Q&A: Marya Lowry on the Actor's Voice

Photo by Mike Lovett

Schools, theaters and prisons: Marya Lowry, associate professor of theater arts and a founding member of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston, has performed and taught in them all. At the Spingold Theater Center in November, Lowry directed “a king of infinite space — HAMLET in a nutshell,” a “creative encounter” involving movement, music, martial arts and song that Brandeis MFA acting students devised on the basis of their exploration of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

What interests you about teaching?

I teach voice and acting, so the nature of what I teach is human to human. It’s deeply personal contact. The difference between that and my professional work is that I think of teaching as midwifing someone else’s creative process, and I love that. Sometimes I see an actor do something in my class, and I think, Oh, I wish I could do that. Or I’ll see an actor working on a role that I have played, and I’ll think, I never would have thought of that, and that’s thrilling.

What kind of research do you do?

My research for the last 10 or so years has been on what I call ecstatic voice and lamentation. People have been lamenting their sorrows for as long as we’ve been keeping track of history. We have examples of lamentations in Homer, in the Greek plays, in Shakespeare. There’s a lot written on lamentation rituals, how to bury the dead well. But there’s very little information about the oral aspect: how do we do it now, in a play, in our lives. We actually work on those sounds that people incorporate in lamentation.

How did you research the sounds?

I started by reading scholarship on lamentation rituals around the world. Eventually, I discovered ethnomusicologists who made field recordings of all kinds of vocal rituals. I was able to match the sounds in the recordings with the descriptions of sounds in the literature. And I began to hear rhythms; vocal placements; styles of using sound that transcend cultures, from the Middle East and Africa to Indonesia. With my students, I created templates for original approaches to lamentations. We now have a new language in which to explore both our voices and lament text in dramatic literature.

You work with incarcerated youth and women through the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Do you see a connection between that and your professional life?

It’s an extension of what I do here but on a much different level. I’m always compelled by those who don’t get the same breaks the rest of us got. I know how valuable it is to have someone sit with you and hear your story, and not try to judge you or fix you, but just be with you. It’s really powerful for me to see something that for me started out as an artistic adventure become so life-changing for young people.                  

  — Debra Filcman