Performing Shakespeare alongside professional actors could be intimidating. But with a voice/text coach giving the UNCG students personal lessons, the words come tripping off the tongue in the best kind of way.
UNCG theater professor Christine Morris helps all the actors shine in the Triad Stage production of “All’s Well that Ends Well.” For the UNCG undergraduates in the production who have less experience with Shakespeare, she’s a particularly valuable teacher. And they’re learning a lot.
“I found it not,” articulates actor Chloe Clark Oliver to the king, during an early rehearsal of a scene. A rising UNCG senior portraying Diana, she is working alongside some actors with decades of professional experience. Each time rehearsing the scene, she pushes the possibilities of her language and action. Each time, richer meanings are conveyed, as director Preston Lane makes suggestions and observations to the actors.
Eight UNCG students are on stage as part of Triad Stage’s big summer production. It’s in repertory with one other play in the annual UNCG Theatre/Triad Stage collaboration called Theatre 232. And Morris is at nearly every rehearsal, working with all the actors one-on-one.
How did she come to be a theater vocal expert? Morris, a Charlotte native, won a prestigious Spencer Love arts scholarship to UNCG in the 1970s. With her BA in Theatre, she went on to the University of Virginia for her MFA, then spent a decade in theater in New York City, including time with the New York Shakespeare Festival and Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. She later taught at Duke before returning “home” to UNCG, where she teaches theater, focusing on voice.
At Triad Stage, she is resident vocal coach. She started coaching there in 2006. Triad Stage and UNCG Theatre have had strong ties almost since the creation of Triad Stage – a development that enhanced the liveliness and economic development of downtown Greensboro. Lane, founding artistic director at the professional regional theater, co-leads UNCG’s directing program in UNCG Theatre.
Listening and being attentive are essential, which runs counter to our modern era with so many media distractions. “The fear with Gutenberg’s press was that people would lose the ability to speak and listen well,” Morris notes. “There are accounts of people leaving Shakespeare’s plays and reciting large chunks of dialog. At that time, people didn’t say, ‘Did you see the play?’ They’d say, ‘Did you hear the play?’”
For Morris, it’s applied research that she loves. Later this summer, she’ll present at two sessions of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association conference in England. One workshop will be on American Southern dialects; the other on vocal archetypes. She will also learn more about “original pronunciation” in Shakespeare’s plays – determining what a person would have sounded like centuries ago.
She loves working with the Triad Stage and UNCG actors one-on-one. Her questions to them usually boil down to this: “Why do you say what you say when you say it in the way that you say it?” And she helps them find their way in the language. “The actors want to get in there and do some spelunking.”
Chloe is one of those. The Raleigh native has already taken a UNCG acting class on Shakespeare sonnets, soliloquies, and comedy and tragedy scenes. “The language is so rich and full,” Chloe says.
She explains that it’s essential to find the key words the audience needs to hear in each line. Another challenge is making sure the audience understands, despite the fact that references and puns have changed over the centuries.
Madelynn Poulson, a rising junior who portrays Mariana, says, “The temptation (with Shakespearean language) is to think that it’s precious.” But it’s just like any other play. You have to make it accessible. “We take time to find what works. It’s easy to think, ‘This is what it’s about.’ But Shakespeare can mean so many things.”
One thing Morris helps with is syntax, Madelynn explains. “This part should go up, this part should go down.” But it goes much deeper, as the actors explore and read the text again and again. “Chris challenges you to not only know what it means, but to make it make sense for people.”
Madelynn recalls her tour of the UNCG campus, when she was a high-schooler in Hampton, Va.
She visited Triad Stage and saw Theatre 232’s “Fashionistas” in the upstairs space.“‘They are all UNCG students,’ I thought. I did not want to go anyplace else.”
Now only two years later, she herself is one of those Theatre 232 students in the spotlight. It’s a challenge but she is learning so much.
“Two shows a day – we’re living the dream.”
THTR 232 productions:
“All’s Well that Ends Well,” directed by Preston Lane, at Triad Stage June 8-29; tickets available at Triad Stage box office, 336-272-0160, or http://triadstage.org/series/129/alls-well-that-ends-well
“Jack and the Jelly Beanstalk,” directed by Jim Wren, June 14-28; tickets available at 336-334-4392 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/631155
By Mike Harris
Photography by David Wilson, of a coaching session. Morris uses balloons, boxes, hula hoops and more to further the actor’s attentiveness to the rhythms and stresses in the language. This page: Morris with Poulson and Oliver. CW homepage: Madelynn Poulson with Morris.