Projected Voice? ‘We’re not yet dead, not yet dead…’

Someone recently contacted me to see how I feel about microphones being used in theatre. Was projection dead? If so – why? Is it because we are more used to recorded voices? And what should we do? His students found conversational plays the hardest in which to reach an audience past the fifth row.

I believe conversational work is harder for students in some ways because it comes closer to oneself and ‘acting’ seems false – (which, technically, it is). Thus we are asking a lot for beginners to jump into the magic circle of belief to ‘be’ the role in the moment and yet still harness the work to the techniques of voice projection. After all – it is a pretty unnatural game. Not only are we asking ourselves to have a real impulse or need to speak, but also the only words that can come out of our mouths to fulfil that need just happen to be the scribbles on the page that we’ve learnt. It’s a big ask and a lifetime’s journey.

Theatre projection is a kind of internal con-trick – we have to increase volume/resonance/articulation/time taken but not raise pitch (as we would naturally to cross a space) or change range of tone (i.e. if you speak publicly you will find yourself using a greater ‘band-width’ than in intimate conversation). We have to ‘con’ the audience into believing that we are having an intimate conversation with someone two feet away from us that they, in the tenth row, are just – magically – able to hear. If we are dealing with musicals or plays/stand up where we speak directly to the audience, or pantomime, or wild declamation – or if we are allowed to blatantly ‘act/perform’ – it doesn’t feel so bad.

Yet we make damn sure we can be heard in life – over a dinner table – in a crowded restaurant – in a noisy car – across a large space – because it is IMPORTANT to us to be heard. As actors, we have to find that importance/ammunition/needs. Then we will be heard.

The lack of real connection to the words they speak is a high hurdle for actors. I mainly teach for screen these days and the same thing happens – on camera, actors are apt to drop way below the natural conversational level. They will talk to their partner – several feet away by the camera – perfectly normally and audibly, but as soon as they are on learnt text the volume drops so that – in life – they would not be heard easily. They are now conversing in an inner bubble – talking to themselves, looking for internal feedback, and remembering lines. The only way to combat this is for the need to speak/ to change the other/ to get them to share the pictures in our head/ to get what we want – to be clear and strong. We need to put in the ammunition to make this happen. I like muscle memory – impros of things mentioned/past lives/relationships – images – hidden animals – physical metaphors (I hate too much head work/’actioning’) But of course you need to understand the situation entirely and have clear needs. WHY you say – not HOW. The way you get what you want should happen in the moment of getting what you want – like life.

The vocal/abdominal/diaphragmatic ‘support’ that trained stage actors instinctively use makes them feel more real – because we are supported this way in life. When we are relaxed, our voices are ‘supported’ and drive from our ‘centres’ where we also experience feelings. On camera, actors often work without this grounding, feel false – and then push and manufacture. They start to ‘act/perform’.

In life when we are relaxed – we are centred – we use relaxed breathing and breathe/project/feel from the abdominal-diaphragmatic centre. As soon as nerves kick in or we are not behind the words, we come off this area. Then we are in a vicious circle – we don’t sound real to ourselves – and we can’t be heard because there is no support. (So we push & produce unreal work or continue in small vein & can’t be heard.)

I was resident voice/text coach at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park for 12 years. That’s a pretty challenging space. I developed some quick fixes for projection: Put some friends/fellow actors out at the furthest part of the auditorium. Talk to each other – allowing for more bodies absorbing sound when there’s an audience – this will give you an idea of volume you need. In an open air space with little resonance, you won’t get much vocal feedback, so you need this trust. Start by having a strong grounded posture (don’t lock knees) – then do lighthearted pretend opera singing – then go back to speaking, keeping the energy. Put your hand on your belly & feel it go backwards as you speak, then release those muscles for the air to leap back in with a new thought (no upper chest work:) Lie on the floor with your head/neck completely relaxed & allowing only the abdominal/diaphragmatic area to work, ditto against a wall. My favourite – and usually instant help – (if back is strong) – is to hang over, knees bent, head completely free – speak naturally and loudly – come up slowly through back not letting voice change, balance your head back in it’s normal place (golden thread taking crown of your head to the stars, neck lengthening out of your back) & continue speaking feeling connected, free voice. (There is a point, about 2/3rds way up where you have to consciously go on working from your centre). Or try rolling over & over speaking loudly – or simply shake out/jog/run with voice work. Allow your eye level to be high enough for the audience to feel you are in contact with them (if they can’t see you, they can’t hear you.) Also make sure your false vocal folds are open – no creaking. (Hands over ears – mouth open – breathe in & out to hear the breath – then make it silent.) Also you need mouth space. Also courage!

(You can read about my voice work at Regent’s park Open Air Theatre at

Not all actors go to drama school and cut backs mean voice work isn’t always as thorough as it was. Many actors start in TV – go to stage – and haven’t had the training, so they feel insecure. Old fashioned methods (I don’t teach them either) like rib-reserve breathing – extensive use of bone-props over lengthy periods of time – were swept away by the movement towards ‘natural’ breathing in the seventies. There was truth in this as we no longer wear corsets to impede natural breathing, and some of these methods definitely added vocal strain – but maybe to some extent we swept baby away with bath-water…Anyone over 60 (myself included) would have trained in this way – and that generation do have strong voices. (And theatre is not ‘natural’ – even ancient theatre looked for amplification) However, before my colleagues rightly jump on me – I think it is perfectly attainable to produce a free projected voice in a more organic, holistic manner than was usual earlier in the century – and I certainly work/teach in this modern way.

Now we come to what my colleague was really asking. Yes – undoubtedly modern audiences are more used to hearing recorded voices. Yes – undoubtedly – so are our students. Being older, I too baulk at the idea of using microphones in live theatre. I worked for the RSC and many other theatre companies as voice coach as well as my long stint with The Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park. No – we didn’t mic the actors there unless they had voice damage, and then only in extremis. There were a few mics front of stage turned on for very windy days to help the back rows. I believe this may have changed…

Even opera houses now do subtle ‘enhancement’. And maybe we have to ask ourselves – why not? Life changes…Shakespeare didn’t have access to electric stage lighting. So should we perform the plays with full modern effects? Why not? Shakespeare would have loved it – every last act is full of candles, fireworks etc. Are we letting the same reservations stop us micing actors in large theatres?

And voices still need to be supported even if mics. are used for all the reasons above. And – yes – ideally I would like my actors never to need to use a mic.

But in the end – if we can’t hear – we can’t enjoy. And we are used to hearing loudly.

So much of this projection question is the product of changing times, changing experiences and opportunities. Our great Sirs & Dames grew up in a time of much rep theatre and large acting spaces; a time when going to the theatre in your town was relatively normal – at least for the middle classes. And everyone went to seaside shows, Punch & Judy, pantomime, music hall…Now actors when they leave drama school have only small fringe spaces & a rare schools tour…And theatre still fights to get audiences. And going to the theatre is an expensive pastime.

But rest assured – all is not lost – my main theatre-going space is Cambridge Arts Theatre I see marvellous tours (recently the wonderful RSC tour of ‘A Mad World My Masters) and I never have any trouble hearing.

Theatre voice without the need for mics is not dead – or as Monty P would have it – ‘we’re not yet dead, not yet dead…’

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.