Exploration of the Voice with Jean-René Toussaint

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Wednesday evening in Frear Ensemble Theater, Jean-René Toussaint, provided a lecture-demonstration entitled “Stemwerk, The Voice, and Artaud.” This was the first of a series of events, sponsored by the Theater Department and William J. Cooper Foundation, in which Toussaint shares his method of voice-work with the Swarthmore community. This evening, February 15, and Saturday, February 16, at 8 pm in Frear Ensemble Theater, Toussaint will be performing in his new piece, “The Alchemical Theater.”

Toussaint’s Stemwerk, the term he uses for his vocal technique, was developed while working with the deaf. What Toussaint discovered was that the deaf “Have beautiful voices… (the majority of the) difficulties that the deaf face are that they are told to keep their mouth shut by society.” Through physical experience and attention to vibration as opposed to intellectual judgment of sound, Toussaint realized the incredible range of voices the body could produce and has used this to instruct in the contexts of performance and therapy.

Toussaint’s “The Alchemical Theater” is an original work inspired by the work of Antonin Artaud. Toussaint describes the piece as “a demonstration. (It is) a process of development, ritual.” Though the play encompasses the story of a man’s life from birth to death, the true subject of the play is what Toussaint terms “an exploration of all of his songs, all of his emotions and impulses made visible.”

Toussaint sees himself primarily as an instructor rather than a performer and the object in “The Alchemical Theater” as in all such demonstrations is “to wake up people and disturb their stability.” As in his therapeutic work, Toussaint hopes to move listeners into a “rebellion against themselves… and for themselves, against some patterns we carry that don’t belong to us.” This is because crucial to his work is self-recognition, being able to hear one’s own voice without judgment or imitation.

This process includes three factors: “allowance,” permitting oneself to create a sound; “the mirror,” or self-recognition on an emotional and physical level; and “questions,” which are the goal of Toussaint’s demonstrations. He observes, “The danger in a lot of artistic production is people try to bring answers. I try more to bring questions. We are vulnerable to questions…. A good question can resonate in you for years.”

Professor Allen Kuharski, chair of the Theater Department, observes that Toussaint’s presence this week is notable across departments, particularly to music and theater students. “From the department’s point of view, these events build on Jonathan Hart Makwaia’s voice workshops that we have offered here for years. We’re building to the next level with alums who have worked with these workshops.” Kuharski is pleased to see that “this six year investment in Jonathan’s workshops has started to bear fruit.”

The alum to whom Professor Kuharski is referring is Audrey Parnell, ’04, a student of Toussaint, who stated in an online interview that what she most appreciates about Toussaint’s work “is that it invites the performer to explore the intersections of every aspect of her instrument – the voice, the body, the emotions, the psyche.… Jean-René’s teaching is truly food for the soul, and I’m certain the students will find that this week is only the beginning; they will be processing what they learned here for months to come.”

To students interested, workshops will be offered this weekend on February 16 and 17 from 10-12:30 and 2-4:30 in Frear Ensemble Theater, LPAC. The workshops are progressive, so it is recommended that those interested in Sunday’s workshops attend Saturday sessions. All workshops are free and open to the public.

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