Actors’ use of gibberish

Harriet Walter, in her book Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting, describes an exercise in actors’ training which is designed to ‘break the language barrier and stretch one’s physical invention’.

Named Gibberish, it is:

harriet walter - other people's shoes - thoughts on actingthe practice of substituting what was in the script with our own gobbledegook. The purpose was to release us from the constrictions of another person’s words, to bypass ‘meaning’ and send us straight to a creative source we might not know we had. With Gibberish we could burst our civilized seams and see what else was there. Who were we when released from the conditioning shackles of our hereditary patterns of speech?

At LAMDA [London Academy Of Music & Dramatic Art] we invented fabulous hybrid languages (mostly based on soundtracks from Swedish, Russian or Japanese movies) which broke the mould of our familiar accents and tones. We rediscovered the infantile pleasure in making noises and letting them reverberate to the ends of our toes.

But there came a moment when we wanted more. Gibberish had tapped a core energy, but because we could not really communicate we could not develop. We could get a rough idea across, but not the sophistications of a character’s mind. We might have loved someone and wanted to describe that love . . . but all we could say was ‘Grosh roobly broo.’ We grew as frustrated as two-year olds. We had refound the neeEED for words.

Walter’s report of how it allows actors to ‘burst’ their ‘civilized seams’ and escape their ‘conditioning shackles’ is telling. My post on films of linguistic interest includes the subversive French film Themroc (1973) in which everyone – inexplicably – speaks gibberish: no language, just garbled sounds that imitate it. The protagonist renounces society and regresses to a primitive, rebellious mode of living, prompting others to follow suit.

I can see how imposing such a constraint voluntarily and temporarily could help performers connect with a stranger’s script and its emotional content. Gesture often seems to be recruited or augmented to compensate for the lack of verbal precision. Further reports on this exercise, its variations and applications, can be found by searching Google Books for acting gibberish or some such phrase.

Oh, and I just remembered that Other People’s Shoes featured in a bookmash here a few months ago. Sometimes doing that bumps a book up the reading pile, even if it is just from it-could-be-years to it-may-be-months.

7 Responses to Actors’ use of gibberish

  1. Mark Gallagher says:

    Some years ago, the theatre where I worked presented a production of “Wings” by Arthur Kopit. The main character of the play, Emily Stilson, has a stroke and, as a consequence, suffers from expressive aphasia, In the fluent version of this affliction, patients can speak but their speech is laced with “jargon,” individual words and phrases that are complete gibberish.

    I asked Darrie Lawrence, who played Emily in our production, if it was easier to learn her lines with so much of it being nonsense. She replied that she had memorized every syllable of jargon that Kopit had written. “Otherwise – if I ad libbed those parts,” she said, “I might lose track of where I was and what Emily was saying.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for that insight, Mark. I don’t know the play, but it sounds interesting. While impromptu gibberish is all very well in exercises, I guess it would hinder one’s memory of any surrounding script – so it makes sense to learn specific gibberish for performance, as you describe Darrie Lawrence doing. Consistency is another element, of course.

  2. claritysol says:

    Back in the 80’s a theater in Minneapolis presented a play called ‘Cleveland’ which had to do with family conflict; an additional layer was included in which the lights were dimmed and the two women were clothed differently and were interacting in their true selves – warring leaders of different alternate-reality kingdoms.
    In those scenes, they used ‘whisperspeak.’ I heard from one of the actors later that they created the specific sounds for that dialogue partially by reading license plates out loud. Highly recommend!
    In our theater at that time (Punchinello Players, no longer exists) our production of ‘Waiting for Godot’ was delightful of course. The actor playing Lucky loved doing it; and acknowledged that it was quite strenuous, both the long passages needing to be memorized and the related physical aspects.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I like the sound of this ‘whisperspeak’, Claire. For its effect to work in a live dramatic setting, I imagine that viewers should ideally be ignorant of the mundane inspiration for its sounds! Though it must also have been fun to discover this later.

  3. ucroninUl says:

    I remember when I moved to Spain without any command of the language, I found myself speaking gibberish for perhaps six months. I felt exactly like those actors did — primitive, like a toddler who could not express themselves. The basic needs were the first things I learned to verbalise: hunger, thirst, where’s the toilet. Then after a while I “evolved”. They say when you dream in a foreign language, that’s when you’re truly fluent. Has anyone ever dreamt in gibberish?

    • Mark Gallagher says:

      I don’t recall ever dreaming in gibberish. I suspect the part of your brain that tries to make sense of the strange, unconnected images we dream would make some sort of sense out of uttered sounds. Reading, on the other hand, is a different story. Whenever I see text in a dream it quickly turns into unintelligible swarms of type that can’t be turned into anything readable.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I don’t remember ever dreaming in gibberish, but I wouldn’t assume that no one has. As for other languages, as a teenager I recall the strange delight the first time I dreamt in French (during my first stay in the country). My dreams are mostly non-verbal, though. Text in my dreams is often illegible, but not always.

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