovett. Over the years, that all dried up. So did my range. I started singing alto parts.* I stopped getting solos. I wasn’t getting called back for principle or even supporting roles. When I went to auditions, I lived in fear because I never knew how my voice would perform on any given day. Sometimes my voice would completely cut out in the middle of a note. Just drop off–like Thelma and Louise, go-go-going one minute and disappeared a moment later.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with singing alto. But there is a tiny grain of truth to the stereotype that weak voices sing alto, just as there is to the one that people who can’t harmonize sing soprano. As I’ve sung on both parts many times, I can say this.

It got to the point where I didn’t want to sing anymore. I auditioned for straight plays, and fell back on my dancing abilities in the few musicals I did. The last time I sang in a musical, I wasn’t even given a mic pack.

All this I might have been able to stomach, if I wasn’t still having all the other GI symptoms. They cleared up temporarily on the two PPIs I tried, but they’d always come creeping back. In the past six months or so, I even began to have regular heartburn. At last.

As of a few weeks ago, I’d been to two ENTs (one that specializes in voices and had worked with Usher), a vocal coach, and a gastroenterologist. I’d been on experimental drugs that made me violently ill. I’d suffered through two endoscopies. I’d been on four or five rounds of antibiotics and steroids for throat infections. And my voice was still slowly disappearing. Not only my high notes, but also my low notes were fading away. The worst of it was that the most recent GI specialist I’d seen, on reviewing my symptoms, didn’t even think I had GERD to begin with.

But the last straw was when I had to tell my son I couldn’t read him a third book, because my voice hurt too much.

I went to my new PCP armed with those four pages of health history. She seemed hesitant to address my case. If I’d been to all these specialists and nothing was gained, what could she do? To me it was obvious–somebody needed to hear the whole story from the beginning, with a fresh perspective.

I was also direct in asking for an h pylori test, a stomach condition with which my brother was just diagnosed, and my doctor ordered a blood panel for the major food allergies. But when she looked at everything all together, only one thing came to her mind. A man had recently been in the office with almost my exact symptoms and it had turned out to be…

A caffeine allergy.

My head started buzzing (HA) almost as soon as I heard it. Caffeine, my heart! Of all the things I might have had to give up, my most beloved legal mind-altering substance would be the hardest.

Almost not an exaggeration. source

But it kind of made sense.

I used to drink coffee only occasionally, if you can believe that. Then we moved to Orlando. The friends with whom we shared a townhouse always had some made, with lots of delicious flavored creamers. We only lived there three months, but that was all it took. By late 2009–when I was doing Sweeney–it was a daily habit. Over the years I increased my coffee intake and brewed it stronger too. Like weather is to climate change, my daily intake fluctuated depending on outside influences, but the overall pattern was one of increased consumption. As of earlier this year, when my problems really escalated, I was downing 5 to 7 (6 oz) cups a day on the reg–about the equivalent of two Ventis from Starbucks.

It was enough to convince me to at least entertain the idea. Unfortunately, there is no test for caffeine allergies. It’s a pretty rare condition. The only test is to eliminate it and see if you feel better.

I did some research on my own of course, good old Dr. Google. Just as you might suspect, it was hard to find anything on caffeine allergies at all. I did find a couple articles that made me wonder caffeine was the culprit, or coffee itself. I wasn’t sure which would be worse.

Either way, I knew it would be a long road ahead.

Tune in next week when I give you the lowdown on my journey from an all-day coffee drinker to caffeine-free. Warts and all!