NEW YORK — A teacher once told 9-year-old Patsy Rodenburg that she would "never speak beautifully."
The teacher was proved wrong - in a big way. Today, Ms. Rodenburg is director of voice at London's National Theatre and is one of the world's leading voice and acting coaches. Among those who have sought her personal training are actors Ian McKellen, Nicole Kidman, and Olympia Dukakis.
"I honestly believe that we are all born with amazing voices," she says, "but they're taken away from us" through discouragement or neglect. Just as with any other instrument, she says, the voice must be trained and exercised to be at its best.
Judi Dench, who won an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" and is another Rodenburg student, does vocal exercises every day. Another student, Ralph Fiennes (the villain in "Red Dragon," now in theaters), hadn't been on stage for four years and wanted to do Shakespeare. He took three months off just to build up his voice, before beginning rehearsals.
Recently, Rodenburg sat down for an interview in a small downstairs theater at the Drama Book Shop in New York. She was about to give a talk and demonstration based on her fourth book, "Speaking Shakespeare" (Palgrave MacMillan). The blonde, black-clad Rodenburg couldn't stay seated for long, intermittently leaping from her chair to illustrate a point about proper breathing or body language.
One reason she wrote the book is her concern that today's young actors, who work mostly in TV or film, are unprepared for or intimidated by Shakespeare.
The Bard requires performers to be "fit," she says - physically, vocally, and mentally.
Generally, actors who miss the mark fall into one of two traps: what she calls "denial" or "bluff."
In denial, the actor takes a cool, detached attitude, throwing away lines or mumbling. "You see young people, you know, and it's about being cool," she says, standing up, crossing her arms, and leaning back on her heels in a defiant pose.
In bluff, actors give the lines plenty of volume and energy, but because they don't really understand the text and its rhythm, they can't bring out the real import of the words.
"They cover [the meaning] with emoting, rather than finding out what's there" in the text, she says. To speak Shakespeare is "not to shout it, not to emote it," she says. "Just experience it."
The words drive the plays she says. "In Shakespeare, you speak to survive." Words have consequences. "At the end of a [Shakespeare] soliloquy," she says, the character has become "a different person."
Just look at how people speak in real life when events put much on the line, she says.
"Bless 'em, on 9/11, on the streets of New York, as people were interviewed, they spoke clearly, because it was too important not to speak clearly.... They didn't go, 'Oh, well, you know, it was a plane...," she says, her voice dropping low and flat. "People were being Shakespearean because they were [emotionally] heightened. That's all it is."
She refers to actors in this state of awareness as having an "internal tail wagging" - being alert and open to react to other actors and ready to drive the action forward. Another key to speaking Shakespeare, she says, lies in recognizing when a character is speaking verse, rather than prose.
Today even serious acting students often give a blank stare or yawn if a teacher begins to talk about iambic pentameter. Yet it is a natural way to speak, a familiar rhythm that matches the soft-loud double beat of the human heart. Recognizing this rhythm doesn't distort meaning, it unlocks it.
As the time for Rodenburg's public talk approaches, people begin drifting in, until a crowd of 70 or so packs the room and spills out through the doorway. Among them is writer and actor Wallace Shawn.
Rodenburg asks us to slump down in our seats and try to recite a line from Shakespeare. The lack of energy is palpable. Then we sit up, balanced and alert but not artificially erect. The words gain life and energy. Try to speak from the abdomen, she says. "The Zulus thought that the voice came from the abdomen."
Understanding the meaning and rhythm of Shakespeare is vital to the actor, she says. That doesn't mean he or she can't decide to go for a bold or radical interpretation - or even employ denial or bluff. But "see what [Shakespeare] has done first," she advises. "Then you can do it swinging on a trapeze."
Notice the physical nature of the words themselves, she adds. "Dead" stops abruptly on the concluding "d," while with "Life," the sound goes on.
In a question period, she's asked if she has any words of encouragement for struggling actors. "I honestly don't know any great actor who doesn't work very hard," she begins.
Then she tells of coaching Emily Watson ("Punch-Drunk Love," "Gosford Park"), whom she is helping prepare for a role on stage in "Twelfth Night." Rodenburg thought they hadn't met before, but Ms. Watson recently told her that years earlier, Rodenburg had turned her down for a part.
So you see, we all make mistakes, Rodenburg says, with a smile and a shrug.