Jeannette Nelson has overseen the National Theatre’s voice department for more than a decade. She tells Tom Wicker how she adapts the techniques she uses for Shakespeare to a musical like Follies
If actors are struggling to speak and breathe, Jeannette Nelson is among the handful of people who can help – in the theatre at least. She is head of the National Theatre’s voice department and is one of a select group, which includes the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Kate Godfrey and Tess Dignan at Shakespeare’s Globe, who ensure performers come across loud and clear on stage.
Nelson, who is one of the country’s foremost experts in the field, is the only full-time member of the National’s voice department. She’s supported by a part-time colleague, “who does about a third of the shows to my two-thirds”, and a part-time assistant whose role is a 12-18-month training position. It means she is never bored. “There was a week last year, when I was working on five plays,” she says, smiling.
Starting out as a performer, she retrained in voice coaching at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama after an English degree at Queen Mary University of London, which she did at 28, ignited her interest in the language of plays.
Like many other voice coaches, she taught – at Guildhall School – then took on freelance theatre work for the National (where she assisted legendary voice coach Patsy Rodenburg), the RSC and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has also advised for TV and film, including The Hollow Crown – the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Nelson has overseen the National’s voice department since 2007, helping actors develop their rhetoric, persuasion and clarity. She uses Shakespeare to explain this: “I see everything that we are taught as being ‘poetry’ as being ‘persuasion’.” From the use of alliteration to other types of rhyme, “it’s about being heard and understood clearly”.
Once a show is confirmed, she’ll assess the support it’s likely to need in consultation with the director. “Sometimes, they don’t want to know anything about what I do,” she says. “They just want me to make the actors clear.” This may sound like a simple goal, but there are many ways to achieve it, from in-depth textual and linguistic analysis, to breathing exercises and warm-ups.
However, directors are coming from increasingly different backgrounds and approaches, “which are often more collaborative,” she says. “I think that allows them to draw in voice coaching alongside everything else.” She’s also detected a growing awareness of voice coaching’s benefits, “because so many young directors are starting out as staff directors at the RSC or here”.
With most productions, Nelson attends the first read-through to get a sense of the piece and then returns for rehearsals. “Quite often, I’ll leave them for a couple of weeks,” she says. “Certainly with a musical, as they’ve got so much singing and dancing to get on with.” Sometimes the actors also want to go through a play with the director first.
When we meet, Nelson is working on John Donnelly’s new adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe, directed by National first-timer Blanche McIntyre. The next day, rehearsals will start for the return of Dominic Cooke’s much-lauded revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies, which Nelson worked on when it debuted at the National in 2017.
Nelson always offers her services to directors working at the National for the first time. “I want to make a new director feel comfortable and be sure that their actors are going to be heard in what they know are big spaces,” she says.
Cooke and Nelson, meanwhile, have collaborated many times – on stage at the RSC as well as on The Hollow Crown. “He wanted me to work on the text for Follies the way I work on Shakespeare,” Nelson says. “So, we looked at ‘persuasion’ – how we talk to each other.”
She continues: “I hear rhetorical strategies in every play I work on. Of course, my brief is generally to make sure that the actors are loud and clear enough. How I do that is up to me. I feel that one does that better working through the language of the text.”
Nelson’s work does not include dialect or accent coaching. While she offered this as a freelance, the responsibilities of her role at the National preclude it. “Dialect coaching is very time-consuming in terms of research and preparing sample material,” she says. It also never interested her as much as voice and text work.
Nelson doesn’t ‘direct’ actors in terms of the language – that’s the director’s job – but she believes that a better understanding of a character’s motivation and inspiration – “their emotional truth and how they behave within the play” – is key. “Clarity of thought equals clarity of speech”, she says.
My job is is listening, listening and listening, then feeding back what I hear
It’s not about coaching in “an old-fashioned way, with me suggesting intonation. It’s working from the incredibly privileged position I have, which is listening, listening and listening, then feeding back what I hear.” She explores with actors – usually individually, but also in groups depending on the scene – who’s saying what and why.
A musical like Follies is a challenge, says Nelson. Sondheim’s witty, clever lyrics are intricately interwoven with the book. Where actors who studied drama will be familiar with voice techniques, those from a musical theatre background might not be. There’s also “a bit of a conflict” between their training and breathing.
Nelson explains: “In order for an actor to have a fully responsive, holistic and resonant voice, we teach them to keep their tummy muscles soft, so their diaphragm can move freely. However, if you’re dancing – or about to dance – you need to support your lower back.” Dancers, then, will often brace their core stomach muscles instead.
Dealing with this can mean working with the ribs, to make sure the maximum amount of air is in the lungs if the diaphragm isn’t going down, says Nelson. But, reflecting her holistic view of voice coaching, it can be just as important to deal with the relationship between thought and breath.
What was your first non-theatre job?
When I was at school I had a Saturday job at Boots.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As a performer, it was when I was still at Arts Ed. I got a student Equity card during my second-year Christmas holidays to do panto as a dancer in Weymouth and Barnstable. As a voice coach, my first job was teaching at London’s Mountview Academy.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That as a teacher you don’t have to know everything. You’re human, too.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Patsy Rodenburg, head of voice at Guildhall. I was her assistant at the National. She gave me a career.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t forget to breathe.
What would you have been if not a voice coach?
I might have tried publishing or have gone to art school.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. I resist at all costs.
“We tend to take a breath before an idea, or hold it when listening to others. That’s normal,” Nelson says. “But if you do that on stage when you’re trying to project your voice, you won’t have enough breath to support it fully. I try to get actors to recognise that and breathe before they speak.”
As a show nears curtain up, the other important people in the room for Nelson are the sound designer and sound operator. “I can be the go-between for them and the actor,” she says. “I have conversations with them all the time, because I have easier access to the cast during technical rehearsals or previews.”
And when it comes to the use of tech such as radio mics, Nelson adds: “We always teach actors to speak as if they don’t have them.” Otherwise, “the operator would have to turn the volume up so much, it would sound like their voice came from the speaker and not their mouth”.
And when it comes to what’s happening on stage – from a production’s final rehearsals, to previews and finally opening night – warm-ups are core. These are voluntary, and because the National has a rep system, they are offered to all actors when they return after a few days off.
“Speaking is a physical activity and doing so loudly, passionately and at a high level takes effort,” says Nelson. “A vocal warm-up is physical as well. We move the body.”
Nelson is committed to feeding her knowledge back into the industry via the training programme for her part-time assistant position. In addition, “every year we invite the major drama schools to bring their students on to the Olivier stage for an hour,” she says. “Even before we set that up, I will have invited all of the heads of voice at those schools to do a session with me.”
So, what makes good voice coaching? “Early on, I realised I had to suppress my own ego for the actors I work with. The baseline for what I do is authenticity,” she says. “And all my work is experimental. I never come in and say: ‘This exercise will achieve that.’ You don’t know it until you find it. It should always feel like a joint experience.”
Born: Marlow, 1955
Training: Arts Educational Schools (performance); Queen Mary University of London (English); Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (voice coaching)
• Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre (2007)
• Hamlet, NT (2010)
• Timon of Athens, NT (2012)
• Othello, NT (2013)
• Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre (2018)
Agent: Upson Edwards (for TV and film)
Jeannette Nelson’s guide to voice coaching, The Voice Exercise Book, is available now from Nick Hern Books. Her second book will be published later this year