3rd November 2022
Frankie Oldham talks about the barriers he faces as an aspiring actor with a stammer, and how facing his fears of stammering on stage has helped him.
How does someone who is terrified to speak offer themselves up to be judged on a stage by an audience of hundreds where the main point of focus is your voice? The straightforward answer for the majority is "you don't". But what if you still do?
The role of a stammer in theatre and film is most widely used to show someone who is of lower status to their hero counterpart. The bumbling, non-threatening, comedic young geek figure who offers no real authority but is instead at the opposite end of the see-saw to their confidently spoken, extroverted co-star. Examples of these famous stammerers that come to mind are: the beloved catchphrase of Porky Pig from Looney Tunes, Jimmy from South Park or the forever sweaty Quirinus Quirrell from Harry Potter.
The role of a stammer in theatre and film is most widely used to show someone who is of lower status to their hero counterpart.
These characters all cover the same archetype — low status but are rewarded with a chuckle from the audience at times. But what if the roles are reversed and we get a stammering leader? What if Superman had a super stammer? How would Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada tackle a stutter whilst tackling the heavyweights of the fashion industry?
- In our recent survey, 59% of respondents aid they don't know a character in a TV series or film who stammered. Read more.
Being an actor in training with a stammer, I challenge myself in as many scenarios as I can to make the stammered voice a lead voice and see how that changes a room or a scene. However, in my nine years of theatre, there have been two real blockades to this approach.
The first blockade is that in most cases a stammer doesn't suit the requirements of the scene or the play. Maybe people believe it slows down the scene too much, or the status battle of the two characters don't require as much of a shift; resulting in a stammer being rarely welcomed as a device for the actor. So, the voice in my head pokes at me and says, "that means your voice type doesn't belong in theatre and shouldn't be heard". In contrast, when I've been cast as a part that a stammer is perfectly suitable for, eg The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, how does the actor approach a room of 900 eager theatregoers listening to you making weird grunts into a microphone as you try to say the word "packages"? This leads onto blockade two.
In drama school, blockade two is the overwhelming, crippling anxiety of offering something that unlocks so much vulnerability within myself in a room full of wonderfully talented and creative fellow students who don't have the same wall to break through. Whilst they're scanning the script deciding what fun and clever choice they're going to bring into the space, the voice in my head is ruthlessly dissecting every vowel and consonant of every word and reminding me that I can't say that, or I'll struggle to get that sound out. So, before I've even entered the spotlight, the walls have shot up and surrounded me claiming they're for my protection, but in reality they stop me from using a gift.
Being an actor in training with a stammer, I challenge myself in as many scenarios as I can to make the stammered voice a lead voice and see how that changes a room or a scene.
And that's exactly what they're doing — preventing the actor from using something so unique and encapsulating to watch and listen to. My aim as an actor is to stop the walls from closing in and feeling like the world freezes when I struggle to say a word, but instead to push those same walls away and create platforms to share and relish in the specificity and beauty of my voice type.
My acting tutor gave me a piece of advice that I now use in every acting or directing scenario. "Run towards the thing that scares you". Running towards the cryptic fear of remaining motionless on a stage with nowhere to go produces some of the most free and unshackled pieces of theatre that I have ever experienced. And that should be the feeling that we all chase no matter how brief it may be, because there lies the encouragement to do it again. And again. And again.
The stage and screen deserve the sound of the stammer and we are the ones that supply it with the experience of being limited by it. There have been countless times in the past where my stammer has clutched me and squished me into a ball where I can only slowly rock myself to sleep, and I have no doubt that at times the future also holds that for me. But, and it's a big but, all that does is give me the platform to run towards the thing that scares me all over again.
In conclusion, if you are greeted by the wonderful spirit of stammer anxiety, whatever form it may take, stare in square in the eyes, smile, and sprint towards it.
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