What is Knight-Thompson Speechwork (KTS)?
Knight-Thompson Speechwork (KTS) is a skills-based approach to speech and accent training for actors that places emphasis on developing the speaker’s detailed awareness of—and deep engagement with—the precise physical actions which make up speech. By combining a rigorous investigation of those actions with playful, experiential exercises, this work moves efficiently past the usual interference that can make speech training difficult for many students.
KTS is Curious
The primary guiding principle is curious, attentive interrogation—interrogation of what speakers are doing physically when they speak; interrogation of what physical habits we may bring to the act of speaking that inhibit free and flexible expression; interrogation of what it is that makes speech intelligible or unintelligible; thoughtful investigation of what any text, moment, character, or medium might require from the actor in terms of skilled speech; interrogation of what, precisely, makes up what we call an “accent”; interrogation of what allows actors to most efficiently, skillfully, and accurately adopt accents, or otherwise make adjustments to their speech.
This inherent questioning aspect of the work demands of its practitioners a certain tolerance of ambiguity and a willingness to remain in a state of unknowing. We build in to our practice a consciously adopted ignorance as starting point for our investigations. This might be compared to the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin (初心) or “beginner’s mind.” At each step, exploration precedes explanation. Description precedes prescription.
KTS is Developmental
The process through which each one of us came to be skillful users of our first language was not a didactic one. For the vast majority of people, language is spoken long before it is written, and it is felt and embodied as a skill long before it is explained through grammar. When we return as adults to explore and expand this skill, it is useful to approach it in a similar way.
A Knight-Thompson Speechwork workshop or class usually begins with a study of anatomy. Through active play and close attention to specific physicality, the course of study then proceeds to delve into descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) phonetics. Students learn all of the International Phonetic Alphabet as defined by the International Phonetic Association— all of the speech actions, all of the descriptive terminology, and finally, all of the symbols and diacritics2. Students experience and learn the specific physicality of all possible speech actions before they learn the symbols; this pedagogical strategy aids in the learning of the symbols and reinforces kinesthetic awareness of speech actions. As students gain mastery of phonetics, they proceed to use the IPA to carry out narrow phonetic transcription of speech. Throughout, the rigor of our work is infused with playful and exploratory exercises to encourage students to own and integrate their new skills, as well as to continue cultivating their curiosity about their own and others’ speech.
KTS is Playful
A playful approach is certainly more appealing to students, but there is more to this aspect of the teaching than simple relief from the monotony of hard work. The unstructured and unpredictable process of engaging in play yields tremendous dividends in the speed and efficiency of learning new skills and awareness. Play is in fact the primary mode of learning and skill building for children (Ormrod 2011), and when we return to play as adults, we are able to access again that mode of learning that served us so well when we first discovered language. One key exercise in this work involves speaking a fictitious improvised language called Omnish. Students take their newly gained knowledge and skills in the broad range of physical speech actions and combine them in a fluent and fantastical exploration. Students are tasked not only with the execution of all possible actions of human speech, but also using this “language” to express their own complex and immediate thoughts. This work strengthens actors’ skills of articulation and awareness of the physical gestures of speech while simultaneously connecting this activity with their human, communicative needs. Actors are, of course, players as well, and by studying speech in an environment of fluent experimentation and play, KTS reinforces and integrates this work within the larger context of an actor’s skill.
KTS is Rigorous
The notion of learning all human speech sounds may seem daunting, even unrealistic, particularly if our view of speech training is limited to actors working in a single language or in a narrow range of possible accents. KTS sees such limitations as unhelpfully constraining to an actor, both because it leaves many possibilities of artistic speech unconsidered and because a fuller awareness of what speech can do necessarily enriches our experience and skill, even if we then choose to remain within the constraints of what we usually do.
The scope of this project then necessitates a rigorous and systematic understanding of human speech. Fortunately, our colleagues in the field of linguistics continue to work to refine our understanding of speech and the International Phonetic Alphabet as a way of communicating very precisely about the details of pronunciation. KTS embraces the rigor of that system and brings this rigor to actors in the full confidence that a rational system of thinking is not always made easier to understand through simplification. Some simplification is necessary, of course, but our goal is to find a useful balance between explanatory simplicity and a respect for complexity. This is a difficult task, but it is essential if we hope to bring our students to a richer and more skillful experience of how they speak.
KTS is Sociolinguistically Aware
Variations in language are a part of a social landscape. Our particular set of speech behaviors communicates something about our identity, history, and cultural context. This information is judged by those around us as carrying positive or negative value (Hudson 1996). The pressure of those judgements—together with our sense that our speech is representative of our identity—makes work on speech uniquely challenging. KTS acknowledges this landscape of social pressure and seeks to equip actors with tools for awareness and skills for making strong, personal, and meaningful artistic choices relating to speech and accents.
Traditional methods of speech training3 have focused on teaching actors some variety of “standard” speech.4 This goal has often (though not always) come together with a claim that this variety of speech is superior to—and more “correct” than—other “nonstandard” ways of speaking. Though there may be admirable rigor in the classroom practice of teachers of this work, KTS sees this traditional approach as fundamentally limiting to actors, as well as being linguistically and pedagogically unsound. By leading with prescription, the teacher will inevitably add to the perceptual confusion about speech that all students bring to the table. If, on the other hand, actors are first asked to experience their own vocal tracts in a thoughtful way and taught to be able to both feel and understand exactly what is happening in the vocal tract in order to produce the full range of speech sounds that exist in human languages, then they are vastly better equipped to do everything an actor needs to do, from connecting viscerally to language to acquiring and truthfully embodying other accents.
KTS is Skillful
An acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of bias in our judgements about speech does not prevent us from setting some positive goals and values. For us, the first goal or “standard” for an actor’s speech is intelligibility. This is not a fixed property of some idealized and prescribed accent model, but a constantly negotiated process between speaker and listener, within conditions set by the acoustics of the space and the familiarity of the audience with the language style. Students explore this negotiation without set targets of pronunciation, and from this exploration, they draw conclusions about the most effective features for increasing and decreasing intelligibility.
People make these adjustments intuitively by attending to the opposing values of fluency and detail. If actors wish to be more intelligible, our chief strategy is to increase linguistic detail, often at a cost to fluency. These are largely unconscious adjustments, but after initial exploration into making the adjustments, we can begin to focus on the specific strategies or skills we employ. These strategies can then be enumerated and studied as separable skills with a range of possible executions. With increased physical awareness and flexibility and with a solid foundation in descriptive phonetics, students are well-equipped to make subtle adjustments in their speech in accordance with the needs of the play, character, medium, and moment.
Crucially, in addition to building skills in perceiving, describing, and embodying the sounds of speech with precision, KTS work also explores the actor’s skill in balancing and transforming the complex stream of speech as a fluent totality. Students learn to make finely tuned adjustments both up and down the scale of linguistic detail, providing more or less energy in their speech actions. It is essential that actors develop a sensitivity and skill in increasing or decreasing the activity, energy, and range of motion of their speech without locking in to one particular accent or style of speech. No one speech register will suit all occasions, just as no one accent will serve all characters an actor might play.
KTS is Accents
Contained within the set of possible patterns of speech activity are the varieties of speech that we would call “accent” or “dialect.” This is, of course, an enormous part of what actors are interested in when they seek training in speech. For KTS, work on accents flows naturally from the preceding work on awareness, articulatory skill, and confidence in fine-tuning the flow of speech. In particular, working through awareness of the physical actions of articulation and encountering all the sounds of human speech equips students to quickly perceive and reproduce the details of an unfamiliar accent.
Acting in accent is a complex task and requires a great deal of analytical and descriptive understanding, but it is also a performance task that must be embodied and integrated with the totality of an actor’s performance skills and sensitivities. KTS is concerned with developing an actor’s ability to perceive and analyze the component parts of an accent, while strengthening the skills that lead to fluent and authentic performance.
KTS addresses accents under four headings: People, Posture, Prosody, and Pronunciation.
People, also called cultural context, refers to an investigation of the world in which an accent is spoken, the societal, historical, and geographical context of the accent. Explor
ation of the cultural context provides actors with imaginative links to the character and assists actors in identifying personally with the character’s circumstances and behavior. A connection with the people also prepares the actor to approach their performance with a fitting respect for the culture and humanity of the people whose identities they are representing.
Posture refers simply to the configuration of the vocal tract during speech (Knight 2012). Through the preceding work, actors develop awareness and the ability to exercise fine motor control over the speech mechanism. This is essential for an understanding of the way speech features flow from the arrangement and state of engagement of the parts of the vocal tract. Making adjustments to this configuration provides a powerful means of effecting changes in accent. This is also the aspect of accent performance that allows actors to manage and remain connected to the other skills of accent in performance. Having invested in the other features, posture is often the handle or interface with the felt experience which guides the rest.
Prosody refers to the rhythmic and melodic aspects of accent. This has long been recognized as a central identifying feature for the perception of accent, but language for the objective analysis of prosodic features remains elusive. In the KTS approach, actors build up an inventory of melodic and rhythmic behaviors for an accent and practice deploying them in the improvisational stream of free speech.
Pronunciation is the aspect of accent analysis most commonly addressed in other approaches to accent. Under this heading, it is important to distinguish clearly between the characteristic sounds of an accent (phonetics) and their distribution (phonology). Actors need to develop a physical and perceptual sense of precisely how a speech sound is rendered in an accent, but it is equally important to know under which conditions that sound is deployed.
By addressing characteristic sounds with reference to the speaker’s system of sound categories, the inherent variability in the realization of these sounds, and the relation of these sounds to the speaker’s vocal tract posture, actors can more confidently achieve an accent performance that authentically represents the speech of the character.
Knight-Thompson Speechwork is a highly effective, skills-based approach to speech and accent training for actors that places emphasis on developing the speaker’s detailed awareness of—and deep engagement with—the precise physical actions which make up speech. By combining a rigorous investigation of those actions with playful, experiential exercises, this work moves quickly and effectively past the usual interference that can make speech work difficult for many students.The primary guiding principle is curious, attentive interrogation—interrogation of what we’re doing physically when we speak; interrogation of what physical habits we may bring to the act of speaking that inhibit free and flexible expression; interrogation of what it is that makes speech intelligible or unintelligible; thoughtful investigation of what any text, moment, or medium might require from the actor in terms of skilled speech; interrogation of what, precisely, makes up what we call an ‘accent’; interrogation of what it is that allows actors to most efficiently, skillfully, and accurately adopt different accents.
Traditional methods of speech training have focused on teaching actors some variety of ‘Standard’ speech, usually (though not always) claimed to be superior to—and more ‘correct’ than—other, ‘nonstandard’ ways of speaking. Though there may be admirable rigor in the actual teaching, this approach is fundamentally limiting to the actor, as well as being linguistically and pedagogically unsound. By leading with prescription, the teacher will inevitably add to the perceptual confusion about speech that all students bring to the table. If, on the other hand, actors are first taught to really come to know their own vocal tracts, to be able to both feel and understand exactly what does what in order to produce the full range of speech sounds that exist in human languages, then they are vastly better equipped to do everything an actor needs to do, from connecting viscerally to language to acquiring and truthfully embodying other accents.