Introducing... Harriet Whitbread, Head of Voice

We could not put our students through their paces or guide them though their actor training journeys without our dynamic staff team of talented and passionate practitioners.

 

As we start to get ready for the upcoming academic year and think about welcoming our latest cohort of students, we will be giving an insight into our teaching team by introducing you to a selection of practitioners from a variety of disciplines, as well as sharing their advice for Fourth Monkey students.

 

This week, it is the turn of Head of Voice, Harriet Whitbread, who tells us about her background and training, as well as her passion for Voice and her experiences working with Fourth Monkey…

Please introduce yourself! Tell us a little bit about your own training and your background as a theatre practitioner, as well as what you teach at Fourth Monkey.

I trained as an actor at East 15 Acting School under the founder, Margaret Walker (nee Bury). This was a ‘mad’ experience, where the firm belief was that if you believed the situation you were in within the scene / play, then you would behave accordingly and produce a believable and truthful performance and therefore you needed nothing else but the power of your imagination. I discovered this to be true to a certain extent: I was either brilliant or terrible. It has to be said that did not make me easy to work with, as I was unreliable.

Some years later, whilst rehearsing a play at the Lyric Hammersmith, Tess Dignan (now Voice coach at the Globe) led the cast through voice warm-ups. They made me feel so much better in myself and led to me being able to be more consistent in performance. This was a light bulb moment for me. The next year I trained at the Royal School of Speech and Drama under David Carey to become a Voice teacher. This continued to be an illuminating time as I was able to bring together my newly-acquired technique and the power of the imagination that I had acquired from East 15 and I became a better actor. As result of this, I in turn became passionate about teaching Voice – I see it as the glue that sticks all the other skills together, or the breath that breathes life into the other disciplines.

(Image credit – Max Curtis)

Tell us a bit about your chosen specialism or discipline – what is it and what was it that initially appealed to you about this specific area of theatre?

As a child, my sisters and I regularly did tongue twisters and practised how quickly we could read things; we would play word games such as substituting every word beginning with ‘s’ with the word ‘sausages’…, as you can see this was a time before computers!

I did a lot of debating at school and as a result I acquired almost by default an ear for rhetoric in the spoken word. However, as I mentioned previously, I had no idea how to use any of this skill within rehearsal or performance. My first professional acting job was as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a six-month tour and after a week of rehearsals, I was ordered to read Cicely Berry’s work Actor and his Text. For the first time, I discovered that there was a technical skill to be learned and embodied and I was a long way from this!

I do not shy away from the contradictory ‘fact’ that Voice is both 100% a technical skill and 100% an imaginative art. In its most basic form, if you cannot be heard, if your audience cannot understand you, if you are unable to reach your audience, then the value of your performance is greatly diminished. Therefore, you need both articulatory skill and an understanding of space, as well as the awareness that in order to truly reach your audience, you need to imagine, believe and embody vocally and physically your character and their given circumstances – something that takes an actor’s training.

 

(Image credit – Max Curtis)

How long have you been teaching at Fourth Monkey? Have you worked with any other schools and, if so, what do you think makes Fourth Monkey different?

I have been teaching Voice at Fourth Monkey for about five years and I have been Head of Voice for two. I have previously worked at the Poor School (Head of Voice), Rose Bruford, Drama Centre, Italia Conti, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Urdang.

For me, Fourth Monkey is unique and has a training like no other drama school. The difference might appear subtle to those who have not been part of the training environment, as in every other school, the aim is to produce the best actors possible. However, the emphasis at Fourth Monkey on integration, transference of skills, the use of imagination and the freedom we have as practitioners to be bold and play requires a fearlessness that I have not practised since leaving acting behind – I am constantly learning new things.

This level of innovation from practitioners and students really does make for a different sort of learning environment, in my opinion.

How you would sum up Fourth Monkey’s approach to actor training and the students you have taught during your time with the school?

The over-arching aim is simple; to give every student the ability to become the best actor they can possibly be. I have two things to say about this. Firstly, from the training perspective, in order for this to happen everything we teach needs to be transferable to rehearsal and performance and this we interrogate all the time, we expect to, we are required to and we want to. Secondly, each student is different, each student has something unique to offer and each student is on their own learning trajectory.

Our students are open, bold, disciplined and hungry to learn and this makes them a joy to teach.

(Image credit – Max Curtis)

Tell us a little bit about your personal highlights from your time working at and with Fourth Monkey.

It is the most exciting and stretching job I have ever had! A personal highlight for me was setting up Poetry in the Kitchen, a platform for students to share and perform poetry.

Aside from this is the daily privilege of seeing students gain confidence – there are times that I have watched in awe at the transformation that takes place within a student.

As Fourth Monkey prepare to mark their tenth anniversary in Autumn 2020, can you tell us about what you are excited about for the school’s future?

We are constantly developing the training under the guidance of Charleen Qwaye, our Director of Training. It is an exciting moment that the ten-year anniversary coincides with welcoming our first intake of students on the newly-accredited BA (Hons) Acting Accelerated Degree programme in September.

Looking to the future, I look forward to seeing our students making their mark upon the industry.

What advice would you give prospective students who are preparing to audition for Fourth Monkey or who are joining the school for the upcoming academic year? How can they make the most of the opportunities ahead of them and get the most from their actor training?

For auditionees; to come to the audition prepared to be open to new direction, to try not to second guess, and to try to enjoy the experience.

For those joining the school; not to neglect the practical side of things – have a comfortable bed to sleep in and nourishing tasty food in your stomach, it is a lot easier to be bold and open when you are well-rested and well-fed.

Similarly, what advice would you give to any students who will soon be graduating from Fourth Monkey?

To try to keep alive the ability to be bold and, of course, keep up your Voice work!

(Image credit – Max Curtis)

Away from your teaching with Fourth Monkey, can you tell us a bit about your other creative projects and interests? For example, can you tell us a little about anyone who has particularly inspired your personal work and interests?

Away from Fourth Monkey, I am a fairly quiet and domestic individual who enjoys wielding pruning shears and mowing the lawn.