Scene4 Magazine: Arthur Meiselman

Arthur Meiselman

Pebbles and Potatoes

That's how my first voice teacher berated my speech-making. She said: "Spit out the pebbles on your tongue and cough out the potatoes from the back of your mouth. Shape the sound, enunciate the words, control the breathing. If you can't do that, you're only half an actor!" Ah me, we are awash in half-actors and half-singers as well.


With the torrential downgrading to the lowest common denominator, so-called 'elitist' pursuits as cursive handwriting and elocution have disappeared from American public education. We're inundated with children who cannot write with their prehensile thumbs and mumble through their numbed noses. It began in the 1950's when adolescent music-making swished into the mainstream and said: "It ain't about the music, it's rock&roll." And when country-western music-making twisted into the mainstream and said: "It ain't about the music, it's common-folk singing." And it's revealed in today's disposable reality television which says: "Boring is good, anybody can be a 'star', that's what's real."


Go back 60 years. The 'Golden Years' of Hollywood were still shining. From the broadest Epic to the lowliest B-feature, actors delivered their dialogue with enunciated clarity, other than Marlon Brando. He had a trained vocal instrument and he proved it with his performances in "Julius Caesar" and "Desiree". Probably had to do with the fact that he was working with casts of almost all British actors. But for the swath of his career, on stage and screen, he mumbled like a smack-addict in Alaska because as an actor, he was lazy, crazy and dumb.


Go back 60 years. Pop and jazz, I'll cite only three:


Jo Stafford, she of 'perfect pitch' fame, not a great "phraser" but she gave you every syllable, articulated and clean surrounded by her amazing gift to strike notes pinpoint pure.


June Christy, she of 'cool jazz' fame, a protégé of Stan Kenton, clarity was her hallmark.


And then there was Frank Sinatra.  Unarguably the best pop/jazz singer ever recorded. He wasn't well educated but he did receive some voice training. He reached a level of musicianship, singership, unmatched to this day. His ability to phrase was simply a remarkable gift of magic, and he gave you every syllable, every letter, every overtone, every undertone. Like most singers of his day, the lyric was everything.


I could on and on.
But let me touch on only a few interesting ironies.

Most current television series, broadcast and cable, American, British, French and others are ridden with performers who don't speak well. It doesn't seem to matter. But then, there's the madly successful "Game of Thrones". Amidst its stuffed-pizza scripts and video-game plots there is the relief of a group of actors who not only can speak but can use their voices as instruments. It's because most of them (not all) are trained British actors. And those that are not are forced to reach the bar.


Australian Broadcasting, Australia Plus, is an ear-shaking mélange of accents and words coming through the TV speaker. Spoken Australian English is not the most pleasant spoken language on the planet — its enunciation is squeezed, twisted, and filtered through the sinuses. It has much in common with the environment in which it thrives. The A+ sportscasters are the worst, no, awfully worse. They don't just mumble, they squeeze their words as they chew the pebbles and mash the potatoes that fill their mouths. It is a grateful viewer who has a mute button.


BBC World News, that fountain of the Queen's English delivered with the sincerity of the great Big Ben. In their race to catch the train of multi-cultural diversity, BBC has dropped their standards, faces without voices. Olympus cries when it hears the mutilation of what was once clean, clear, broadcast words. Even France 24's worldwide English broadcasts have better, more articulate voices. So much for the Chunnel across the channel.


And while we're qvetching and qveyning about performers' voices, let me cite one atrocious aspect of current cinema: the dubbing of voices in films when they are presented in foreign markets. Half of a film-actor is his voice. Cover it in a film with a dubbed voice in a foreign language and you can lose up to half of his performance. It's not just the translated changes in dialogue. It's the loss of the actor's voice with all of its inflection, innuendo, mood, and subtle reinforcement of the visual acting. It sometimes results in losing half the film. Subtitles are annoying but they're enhanced , even when translated, by the actor's voice. So much for our disposable modern cinema.


And... as Lenny Bruce would say... "That's that!"

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Arthur Meiselman is a playwright, writer and the Editor of Scene4. He also directs the Talos Ensemble and
produces for Aemagefilms.
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©2015 Arthur Meiselman
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September 2015

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