By Arthur Lessac
August 3, 2009 at the VASTA Conference in New York, NY
“Voice is so much more than tone or timbre, vowels or consonants. It is so much more than the apparatus. A voice that is free, that feels its inherent right to speak, will have no fear of calling out, whenever and wherever it is needed.
But most importantly, a voice can be a beacon in the darkness, something that lights the way for others.
And therefore, for my meaning of ‘voice’, I chose “visionary”—someone who lights the way for others.”
Who is Arthur Lessac?
From the early 1930s, Arthur Lessac investigated how the human body and voice function naturally and instinctively. As a scholarship student of voice at the Eastman School of Music (1932-36) and of voice and speech education at New York University (B.A., ‘41), his awareness began of the shortcomings of traditional voice training and he began experimenting with new techniques for what he named “organic instruction.” He incorporated his explorations into his private teaching and applied them to his work as a vocal coach and dialogue director for several New York productions, beginning with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s production of Pins and Needles in 1937, a production that had 1,108 performances and became the longest-running Broadway musical at that time.
In 1939 he won critical praise for his work with a cast of immigrants (few of whom spoke any English) on the Broadway show From Vienna. He continued acting and directing several productions during this time. In 1945 he founded and directed the National Academy of Vocal Arts (NAVA) employing a staff of twenty-one teachers until he left to pursue private teaching in 1950. NAVA provided a valuable laboratory for the further development of the ideas that would become Lessac Kinesensic Training. In 1951 he became the voice and speech teacher at the Stella Adler Theater Studio and began teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, an association which would last for twenty years. In 1952 he enrolled at NYU, received his Masters of Science degree the next year in voice-speech clinical therapy, and continued his doctoral work throughout the rest of the decade. In addition to further study in speech and voice education, he investigated clinical therapy extensively, in such subjects as speech pathology, physiology, and psychology. He studied anatomy and neurology at Bellevue Hospital and did a clinical internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital, as well as studied at a psychoanalytical institute for one year. Mr. Lessac found that his ideas were beginning to form a unified and systematic method of training. He gained insight into the use of the voice and the body, a philosophy of total communication that grew naturally out of his concept of speech and voice as an inner physical action. In order to explore the implications of this work, he established the Lessac Institute for Voice and Speech in 1965 and began writing his ideas for a teaching text.
In 1960, Mr. Lessac privately published the first edition of The Use and Training of the Human Voice in a printing of 600 for the use of his students. That same year Professor Sue Ann Park began to use Kinesensics at the Goodman Theater and School of Drama in Chicago. She was among the first of a growing number of top-grade professionals to recognize the importance of this training in their work. Within ten years the Lessac Kinesensic Training had been adopted in over sixty universities and colleges in the United States and abroad. Teachers of children and business professionals also adopted this work in their teaching. Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead founded and directed the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in 1962 and appointed Mr. Lessac to create the program in voice, speech and singing for the professional company. Mr. Lessac taught with influential theatre artists, such as Robert Lewis of the Group Theatre and Anna Sokolow. Demand grew with four additional printings in the next six years including extensive revisions in 1964 and 1965 (nearly 4000 copies of the first edition were sold). There was immediate response from a number of different fields: medicine, psychology, physics, physiology, psychiatry and theater. Drama Book Publishers released the second edition (greatly expanded and rewritten) in 1967. In 1970 the State University of New York- Binghamton appointed Mr. Lessac as a full professor of theater with a mandate to reorganize the acting program. He remained for twelve years (retiring in 1981 as Emeritus Professor) contributing to the design and development of the MFA program and directing the certificate program in Lessac Training. In 1978, Drama Book Publishers released his second book Body Wisdom: The Use and Training of the Human Body. This book completes a full statement of the Lessac research, training and development. But more importantly, it is the larger half of the statement because it incorporates the voice and speech book as an integral part of body training and body wisdom.
Mr. Lessac was and remains among the most highly regarded teachers of voice, speech, singing and movement in the training world.
Among the three generations of actors, singers, and dancers touched by his teaching are Martin Sheen, Beatrice Straight, George Grizzard, Faye Dunaway, Irene Daily, Carol Haney, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Douglas, Frank Langella, Michael O’Keefe, Peter Scolari, Morris Charnovsky, Linda Hunt, Nina Foch, and Catherine Malfitano.
Since 1961 when Mr. Lessac appeared at a two day workshop at the Goodman School of Drama, there have been many workshops, presentations and demonstrations of Lessac Kinesensics before drama, voice and speech professional and academic audiences. Broadcasters, industry leaders, military personnel and therapists have recognized the Lessac work as an effective resource in their respective fields. Mr. Lessac taught over 35 four-, six- and eight-week intensive workshops for theater professionals, trainers, teachers, students and researchers from 1960 until his passing. They were held at college campuses throughout the United States, Germany, Yugoslavia, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. Over 1000 people took these workshops, including attendees from Australia, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Greece, South Africa, Ghana, Chile, Brazil, Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Nigeria. In 1992, Mr. Lessac conducted a semester-long Lessac Master Training program as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Virginia. At the age of 85, he conducted three master workshop programs at the Texas TheaterFest ‘94 in Dallas. In 1995, he led and participated in a full day pre-Conference Workshop at the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Conference in Long Beach, California. In 1996, he led a five-week intensive workshop at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, and, in 1997, a six-week intensive workshop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Mayfield Publishing Company (now owned by McGraw-Hill Publishing Company) released an extensive revision of The Use and Training of the Human Voice: A Bio-Dynamic Approach to Vocal Life in 1997. In 2002, at 93 years of age, he led guest teaching workshops at Baylor University, Virginia Commonwealth University and a special 6-hour presentation for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference in San Diego, California. Additionally, Mr. Lessac offered regular workshops and master teaching over four month periods in South Africa.
In 1991 he received the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s Distinguished Career Award and, in 1998, ATHE recognized him for Career Achievement as Outstanding Teacher. In 2002 he was honored to accept the Northeastern Theatre Conference “Excellence in Theatre Education, Educator of the Year” Award. The Voice and Speech Trainers’ Association celebrated Mr. Lessac at their 2009 conference, where he gave their keynote speech.
In Mr. Lessac’s final years he was an active member of the Voice and Speech Trainers’ Association; the Association for Theatre in Higher Education; the Speech Communication Association; the American Speech and Hearing Association; the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; and the Association of Theatre Movement Educators. His main focus included research in extending and expanding the open-ended nature of this body of training into three new NRGS: Love, Spirit, and Soul. His life’s goal was to help people use his work to find peace, health, and wellness within themselves, their communities and the world.