The Phonetic Pillow approach to speech reflects my conviction to train actors as sensualists who passionately, incisively, viscerally, bring the playwright’s words to life, driving the action of the play and causing the listener to identify and empathize. I find written phonetic symbols an incomplete, unsatisfactory tool to accomplish this type of training. One dimensional phonetic symbols, printed on paper tell our eyes what sounds they represent, tell our ears what sounds we are expected to utter, but make little or no appeal to our imaginations, or, indeed, our bodies (aside from our articulators). In an effort to bring phonetics into the same physical world as other performance classes I have worked with student actors for many years on ways to get the symbols to jump from the page, enter our bodies and demand us to express them. The greatest dramatic story-tellers, from William Shakespeare to Caryl Churchill require us to have much more than a good ear for language; they write for and from the sensorium; the entire body of nerves that stimulates sensual response. Their writing challenges actor and audience alike to vibrate with ideas, conflicts and passions form head to toe. The Phonetic Pillow course aims to teach the actor to be ultra-verbal: to simultaneously experience language in tactile, auditory and imagistic ways; indeed, to savor the tastes and smells of language.
The inspiration for Phonetic Pillows is Kristin Linklater’s Sound & Movement progression, which traces language from the most primitive impulse to Shakespeare’s heightened texts. Using various games, some borrowed from Llinklater, I introduce students to the International Phonetic Alphabet, in the form of symbol-shaped pillows. Preliminarily, I propose that each pillow actually vibrates with the sound it represents, and further, that these sounds have the power to move the bodies of the students. With this initial, imaginative leap, students see, touch, and give expressive voice and physical gesture to each phoneme. The work is at once, emotive and precise, analytical and action-based. I don’t ask students to model the shapes of the symbols with their bodies, but, rather, to allow their bodies to be moved by sound itself. You might say to abstract sounds in their bodies. But they don’t merely splatter sound around the room; they use sound as a fuel to fulfill the desire to communicate.
In the early work, the studio comes alive with a cacophony of raw sounds, as students randomly encounter phonetic pillows and express the sounds to each other. But out of chaos comes order as the pillow exercises continue, students fine-tune articulation with a profound interest in the precise formation and unique characteristics of each phoneme. The ear is trained, but never at he exclusion of the other senses. In fact, I often instruct students to feel the sound rather than hear it. Because Phonetics is actor’s work, it is, necessarily, playful. The process, often fun, is also extremely demanding of the voice and body. It is an arduous, exhilarating adventure in which the student re-experiences language with an infant’s acquisitive curiosity. It is a rediscovery of the myriad sounds that, in earliest life, twitched, shook, rolled and twisted through the body. The Pillow class also addresses the conventional requirements of a Phonetics course, such as sound/symbol identification and phonetic transcription. There are specific pillow games for exploring and rehearsing texts, and for analyzing and acquiring dialects. Ample time is spent alternating between the physical experiences with pillows and writing down what the body remembers. In a typical session, the students use pillow exercises to warm up the voice/body connection, transcribe, in detail, their own speaking patterns and those of other people , practice reading their transcriptions aloud, and then, with renewed curiosity, dive back in to the visceral phonetic pillow games. Thus, they practice technical skills within the playful, imaginative milieu of the acting studio. By the end of the course, the student is primed to claim ownership of the language patterns demanded by playwright, character or dialect.
In addition to training acting students, I often give Phonetic Pillow workshops for teachers. Participants include college and university voice and speech teachers and occasionally, those in related fields such as speech therapy, speech pathology and secondary education. Dozens of professional training programs own a set of Phonetic Pillows. The books, “The Joy of Phonetics and Accents,” which outlines the approach, and “Bringing Speech to Life,” the accompanying workbook have been adopted by many teachers over the years. Teachers have reported many positive outcomes for their students, including, an accelerated time frame for learning phonetic symbols, an increase in retention of the symbols, an increased connection to and vitality for language and a greater enthusiasm for the subject. Phonetic Pillows are handcrafted, and must be either custom ordered or homemade. Many schools have persuaded their costume shops to do the job.