Actors from the London Stage help Rice students find – and own – their voices

Keefe’s class is about communication first and foremost, and it’s not just for theater majors

“Do you feel it in your stomach? Can anyone feel it in their stomachs?”

“I want you to reach the back of the room,” actor Tricia Kelly told the students in Voice for Speech and Theater. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

“I want you to reach the back of the room,” actor Tricia Kelly told the students in Voice for Speech and Theatre. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Veteran actor Tricia Kelly paced around a circle of Rice students gathered on stage at Hamman Hall, each bellowing lines from the classic storm scene in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as loud as their bellies allowed while Kelly encouraged them: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! With every successive reading, the students’ voices grew louder, fiercer.

“I want you to reach the back of the room,” Kelly said. “We’re going to try and fill this house with blowing wind.”

Kelly is one of five professional thespians who comprise the Actors from the London Stage, a traveling troupe founded in 1975 that visits college campuses across the nation and presents a different Shakespeare play each season. But a three-night performance of “King Lear” at Hamman Hall wasn’t their only engagement at Rice.

Listen above as Rice students perform lines from “King Lear” over the sounds of thunder (in this case, a tarpaulin shaken by VADA professor Christina Keefe) while coached by actor Tricia Kelly.

Kelly and her fellow actors also spent the better part of last week as guest lecturers in a range of humanities classes, from English professor Scott Derrick’s Critical Reading and Writing seminar to Visual and Dramatic Arts (VADA) professor Tish Stringer’s Filmmaking course to this one, VADA professor Christina Keefe’s class on Voice and Speech for Theatre.

"I can actually breathe now," said McMurtry College junior Myles Adams of what he's learned in the class.

“I can actually breathe now,” said McMurtry College junior Myles Adams of what he’s learned in the class.

And although it’s a theater class, not all of Keefe’s students are theater – or even VADA – majors. McMurtry College junior Myles Adams is a kinesiology major and defensive lineman for the Rice Owls football team. As a representative in Rice’s Black Male Leadership Initiative and a peer academic advisor during O-Week, Adams is self-assured both on and off the field. He’s also seeking constant self-improvement, especially in his voice, which is low and rich but also soft.

“I know that my voice is very monotone and very deep, so I thought that this class could help me be better with speaking,” said Adams, who previously took Keefe’s intro-to-acting class and enjoyed it more than he expected.

“I can actually breathe now,” he said, gesturing to his midsection. “I’ve learned that you breathe from your belly – from everywhere.”

With Adams as a prime example, Keefe is quick to point out that her course is not just for actors or theater majors.

“It’s not just about the stage, but about how you use your voice – which is your instrument – to your best advantage in whatever you do in the world,” she said. “Because you’re going to have to get a job and say, ‘Hello, my name is …’ and actually be understood. It doesn’t matter if you go into acting, it matters how you use your voice.”

Kelly addressed McMurtry junior Sierra Beckstrom during a group exercise.

Kelly addressed McMurtry junior Sierra Beckstrom during a group exercise.

Although she’s been acting since she was 7 years old, McMurtry junior and VADA major Sierra Beckstrom didn’t realize until she came to Rice that she struggled with rhotacism in her everyday speech.

“I have an R or W problem where my Rs can sound like Ws based on how I form them in my mouth,” she said. “By taking this class, it will help me with my acting and also with just speaking in general – to help people understand me better, which I’m very grateful for.”

Hanszen College junior Abigail Grayson, who’s double-majoring in mathematics and VADA, has also discovered benefits in the course beyond strengthening her acting skills.

“I’ve had a lot of anxiety in the past and I had to take a medical leave, so there’s been some really interesting work in this class about finding my breath again, being able to not be completely tense in my body,” she said.

Class sessions so far this semester have focused on the mechanics of speaking, working with short sentences or individual letters and sounds. The session led by Kelly – with Keefe occasionally coaching the students from the audience – built on the students’ previous work and allowed them to apply it to longer passages, such as Lear’s thundering storm speech.

Professor Christina Keefe and Kelly shook a tarpaulin to mimic thunder as the students read lines from "King Lear."

Professor Christina Keefe and Kelly shook a tarpaulin to mimic thunder as the students read lines from “King Lear.”

“We’ve been looking forward to the Actors from the London Stage coming,” Grayson said. “It’s always a great experience to have a professional come in because they just interact with the world in a different way and it’s always interesting to have a different perspective.”

Kelly, who’s playing King Lear in the touring production, was effusive about the opportunity to share the skills she’s learned in her 44 years of acting. Teaching, she said, is part of what drew her to the company – especially teaching young people how to find their own voices.

“If you don’t have a voice, you can’t communicate. You can’t walk into a room and say ‘I’m the person that you want to employ,’” Kelly said. “It’s about taking your place in the world and owning it.

“That’s what the humanities help with, I think,” she added. “And I do think drama and theater are about communication first and foremost. You don’t have to be an actor. You don’t have to ever want to be on the stage. But if you can develop some of the skills that actors have — like the confidence to go onto a stage or walk into a room and not be too shy about it and make yourself understood — those are real skills, aren’t they?”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.