Introducing our MFA Linklater Teaching Practice (Voice and Theatre Arts) Course Leaders
We got to know our new MFA Linklater Teaching Practice (Voice and Theatre Arts) Course Leader Mary Irwin and Assistant Course Leader Gemma Maddock by asking them about their experiences leading up to joining ALRA and their vision for the course.
Tell us about the other work you have done and what led you to this point at ALRA. Can you share some of the highlights?
Mary: Like many voice and text teachers, I transitioned into this work from an acting background. I fell in love with Linklater voice work while studying with designated Linklater teacher Clyde Vinson in New York during the 1980s. I ended up working with Clyde for seven years on and off, and was a part of an Off-Off Broadway theatre company that grew out of his classes. I began to think that teaching the work might be something I wanted to explore, and I came to London in 1994 to attend the Voice Studies course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Upon leaving Central, I was fortunate to be invited to join the Voice and Speech faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Drama; one of America’s premier undergraduate professional actor training programs. I stayed at UNCSA for 23 years, serving as Head of Voice and Speech for 15 years and Assistant Dean for three years. The work there was rich and very fulfilling, but in 2019, it was time for my English husband and I to return to the UK. Through contacts in the Linklater voice-teaching world, I came to ALRA in September 2019, and am enjoying this new chapter in my teaching life. I have also coached in the American professional theatre, both regionally and in New York, working with actors on voice, text and accent. In addition to teaching voice and training voice teachers, one of my primary areas of interest and experience is in Shakespeare text, and my experiences acting in Shakespeare plays inform my coaching of them. Over the years, I’ve worked as an actor in theatre and television in the US, primarily in the 1980s and 90s, before I began teaching full time. I’ve also done some interesting voice over jobs, including a special election edition of BBC’s ‘What the Papers Say’ recorded for the 2012 US presidential election.
Gemma: A highlight for me was definitely working as the Resident Voice Coach on the UK tour of Tim Minchin's Matilda the Musical - touring for a year and a half was quite the eye opener. Additionally, working on Matilda in the West End at the same time as working on Strictly Ballroom The Musical also in the West End meant that on some days I was literally running between theatres across Piccadilly Circus, pinching myself. I must also mention when I directed my first show with my theatre company, The Kindling Collective, which was the cumulation of so much practice and it was just joyful.
How has your own acting experience informed your teaching?
Mary: My acting training and experience inform my teaching virtually every day. Not only does it help me understand what our students will need to be able to manifest in professional acting situations, but it also reminds me of what is required mentally, emotionally, vocally and physically. In order to keep that sense fresh (and also because I enjoy it), I try to put myself out there in front of an audience periodically. Empathy is a key attribute of a good teacher of performance, in my opinion, and occasionally doing the work of acting publicly keeps me fully in touch with what I’m asking students to do.
Gemma: It has very much so. The need for embodied knowledge and autonomy over my skills was so apparent when I went out into the world. You could now only rely on yourself to be safe and find your full potential. I did a lot of making my own work and devising which really demanded me to be self-sufficient, and this definitely shaped my teaching practice. I want my students not just to understand the work but to also have an ownership of it. It is only in the ownership that it really becomes useful. I also had a lot of fun - we can forget how playful and fun this work can be.
Do you remember a specific teacher from your own training who inspired you?
Mary: In addition to my first voice teacher, Clyde Vinson, who introduced me to the brilliant work of Kristin Linklater, I had the great privilege of being trained as a teacher by Ms. Linklater herself, and spent considerable time observing and assisting her at the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre, Orkney, in recent years. In the world of voice and text, David Carey at Central, Patsy Rodenburg and Cicely Berry were also major influences on my work. I was fortunate to train as an actor at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York while Mr. Strasberg himself was still teaching, which was a remarkable and indelible experience. I am grateful that through an accident of birth timing I was able to encounter so many of the giants of 20th and early 21st century actor training on both sides of the Altlantic.
Gemma: Yes, a few, but the three who stand out the most are my Actor Tutor Ross Hall who demanded my potential and nothing less, my Voice Lecturer Julianne Eveleigh who loaned me her copies of Linklater and Housman as she taught me Alexander in the classroom (she was always feeding my curiosity), and my Voice Coach and now friend Anna Boulic who I met competing in a cabaret competition in my final year of training, and who taught me to trust my instincts and helped me connect the actor and the voice.
What is your vision for the ALRA MFA Linklater Teaching Practice (Voice and Theatre Arts) course?
Mary: My vision is that it will fulfill the dynamic and original potential now contained in the course as it is planned. Ms. Linklater passed away unexpectedly in June of 2020, and while I continue to grieve her loss personally, I am profoundly grateful that she, Kieran Sheehan and I had essentially completed the work of designing this new MFA during the Spring. The course fulfills one of Kristin’s great desires; that there be an MFA which would lead to the status of Designated Linklater Teacher. At its best, voice work can have a positive transformational effect on learners, whether acting students, professionals or artists in other disciplines, helping them to grow, use, and more closely align with their own authentic voices. We hope to train actor-teachers who will bring the Linklater voice work to their students, casts and other communities at a very high level, in an environment of empathy, and with commitment to the place of theatre and actor-training in the world and work of social justice. I am excited to welcome our first cohort in September 2021.
Gemma: To create voice and theatre practitioners who have really integrated practice and are socially aware, with an interest in the combination of teaching and making theatre. It has taken me years to connect all the dots and integrate my practice to feel like it is well rounded and to make theatre I am passionate about. I wish this course existed when I was studying!