The voices of John Tiffany
“Isn’t this wonderful?” says John Tiffany, who is standing in Radcliffe’s Byerly Hall. He surveys the large empty space – light streams through the wide windows onto the hardwood floors of a room that is completely empty except for a vintage bike. “I needed one in Cambridge – but why get a new one when beautiful old ones like this exist?” he says of the bike.
Tiffany had just returned from Scotland after the start of a production of Black Watch at the National Theatre of Scotland, where he is associate director. But now, he is settling into a year-long sabbatical from that role into the role of Radcliffe Fellow. He confesses later that he feels quite different from many of the other fellows that he shares space with. “I graduated from Glasgow University in 1994 and I haven’t been back in a university til then,” he says. “For me this is quite strange and brilliant.”
He asks me if I’d like some tea. I say yes, and we head upstairs to the kitchen, where we encounter Lynne Jones and Kiri Miller. They recount a game of Guitar Hero (Miller is an ethnomusicologist studying virtual performance) and a class that Jones (a psychiatrist writing a memoir on her work in conflict zones). We re-enter Tiffany’s studio a few moments later.
His research project, he explains, focuses on how a person’s voice communicates identity to the world. From his research proposal: “Much of what theater has examined is the question of ‘Who am I?’ In the rehearsal room, this can mean that this too often only scrapes the basics of the voice based on personality and provenance.” He is questing for a “more sophisticated set of techniques and tools” for achieving the potential of voice on the stage.
Much of Tiffany”s work focuses on accent and linguistic patterns that identify members of a particular group. As two non-Americans — a Scot and a Trinidadian — modifying our accents for other people, we instantly laugh at our own “Americanized” accents and how we have other language that is ‘”most like ourselves.” For a few minutes, he speaks in an unintelligible Glaswegian accent for fun.
I settle in with my tea and begin asking questions:
Tell me about your background.
I am from a working class family in a small village in Yorkshire where the accent is very strong and gives a strong sense of group identity. Leaving college in nearby Huddersfield with a set of creative individuals, all of us aspiring to be in the arts and we tried to speak as we thought artists should. Moving to Glasgow in 1990, I diluted my accent even further to be understood by my Scottish friends. Working in theater nearly a decade later, other influences were bought to bear on how I speak as I tried to communicate myself as confident, knowledgeable and clever, traits mainly associated with a Southern English accent.
Exactly – it’s as you were saying: You put on “your best accent” for people, that in some way you’re playing different roles regardless of whether you want to or not.
Yes – sometimes it’s culture – sometimes you’re aware of that, but other times, you’ll suddenly be aware of what’s happening. But who makes that choice – you make it subconsciously. The neuroscience of that is very fascinating and very useful for actors.
I sometimes think that we as directors make lazy choices. For example, they’re from New York and they’re working class so they’ll say (in New York accent) : “cahffee” everytime they say the word. But actually that’s not true – please don’t judge my accent! They might say the same words in different ways in different sentences which is how we really speak.
Do you think that extreme complexity of identities and voices will produce an effect in how directors treat their actors and how people cast their characters?
Not necessarily in how they treat or actors but how we make choices with the actors for an audience. We very rarely allow for the much more complex ways in which people communicate in real life. We very rarely allow that into a rehearsal room. We just make a decision so that every time they say something what we’re trying to do is communicate clearly to an audience and the best way to do that right now is to repeat communication – to be repetitive.
You spoke about a project you had done (This Other England at the Paine’s Plough Theater in London) – for which you commissioned playwrights to write on the theme of language and identity. You had said that it didn’t satisfy you.
It’s because of, obviously, what happens when you commission a play. The playwrights take on an idea or a direction or a possibility, and they have to make it their own. They have to author it. When I say that it didn’t satisfy my appetite it’s not to suggest at all that I was disappointed. It was more to do with the fact that I wanted to go further down into my particular interest in it. Which is what I’m able to do at Radcliffe
Following that, did you turn to writing or authoring your work after that experience and before this one?
I don’t really write. I work with playwrights. I’ll work with a playwright a choreographer and a composer and to give them all the sense of empowerment to communicate. The text is one of the tools to do that but I want also the movement and the music to communicate the text effectively.
So this is a very different role to be in then.
That’s particularly why I’m doing it.
What are you expecting to find as you move into this very, very different world of Radcliffe?
The reason I’m doing it is because it is a different world. I’ve been working as a professional theater director for about 15 years. And its been fantastic. I love it. I’m going straight back to it. I’m not looking for a change of direction in my job at all but it’s very product based so even when you commission a play, and when you develop a play it’s always about moving towards the first night. It’s very difficult to get your head into a place where you really are open to anything being possible.
Was part of the condition in coming here that you will have something concrete to show the National Theater of Scotland?
What I would love to do is create a piece of theater. I’ve been speaking to the A.R.T about doing a work in progress in May that will link to something that the National Theater might be interested in.
No obligations in terms of producing anything – no paper, no book – and I think that’s brilliant because it means I probably will.
Because you’re motivated and this is very much a personal project for you?
It’s very personal, yes.
Back to that, you said that when you were younger and started talking as an artist should talk – when did you start thinking concretely about these ideas of voice and identity and accent and personhood?
I suppose you’re always aware of it because you realize – it’s a conscious attempt even if it’s not a conscious action. To consciously start to speak another way or whether it happens through some sort of aspirational osmosis, and that’s often an aspirational choice.
And you want to rebel – this is from the age of 13, 14, 15 onwards. Once you’ve lived in that world and as that person for a particular amount of time, you begin to question what you’ve done and what person you’ve become because you realize that actually isn’t a qualification for doing what you do.
Here’s Tiffany talking about his project: