I took my daughter to the park today, something I am getting to do more regularly now that spring is finally rolling out of bed and asking winter to stop showing off. Vi is just over 18 months now. When she feels comfortable, she is incredibly vocal. Words are experimental songs for her, their vowels contorting into many shapes and pitched in ever changing frequencies. Every emotion is accompanied by some vocalization. Yes, tantrums, but also the unabashed enjoyment of swinging in a swing. There's an absolute and unrepeatable unity in her glee and the expression of that glee with sound. It creates a kind of ecstatic feedback loop –
"I am happy so I make a sound, which makes me happier so I make more sound, which makes me happier so…"
We've all had that ability to uninhibitedly vocalize our thoughts and feelings, but probably have not retained much of it. There's good reason for this, of course. We couldn't function as a society if we all pitched a fit at the top of our lungs every time some little thing sets us off, every time we don't get our way. Nor is it wise to vocalize every thought that occurs to us, especially if it is only half-baked. Still, I can't help but feel a pang for the loss of that joyous howl in myself.
Teaching Shakespeare, as I am this semester, is always a good opportunity to examine how we can get back in touch with that ability to feel out loud. Actors explore the power of words and sound for expression. In Shakespeare’s works, words call the world into being. They shape emotion and thought with biting consonants, seething sibilants, or caressing vowels. For the theatre, that kind of work is incredibly valuable. Lately, I can't help but wonder how these explorations apply to life off stage. What can we learn from characters who freely express and construct their thoughts aloud? Yes, restraint can be positive, but why not give ourselves the option to express more openly?
I have great sympathy for the desire to keep vocal expression on a short leash. Our voices are a strange part of our body – difficult to control, able to escape our physical selves, only really existing in so far as they are heard by others. What's more, they give our thoughts expression, making them more material. They convey our emotions, which sometimes we don't fully understand before they are expressed. In short, our voices make us known to others. They send out a signal that we cannot fully control and can’t be certain how that signal is received.
To use our voices, we send out a piece of ourselves with no guarantees for what follows.
No wonder we choke things back, keep our lips tight, or moderate our tones to near neutrality so often. No wonder the urge to hold back from contributing our thoughts in class is so compelling. Or why I, for one, like the luxury of writing thoughts down, editing, editing, editing, and then send my thoughts out in a form that allows me to avoid seeing how others react. There is great risk in making ourselves known to others.
But, if this kind of control is such a good thing, why do I feel that pang when I know that I am vocally holding back?
The truth, I suspect, is that what little I gain from holding back is often of questionable worth compared to what I could receive by expressing myself more fully. Our voices and our words have the ability to transform others and ourselves. Our expression of an idea coupled with passion (if we allow ourselves to feel it out loud) has the ability to affect others, heart and mind. It can make concrete changes in the world.
I am not the first to note that what we say is inextricably linked to how we say it, but I would underline that this does not simply apply to word choice or medium. It applies to whether we feel the words we express.
Whether we let ourselves be known in the expression.
This is important, because the emotion in our voices can give our ideas added vitality. They can make them more compelling to someone else. Not every interaction needs to be fraught with impassioned words, but why not let ourselves get excited when we toss around ideas in class discussions? Why not let our reactions be heard? Our outrage for this? Our sorrow for them? Our excitement for that? Maybe it will spark something, or help an idea stick around for long enough to spread beyond class. Maybe it will change someone.
While it may not be earth shattering, hearing Vi howl for joy on a swing changes me. I have a better day because I share in that joy.
Before joining Luther’s faculty in 2013, Robert Vrtis worked in Eugene, Ore., as a director and teacher. He has most recently directed Cabaret, boom, Fahrenheit 451, The Highest Tide, and Masha (an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s work). He teaches courses in acting and directing for Luther's Visual and Performing Arts Department, and is excited to be structuring the acting sequence to include classes in performing Shakespeare, Meisner Technique, auditioning, improvisation and clown.