I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I spoke on stage. I’d been cast in a play in Primary School which was concerned principally with a very rich man who had a butler and many children, and was entertaining one guest in particular who was concerned with getting money or something from him. I can’t remember why I did it, probably for some kind of credit requirement, or else it might have been a class effort thing and my teacher had forced us to do it. But that besides, I remember very vividly being able to get out of class to do rehearsals, having been tasked to play the part of the butler, and specifically to say one line: ‘Sir, there’s a woman named Lucy here to see you.’ The rich man would then go, ‘Send her in,’ and I’d head off the stage and never be seen again.
I was not very pleased with that especially since I’d told my parents that I was going to be in a play, and particularly because they told me they would come to watch. The lead-up to the performance was five weeks, and so somewhere in the middle I had decided that I would deliver the greatest fake butler performance of all time, and learn that one line in it’s voluminous entirety. And it would be awesome.
At 7.30 on the day, parents sat down to watch a play which I imagine was quite politely received – I, having been behind the curtain the whole time save for 10 seconds – can’t possibly give an unbiased review of it. My time on stage passed so fast I remember nothing of it, except the back of my classmate’s head and the feeling of a full auditorium. And it was pretty awesome.
I had intense, though private, aspirations of becoming a superstar, and so not subsequently getting picked up by any casting people destroyed me. Over the next few years I jumped at every opportunity to emcee and to prove my mettle and get discovered, conveniently overlooking stuff like actually going for casting calls, posting YouTube videos, or perhaps the most fundamentally, joining anything Drama. Gradually, though, speaking offered me tiny opportunities to say what I wanted to say; and when I became involved in oratory in Secondary School, it was a way for me to show that my voice mattered, and that there were some spheres of my life in which I could speak my mind responsibly. I was provided opportunities to be better, more articulate, in environments which allowed me to learn more about the world around me.
Alex, your speech would be fantastic if only I could hear it.
This was the first piece of advice I got when I was 13 and in my first speaking competition. My voice had just broken and I had acquired this deep rumbling throat which made whatever I said inaudible. I have this sequence of events in my head of that evening: Mr. Connor pulls me up on stage and says, ‘Speak’, and then, ‘Shout’, and then ‘Whisper’. And then he says, ‘Fill the room with what you have to say! You only get one shot at this.’
I got many shots at it in the years that followed, thanks to a good combination of luck and hand-raising. And Mr. Connor’s words conditioned the way I saw public speaking in any capacity – in artistic, competitive, or even just plain academic spheres – anything that was worth saying should be said with conviction and with strength. I believed that intensely, and I still do.
All I have is a voice. – W.H. Auden
To speak, I think we first need to identify and understand what we have to say. My teacher, Ms. Selva, used to say that ’empty vessels make the most noise’. I think that’s so true, and it’s something we all need to be aware of when we step on stage.
I love spoken word poetry in this respect because poets – and we assume they are good, here – have had a great and illustrious history of saying super important stuff in a breathtakingly beautiful way. Ancient poetry as a thing was, all over the world, a verbally delivered exercise. In all senses of the word, it was telling people great legendary stories of how evil witches plotted to kill some prince, and then through the power of love and the prince’s good looks everything was solved the end.
In the Renaissance – that’s when people suddenly wanted to get smart and started painting and writing poetry and fixing math – we begin to see the power of poetry in places like the theatre. People were beginning to perform, on stage, and charge people money to have a good time, and people would actually show up. The aggregation of this is that you have people like Shakespeare saying stuff like this:
Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?
Melting my cold dead heart.
The power of the human spirit isn’t in words that mean nothing, that sit on a page and rot there forever. They’re glimpses of truth, and things that are right, and good, and noble, and they’re lifted off that page with a voice. But the danger of speaking through the lens of poetry and drama and theatre is that you get lost in the performance, and that’s a danger even professional actors and speakers face. The question then becomes: how do you make sure when you step on that stage, or on that set, or in front of your classmates; how do you make sure that what you are about to say is genuine?
We have all got to remember that poets like Auden or Shakespeare or Blake or Sarah Kay- they don’t put fake things on a page. I mean to say that when they write, they write from a part of their own hearts, and I think every good writer or speaker tries to do that. They believe, in the deepest depth of their souls, that what they say will make a difference.
I don’t think it’s rhetoric, this ‘one voice can make a difference’ business. I think a voice can be powerful and awesome and magical. Under certain lights it has mystery and romance and beauty. I think it isn’t genuine to explore the art of persuasion. But to explore the art of passion though! That’s a separate, more exciting matter.