Note: This post is very much a personal reflection on my creative experience as an artist during the process of collaborating on Women in Voice this year. It’s not a true account of the whole thing, which would include much, MUCH gushing over the extraordinary team of creatives onstage and off who made this happen. I just want to clarify what this is, lest you read on and think “OH MY LORD DAVID BOWIE WHAT WAS THIS? A COLLABORATIVE EXPERIENCE OR THE JENNY SHOW??!?!?!?!”
I never thought that this year’s Women in Voice would mark such a personal and creative turning point.
First of all...it’s led to finally taking my VOICE seriously.
Two weeks into rehearsals, with one week til opening night, I caught a virus. So instead of being in the rehearsal room Monday, I was off for a Covid test, bed rest and the dread of prepping for an all-singing show with a sore, scratchy throat.
Add to this that I was rehearsing an insanely ambitious set which involves not just speaking as a variety of eldery characters’, but singing as them. Suddenly, trying to nurture and recover my voice, and learning how to achieve these creative goals in a way that could make each character utterly unique without damaging my vocal chords, became my most pressing need!
I did speech and drama at school, knew the basics of the theory of the voice stuff and frankly...it bored the shit out of me. Larynx position, hard palate, soft palate, blah blah blah. But here I was decades later and for the first time ever was primed to learn ANYTHING that could help me make this shit work.
I called up Yani Mills, who thank the Lord David Bowie was willing to squeeze in a last minute cram-it-all-in-let’s-get-this-shit-working power hour with me. By the end of our session I had some techniques for each character’s voice that made them both unique AND kind to my voice. Plus I had a vocal exercise regime to do daily...and I DID IT. WHAT?! Who even was I?!
I must add, I was so fortunate to be around amazingly inspiring women in the cast of Women in Voice, who are dedicated indeed to their voices. I had women sharing tips, exercises, even steaming apparatus to try. I ate ZERO shit the entire week, drank zero fizzy drinks, did yoga before each and every performance, then backstage before, during and after the show I’d be drinking literally litres of water, juice, hot ginger and lemon tea with honey, echinacea drops, sucking on lozenges and blowing a straw into a water bottle, humming, massaging my jaw...seriously, it was like I’d set up my own ICU voice tent.
My point is, I think that if I hadn’t gotten sick in the first place and had to really buckle down, dig deep and truly fight to be show fit, I never would have discovered for myself what’s possibly in terms of really looking after your body and voice as a performer. I know, I know...it’s obvious. It just takes me a while to catch up sometimes; as my grandma once wrote to me in a letter: “You, Jenny are as stubborn AS A BLOODY MULE.”
The second epiphany hit me around two days before we opened. At the end of my set, I’d chosen to sing “Seven Years Old”, a beautiful, low-key emotional song by Lukas Graham, in the character of my grandmother. The first time I did it in “her” voice I felt so emotional; I felt so connected to the song and her and the set. “Boom.” I thought. “I’ve got it.”
Then Lewis, one of our incredible producers, told me in notes that he thought I should try singing it as myself.
I was immediately confronted.
Not by getting a note - I genuinely love constructive criticism to make things better - but by the idea that I should sing as me. Because here’s the thing: I never do. Even in my comedy, even in my cabaret, I mean yes, I belt out tunes and can sing decently, but there’s always a part of me holding back, hiding behind a laugh or a weird voice quirk.
Cut to Boston, 2006. I was working with Daena Giardella, a solo improv coach in Boston (thanks to the Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowship) in what ended up being a 5-day one-on-one masterclass in performance/therapy session. I bawled my eyes out almost every day, hit by jetlag, being away from my young kids for the first time ever and being unexpectedly struck by a wave of grief over my (real) mother. In the midst of all this intensity, the hugest lesson I took away from all of it was this:
“The issues you have offstage are the issues you’ll have onstage.”
Cut back to the WIV rehearsal room.
I told Lewis I needed some time to mull over that suggestion, partly because I’d genuinely felt like I’d discovered such a real connection to my grandmother just now singing it and didn’t want to let that go.
He nodded and listened.
“The funny thing is,” I said, “you’ve just said almost exactly the same thing Mum (my grandmother) used to say to me. ‘Why do you always do these silly voices when you sing? You’ve got a lovely voice, I wish you’d just sing as yourself.’”
And so that’s how I ultimately introduced the final song in the show. By sharing those words from Mum...and there was that connection back to her that I so badly needed to make it work.
Then...the ACTUAL act of singing as myself. Fark. I felt like I’d been vulnerable onstage before (like in my first ever show “An Unexpected Variety Show”) but even then, I would quickly follow a sad moment by a laugh…
...just like in real life.
“The issues you have offstage are the issues you have onstage.”
To actually just sit in the moment, no mask-wearing, no deflecting, no hilarious upbeat high waiting to follow it up to make-everything-okay...that was genuinely terrifying.
But doing it for my Mum (grandma) helped.
Trusting the encouragement of the creative team around me helped.
The safety of a warm, WIV audience helped.
And our director Di Wills helped, saying simply: “You. Are. A. Singer.”
I honestly never believed it.
And now, it feels like a new creative door is opening up, like I’m only just beginning all over again.
Now excuse me. I’ve gotta go blow some bubbles through a straw.