The Vocal Sequence: a tutorial

(This tutorial was written as a response to a request from a friend who worked at the time for the Georgia Department of Education.  She was developing online instructional modules and asked me if I would consider creating a course conveying what I taught for the Governor’s Honors Program.  You will note the ingenuous, transparent, and consistently encouraging tone.  It’s a series of steps anyone can follow.  Anyone.  I wanted the teacher to feel capable and empowered and, perhaps most importantly, assured that what’s on offer is legitimate knowledge.  Nothing sketchy.  Canonical theatre education.  At no point do I discuss the possible visitations from monsters or demons or of opening doors for extra-dimensional entities of eldritch aspect.  We reject the naysayers.  No need to fear arts education in the schools.  Was my approach a touch irresponsible?)


Note: this entire page is available for download as vocalsequencetutorial.rtf

Step: 1

The students should get some idea of what is to come and what the Vocal Sequence is. Tell them they will soon be given a detailed description of a performance exercise which they will learn to master. It’s called the Vocal Sequence. It builds confidence and power and inspires new kinds of creativity. It is an example of the kind of concerns theatre artists were pursuing in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Inspired by Brook, Grotowski, Chaikin, a host of other artists, and by the writings of Artaud, theatre artists were exploring the most extreme possibilities for performance, tapping into the actor’s expressive resources in new ways. One practical result of this was the development of new possibilities for exploiting the actor’s voice and body in performance. New exercises and systems emerged. The Vocal Sequence was compiled by pioneer American director and theorist Herbert Blau in collaboration with his experimental group KRAKEN. It is a series of activities which actors do all the time involving the body and speaking text–often for for warm-up, relaxation, exploration, play, and practice–charted into a map for performance.

Step: 2

Text. To work with he Vocal Sequence you need text. The students must memorize The Sick Rose by William Blake as soon as possible. (You can find the poem at the end of The Vocal Sequence, another file available on the Lacuna Group site.) Other texts or poems can be used for teaching purposes. Requirements: the material should be rich in imagery, the words must allow for a variety of vocalizing possibilities, and the material should be short enough for quick memorization. This is your sole text for the duration of training, so it requires a certain depth of expression, perhaps a touch of riddling difficulty. And part of training involves learning to use the Vocal Sequence to discover material for performance pieces, so your text needs to be something you are willing to explore in that way.

Step: 3

Breathing. Tell the students the key to learning the Vocal Sequence is to understand the following: “If you are breathing, you are speaking.” If they apply this rule always, they will discover how the Sequence is supposed to feel when executed. Use the method illustrated in the following to lead the students toward beginning to master proper vocal technique (the observations in what follows have not been confirmed by a physiologist or speech pathologist, they are merely offered as aids to visualization and new body awareness):

You will be speaking and breathing and exerting yourselves physically. You need to know how to breathe properly to protect your voice. The values for this are basically the same as those taught by voice teachers. If you have been working with voice teachers, you are encouraged to share the methods of visualization you have been taught previously to enhance the following suggestions.

The throat and the shoulders and the chest area must remain relaxed. The source of energy for sound is not produced there, and tightening or constricting those muscles through throat clenching or chest heaving is counter-productive and harmful. Such exertion leads to laryngitis, among other things. The belly is what breathes. You can place your hands on your tummy and experience the motion of the diaphragm as it expands and contracts, pushing air the way a bellows does. The chest and throat do not labor; they merely provide, along with the skull, a series of resonating chambers. As air is pushed by the diaphragm through the throat, the vocal cords are set to vibrating. The more relaxed the throat and the cords, the more colorful and rich are these initial vibrating frequencies. The chest, the belly, the throat, and the mouth all work as resonating and amplifying media for the sound vibrations issuing from the vocal cords.

(When developing vocal warm-ups for the students, make sure you provide them opportunities to work sound in all the resonating cavities of the body.)

Every approach to breathing and vocalizing involves some form of visualization. Try using a balloon. Blow up a balloon. You can liken the elastic nature of the balloon to the elastic nature of the diaphragm. The muscles stretch as air is pulled into the body. Like the material of the balloon, the stretched diaphragm contains potential energy which is soon to be transmitted into vocal energy. Pull taut the opening of the balloon, release air, and create that wonderful squealing and whining tone. The stretched rubber opening vibrates as the air escapes and the vibration is transmitted to the molecules of the air. Our ears process this disturbance as sound. The stretched elastic balloon opening vibrates just as the stretched elastic tissues of the vocal cords vibrate when air escapes the body. In fact, if you could somehow record the sound of vibrating vocal cords outside of the body’s complex resonating container, the sound would resemble the wheeze of the deflating balloon.

How can you make a balloon deflate faster? By squeezing it, of course. But it depends on how you squeeze the balloon. If you squeeze near the opening, you may get some air to push out faster, but then…you choke off the balloon and most of the air is still inside. This kind of squeezing is akin to an attempt to strain with the chest and neck to gain vocal power. Most of the air stays in the body and/or you wind up closing down the resonating potential of those areas, and you are left using your throat muscles to yank around the vocal cords. To get the most out of your balloon, you need to push from underneath. The outlet is unimpeded. You apply pressure, but the elastic contracting chamber is still working at maximum potential in addition to whatever extra pressure you apply. Blow up the balloon, stretch the opening to create sound with the escaping air, and push the bottom of the balloon against the tummy to add pressure to the escaping air. Try exhaling with the balloon. Then blow up the balloon again, and then inhale this time not by expanding the lungs but by pushing down and out with your tummy muscles (in fact your tummy should poke out a bit, a distressing state of affairs for the body-conscious teenager but there you are…). Now push the bottom of the balloon against your “activated” tummy as you release air and make the whining sound. You should exhale slowly as the balloon “exhales” and continue to apply tummy pressure to the bottom of the balloon. This complicated exercise is designed to lead you to experience the great paradox of supported vocal production: when you take in air, you expand the diaphragm, pushing the tummy out as you tighten the abdominal muscles, then as you exhale, you keep pushing down and out with the tightened tummy.

This balloon illustration emphasizes that the diaphragm is the only muscle mass doing work during vocalizing–everything else should be relaxed and open and employed for resonance and amplification, and that engaging the muscles of the diaphragm increases its general elasticity during the inhale and the exhale; greater elasticity means more potential energy; the result is more strength and more capacity in the use of air (greater capacity for volume and duration).

Belly breathing and support not only improves vocalization; it is what allows a performer to vocalize while doing other demanding things such as dancing. In other words, the belly takes care of the breathing while the rest of the body can exert itself in other ways. And as the rate of respiration increases during activity, vocal support stays in place. When performing the Vocal Sequence, it is essential to breath this way since you are to follow the dictum “if you are breathing you are speaking.” You don’t get to “catch your breath” and then continue. And once the body is fully involved, the process gets more demanding.

Step: 4

Observation and mirroring. The students are to maintain a journal which they will use to record observations and reflections in class after exercises and between classes in preparation for upcoming lessons. Eventually this journal will also be useful for remembering and developing material created using the Vocal Sequence. Students should spend some time writing after most exercises, beginning with the “mirror what you see” described next.

Mirroring. Students divide into pairs and sit facing their partners. Tell them they will do a mirror exercise. After the groaning has subsided, you ask the pairs, both partners, to sit quietly and “mirror what you see.” There will be questions; try not to waste too much time with answers. The exercise leads to something of a paradox: how can both partners mirror without one leading the other? This is the interesting aspect. How will the students negotiate this predicament? You respond to all reservations with “just mirror what you see…” Give them five to ten minutes and then ask them to write a description of their experience in their journals, including all thoughts and imaginings which occurred. Take time for some discussion. As a way to punctuate the discussion, you might mention that the possibility of “becoming absorbed in the other” was one idea the exercise was introducing. This capacity to “become absorbed” and have it lead to focused imaginative activity is crucial for executing the Vocal Sequence. Then add that this mirroring approach will be one chief way of transmitting information both vocal and physical in the days ahead. Some of the more thoughtful students might also be intrigued by this idea: if you are truly mirroring your partner and if your partner is truly mirroring what he or she sees, then you are in fact seeing your own unconscious self in your partner’s efforts and taking that unconscious self upon your own self as Other.

Step: 5

“Come up from silence and return to silence.” All Vocal Sequence work is framed by this convention. Here’s a way to introduce the idea. Students lie comfortably on their backs. You invite them to breathe with their bellies in the manner previously discussed. As they begin breathing you ask them to think of the phrase “Hah-Yah.” Tell them to begin thinking the phrase as they breathe and as if they were speaking it. The phrase can be imagined as short punctuations or long vowel extensions. (The “hahs” activate the diaphragm and then allow for vowel extension; the “yahs” offer access to the “y-buzz” of Lessac fame and then an extension.) Encourage them to try both ways and note how they require and engender different breathing. Remind them to breathe with their bellies. Now invite them to bring the phrase into their breath as a whisper, without letting the vocal cords vibrate. Then tell them that on your cue they will go from whispering to barely vocalizing the phrase and then gradually increase volume until they reach “normal speaking volume.” Once that is achieved, they will begin to gradually increase volume as they explore the phrase, by slowing it down, speeding it up, emphasizing different aspects, etc, and ultimately they should reach what they consider maximum volume. Continue proper breathing. Having achieved maximum volume, they should begin to reduce volume, returning finally to “normal speaking” and then to the barely audible and then to whisper and finally to silently hearing the phrase “in their heads.” Encourage them to take all the time they need to complete the cycle and cue them to “go.” Afterwards, allow time for writing and discussion. How did what they felt and heard influence their own explorations? Remind them that all work will “come up from silence and return to silence” in a manner similar to what they have just undertaken.

Step: 6

Mirroring with the voice is another interesting impossibility for the students to attempt. Pair them off as in the previous mirroring introduction (rotation of partners is advised to help build trust and group cohesiveness). Both partners are to begin breathing and then to think the phrase “Hah-Yah.” Bring the phrase to breath and then to voice as in the “come up from silence and return to silence” exercise in the previous step. However, as they both do this, they are both to “mirror what they see and hear.” In other words, as they come up from silence, they should stay absorbed in one another, both partners attempting to breathe and vocalize as one, producing the same rhythm, sound, texture, intonation, pitch, etc. Encourage the students to proceed slowly, giving each student plenty of time to match what they experience in the other and to change with it. The “goal” is for an observer not to be able to detect a gap in response between partners as the vocalizing proceeds. They should gradually proceed to “normal speech” and then let the vocal impulse change, very gradually, expanding in volume and varying in rate of repetition, varying also in vowel duration. Keep in mind the rule of thumb “if you’re breathing, you’re speaking.” Their vocal engagement should be continuous; a gradually evolving rhythmic pulse is inevitable. Reach a maximum limit and slowly return to silent breath, “mirroring” all the way. Write and discuss. In discussion, encourage colorful impressionistic language from the students. Help them uncover new metaphors for describing their experiences. Remember, every exercise is as much an experience for the student as it is a moment of instruction. Students need to take time after each exercise to record their experience in their journals and to discuss their experiences in terms of challenges, discoveries and imaginative reverie.

Step: 7

On to the next mirror exercise. Change partners. Give them the word “one.” Breathe together and then come up from silence with the word “one”, each partner mirroring the other carefully (not specifying a leader and follower in these exercises encourages a more thoughtful and sober engagement with the processes of absorption and observation, every emotion tends to be more “real”, every idea more provocative). Once normal speech is reached, students can begin to note how the body seems to participate in the vocalizing. Let a physical idea become a part of what is vocalized; let it emerge, rhythmically develop, and gradually change along with the vocal exploration. Mirror what you see and hear as closely as you can. Take it to a limit and gradually bring it back Reflect and write. The ideal is a mirroring link where voice and body impulses seem to emerge and evolve as…”one.” You cannot tell the “dancer from the dance.” If the teacher sees a pair of students who accomplish a particularly unified exploration, the pair should attempt to “recapitulate” it for the class.

Step: 8

Tell the students The Sick Rose will definitely have to be memorized by the next meeting. End the present session with Quick Pass. Have them stand in a circle, mats (yes, there should be mats) and plenty of space in their midst. Invite one student to come to the center of the circle. (This will be a variation on a familiar impulse exercise to many.) The student should breathe and come up from silence with the phrase “Hah-Yah”. Every student in the circle should attempt to mirror the student in the middle. Once the student in the middle has reached normal speech, he or she should attach a physical component to the vocalizing. Then let the sound and image impulse take on a definite repeating pulse. Let it change and develop in the repeating pulsation. “If you’re breathing, you’re speaking” and the body is now perpetually involved as well. All students should attempt to mirror the voice and body of the one in the middle. The student in the middle should arrive at some vocal and physical impulse which “pleases” and which can be rhythmically repeated accurately and distinctly by the group. The student, as he or she continues to perform the impulse, must examine the work of the group to assure that everyone is working hard to mirror what they see and hear exactly. Once the student is satisfied with everyone’s efforts, s/he picks one student in the circle to “pass” leadership to by going to that student with the rhythmic impulse, establishing a tight mirroring, and switching places with that student who then carries the impulse to the center…The new leader allows the impulse to change, gradually, not abruptly, not arbitrarily, and the group follows. The new leader inspects and passes to a new leader. And so on. The goal is to effect a “quick pass” in which a leader evolves an impulse…impulsively, without thinking about it, and links smoothly and rapidly to a new leader. When the teacher decides the mayhem has gone on long enough, the existing leader can be told to go to silence slowly. In discussion, point out to the students those moments where voice and body inevitably gave birth to emotional, behavioral and imaginative dimensions. Suggest to them they view this activity as a kind of performed imaginative thinking in which, paradoxically, the goal is not to think so much. Follow the impulse.

Step: 9

By this step the students are to know The Sick Rose by William Blake. They will “know” it, but not know it (some, of course, will not yet know it all the way through in any sense). The words need to get into their muscle memory so they will not have to think to speak. Have them stand in a close circle. Tell them they shall speak the poem as a group with each student speaking one word at a time, around the circle, next student, next word. Keep starting the poem with different students. This round will be a struggle at first as many discover what they don’t really remember. The goal is to have the poem flow through the group with no forgetful pauses, with everyone listening and poised to move the text along. Once this goal is reached, the next hurdle is to speak the text person to person, word to word, so that it sounds like one speaker delivering the poem. To do this, students will have to listen attentively and learn to layer the words, overlapping slightly, achieving a uniformity of tone. This entire exercise they will find singularly frustrating.

Step: 10

Arrange the mats end to end. Students are to roll (sideways, not somersaulting) over the mats as they speak the text, remembering the rule of thumb “if you are breathing, you are speaking.” Tell them to use their speaking to give them different kinds of energy for rolling. Fast and slow. Light and labored. Let the “oomph” of the body become one with the speaking of the words. Do the students want to latch on to certain phrases and repeat them? Encourage them to do so. The idea behind this activity is simply that speaking should become fused with every kind of physical exertion. The exertion should color the speaking and the speaking color the exertion. Students must abandon the tight grip they try to maintain on proper “upright” sounding and speaking. Every twist of a tendon and turn of a bone should be wrapped in the sound of speech and lead to all manner of distortions.

Step: 11

Invite each student to perform the poem for the class. Each student will attempt to make the poem “meaningful,” perhaps by choosing a character who will speak the poem, or by bringing some kind of emotional tone or color to it, or by clowning with it, being “ironic” perhaps. Some may actually be quite accomplished and possess an already impressive bag of tricks from which they pull to achieve a memorable effect. You should let them perform without comment. In a concluding discussion, you can ask about how the students experienced being asked to “perform” the poem. Was there a struggle to determine and then communicate meaning? What was there a goal in the performance? As a way to end discussion, offer the following: “You can stop worrying about the text as a piece of meaningful poetry and about the actor’s duty to communicate a meaningful performance which illuminates the literature. Oral interpretation is not required. For you, as you learn the Vocal Sequence, speaking itself is the event; you are a sounding and expressive body, that is the extraordinary phenomenon you will unlock. Think of the text as meaning-less, as simply an opportunity to vocalize.”

And before they can think about it too much, move to a new variation on Quick Pass…

Step: 12

In this variation on Quick Pass the first leader will begin speaking The Sick Rose silently and then gradually come to normal speech. Everyone should mirror this process exactly (one reason why it is crucial for everyone to learn the poem). Once at normal volume, the leader should let the speaking sloooooow down. All mirror this process. As the leader slows, the body should be brought into the experience of speaking, and the leader should begin to search for some aspect of the bodily sounding which “pleases” or is of “interest”. This must be done slowly and carefully so the group can mirror as precisely as possible. The leader transforms the discovery into a repeating impulse, a unity of voice, body and imagination, and more than likely it will have derived from some bit of the text which gets repeated or from a few choice sounds. The leader can explore whatever pleases and affords bodily participation. It should just emerge from repetition and evolution. Once an impulse emerges the leader can vary elements of rate and volume and texture…gradually enough for the group mirroring to stay with it. Quick Pass proceeds as usual; once a new leader takes up the impulse, the leader can move into exploring more of the text before generating a new impulse. Just remember to bring the rest of the group along. Some students may want to preserve the integrity of the poem, its order and sense, at all costs. Encourage everyone to relax and let the text “fall apart.” Part of the enjoyment comes with repetitions and juxtapositions of textual fragments.

Step: 13

The following exercise will help students begin to find the rhythmic life of the Vocal Sequence and to understand how to use the Sequence to make creative discoveries. Divide up into pairs. One partner is to begin reciting The Sick Rose silently and then come up from silence and move toward normal speech. The other partner should mirror this process carefully. The first partner should then move speaking into “slow motion” and allow the body to get involved, working gradually enough for the mirroring partner to stay with the activity. Also, re-emphasize the importance of the “if you’re breathing, you’re speaking” rule of thumb for this exercise. The breath cycle will begin to shape the rhythm to a certain extent. Within this state of “slow motion”, tell the first partner to “find something interesting, isolate it, and repeat it.” The mirroring partner is to stay with it all the way. This compels the first partner to be accountable to the other partner’s efforts. Tell the first partner to allow the repetition of this interesting found artifact to incrementally change it; let it evolve, develop, intensify, diminish, vary in rate, move through various imaginative modes of expression. Emphasize the importance of following the impulse and not imposing changes or “clever” variations. Give the second partner time to sync up with the changes. After about 10 minutes in such a feedback loop, call for a slow return to silence. Then repeat the process with the second partner taking the lead.

Students should be given time to reflect upon this experience and record some observations in their journals. Begin a discussion by asking for “observations…” Another fruitful framework can be established by asking “What did you see or hear?” You want to encourage a link among the body/voice impulse, the capacity for imaginative visualization, and the emotional dimension. Encourage attempts to develop storytelling ideas. Ask about their experience with the text. What insights which were discovered while out on the excursion might be brought back to the text? Yet again, emphasize that the students are free to leave “meaning” behind as they explore. The text, after all, will be broken up into fragments as they isolate discoveries. Tell them to embrace the possibility of nonsense. Their most interesting discoveries may be made between the words at this point. Offer the following:

As you go into “slow motion” with the text and involve your body in the speaking, the very act of sounding in an unusual way is to be experienced as exciting and inspiring. To make a discovery means to be captivated by some particular way of speaking or sounding which intertwines with some distinctive physical idea. Herbert Blau might call this a very basic instance of “blooded thought.” Here is a moment of something performed being regarded as an “idea” which can be subjected to imaginative variations, linked, etc.

If there were students in the preceding exercise who demonstrated a more instinctive ability to isolate “ideas” and then gradually elaborate upon them, you should invite them to demonstrate for the class. “Recapitulate” is a useful word at this point. Tell them: “I noted something interesting you did; it was as if (and then offer a descriptive image)…Could you and your partner come up from silence and try to get back to that?”

Step: 14

Shift gears now. Have everyone lie on their backs. Tell them: “Lets improvise a vocal score using The Sick Rose as the text. You will begin as usual, silently, and then at your own individual rate, come to normal voice. Then try to use your speaking to create some kind of atmosphere; it can be a psychological atmosphere or a mood, or it could be an attempt to shape the physical atmosphere in the room. And as always, keep the breathing and sounding going. Discover something as you explore atmosphere, just with your voice this time, and begin to let it evolve or intensify or shift. Fragment and distort at will. Improvise with what you may hear from your fellow performers. Leave behind linear storytelling or oral interpretation and strive for a sublime and powerful musical experience. Listen to what’s going on around you and try to create your place in the composition. To conclude, you decide when your part in the composition has reached its “culmination” and find a way to bring yourself back to silence.”

Once the piece has been performed, give time for reflection, writing and discussion. Try to name the piece.

Step: 15

It is time to introduce the students to a formal description of the Vocal Sequence. Distribute copies of Blau’s description which you can find as a file at the Lacuna Group site. It is taken from a speech, “The Grail of the Voice,” which appears in a collection of speeches and essays entitled The Dubious Spectacle: extremities of theatre 1976-2000 (Blau has graciously permitted my use of his article in teaching The Vocal Sequence). The class should work through the description, reading and discussing collectively in whatever manner you, as teacher, prefer. Tell them they will begin to explore the steps of the Sequence. The ultimate goal is for each of them to execute the first twelve steps of the Sequence as a solo improvisatory performance for their fellow students (limiting it to the first twelve will seem, it is hoped, less intimidating). Once the students have mastered the Sequence in solo performance, they can begin to experiment with using it as a tool to explore scripts, characters, scenes, and more elusive experimental possibilities. They will explore the steps in the Sequence systematically with a partner in the manner introduced earlier, with one partner exploring impulses and the other mirroring, then switching. Point out to them that they already know the first three steps and in their recent exploring may have already touched upon most of the others. In the work to come invite them to keep in mind the following:

Steps for exploring elements:

  1. With your partner mirroring you carefully, move through the first three steps of the Sequence; your body should be involved by Slow Motion.
  2. From Slow Motion move to the step to be investigated and explore the speech and body implications, altering as impulse dictates. Do not impose changes.
  3. Find something interesting in your investigation which you will then isolate and repeat, allowing for evolution. Your partner is still mirroring.
  4. Return to the step you’ve been investigating, then return to Slow Motion, then Normal, then Silence.
  5. Repeat, this time with you mirroring your partner’s exploration. And remember, mirror carefully and accurately; if you’re breathing, you’re speaking.

Sitting or Standing? Explorations can begin from a sitting or standing position. Should you stay seated throughout? Keep in mind the mats are there for a reason. Full body participation is the goal; you should stretch physical possibilities as you stretch the vocal. Use your impulse to get you from sitting to somewhere else or from an upright posture to an uproarious imposture. Try to countenance the laws of gravity in new and challenging ways as your impulses evolve. No limits at this point.

Combining elements. After working through some of the individual elements in the Sequence, students can string a few together in their explorations. Many of the elements can function as natural climaxes in the work (such as duration or faster and faster) and other elements can serve performers before and after such an event, or they can imbed elements within elements (such as expand and contract within create an atmosphere). In any attempt, students should remember that beyond the exercising of speech the additional goal is to let the work lead them to unexpected discoveries. Remind them (repeatedly) to take time in their Sequence work to explore any new discoveries before moving on to other elements. These new discoveries will function as material for further development.

Step: 16

Some work with the Sequence as a “fun” way to end a session. Sit in a large circle at the outer edges of the mats. A set of partners from the day’s work is invited to the center. Each partner is to come up from silence using the poem and move into Slow Motion and then into another step each partner may choose. THE PARTNERS DO THIS CONCURRENTLY AND SEPARATELY–NOT MIRRORING THIS TIME. Tell the partners: “Once you have made an interesting discovery, go encounter the Other. And remember, if you’re breathing, you’re speaking”. The goal is for each partner to embody physically and vocally an interesting impulse and then to have it become an “identity” or “entity” which must relate to some other thing. This may play out at the level of “characterization.” Or it may take shape as something far more elusive and provocative. Call for a return to silence, eventually. End with the observing students, one by one, performing a round of: “I saw __________” (could be an image, an idea, a quote from the text, something else; keep it short, precise or pointedly enigmatic, and…resonant). Move to a new set of partners.

Step: 17

In order to perform the twelve elements solo, the students need to become comfortable working alone with the elements. At first it works well for each student to have an opportunity to string the elements together without the pressure of an audience (and one goal is for the student to regard the Sequence as a way an actor can work alone on assorted material or work alone simply “playing scales”). Let the students distribute themselves about the space. They are to work concurrently and alone. Instruct them to come up from silence with The Sick Rose and systematically move through all twelve elements of the Vocal Sequence. Return to silence when finished. Allow time for writing, reflection, and discussion. Go over the following list of standards for performance:

Questions to ask yourself when performing The Vocal Sequence:

  1. Am I speaking when breathing? Is it perpetual? Am I breathing properly from the belly?
  2. Did I begin by speaking silently? Then move to normal?
  3. Is my body involved fully?
  4. Did I make a conscious decision to move to each element? Did I cover all the elements? Do I know all the elements?
  5. Am I finding and maintaining impulse rhythms as I move through the elements?
  6. Am I following the sound, the act of speaking? Have I stopped trying to impose meaning?
  7. Did I give myself an opportunity to make a discovery while engaged with each element? Did I fully use the element as a stepping off point for investigation before moving on to the next element?
  8. Am I staying open and ready for all emotional and imaginative experience?
  9. Is my transition to the next element fluid?
  10. Was I fully absorbed in the process? Did concentration and attention free me from self-awareness? Did I accept and welcome the audience’s attention without pandering to it?
  11. Did I allow myself to be surprised?

Note: The first three steps of the Sequence should always come first; Slow Motion is a great one for getting the body involved. Practice the steps in the printed order until you know them well; after that any order can be interesting. And you can move back and forth among the elements freely, returning to any as you wish, using silence and normal at any tune. Use a “lite” approach to the Sequence to accomplish physical and vocal warm-ups. Voice and body should always work in partnership, even when stretching muscles.

Step: 18

Take a break from the solo work and have some more fun with group improvisation. Available at the Lacuna Group website are descriptions of Breakout/Breakdown (Breaking Away) and Hysterical Hygenesis, two formats for improvisation taken from the GHP experimental theatre manual. “Breakout” is a specific dimension of Vocal Sequence work in which a performer takes a discovery and transforms it into a realistic characterization; “Hysterical Hygenesis” is an interesting improv game which can also be employed with “Breakout.” Students can use The Sick Rose as the text.

Step: 19

Students are almost ready to undertake their solo improvisations. A last preparation will involve performing some elements of the Sequence for an audience. Circle up and use some Quick Pass to warm up. The Sick Rose continues to be the text. Let the students know ahead of time that at your word, after a certain amount of time in Quick Pass, a leader will stay in the center and the rest of the group will sit in their circle. The leader will take his or her impulse and move it specifically into an element in the Sequence (a new element), explore it, perhaps make a discovery, and then pursue yet another new element. After three elements, the student will find a watcher in the circle, transfer the impulse to that watcher through a mirror (the rest of the group is just watching, not constantly mirroring), and the new student will explore three elements. Then pass it on. And so on. Allow time for writing and discussion afterwards.

This is also an opportune moment to explore more explicitly how Vocal Sequence explorations can be used in group-driven creative process leading at some point to the development of an original performance piece. It might be useful to introduce the structure Show/Reflect/Recapitulate, illustrated elsewhere on the Lacuna site, as a possible way to work with material. The period during which everyone performs their elements and then passes to the next performer can be considered the Show period. It proceeds without comment or interruption this time and the next few times this structure is attempted.

(Soon, however, once the execution of Vocal Sequence work in this set-up becomes easy and un-self-conscious, it will be crucial to begin inviting students to involve themselves in one another’s explorations. The material on Show/Reflect/Recapitulate offers many ideas, but to get things started, go to students who are watching a peer work and tell them to try things. Tell a student to go in a mirror what the performing student is doing; invite a number of students to mirror simultaneously. Invite a student to simply “encounter” the performing student. Instruct a student to offer a “description” of what is being performed. Ask a student to attempt to “read” a performance the way an oracle might read some particular sign. Make these suggestions quietly, without breaking the concentration of the Vocal Sequence performer. Once the students are finished involving themselves in the performance, they should simply return to their place in the circle and the work should continue.)

After everyone has been in the center and worked through their elements, they should make their own notes in their journals about what happened. This is the Reflect period. You can encourage them to feel free to write in any way about their experience as a performer and as an audience member. Encourage them to write with the poem as a frame of reference if they wish. You can begin to invite them explicitly to think about the possibilities for a performance piece based on what is happening in the circle.

The best way to introduce the idea of the Recapitulation stage is to encourage the students to ask to “see things again.” There need be no desire to comment upon the event or to change it or “stage” it in some way (though all of that is certainly possible). You want the students to understand how crucial their memories are in keeping the creative process alive. If they wish, as they are witnessing that which they asked their peers to “recapitulate,” they may share reflections or observations or ask provoking questions. They may open the event up for further exploration through performance. As the teacher, you should be prepared to play a number of roles at this point. As director, you might think out loud about possible future avenues of investigation; as designer, you might discuss images or make visual associations; as writer, you might note implications for the understanding of the poem or new possibilities of text, of “dialogue” or choral possibilities. The students should understand that a performance piece derived from Blake’s The Sick Rose has already begun to evolve and reveal itself.

Step: 20

Performing the Sequence solo. The group will undertake this in a ritualized manner. Circle up, seated around the mats. A volunteer moves to the center and comes up from silence, beginning the Sequence with The Sick Rose (Students must avoid using the popular variation called “Sick of the Sick Rose”). The first twelve elements are to be explored; the transitions should be distinct. When the student feels he or she is done, s/he returns to Slow Motion, and if elements have been overlooked, a group member should call out the missing elements. The student can then move from Slow Motion back to work with the overlooked elements. Return to silence when finished. The performing student remains quietly in the center while the circle of watchers undertakes a round of “I saw ___________,” as described in a previous step. The performer leaves the center and a new volunteer moves in and begins. Encourage those who have performed to take some time to jot down any crucial sensations or discoveries immediately after performing and before giving their attention to the next performer.

Step: 21

Students will be crying out for other opportunities to use the Sequence. The article The Real Thing contains some suggestions for using the Vocal Sequence in scene preparation. A male actor, a female actor, and a student director could undertake the exercise as a working group. Possible scripts are included in the article. Have several groups working concurrently over a period of time; then have a “scene showcase.” Students should be intrigued by what will inevitably be a series of variations on familiar material.

WARNING: The scenes, from the work of Molnar, have been chosen for their charm and ambiguity. They both depict romantic communication between a male and a female. One scene refers to a character’s past experience with implied physical intimacy and employs an ironic use of the word “prostitute.” By all means, consider the age and maturity of your students, and feel free to substitute other scenes which depict difficult relationships among characters with a modicum of wit and theatrical charm.

Step: 22

The Sick Rose–a performance piece. Why not? By this point, the group could easily position itself to work out an event which unfolds myriad riches contained in the text and in their experiences as performers with the text. You could create a performance which composes a grand recapitulation of memories, jottings, extra research on Blake, certain motifs which have repeated among the students. The Vocal Sequence will simply be one possibility for exploration within the undertaking (Viewpoints is also a useful tool, see Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s book). The group has a “history” already in place in reference to the text; they can begin to make some of that history explicit and attach meanings to it. Call it a treasury of sub-text ready to be explored.

The main thing the students need to begin to appreciate as they gather each time in their working circle is that apart from the text(s) they are using and the research they have done, the chief material which will lead to the final piece is themselves, their personal experiences working in the circle, their history in the group, and their relationships with their fellow performers. All of it becomes part of the meanings at play in the final work.

The text has been with them from the beginning, from their first attempts to learn the Vocal Sequence and understand group creative process. It is contained in the sediment of their history and colors their own private group vocabulary. Their relationship to it is primordial and intimate, and it is that relationship to the text which must inform the continuing work and the final result.

You are always invited to join the Performance Group Potlatch and offer comments.

2 thoughts on “The Vocal Sequence: a tutorial

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