Tempo: Dragging, Slow, Medium, Fast, and Rushing

“Faster, Louder, Funnier”: Actors often joke about how directors of comedies really only have one note. And part of that note has to do with tempo, the rate at which the actors speak. And more often than not, the demand is for actors to increase that rate. Faster dialogue, snappier dialogue tells the story more quickly, moves the story along, and drives the show toward the moments of tension and release, which in comedy means the laugh lines. But speed isn’t just something demanded of comedic actors. In classical plays, especially very long ones, like Hamlet, the need for speed is a large part of getting through the play and not losing the audience’s attention. Often the issue with speed doesn’t have to do with the tempo of speaking, but more with the tempo of thinking. Getting from one line to the next, picking up one’s cues, shifting from beat to beat, all require a dexterity of thought, nimble thinking. The drive to get what you want has to be tied to getting it now, and actors who wallow in their emotional states are usually seen as being self-indulgent.

Of course in rehearsal, we need to take the time to be a little indulgent as part of the process of figuring out what is needed. In fact, it’s very important to find a balance of slow, medium and fast, all in response to the appropriate play of action and reaction. Also, some characters have different internal tempos, and a dramatic contrast can be created by playing with a different internal clock than that of a scene partner.

Let’s discuss tempo as part of the range of skills that all actors come to integrate into their performance, and we’ll explore the types of demands placed upon the performer by each speed.

Slow

Going slowly is often very difficult for some actors, as they are tempted to rush through their performance. Going slowly through the language, finding the time for thought on the words, rather than between them, demands a certain kind of relish. You need to lengthen vowels and continuant consonants, so that you can stretch things out. In slowing down, you need to work with the smallest chunk of language possible, the word, and, in some cases, the syllable. It gives you a chance to really feel the substance of the language, its sounds, its links, its stops. We’ll use the following passage today for our exploration. Take it for a spin, going very slowly, but being sure to link the words together, rather than putting…. extra… space… between… the… words…

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.

    Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado, "I am so Proud", 1885.

Dragging

Of course, there is always “too slow.” When one is reluctantly changing tactics, one might “drag one’s feet” verbally to indicate that reluctance. But often, actors drag because of an issue, and it’s my experience that they either has to do with poor preparation—they just don’t know what comes next and are desperately searching for the words, or with slow thinking. Both are fixed with focus on why you say what you say, rather than just drilling the words over and over. What is the connection between this idea and the next? More importantly, how does the thought that goes before move you toward the thought that comes after. For instance, if you could get through the first two lines of the above Mikado text, but blanked before “Awaiting the sensation,” you would need to figure out why “lifelong lock” would inspire “Awaiting…” If lifelong makes you wait for a lifetime, then “awaiting” is a logical next word. Making that kind of linkage makes it for easier to remember the text.

To explore the idea of draggin intensionally, work your way thrugh the Mikado text as if you didn’t know what to say next. Hesitate in mid-word, on vowels and on continuant consonants like final "m, n, l, etc."

Medium

Finding a happy balance between too slow and too fast isn’t easy, and certainly we don’t want everything to have too even a tempo. But compared to going Slow, Medium speed is where you play the sentence more than the word. In verse, such as the Mikado text we’re using here, it’s about playing the line. You need to find the operative words, and play them, but let the unimportant ones be just that: unimportant! I’ll put the Mikado text in again here so you don’t have to scroll up to see it, and try speaking it again, play one or two important words per line, but generally thinking your way through the thoughts.

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.

This is the kind of text that is meant to be spoken quickly; that’s a big part of the fun of Gilbert and Sullivan. But when you limit your operative words, you’ll find yourself playing things like nouns and verbs over modifiers like adjectives or adverbs. (If you’re like me and grew up without a solid grounding in grammar, you might want to read up on parts of speech, now known as "word classes".)

Monotonous Pace

Speaking monotonously doesn’t just mean speaking on a single pitch. An overly even pace an can also be flat, dull, and unappealing to the listener. It can indicate a certain sense of boredom on the part of the speaker. Rhythmic text, as we see in the lyric above, when spoken out of the context of the song, can be "sung" as if it were following the rhythm of the song. This is to be avoided, unless, of course, you’re doing it for a reason. Try speaking the text through and see if you can feel the potential for a monotonous pace. (Hint: be boring!)

Fast

If a medium pace demands an awareness of the sentence, then faster pace puts our focus on the paragraph, and its underlying argument. Sentences form steps towards our goal, while the paragraph covers the whole thing. Playing our way through this kind of language forces us to drive through the language, finding momentum to move from phrase to phrase, thought to thought, sentence to sentence, toward the conclusion of our argument. Speed requires agility to move the articulators faster than our habitual tempo, and that demands a sense of lightness or deftness so that we do not trip over complex combinations and alternations of consonants that are made in opposing manners and places in the mouth.

Fast text also demands some awareness of the breath requirements of the text. As we move quickly we want to pause less, for a shorter time, in order to move on with the ideas of the text. Less time to breathe means we have to get that breath in quickly without a build-up of unnecessary tension. Try the Mikado text again, but this time work your way through it quickly—as fast as you possibly can:

 

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.

 

I find that switching from the /s/ sound of "sensation" to the /ʃ/ sound of "short, sharp shock" is a a challenge. So I’ll loop the second phrase several times (at least 3) in order to imprint its action into muscle memory. Work your way through it, and any time you trip up, try looping a 3 or 4 word-long group in order to increase your ability to do the text at high speed.

Rushing

This is what happens to an actor who is skipping over the moment, not trusting it or her partner. Sometimes when an actor gets caught up in playing words at the expense of thought or emotion, this can also happen. Rushing is often a symptom of fear, in my mind. There is a disconnect that is occuring in order to get past something terrifying. As the cliche says, you must "feel the fear and do it anyway." Embrace those feelings and pour them through the language, rather than trying to get it done, over, on to the next thing.

[Probably the fastest voiceover work going these days is for the disclaimer text one finds at the ends of commercials for drugs. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have begun to rewrite these disclaimers so they are more intelligible, so there is less of a sense the they’re trying to hide something. However, it’s worth noting that many of those supersonic speed deliveries are done using sophisticated audio editing software, in order to speed up the audio without raising the pitch, and to allow voiceover actors to do the clips one piece at a time in order to get the fastest clearest takes.]

 

 

Next: Chopping and Linking

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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