Kristin Linklater, Who Made Actors Their Vocal Best, Dies at 84


Kristin Linklater, a vocal coach renowned for helping actors free their inner voices, died on June 5 at her home in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. She was 84.

Her son, the actor Hamish Linklater, said the cause was a heart attack.

For more than a half-century, Ms. Linklater taught vocal technique to A-list stars like Patrick Stewart, Donald Sutherland and Sigourney Weaver; to students at New York University, Emerson College and Columbia University; and to people far removed from the performing arts who simply wanted to be less timid vocally.

Most recently her teaching had been at the Kristin Linklater Voice Center in Sandwick, Orkney, which she established in 2014 after retiring from Columbia. Since her death, the center’s Facebook page has filled with hundreds of comments from those who benefited from her instruction or from two books she wrote that have become part of many actors’ kit bags: “Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language” (1976) and “Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice: The Actor’s Guide to Talking the Text” (1992).

The techniques she espoused went far beyond mere elocution.

“Everyone possesses a voice capable of expressing, through a two- to four-octave natural pitch range, whatever gamut of emotion, complexity of mood and subtlety of thought he or she experiences,” she wrote in “Freeing the Natural Voice.”

But, she continued, tensions, inhibitions and other factors “often diminish the efficiency of the natural voice to the point of distorted communication.”

She taught that speaking was not merely translating thoughts into words but should involve the entire body. The ultimate goal, she wrote, was that “the person is heard, not the person’s voice.”

Among the many who took her training was Heather Dick, an actress who is now artistic director of the Sirius Theatrical Company near Toronto.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know why or how it helped me, only that through the exercises I felt more grounded, more relaxed, more vulnerable and able to bring more of ‘me’ to every character I created,” Ms. Dick wrote in a tribute on the theater’s Facebook page. “Much later, I came to understand that Kristin’s exercises were helping to free ‘me,’ so that I could reveal more of my ‘true self’ through my work.”

Kristin Linklater was born on April 22, 1936, in Edinburgh. Her father, Eric, was a writer, and her mother, Marjorie (MacIntyre) Linklater, was known for promoting arts and environmental causes in the Orkney area, where Kristin grew up.

“My father was a writer, a novelist,” she told the journal Mosaic in 2011. “He loved words, and even when he was in the height of rage, for instance with my mother because she had once again not boiled the potatoes to exactly the right degree of softness, he would throw the potatoes, and then say something extremely elaborate about her inability to cook. So I certainly grew up with language going into my system, as food in a way.”

She trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where she encountered Iris Warren, a voice teacher she credited with introducing many of the ideas she later developed into what came to be called the Linklater Voice Method.

“It was Iris Warren who moved the science of voice production for British actors into a new phase in the mid-20th century by adding psychological understanding to physiological knowledge,” Ms. Linklater wrote in “Freeing the Natural Voice.”

After graduating from the academy, she taught voice there for six years. Some of her students were Americans, and they encouraged her to take her techniques to the United States, where there were few such teachers.

She made the trip in 1963, expecting a short stay during which she might teach some private students. Instead, the day after she arrived, the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, having heard about her work in Britain, called. It was preparing the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” and asked her to come take a look.

“I made a note: ‘The man playing Quentin needs a lot of work,’” she told Mosaic. The man was Jason Robards; when the play opened in January 1964, he drew rave reviews.

Ms. Linklater’s temporary stay in the United States would turn into a career. Method actors coming out of places like the Actors Studio in New York sometimes lacked vocal training.

“The mumblers needed their consonants pricked, their vowels individuated, and their volumes turned way, way up,” Hamish Linklater wrote in an essay summarizing his mother’s career. “They had the naturalism, but they needed it freed.”

Ms. Linklater taught voice in New York University’s graduate theater program from 1965 to 1978, and during this period she also worked as vocal coach with the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and other groups.

In 1978 she left Manhattan for the Berkshires, where she joined Tina Packer in founding Shakespeare & Company, which staged performances and conducted workshops. Ms. Packer and Ms. Linklater wanted to help theater rediscover the poetry of Shakespeare at a time when the standard interpretations in British theater were, they thought, male-dominated and overly cerebral. Their intent, Ms. Linklater told The New York Times in 1983, was “to get the words out of the head and into the body, where they are experienced emotionally and viscerally.”

Ms. Linklater moved to Boston to teach at Emerson in 1990. She and Carol Gilligan, a Harvard psychologist, led a group called the Company of Women, which explored Shakespeare from a woman’s point of view. Ms. Linklater moved to Columbia in 1997.

In addition to her son, Ms. Linklater is survived by a sister, Alison; a brother, Magnus; and three granddaughters.

Ms. Linklater believed that good vocal technique could be an asset in professions other than acting. In 2010 a reporter for The Times looked on at the Miller Theater at Columbia as she took a group of fellows from the World Economic Forum through an exercise that involved tapping various body parts to release tension.

“Now tap your own buttocks,” she told the group as self-conscious laughter erupted. “Remember what I said earlier: Tension in your buttocks makes you stupid.”

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