I had a great phone conversation last week with Mary Rose Betten. Mary Rose is a retired character actress, an essayist, playwright, poet and a reading coach!
I told her how excited I was to see a post from her on the WOM-PO Listserv which mentioned that she teaches people to read their work aloud. I told her about Voice Alpha and how we started it in part because there seem to be so few resources available on the internet to anyone looking to build or hone their ‘reading poetry aloud’ skills. We talked about how little the poetry community in general seems to value the art of reading poetry aloud and how nearly all the focus of poetry-teaching and poetry-tradecraft is on the writing and on the page. What about voice? We all want to learn how to write poetry well, but, at the end of the day, who really cares about learning how to read poetry aloud well?
Mary Rose cares, that’s who!
Mary Rose works with both poets and with writers of fiction. She works best face-to-face, with groups, she said. The group synergy and back-and-forth and live individual demonstration is an integral part of her teaching methodology, so it’s hard to get an accurate idea of her she works through text alone. I understood that, but asked if she could summarize, for this blog post, some of the elements she focuses on in her group sessions. These are some of the things we talked about:
Pausing – Mary Rose said teaching people how to pause while reading is one of her biggest challenges. She encourages people to think of a pause as a live thing: “a pause is not dead air; a pause is fraught with meaning.” Pauses are a way to show you care about what you are reading – imagine helping a very old person move or lifting a baby, how carefully you put your arm around the person you are helping, how gently you cradle the baby’s head. Treat your words with the same care. Use pauses to give your audience time to absorb meaning and fully hear what you have said.
Stressing words – In order to build awareness of the possibilities and importance of stress in reading, Mary Rose says she will take a phrase like “I never said he stole your money,” and have the group repeat it, stressing a different word each time as an illustration of how stress changes meaning. “I never said he stole your money; I never said he stole your money” and so forth.
Group the words you read into ‘sense units’ and put a pause at the end of each unit – this gives your audience time to understand and absorb the sense unit. Here Mary Rose gave the simple example of reading a phone number for someone to write down. We intuitively break the number up into manageable units – 703 pause 459 pause 2841. We don’t say 7 pause 03459284 pause 1, for example. The same with reading poems.
You at the podium – Use your position behind the podium. Mary Rose recommends you put your hands on the page and read along following your finger. With your finger marking your place at all times, you can feel comfortable raising your head, pausing, giving the audience ‘time to make pictures’ from your words. Breathe behind the podium – “take a big belly breath! No-one can see you do it behind the podium!” But no other body movement or gesticulating except lifting your head, Mary Rose says. “This is not about you or your personality, it’s about your words.”
Feeling words – this is not about drama and/or getting melodramatic, it’s about giving words their true emotional punch. Imagine someone close to you has fallen into a coma, Mary Rose suggests. You know they can still hear you and you want to get your words and meaning to them as convincingly and authentically as possible. Read your words like that – like they mean a whole lot to you and you are saying them to someone who also means a whole lot to you and only their sense of hearing connects you.
Volume – Another fear Mary Rose says she commonly sees is people reluctant to vary their volume and get LOUD or s-o-f-t. “Dare to whisper! And don’t be afraid to get loud – it can be great fun,” says Mary Rose. “Take a big belly breath and just do it.”
Pace – Likewise. Vary your pace. The poem overall has a pace, but there are variations even within that overall pace. It doesn’t all have to sound the same – get fast or slow down, if that’s what the text wants, Mary Rose recommends.
Keep your voice up at the end of a sentence, says Mary Rose. This is part of showing that you care. Don’t let your voice drop or tail off at the end of sentences. Let the period be a signal to keep your voice up.
Most of all, says Mary Rose, remember that who you are and what you believe in – your true self – is in your words. Remember that when you get up to read them aloud.
Mary Rose is available for group coaching sessions in the Hollywood/Santa Barbara area. Email mrbetten@VERIZON.NET for more information.
Mary Rose Betten is a retired character actress, essayist, playwright and Pushcart prize nominee for her first book of poetry:”Finding Your Best Angle, (Give This To An Actor”) Her chapbook, “The Prodigal Son’s Mother,” was selected book of the month for Finishing LIne Press. She won Women’s Artistic Network’s 2010 Carol E. Doering Prize, and serves as reading coach on the faculty of “A Room Of Her Own” and will direct “The Pepper Lane Review,” poetry reading at Center Stage Theatre, Santa Barbara, April 27th. Her poem and essay appear in Wompo’s anthology: “Letters To The World,”Red Hen Press her first chapbook was “Hanging Out With Loose Words,” Foothills Publishing, New York and her interview with host David Starkey on TV’s “The Creative Community,” won first place nationally. She will be a featured reader at The Carnegie Art museum, Oxnard, 02/12 sponsored by Poets and Writers magazine.