“Now tell us your name.”
“My name is Alyson Grauer.”
I stand still, watching Nan peer thoughtfully at me behind her owlish glasses. My classmates are silent, listening, watching. I know I’m not supposed to feel nervous, but being on the spot in front of Nan is inherently an intense place to be. This is freshman year of being a theatre major at Loyola University of Chicago, in Voice & Diction class with Nan Withers-Wilson, and I am very nervous. I have never liked my speaking voice – I’ve only just become fond of my singing voice, and I feel very worried that I won’t be able to get through this.
Nan has someone in the classroom touch a key on the electric keyboard. I hum faintly, matching the note, and then my voice comes out considerably higher than it normally does.
“My name is Alyson Grauer.”
Nan’s eyes widen and she purses her lips with interest. She nods vigorously and gestures that the next note should be even higher. “Again.”
Another note, another hum; I try to relax and let my voice naturally become higher in pitch without forcing or squeezing it. “My name is Alyson Grauer.”
Nan spreads her fingers wide on the desk. “Oh! Oh, who are you?”
Keeping the same note in mind, I speak again, enunciating clearly but keeping it as relaxed as possible. “My name is Alyson Grauer.”
“Oh! Alyson, this is very nice. Isn’t this much nicer than her flat monotone?” She nods at her own question, and my classmates nod too. She’s right; I am pretty monotonous in normal speech. This feels fake, but if it sounds good, then I better learn how to connect with it fast. “This is your optimal pitch, kiddo. Don’t forget this feeling.”
Nan has the pianist provide another note. “Alyson, this time, can you please say ‘Hello’?”
I take the new note. “Hello.”
Another note. “Hello.”
Another, even higher. This is venturing into cartoonishness to me, but Nan is fascinated, and I am riveted to the spot. What is she looking for? What witchcraft is this?”
“Can you please say, ‘Hello, Mrs. Gibbs!'”
“Hello, Mrs. Gibbs.”
Nan’s eyebrows shoot upwards. “Say it as though you are calling across the yard to your next-door neighbor.”
“Hello, Mrs. Gibbs!”
I smile in spite of myself; I’ve never heard my own voice so high, so girly. It feels silly, and yet Nan’s reaction is like confetti and flowers opening and birds singing. She beams at me as though I’ve just solved a physics problem.
“Alyson, this is much higher than your optimal pitch,” Nan gushes, “but this is most certainly your ingenue voice! You are an ingenue, and you can make good use of this when you need to play characters who much younger than you actually are. Isn’t that wonderful? What a change, kiddo!” She nods again at her own comments, and my classmates agree with her.
I feel bizarrely flustered. It takes a while for me to riddle out why I feel so breathless and strange about so simple and odd a task. This was the moment that Nan Withers-Wilson showed me that the voice is like magic, and the manipulation of one’s voice is vital to the creation and performance of character. As an actor, your toolkit consists primarily of three things: your body and physical appearance, your mind and emotions, and your voice.
Nan taught me that the voice is magic.
I threw myself into making sure that I could learn more and do better with my vocalizations. I warmed up carefully. I read Nan’s book and other books which covered the topic of actors and their voices. During my time at Loyola, I got the opportunity to take Nan’s Dialects class, where we learned the international phonetic alphabet, how to identify and transcribe various sounds in the English language, and how to create and utilize the following dialects Standard American, Southern American (both Plantation and Mountain), Irish, Standard British (RP), Cockney, and Brooklyn. I lived for the idiosyncrasies of dialects, for the cultural differences and odd quirks and funny phonemes. I adored the documentaries she showed us. I loved the homework, and felt like Henry Higgins anytime I jotted down phonetic notes while eavesdropping on people out and about in Chicago. I loved it all.
Nan was not a pushover. Nan politely asked that her students be courteous, well-behaved, intense listeners, and dedicated learners. If she felt there was disrespect or disregard, she would carefully carefully make sure the perpetrator knew her displeasure. She did not tolerate time-wasting, but she encouraged exploration and questions. She must have known that dialects, voice, and diction would not be everybody’s ‘bag,’ but she never let it be known that she’d accept that excuse. She demanded a level of excellence that showed respect for the material, the efforts of your classmates, and the time, talent, and effort of her own person.
She had amazing stories. Once, she was convinced (carefully) by some students to bring a photo album from her early days as an actress in New York and in summer stock. We were intrigued, but when we saw the photos, I swear I heard people’s hearts skip beats. The photos showed Nan as such an incredibly beautiful young woman, glamorous and coyly shifting from one role to another with sweet grace and humility. She was stunning, and yet all photos had her trademark twinkle in the eyes.
I stared at one black and white photo of Nan as one of the young women in The Mikado for a long time. Her beautiful kimono, her perfectly coiffed hair, the sweet paper parasol… She radiated and glowed the beauty I had always wondered if I could ever achieve onstage. What a life she had! What an amazing adventure of experiences and performances and lessons learned!
I went to Nan with problems, concerns, questions, pleas for help throughout college. I had her help coach my diction when I was working on learning Amy in Sondheim’s Company – a patter song to kill all other patter songs. She was calm, encouraging, and confident. She made me feel capable, and helped my own confidence to grow. “Oh, kiddo,” she would always say sympathetically, smiling and tipping her head to one side. She called everyone kiddo. It was her thing.
Nan and her husband Jonathan are still something of a conjoined entity in my mind – they both impacted me so profoundly while I was at Loyola that their quotes, their lessons, their presences seem fresh to me daily, even now that I have been out of school for six years.
In 2012, I joined the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire as a performer of commedia dell’arte. I learned an Italian dialect, but I also learned Elizabethan English according to the requirements of the Faire entertainment cast. It was delicious and fascinating. I took to it quickly, and soon became happily obsessed with helping my fellow castmates adjust their speech as needed. In 2013, my second year as a cast member, I was asked to assist with teaching the Dialect classes. I readily agreed, and helped cover the ‘upper class’ cast members with learning the sounds of Standard British/RP with the grammar and vocabulary of an Elizabethan high-born citizen. It was like candy. It was extremely gratifying and exciting to be a part of. In 2014, I co-taught again, and in 2015 I was asked to head the Dialect classes all by myself. It was ambitious, and a little nerve wracking, but I was grateful for the chance. I loved every minute of it, and I look forward to doing it again in 2016.
I did not get a chance to tell Nan that I have become an amateur dialect instructor. I think she would have liked it – I hope she would have been proud. She inspired in me a lifelong enjoyment of studying and learning new sounds and styles of speaking. Anywhere I go, I listen to pronunciation. I ogle regionalisms. I identify origins. Dialects is one of my favorite things not just about being a performer, but about people in the real world in general. It fascinates me and brings me joy, and I absolutely have Nan to thank for it.
Nan passed away in January of 2016. The Loyola Department of Fine and Performing Arts is a little emptier without her delighted chuckle, her knowing smile, and her genuine love of the material. She is missed by all students, past and present, and will be unknowingly missed by those students who will never take her classes down the road.
I wish I’d had an opportunity to connect with her one more time, to hear her stories, to show her what I’ve done so far, and seek her advice once more.
Mostly, I think I’m not alone when I say we’d all like to hear her call us ‘kiddo’ one more time.