We go to the theatre to be truly present: with ourselves, with each other, with the actors, with the space, and with the story. But what is presence? It’s such a tricky word, filled with salesmanship and buzz.
I first experienced presence by accident (or let’s say providence). I was ushering a group of college students around the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, when a volunteer asked if I would like to attend the Patsy Rodenburg Masterclass. I had heard a faint echo of that name. She was a renowned voice coach or something. Her Masterclass was sold out, but five tickets had just become available. I said, Why not, and paid with my Visa.
Five curious late-comers followed the volunteer down a dark hallway. A door opened and we walked inside. It was a large conference room; many accordion walls had been opened up; metal and plastic chairs were placed in a circle. Patsy was sitting in the circle with about 70 students, college age and above. She looked over and invited us in, but we had to take our shoes off. We were like Moses on holy ground.
But it wasn’t mystical; it was physical, athletic, emotional, intellectual, robust. We moved and stretched and breathed and met each other in a series of exercises that opened a door to the world of real connection. Breath, and from breath, Presence. I keenly felt that breath was more powerful in ever way than I had known, and that it was possible to breathe deeply and with ease. Before walking through that door I would have declared that I knew all about breathing and connecting. I didn’t. I didn’t at all.
Seventy-five minutes later the workshop was over, and I was waiting in a line to speak with Patsy Rodenburg. My turn came. She was sitting down; I heard later she had just arrived from London and gone directly into teaching, jet-lag and all. I felt odd standing over her. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I had to make contact. So I went down on one knee beside her chair. I told her how much the workshop had meant to me. She listened and looked at me and said, “breathe from here. From here,” while referencing her lower abdomen.
I realized later that she hadn’t been saying this bit of advice to everyone; I watched her speak with several students as I waited my turn. She wasn’t repeating platitudes (stay in the moment! Aero-Kinetic breath!). She had been so present during the workshop that she remembered each student and their weaknesses and was able to give a specific note to each person afterward. I remembered her pausing next to me, glancing, then giving me a word, adjusting my efforts in the exercise. In a room of more than seventy people, she had been present with me, and not just me, but with all of us. My word, I thought, you can hold an entire room with your energy and performance and yet reach out and make a one-on-one connection. Not a fake or forced connection, but a connection we both remembered in detail. Presence.
She was still present with me, as I knelt beside her chair, and that presence allowed her to remember what she had noted in a crowded room and speak her observations as a single note. It turned out to be the one, simple note I needed at that moment to begin a journey of vocal freedom. I had never experienced anything like this. As I left Atlanta, a door unlatched. There was a crack of light.
My second encounter with presence (and Patsy) sprang from the first. I knew I had to work with her again, but how? She worked at the Guildhall in London. I toiled in South Carolina. A bit far. Then three years later I was cast to play Hamlet. I knew I needed help, and when I saw an advertisement for a three-day workshop with Patsy Rodenburg at the Michael Howard Studios in Manhattan, I applied and bought a plane ticket. I was going to work with Patsy again.
The weekend workshop included just over 30 hours of direct, hands-on training with Patsy. The final day ran fifteen hours straight, broken only by small ten-minute breaks ever hour or every two hours. By the end of that final day, we rode the elevator down from the studios exhausted and almost shaking from what we had been given. My breathing! All I had known about my breathing had been incorrect or incomplete or deadening. Coming down the elevator and walking out into the early morning air of 25th street (the last day went past midnight), I felt my breath begin to drop in. I was finding my spine. Oh, the old habits were there, clutching vigorously, but I was on the path to free breath and a free voice. For years I had been pushing my thoughts and emotions out, like ice through a sieve. During that final workshop day, I witnessed how thoughts and emotions and text and presence could be released to grace an audience. The crack in the door had opened a bit more.
In the light of that open door, Presence had ceased to be a glitzy marketing term. I met presence in the rehearsal room with Patsy Rodenburg. Masks of fear, tension, bluffing, and denial dropped away. As these acting clamps fell off, suddenly the person—the real, whole person—came alive. Faces changed. Voices changed. And went back. And changed. And went back, and changed, and changed, and changed (it is simple plodding at times—but real change occurs).
In truth, like a great Greek tragedy, the changes amazed but didn’t surprise. We had all known we were hiding or pushing or holding back our real power. Or layering on sticky, cheap varnish, the kind that goes on sale. The presence we experienced brought forth the person and the text. Never had Shakespeare been so clean and clear, nor so powerful.
After that three-day workshop with Patsy, I went back for more training. Much more. I studied with Patsy for two summers in her teacher certification program. Like hiking in a morning forest, Patsy’s work deepens with every step. I have realized how much I have to learn. Though I know more about breath, the spine, and how to help actors and speakers find their own breakthroughs, I haven’t lost the wonder of the work, nor forgotten the first experience of being truly present. I go back to that moment again and again.
Which brings me back to the theatre.
As Patsy often says, “You couldn’t keep people away from the theatre if actors were truly present.” The audience would be stunned, would walk home in silence, and would sit up in bed for a while, rolling the experience over and over in their souls. When actors are present with a text and an audience, theatre becomes one of the most remarkable of art forms, handed down from on high.
We go to the theatre to be made present, and in that presence, for a moment, we become one.
David Schwingle is a voice and acting coach (RRT), playwright, assistant professor of theatre (MFA), and an actor. David completed a Voice and Acting Teacher’s Certification (RRT) through the Patsy Rodenburg Institute for Voice and Speech (2017). Visit www.davidschwingle.com for information on voice and acting classes.