I’d come across Barbara Houseman’s work before in my acting training, so when a dear friend and voice teacher nudged me about a scholarship for Steph’s vocal retreat with Barbara, of course I applied - but didn’t actually think I had a chance of getting it. That was probably one of the signs that a post-pandemic reset was just what I needed.
On the train down to Wales, I wondered if I’d made the right decision - could I take a break that long from work, blah blah blah. But it ended up being one of the best things I’ve done all year.
We spent seven days working in Steph’s beautiful studio, surrounded by stone walls, wooden panelling, and floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights which filled the space with sunlight, and a view of the Autumn trees on the opposite hillside, which I watched change colour throughout the week.
I loved Barbara’s holistic approach to voice work, which saw us working on just about everything, starting with movement, then voice and finally, text.
We talk a lot about creating safe spaces in acting, but this truly felt like the safest learning environment I’d ever been in. That’s probably down to the thought and skill Steph put in to organising the course - from building the most beautiful studio I’ve ever worked in, to designing an environment for some pretty luxurious communal living, giving us spaces to gather in the evenings, as well as privacy, in rooms with curtained-off bunk-beds.
Most important of all was the wonderful and supportive group of people Steph had gathered and who I felt very lucky to get to know - Steph herself, Barbara of course, and six other actors with their different backgrounds, and training, and skills.
It took only a short time of working and living together for us to bond to the point where we felt comfortable being open and trying things out in front of each other, without any fear of judgement, or pressure to perform.
In the evenings we cooked together and discussed the day. Or went for a hike as the sun set, or built a bonfire and toasted marshmallows. One morning we went wild swimming. We laughed a lot together, and we cried. We also sang a lot of show tunes.
Part of what I love about acting is that you’re always learning. I didn’t go to a full-time drama school, so over the years I’ve sought training in different places. In my experience, the best learning I’ve had isn’t the kind that feels neatly tied up at the end, where you’ve ticked a box on a skill or a module, but rather the kind that opens new doors, and makes you aware of new paths you’d like to explore.
‘Retreat’, to me, suggests some kind of emotional or physical withdrawal, except that this felt like a week of exactly the opposite. Bonding and connecting so quickly with new people requires a kind of emotional energy, openness, and presentness I feel hadn’t been asked of me since pre-pandemic. And physically, we were moving constantly, which was exactly what I need as a reset from the last year.
I don’t know that ‘retreat’ encapsulates everything that the week was: too active to feel like a rest, too much work to feel like a holiday, too much fun to feel like work, too much learning to just be hanging out with friends.
On the last day we talked about what we’d learned. Everyone had some combination of things that are easy to measure - new voice exercises, tools for tackling text, a deeper understanding of your own voice. And then there were less tangible things - confidence, freedom, ease, peace. In short, it was a lot more than what you might expect to get from just 7 days.
A part of me worried that it was the environment Steph had created which supported those less tangible things. So I was happy to find that when I got home, that enthusiasm, energy, and sense of peace I’d found, had come home with me.
Thank you so much to Barbara and Steph for the scholarship and a week of training that has opened so many doors. I can’t wait to come back.
By Alexandra Boulton
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