As rehearsals for Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown get into full swing, Anna Skellern takes us behind the scenes and lets us in on the secrets of her vocal technique:
So… singing. Most actors when asked if they can do something will reply with a yes. Can you drive? Yes. Can you ride a horse? Yes. Can you pilot a helicopter whilst speaking ancient Icelandic? Yes. We’re so desperate to get a job, that we’re pretty much happy to wing anything. So, Anna, can you sing? Of course I can. I was born in the middle of a performance of Don Giovanni and came out naturally wailing a high C.
Then the first day of rehearsal comes. It’ll be fine, I think. It’s not going to be like the day when a dear friend of mine went on set having lied about their driving license and drove a brand new mini straight into a brick wall. I’ve had singing lessons. The shower loves me. And we did learn quite a bit of this stuff at Guildhall.
I walk into the rehearsal room at the Jerwood Space. It’s an attractively refurbished space with a glass foyer and big bright rooms. This is one of London’s hidden creative hubs where many of its best shows are envisioned. Scuttling past me are James McAvoy and David Morrissey on their way to workshop a new Dostoyevsky play. In the room above us, Simon McBurney is devising a new musical about Pink Floyd.
I’m the only actor from Women On The Verge here today and I’m scheduled to work with the wonderful Greg Arrowsmith, our Musical Director. He just wants to start me off slowly and work through my song a bit. That’ll be fine, I think. I can handle this. I even remember to breath. Just as I’m about to dive into my colossus of a song, Model Behaviour – the best comic tune written this decade – someone else walks in the room.
David, this is Anna. Anna, David. My throat constricts and I begin to sound like the guy who works at Krusty Burger in the Simpsons. Oh, it’s only David Yazbek. You know, the composer. Only the guy I’ve had a huge music crush on ever since I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who manages to rhyme Oklahoma with Melanoma in a song and makes it work is a living legend.
I pick my jaw up from the floor and manage to amble through the song. They are incredibly kind and patient with me. And once I relax, my singing isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be. It’s amazing the sounds that can come out of your mouth when you’re really committed to what you’re singing about.
And now, after only a week of rehearsal, I’m shocked at how much they’ve managed to teach me. I didn’t realise that I could belt but now I think that all of SE1 must know it. For the uninitiated, belting is that high, twangy sound West End stars love to use. Think Don’t Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl.
It may not seem so to the recipients of the sound, but to those of us making the noise, belting sounds pretty much like yelling at someone, for a really long time. Apparently that’s got something to do with high subglottal pressure and your vocal chords shortening and thickening. It’s quite a scary and freeing noise to make. I keep expecting someone to pop their head around the door of the rehearsal room and politely remind me to calm down.
There aren’t many times in our lives when we’re really allowed to just let rip with our voices. I guess that’s why I loved watching the World Cup so much. Who knew that I could suddenly be so patriotic to Germany, Korea and Spain all in one day? I was just happy to make a LOT of noise.
We are incredibly privileged to have West End superstar Willemijn Verkaik in our cast. She’s the official voice of Elsa from Frozen in Europe. Now SHE knows how to belt. And her tips have been golden. She says that belting is actually very natural for the voice. A baby crying is a belt and while it doesn’t take that much breath it does take a lot of energy. But before I attempt Let It Go, I’m just going to focus on not getting lynched by my neighbours and sounding slightly less like a dying cat in battle with a Vitamix….
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown begins performances at the Playhouse Theatre on 16 December. You can book tickets through us here.