Elizabeth Smith: Articulating the Actor

Article excerpt

George Bernard Shaw once wrote of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, "The reformer we need most today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play."

Today, Shaw's hero could easily be Elizabeth Smith. For more than 30 years, Smith, a vocal consultant and dialect coach, has been teaching actors across the country to speak clearly, project their voices, control their breathing and articulate the written word. It seems appropriate then that one of Smith's most recent projects was coaching Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico for their roles as Higgins and Eliza in the new Broadway production of My Fair Lady.

Smith speaks modestly about what she does and insists the actors are the real heroes. But when renowned actor Brian Bedford, who worked with Smith more than 10 years ago gets on the phone and quickly slips into "buh-duh-guh-dah, guh-duh-buh-dah," the vocal routine she taught him when he was playing Hamlet in Stratford, Conn., you know Smith's influence is far-reaching and vast, and you get a sense that she's helped mold a few flower girls into duchesses in her day.

"Liz is great," says Bedford. "I worked with Liz's mentor, Clifford Turner, at the Royal Academy in London, and I actually thought Liz was better because she improved his training techniques. The sound Liz achieves is more natural and dynamic."

Smith, who has instructed such actors as Kevin Kline, Kelly McGillis, Tom Hulce, Stacy Keach, Amy Irving and Dustin Hoffman, says the fascinating thing about voice is that there aren't any blueprints. Everyone is different. There are nonetheless certain basic principles, and as Smith tries to explain them, she gets frustrated trying to put into words what is best conveyed one-on-one in the private time between a teacher and a student. "I really hate talking about voice because it always sounds vague and mystical--and part of it is mystical," she says. "The mind and the heart and the spirit are very much involved in it."

Encouraged to try and put the fundamentals into words, Smith takes a deep breath, rotates her neck to relieve some bodily tension and gives it her best shot. "Body and voice are closely related. Posture has a great deal to do with the efficiency with which you can breathe. Ideally you're trying to rid the body of unnecessary tension, and you're trying to make it easier for someone to use their breathing mechanism. Breath is to voice what gas is to a car. It's the fundamental energy that makes it work."

For the past 20 years, Smith has been sharing her knowledge with aspiring actors at the Juilliard Drama School in New York. As a teacher of voice and poetry, Smith admits she's tough, but hopes her students leave her classes with the feeling they can do absolutely anything. "I really do think about their potential in the years ahead, and I'd like them to leave here feeling they can be equally at home in Shakespeare, Shaw, David Mamet, Chris Durang, whoever. …