“Communication works for those who work at it.” - John Powell

Reflections on the CreateWorks Skills Workshops on VOICE, PHYSICALITY and DIRECTING YOURSELF

by Amy McKenzie

The thinking behind the CreateWorks Skills Workshops was simple. Trained theatre professionals leading workshops to offer concepts and skills to engineers to improve their communication. However, there are many ways to improve communication and we all develop, grow, and process in completely different ways. We also all know that there is no perfect way to communicate with every person, and in every scenario, and defining what makes a great communicator isn’t always easy. How do you distil and understand what makes a great communicator? When I was preparing for the skills workshops, I found myself questioning how we best communicate our skills as theatre professionals in a workshop, which lead me to the question: is communication a form of art or science?

There may be no perfect way to communicate, but we can all recognise bad communication. Be that someone giving a presentation with their eyes glued to their notes, stuck to the spot, speaking in a monotone voice. Or someone who has a lot of passion, but that passion gets lost behind a nervous excitement or energy, or maybe a simple lack of preparation. Or someone who seems to do all the right things but still fails to communicate what they really want or need, and so can’t inspire others in the way they intended. With all that in mind, we set out to create what we referred to as a “tapas of techniques” that the engineers could try, get a feel for, and then decide what would be useful for them to use as part of their work.

The first workshop focused on the voice, led by professional actor and voice coach Joseph Brown. Joseph has a wealth of experience, finding his own voice as a performer and working with a variety of people. He’s worked with those in the performance industry, children with motor-based speech difficulties, and adults who want to improve their voice in a professional context. As part of the workshop, Joseph explained theories and led demonstrations on using the muscles of the body to support the voice in an effective and safe way, controlling the voice under pressure, articulation, and how to use the voice to engage an audience.

The second workshop concentrated on physicality, led by professional actor and acting tutor Kirsty Eila McIntyre. Kirsty has worked in both classical scripted theatre and physical theatre, as well as regularly teaching intermediate and advanced acting classes. In this workshop, she led the participants in techniques of how to breathe and ground yourself physically to control nerves, how to maintain open and confident body language, how to engage audiences with focus and confidence, and how to be physically present.

The third and final workshop as part of the series was on directing yourself, which I led with support from my colleague and long-time collaborator Jo Rush. This third workshop completed the trio of ideas related to what you need for great communication; the voice, the body, and the mind. I began the workshop by describing my main responsibility as a theatre director, which is to lead the artistic vision and to lead the team to actualise my vision for a show. To do this you need a creative idea, but you must also be able to communicate that idea, not just in concept but by guiding the team through the actions that are needed to achieve it. Through the workshop we broke this down into useable skills for our participants with theories and exercises about how to prepare yourself for communicating, observe your audience, be in the moment, use active listening, and give critical feedback. 

We don’t always take the time to prepare ourselves to be good communicators with whatever audience we find ourselves in front of or take time to reflect afterwards about how it went. Most of the time we’re just glad it’s over. Talking about communicating can feel a bit awkward and maybe on one level we might feel a bit embarrassed that we aren’t better at something that seems to come naturally to others. Here’s the big secret; there are very few people that it truly comes naturally to, it takes work, it takes practice, and it takes time.

As each workshop was a mixture of explanation of theory and techniques, practical exercises and demonstrations, time to ask questions, and time to reflect on the session, it was our aim that the workshop experience reflected all the different ways participants may process information. So, is communication a form of art or science? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion, that maybe effective communication is art plus science. Understanding the way communication works and how we react to it, by definition, is a science, and the expression of that learned knowledge is an art. We hope that the techniques we have shared as theatre professionals will truly enhance how the engineers that we worked with make themselves heard.