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Getting To Know The Space

June 22, 2012

I came across a passage in the remarkable book The Actor Speaks by Patsy Rodenburg, where she discusses the idea of ‘breathing the space’. The idea is that whatever room you find yourself speaking or singing in, you should get to know its dimensions and volume before you perform in it. Rodenburg’s concept is to breathe the entire space; “stand on the stage when it’s empty and breathe to the perimiters of the theatre or room. Not only where the audience ends but the whole space from side to side, top to bottom.” I found myself really attracted to this idea, and I’ve since worked to implement it not only in my studio and coaching, but as I have had to speak to groups of people or perform myself. It’s terrific for the breath, because you have a sense that all the air in the room is yours to draw on, and it encourages you to draw deep, grounded breath. It’s tremendous for projection, because it keeps you conscious of the distance your voice has to carry. But even more importantly,  it can be a great first step in exploring all the other aspects of the space you’re working in.

I don’t have much of what you might call ‘spacial intelligence’. I wouldn’t call myself a terribly clumsy person, but I’m not totally aware of myself in relation to the things around me the way you find dancers and athletes being aware. This may be the cause of my inability to throw anything accurately or estimate how many people are in a room. So I have for a long time tried to deliberately orient myself to the spaces I work in, to compensate for my natural spacial ineptitude. Think of your theater space as a canvas or a sheet of paper. When you paint on a canvas lightly, the texture of the canvas comes through the paint just a bit, changing ever so slightly the way the color looks. Drawing on a very smooth piece of paper will give a completely different result than drawing on a paper that has more ‘tooth’ or a rougher surface, even if you draw the same thing. In the same way, the room you speak in is not a neutral place, but an active participant in what you do; active in almost every respect. Because the room is basically a scene partner, you must introduce yourself to it, and get to know it. If you don’t, it may fight you!

First, walk out the dimensions of the room. Go to the back of the theatre and sit in one of the seats. What’s the sight line like? Do you feel close? Cramped? Far away? Try another seat. If it’s a black box, are you lost in the corners of the room? If it’s a theatre in the round or with a thrust stage, what does sitting on the side do to your experience? If you’re staring across the stage at another audience member, what is your natural focal point at that seat? Can you see into the wings from any spot? Are there seats where you feel visually or aurally cut off from what’s happening on the stage? What can you hear and see in the room without any play going on at all? What sense memory does this room bring to you? The musicals I performed in when I was in High School took place in a wonderful theatre built in 1927 with a large balcony and beautiful architectural details throughout. Even as a kid, sitting in any seat in this theatre gave you a sense of strong cultural memory; like whatever you were going to see here was going to be very important. It was probably the most beautiful space in town. (now the most beautiful building in my hometown is the renovated 1935 movie theatre/performing arts center) Doing a modern, acerbic play can be more difficult in a place like that; the building is telling a different story than the play is. Unfortunately, now our plays and musicals are mostly performed in rooms that were built to serve so many purposes that they communicate to the audience that they may be watching a basketball game at any point, or the performing space is a room re-purposed as a theatre from its original usage as a warehouse or a storage closet. But I digress. Try sitting in various seats in the house, and picture yourself as an audience member, and let the room tell you what it has to say. If you don’t hear anything, listen louder.

Second, walk up on the stage, stand downstage center, breathe in the air from the very back row, and exhale. If the back row is in the balcony, breathe that in too. This is important, because your focus as a speaker and an actor will be up to the back row. Own that breath coming in from the far reaches, because you’ll be sending it back later. It’s all yours. You have it to breathe in, and you will return the air back as a performance. Then count out loud or recite a speech, and listen to the room sing your sound back to you. Does it echo? Is it dead? Was this room designed to help you speak, or was it built with the understanding that you would have to be miked? Try stage left. Is it different? Try the other side. No space speaks equally at every point. Each room and space also has its own favored set of frequencies, some rooms favoring tinny high frequencies, others boomy and inarticulate. What sound does this room favor? For a fascinating glimpse into this phenomenon: listen to Alvin Lucier’s I’m Sitting In A Room. (you are not docked points if you fast-forward)

Third, go back to the center of the stage and walk backward, counting 1.. 2… 3… 4… etc. Does your sound drop off at any point? (If there’s a proscenium arch, it usually drops off there) Do you lose sight of anyone in the balcony at any point? What about the other sight lines? Where do you stop being able to see the corners of the audience? Where do you stop seeing the conductor? Learn these things; they are the underlying dynamic of your performance; the paper and canvas you make your art on. These points of clarity are the edges of the page.

Finally, without intruding on someone else’s process, watch another actor work in the space, then use all your senses to feel and learn what the room is adding or detracting from that performance. This isn’t so you can give somebody else notes; it’s so you can meet the room where it is and speak its language when it comes your time to speak or sing in it. Many times in the rehearsal process, you see most of the actors lounging around the theatre, texting or eating or flirting or what have you. People need breaks, of course, but if none of that time is ever spent with intention, it’s a true waste.

From these explorations of the space, you will begin to sense the way the room is oriented both for and against your play, your technique, and your process. When you learn that orientation, whether you are an actor, a musician, a public speaker, a singer, a pianist, or a director, you can begin to partner with the space to give the most meaningful and effective performance.

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4 comments

  1. Great article! I recently played with a beat-boxer who was talking about how he likes to play with the room and was very emphatic about getting a sound check in. It didn’t occur to me but this has given me some very visual ways to work on it. Breathing in the whole room is something I’m excited to try. Be well!


  2. Good article, from the perspective both of someone who occasionally performs and is also interested in the physics of sound. But it presupposes that one has the luxury of doing all this “advance work”. How does one apply this on the fly, for example, in the situation of an audition? I guess one could assume that everyone would be at the same disadvantage, but certainly it would be nice to find any advantage simply by manipulating the space (or yourself in it) to the extent possible. Thoughts?


    • I think the simplest thing is to breathe. (since hopefully, you’ll be doing it anyway) I think that’s what opened the idea up to me. Simply breathing into the space as far as you can. And then finding your focus and filling that space, listening and adjusting as you go. I think that’s what doesn’t work about the ‘imagine you’re in your home, or imagine there’s nobody there, and you’re in your ideal space” school of getting through an audition. It may be good for your nerves, but it’s not engaging the space you’re actually in and it leaves out the listener entirely.

      It’s about awareness. If you can find that awareness quickly, it’s a huge advantage. If it takes time, try to find the time. Is that helpful?


  3. So many great observations and reminders here, Peter–thank you. Your blog continues to be one of my FAVES…



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