"Poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn"

Thomas Gray

Using Poetry in Training Actors and Singers

At the Royal Academy of Music, as in all conservatoires, there are compulsory competitions. Every department has its particular competitions, many of which are established to remember certain benefactors, alumni, teachers or great performers who have special connections with the Academy.

When Mary Hammond set up the musical theatre course in 1994, she established a poetry competition in memory of her father who had shared with her his love of language and poetry.

Every year, all the students must stand in front of their peers, invited guests and general public to perform five minutes of poetry by heart. It is always judged by a well-known actor who is familiar with the particular skills poetry demands.

It usually has the comprehensive effect of inducing paralysing fear accompanied by uninterrupted, intense nausea that lasts at least until the competition itself.

But it has also become for me, one of the most important and anticipated teaching opportunities in what is a very short year.

It surprises those who do not perform why poetry in particular should be the cause of so much anxiety in otherwise confident and experienced singers. But it is precisely in dealing with this fear and learning how perform without the safety net of music that makes it such a valuable exercise.

I also ask that the students choose poems that express a deep emotion of some kind but with which first and foremost, they feel an affinity.

Speaking poetry well requires very specific language and acting skills. It also raises several interesting questions about the nature of acting and how we go about communicating emotion to an audience. It provokes serious and thoughtful discussion about the means by and tools with which an actor communicates to an audience.

The competition is focused clearly upon vocal delivery - how can the students lift the words off the page and make them alive for an audience. They are not allowed to wander about, there are no props or costumes. It is the simplest and therefore the most naked of performances; just the actor, the words and the voice. 

Poetry demands a very different understanding and approach to text than that required of prose. The speaking of it has to not only accommodate rhythm, and sometimes rhyme but also requires the actor to value those characteristics and understand their contribution to the poem as a whole. It is, by definition, stylised. This immediately challenges the students’ ideas of what acting is which are fairly uniformly (if naïvely) understood as being ‘natural’.

Students are not alone in confusing the polish of a finished performance with its creation. If it looks natural, then it must have been achieved by being natural. This misunderstanding pervades much of their work, both in acting and singing.

Personally, I find ‘natural’ to be one of the most unhelpful and misleading of injunctions to actors and singers because it only values and encourages what is achievable now. It does not allow for a future where something that feels distinctly unnatural and artificial can, with careful, thoughtful, dedicated practise become so familiar that it can be difficult to remember the time when it was not part of our immediate expression. Students routinely forget where they started in their training as expertise and facility is incrementally cultivated. What was difficult at the beginning becomes easy.

Working with stylised text and poetry in particular makes this point very clearly. If they want to make sound natural, they have to work at it. They have to understand the technical aspects of speaking poetry, from line endings, use of rhyme, rhythm and repetition for example to the most basic and important element of the actor’s craft, being audible in the theatre.

Good poetry, written with economy, expressing complex emotion and deep feeling, requires that the actor demonstrate equal care in the speaking of it. There has to be a match in economy of scale and expression. How do you create that sense of deep recognition in the listener by identifying for them the universal human experiences of love and loss for example? Sometimes it is through the use of the everyday and ordinary, others it is through the complex and intricate. Great poems do that for us, help connect us to those shared, extraordinary experiences through the personal, specific and individual.

Poetry now is so easily accessible, there are some wonderful websites, a few of which I have listed below.

I would also recommend buying a couple of anthologies. I have listed one or two of my favourites on the web site.

Some students often start being a little unsure, usually when they have not had much exposure to poetry so it is of even more importance for them. Speaking poetry is fundamentally about loving words and finding pleasure in the speaking of them.

Dive in. You might find that they not only grow to love it but they might even thank you for it.