Voice and dialect coach Geraldine Cook-Dafner has spent much of her working life assisting people from disadvantaged communities find their vocal identity.
Read her Performer Profile.
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Victorian Seniors Festival Reimagined 2020
Geraldine Cook-Dafner - Week 14
My name is Tristan Meecham and welcome to the Victorian Seniors Festival reimagined in 2020. These are particularly hard times for people in Victoria, especially our older Victorians and the creative team behind In The Groove hope that these videos provide you with some respite during these challenging times. Today on In the Groove, I am personally honoured to welcome a previous teacher of mine and renowned Australian vocal dialect and text coach. I’ve done my vocal warm up and I am honoured to welcome Dr Geraldine Cook-Dafner. Geraldine, how are you?
Thank you, Tristan. Yes, I can hear you. You’ve completed your vocal warm up. Well done.
How have you found your voice through your work?
I think I’ve found my voice really by working with my body, with lots of different people, because the thing that I always think about whenever I come to work with someone is this is the first time I’ve ever heard your voice and it’s absolutely unique. The first thing I want them to experience is a comfort with their voice, that their voice belongs to them and that they feel comfortable with it. So, I’m probably going to learn a lot about voice working with you and, also, I have to say, I learnt a lot about voice from working with young hearing-impaired adults. That was an extraordinary experience for me because they really know how to communicate with the body. You know, that’s what they rely on and their facial expressions and, so, I learnt a lot about listening. Listening with my body from them and I learned a lot about silence and I learned a lot about trying to find a place where we could come together just to listen.
Teaching has always been a through line of your career. You were the previous head of voice and theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts but you’ve also worked with many communities and people to find their voice.
The first was when I was teaching drama in east end of London, Tower Hamlets, which had a community of West Indian young women, recent arrivals from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and, of course, the recent arrivals hardly spoke English at all. So, for them, the drama that we did was really, really important and I was very influenced by a teacher that I had, Dorothy Heathcote, who talked about the mantle of the expert and she took whenever you were working with people, you always gave them the mantle of the expert.
So, we really encouraged these young women to write their own plays in their own language, in their own dialect, and to really create a vocal identity that - that was empowered. They were young. Honestly, they were only 12 years old and I’ll never forget I was doing some work with them about - we did Shakespeare’s, the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We were doing our kings and queens and, you know, and status. It was really about status and suddenly the curtain on the stage just parted and this little girl, she would have been 11 or 12, pointed her finger at me and she said, “You. You are wanted to see the queen.” and I went, “Oh, yes, yes, Your Majesty, immediately.” and it was in that moment, a young Bangladeshi girl speaking English for the first time in this community and saying to me, and reversing role. She had high status and I had low status and that was - and she did it with her voice.
The third time was working with people with intellectual and physical disabilities and finding that they’ve - how their voices suddenly came through their bodies, I’ll never know. Most of them didn’t use verbal language but, once the voice was released through the body, it was an extraordinary sound.
You’ve chosen a very particular relevant piece for our audience as part of In The Groove.
I’ve chosen The Burrow by Franz Kafka and I guess I chose it because, in these times, we’re all burrowing down or hunkering down. We’re all trying to protect ourselves. We’re all trying to build our defences and I just thought it was a great metaphor for our times that we’re all gone back into our burrows.
I have completed the entrance to my burrow. All that can be seen from outside is a big hole that, however, really leads nowhere. If you take a few steps, you strike against natural firm rock. I can make no boast of having contrived this ruse intentionally. It is simply the remains of one of my many abortive building attempts but, finally, it seemed to me advisable to leave this one hole without filling it in. True, some ruses are so subtle that they defeat themselves.
I know that better than anyone and it is certainly a risk to draw attention by this hole to the fact that there may be something in the vicinity worth inquiring into but you do not know me if you think I am afraid or that I built my burrow simply out of fear. At a distance of some thousand paces from this hole lies, covered by a movable layer of moss, the real entrance to the burrow. It is secured as safely as anything in this world can be secured.
Yet, someone could step on the moss or break through it and then my burrow would lie open and anybody who liked - please note, however, that quite uncommon abilities would also be required - could make his way in and destroy everything for good. I know that very well and, even now, at the zenith of my life, I can scarcely pass an hour in complete tranquility. At that one point in the dark moss, I am vulnerable and, in my dreams, I often see a greedy muzzle sniffing around it persistently.
It will be objected that I could quite well have filled in the entrance too with a thin layer of hard earth on top and with loose soil further down so that it would not cost me much trouble to dig my way out again whenever I liked but that plan is impossible. Prudence itself demands that I should always have a way of leaving at a moment’s notice, if necessary. Prudence itself demands, as alas so often, to risk one’s life.
All this involves laborious calculation and the sheer pleasure of the mind in its own keenness is often the sole reason why one keeps it up. I must have a way of leaving at a moment’s notice for, despite all my vigilance, may I not be attacked from some quite unexpected quarter. I live in peace in the inmost chamber of my house and, meanwhile, the enemy may be burrowing his way slowly and stealthily, straight towards me.
I do not say that he has a better scent than I. Probably he knows so little about me as I of him but the most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment, it may be shattered and then all will be over. For the time being, however, the silence is still with me.