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Building Voice via Rehearsal

Butterfly Wings's picture

     Voice is a quality of humans distinct to each. It is that set of experiences and moments that shape one’s particular perspectives on life in a way that is all consuming, allowing the tastes of one to bleed through words and express one’s essence. This concept of voice allows for a give and take of shaping experiences. One can accumulate new ideas and reshape their essence at any given time. Theater works as a mechanism within which one can alter their voice uniquely, as it creates a “third space” by “[establishing] connections between groups that otherwise might not come into contact and… imagining communities different from those we have at present” (Fraden 23), thus permitting one to examine oneself with new perspectives. Rehearsals within the theater allow for this experience.

     I auditioned for my first play, “Measure for Measure”, last semester. I was almost too shy to function, so I auditioned with a friend in the hopes of coming across as “normal”, though I went in burdened with the awareness that I would be cut. However, I got a call-back, which I interpreted as meaning that they felt bad cutting people and wanted to figure out which minor role I should take up space in. I read scenes for hours, with stranger after stranger. I was the last to leave, this time certain that I was uncastable. Why else would they have kept me so long, if not to convince themselves of this fact? 

     I was cast as Isabella, a lead, the next morning, leaving me flabbergasted by their choice. I had done two 10-minute plays in high school, and was a first year. Why would they have wanted me? It shook me to my bones. I would later come to learn that I was chosen for my Voice; the way I read Isabella, knowing nothing of the context of the lines in call-backs, was so promising to them that they climbed out on a limb with me. The directors could recognize  what I could not fathom; in the words of Anna Deveare Smith, “a character from a play does not have a visible identity until the actor creates a body for that character” (Smith xxx), and they saw a kernel in me of the voice they wanted Isabella to present. 

     To become the voice they needed, though, I needed to rehearse. Rehearsal is an inherently repetitive action, a redoing and rebuilding of a scene every time it is played. In rehearsing, one can see all the possible outcomes of a given situation. They can hear all the nuances hidden in the way they throw their voice, the way they turn their head, the way they interact with another actor in the scene. Rehearsal is about “redefining the real” (Winn 19) to find the most genuine Voice underneath the text.  The continuous repetition of particular words and phrases, the “remember[ing], recall[ing] and reiterat[ing of] feelings” (Smith xxv) allows the actor to wear these emotions. When this cape of sensations is donned often enough, “it becomes [the actor]” (Smith xxiv). Thus, by playing a part, one can become personally more akin to the character. One’s voice can evolve and alter to suit the Voice created by repetition. 

     In my personal case, this meant I as Julia was becoming more and more Isabella.  The flashcards I made for her lines, crinkled from their high usage, visually represent my assimilation to her character and the union of her words and my mind. In coming to understand the script, I came to understand where her emotions would stem from, and so felt them settle onto me. Her intense confidence and passion for her choices slowly seeped through the index cards and pen ink into my mind, night and day. I gained more confidence from “Measure for Measure” than I did in 18 years of trying to say “hello” to strangers or be brave enough to speak more than a sentence in class. 

     Incarcerated women can similarly be empowered through theater and rehearsal. In building a performance, “[they] are in fact rehearsing new desires… [and] cultivat[ing] a performance of possibilities” (Winn 18). By rehearsing the feelings of a character, one can come to understand what those emotions are and being to assume them in one’s own life; “[emotions] may even need to be rehearsed” (Fraden 69) to gain meaning, if one has never experienced it themselves. Practicing confidence, practicing feeling appreciated, practicing feeling valuable are all intensely important experiences. It allows you to know what you deserve as a human and to see how you can change your life to better experience the world. An example of this would be the Affirmations the incarcerated women would say at the end of every rehearsal, and eventually on stage, in the Medea Project. 

“Those Affirmations were changed over and over again. Every rehearsal, people would pick different ones until they kind of came to one that felt right for them. We had ten different times during our rehearsal process to say an Affirmation.” (Fraden 110).

     As rehearsals progressed, the wishes and desires of the women involved would alter to suit their new understandings of themselves and their importance as individuals; the evolving affirmations came to better showcase these new Voices. Rehearsals embodied the origins of the word “rehearse”, or “re-hercer”, by raking up and leveling previous assumptions about the self and its Voice while planting and covering new seeds for self growth (Fraden). Further, in actively “realizing your own similarity to the character” you can better “create [a unique version of that role]” (Smith xxvii) that is composed of your original self, the bare bones of character the text provides, and the deep feelings you build as the character and your developing Voice via rehearsal. 

     Theater rehearsals operate via repetitive assumption of other roles to gradually change one’s own Voice. Over time, you will become imbued with the characteristics you practice, and will be able to apply those emotions in your own life. This overall allows one to become a wholer, purer form of themself.


Works Cited: 

Rena Fraden- “Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones & Theater for Incarcerated Women”

Anna Deveare Smith- “Fires in the Mirror”

Maisha T. Winn- “Girl Time: Literacy, Justice, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline”








jccohen's picture

Butterfly Wings,

I’m intrigued by your description of “voice” as “perspectives [that] bleed through words and express one’s essence,” though I think you’re also suggesting that “essence” isn’t (as it’s usually thought of) unchanging but rather always being revised through experiences…am I understanding your meanings here?  And your story of your own theater experience – and theater more broadly – as a space where rehearsal enacts the development of voice offers a compelling way of thinking about learning as a process of discovering both self and other. 

With the lines “by playing a part, one can become personally more akin to the character. One’s voice can evolve and alter to suit the Voice created by repetition,” we get into some complexities about theater, voice, self, other that give rise to some questions.  Most at issue here, to my mind, is the question of what’s happening when you take up a role in theater.  Smith argues that rather than go to oneself to find the character, the actor should really go to the character, seeking to connect with the “other.”  In Winn’s piece, she’s writing partly about “voice” as expressive of the writer of the script, though she also does talk about “rehearsal” as a space for trying on new versions of oneself.  Jones’ use of “affirmations” seems to be directly about affirming the self, perhaps the capacity to take on a more empowered version of the self - ?  I’m laying this out because I’m wondering just how your reflection on your own experience of taking up role/voice in theater relates to these various texts… I think you’re saying something somewhat different from any of them, something about the way self and other can come together through voice to create a new version, new possibilities…?  This reminds me of Smith saying that the fit between her and the characters she plays is always slightly off, never perfect, and that it’s just this slight misfit that’s she holds most important, most compelling…  Might that be a way of further articulating what can happen in that theatrical space that you describe with such attention and care?