|Subject: Cicely Berry, UK dramatic vocal coach (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Dead at 92
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Date Posted: Thursday, October 18, 07:40:31pm
Cicely Berry obituary
Leading voice coach who joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1969
Cicely Berry, who has died aged 92, was the best-known voice coach of her generation, though the term vastly underrates what she did and her attitude towards it.
Speaking, for Berry, was “part of a whole: an expression of inner life”. One of her favourite quotes was from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: “Where words prevail not, violence prevails.” Technique to her was a myth because there is no such thing as a correct voice. “There is no right way,” as the director Peter Brook put it in his introduction to her first book, Voice and the Actor (1973). “There are only a million wrong ways, which are wrong because they deny what would otherwise be affirmed.”
In her hugely influential work, The Actor and the Text (1987), Berry suggested that there are many factors that influence the voice. Speaking, for a child, is an imitative process, so everyone is a product of their environment. The child uses the ear to develop the voice and the individual characteristics of speech.
There is a physical factor, too. If there is hesitation in speech, the vocal cords, which need the same development as any of the other muscles, will slacken. For speech to be effective, it must be in kilter with the mental processes that produce it. Hence the training exercises intended to produce this vital coordination. Personality is another factor in the formation of speech. A person’s speech is also affected by such factors as sensitivity to sound and the urgency of the communication.
Berry’s Text in Action (2001) explored the fascinating topic of the ways in which speech, too, is subject to changing fashions and how this can influence the actor’s performance. “I see my job as intrinsically to do the following,” she wrote in the New Theatre Quarterly in 1997. “Through exercises to open out the voice itself so that the actor finds her/his true potential – after all, do not singers train?”
Her exercises became the stuff of legend, although to some they must have seemed bizarre. Her ploys included making actors kick chairs, assemble piles of books, sketch houses and stutter as they uttered some of the most famous lines in the English language. The objective was to eradicate self-consciousness and make the speaking of verse as natural and spontaneous as a physical movement.
One of five children of Cecil Berry, a City clerk, and his wife, Frances, a dressmaker, “Cis” was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and educated at the Eothen school for girls, Caterham, Surrey, before training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, where she subsequently taught for many years as a voice instructor.
Her reputation grew to such a point that, in 1969, Trevor Nunn, the recently appointed artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, invited her to become the RSC’s voice director, although he had never met her, and she continued in the role until 2014, when she became advisory director. In the following year her long association with Brook began when she was voice coach on his 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Under her tutelage, the voice work at the RSC grew considerably. Berry was deeply involved in the company’s educational work, visiting schools and running sessions for teachers in Stratford. She presented masterclasses internationally, in places as diverse as Seoul, Moscow and New York, and worked with the Nós do Morro youth theatre, based in a Rio de Janeiro favela.
In 1996, she conducted a three-day masterclass in New York, The RSC Meets USA: Working Shakespeare, filmed and later released on video. It illuminated the difference between American and British theatrical techniques.
“We were terrified,” said the American actor and director Tony Goldwyn, “because we rarely get the opportunity to do the classics the way the RSC actors do.” “As Brits, they use words to describe things,” said Samuel L Jackson, “where we use emotions and act with our bodies. We become intimidated when we see them doing Shakespeare. I’ve been intimidated by it since high school because it was taught as literature and not as a performance art.”
Berry worked as the dialogue coach on Bernardo Bertolucci’s films The Last Emperor (1987) and Stealing Beauty (1996), and as the voice specialist on Julie Taymor’s film Titus (1999). She also directed a number of theatre productions with the RSC and elsewhere. Perhaps the most notable was her King Lear at The Other Place in 1989, which received critical acclaim and transferred to London.
From 1996 onwards, Berry was strongly involved in the off-Broadway Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). Each season she would invite eight young or mid-career directors to work with her there. It was on her suggestion that TFANA became the first US theatre company to perform at Stratford, staging its performance of Cymbeline there in 2001, and they appeared there again during the 2006 Complete Works festival, a year-long celebration of the entire Shakespeare canon. It was partly as a result of her work with TFANA that in 2007 Berry was awarded the Samuel H Scripps award “for extraordinary commitment to promoting the power of language in contemporary and classical theatre”.
In 2005, after a decade of involvement with the Nós do Morro company, she brought 10 young people from the company to work in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were joined by 11 young actors from Birmingham’s art apprenticeship scheme, Gallery 37. The collaboration culminated in a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona during the Complete Works festival.
Berry also coached politicians in effective public speaking and worked with offenders in prisons. In 1985, she was appointed OBE, advanced to CBE in 2009. She was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, including from Birmingham University (1999) and the Open University (2001). She received the Sam Wanamaker prize for pioneering work in Shakespearean theatre in 2000.
Her husband, the actor Harry Moore, whom she married in 1951, died in 1978. She is survived by their two sons, Aaron and Simeon, and daughter, Sara, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
• Cicely Frances Berry, voice coach, born 17 May 1926; died 15 October 2018
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