Meet Jess Chambers, Bell Shakespeare’s Voice and Text Coach



What is a voice and text coach?

A voice and text coach helps the actors keep their voice in shape for the demands of their job and the demands of the text. Our actors at Bell Shakespeare often go on long tours around the country and perform in lots of different spaces, and it’s my responsibility to make sure, no matter what space they are performing in, the audience can hear them and understand them.

How did you become a voice and text coach?

I did my undergraduate degree in theatre and linguistics so I had a real love for sounds and particularly phonetics. I really loved doing drama myself but my love for sound and language was equal to performing and I wanted to find a job that combined these two things – and it turns out this is the perfect job! After I finished my undergraduate degree I went to London and studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama to be a voice coach. It’s the best place in the world to become a voice and text coach.

Why is a voice and text coach important in a production?

I often compare my job to that of an athletic coach. You would expect an Olympic athlete to continue training with support from a coach throughout their career – we should expect the same thing from our actors. I help actors to keep their voices in shape and to keep improving their technique; even the most experienced actors.

Is there anything especially difficult about working on a Shakespeare play compared to other plays?

Shakespeare brings its own challenges for actors when they are working on voice and text specifically. The challenge when working with Shakespeare is that the language can sound foreign to an audience and if an actor hasn’t spent time unpacking the character’s thoughts and how they are represented in Shakespeare’s language, then an audience will find it really difficult to connect to the character’s thoughts and the actions of the play. We spend a lot of time at Bell Shakespeare unpacking exactly what the character is saying and how can we use the text to help our audience hear that. We look at the structure of the sentence, the structure of the line, the punctuation, the sounds that Shakespeare has chosen to use, the alliteration and assonance, the consonants and the vowels, and of course the pentameter, which all helps the audience to follow and engage with a character’s thoughts.

When working on a production do you think about the audience that will be listening and does that affect your process?

An important part of my work at Bell Shakespeare is making sure that our actors are speaking in their own voices. At Bell Shakespeare, we are trying to keep Shakespeare relatable to our audiences today, so we perform Shakespeare and other classical texts in Australian accents. That’s a vital part of my job – making sure the actors are performing in their own voices, not feeling they have to layer something else on top of it.

The Players at Bell Shakespeare have a really tough job, maybe even more demanding than our mainstage actors, because their audiences are school audiences, many of who are very young and who maybe haven’t learned the convention of sitting quietly in a dark theatre, respectfully letting the actors perform their play. They respond to The Players in the moment, just as those in Shakespeare’s time would have. The unknown is an exciting part of what they have to engage with.

Vocally, The Players perform in a lot of different spaces that aren’t designed for performances. Often, they are high school gymnasium with 200 noisy school children and The Player has to get their voice to carry across the space, to reach every one of those students and keep all the students engaged.

Jess works internationally as a voice and dialect coach. For Bell Shakespeare she was the voice coach for Julius Caesar, The Misanthrope, The Players, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant Of Venice, Richard 3, Othello, Romeo And Juliet and the 2014 national tour of Henry V. Her other theatre credits include How To Rule The World, Power Plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Battle Of Waterloo for Sydney Theatre Company; Matilda The Musical in Australia for The Royal Shakespeare Company and Louise Withers and in London for The Royal Shakespeare Company; and Alice In Wonderland, Sweet Charity, You Never Can Tell and Pygmalion for The Shaw Festival Theatre (Canada); as dialect coach: School of Rock for GWB Entertainment and The Really Useful Group; Jersey Boys for Rodney Rigby, TEG Dainty and The Dodgers; Les Misérables for Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Cassel; and The Sound Of Music for John Frost and The Really Useful Group; and as assistant voice coach: Noises Off, Romeo And Juliet and Storm Boy for Sydney Theatre Company. Her television credits include Frayed (ABC/Sky TV) and The Unlisted (ABC). Her film credits include dialect assistance on Hacksaw Ridge. Jess trained at Central School of Speech and Drama.