I’d come across Barbara Houseman’s work before in my acting training, so when a dear friend and voice teacher nudged me about a scholarship for Steph’s vocal retreat with Barbara, of course I applied - but didn’t actually think I had a chance of getting it. That was probably one of the signs that a post-pandemic reset was just what I needed.
On the train down to Wales, I wondered if I’d made the right decision - could I take a break that long from work, blah blah blah. But it ended up being one of the best things I’ve done all year.
We spent seven days working in Steph’s beautiful studio, surrounded by stone walls, wooden panelling, and floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights which filled the space with sunlight, and a view of the Autumn trees on the opposite hillside, which I watched change colour throughout the week.
I loved Barbara’s holistic approach to voice work, which saw us working on just about everything, starting with movement, then voice and finally, text.
In 2019, a year after taking the plunge into the world of professional acting, I had the pleasure of doing a 4-day voice course with Barbara Houseman in Leeds through Both Feet Actor Training. Having never been to drama school, I was totally new to the world of ‘voicework’. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I already talk – a lot. Why would I need to pay someone to teach me to use my voice?
I’m not one to easily admit that I’m wrong, but I hold my hands up to this one. I came away from that week with a wealth of knowledge about my voice – not just the way I speak, but the way I speak to myself. Barbara’s holistic approach to voice work struck a chord with me instantly, and I found myself tapping into parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed. More importantly, I began to listen to them with kindness. It never even occurred to me that my inner voice would have an impact on my outer voice – but of course it would. It’s all connected.
Of course, then 2 years pass and things get busy and the Tories get in again and we have an international pandemic and the world grinds to a halt and all of that wonderful insight, growth and knowledge fades through despondence and lack of use.
So, when I saw that Steph was running another course with Barbara this year I was one of the first people to book on. I’d already been to Bodlondeb Studio and Retreat for the brilliant Acting and Action Adventure actor training course in August – in an attempt to hit the reset button after ‘the year that never was’ – and I couldn’t think of anything better than spending some more time in the wonderful Welsh countryside with these wonderful women. My only slight concern was that I might end up repeating material from the 2019 course – was there a possibility that I could feel short changed?
Firstly, returning to Bodlondeb was always going to be special in itself. I may have only been there twice but it already holds a very special place in my heart and gut. The space is warm, welcoming and full of light – it pours into the studio whatever the weather. The sight of the rolling Welsh hills during the daytime is as beautiful as the stars that literally cover the sky during the night.
The curtains round the individual beds in the bedrooms provide a level of privacy and space – which several people made use of as they needed it – while the sitting room provides a gorgeously snug space to get to know each other. I really enjoy communal living, and one of my favourite things about staying at the retreat is the chance to eat round a table with a group of adults every night (a treat I’m sure any parent will identify with…).
Then, as the training started, any doubts that I might have had about repeating material were put to bed straight away.
Over the week, the 7 of us (plus Barbara and Steph, who was student-ing this week along with us) lived together, worked together, played together.
Inside the studio, we did tai chi, danced 5 rhythms, breathed, praised each other’s backs (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it), acknowledged our inner critics, explored our vagal responses, played with resonance and range, brrr-ed and walked our way through texts and watched each other work.
Outside the studio, we toasted marshmallows, ate chocolate and drank wine with one of the world’s leading voice coaches. We listened to her incredible, hilarious stories about her experience in this crazy industry that we all love so much, and we laughed along with her. We built fire on a hillside and sang together in harmony, swam in a lake and warmed each other up, climbed a literal mountain together and watched the sun go down, rafted down white water rapids and worked as a team.
We laughed until we couldn’t stand up straight, cried until the floodgates opened, danced into our rage, our joy, our compassion. We sang Queen and Hamilton round the piano, skipped over a skipping rope, bathed in sound, released, opened, connected and held each other (literally and metaphorically).
Ultimately, we watched each other change.
Did we repeat some of the same exercises from the 2019 course? Yep.
Did I care? Nope. Not for one second.
While I’m sure that we have all come away with technical skills and a deeper knowledge of vocal technique, when Barbara asked us on the last day what our learnings were, we were all saying the same things: trust, acceptance, allowing, grounding. All of which seem like a pretty solid base upon which to build our craft.
My husband said to me last night, ‘you seem very alive since coming home’. He’s not wrong. And, most excitingly, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. The phrase ‘life-changing’ gets bandied around a lot, but it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration in this case.
Huge, huge thanks to both Barbara and Steph for welcoming our whole selves into the space every day with such openness and compassion.
I already can’t wait to go back.
Nicki Davy is an actor, musician and writer. She attended the Voice Retreat with Barbara Houseman in November 2021 which was designed for actors, public speakers and professional voice users.
If you haven’t been able to join us at Bodlondeb Retreat and Studio in Wales in 2021, keep your eyes peeled for updates on our calendar and sign up to our mailing list to be the first to know about our upcoming retreats!
Barbara will be back in 2022 with short weekend retreats + longer retreats for both actors, voice coaches and any human who's wanting to develop their inner and outer voice.