Clodagh Finn meets the man who coached the Iron Lady and Princess Di on how to speak to be taken seriously.
WHAT do you think is likely to happen when you meet international voice coach Stewart Pearce, a former actor who has worked with Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and a host of famous actors including Hugh Bonneville, Simon Callow, Vanessa Redgrave and Minnie Driver?
I’ll tell you what happens: the cat gets your tongue and a mealy-mouthed Kerry-inflected ‘hello’ slips out of your mouth.
It’s not for nothing that people say they’d prefer to be in the coffin than giving the eulogy at a funeral.
After all, this is the man who, according to one misleading newspaper article, “had the Iron Lady flat on her back with her knees in the air [doing breathing exercises] in pursuit of added gravitas”.
That’s not at all how it happened, but Stewart Pearce did help the late former British prime minister to change her voice.
To hammer home the point, he’s off at a gallop speaking in a high-pitched, clipped assumed middle-class voice to show how we sound when our voices are not grounded in the breath.
“I gave her gravity and weight so that she could be taken seriously,” he says.
“We each have a sound at the core of our being. I introduce people to their power.”
And he enjoyed helping Margaret Thatcher to do that. “She was charming, kind, immensely intelligent. Intimidatingly intelligent,” he says.
Over the years, he’s worked with lots of big names — Hollywood actors, Dame Anita Roddick, the presenters of the London 2012 Olympic bid as well as corporate clients such as L’Oréal Paris and Vidal Sassoon.
He started his professional life as an actor. In the late 1970s he was on his way to LA to take the lead in a film when the phone rang.
“Are you sitting down?” his brother David asked him before breaking the news that his mother, Kathleen, had terminal cancer.
He left his agent and his movie career behind and went home to nurse her.
After she died, the phone rang again — “the wheel of fortune went clunk,” he laughs.
It was Cicely Berry, voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, asking him to come and teach.
He was on the path that would eventually lead him to Lady Di. Though, he says, it wasn’t that surprising as his father Joseph worked for the royal household for more than 30 years.
“I was steeped in all of that as a child,” he said.
He worked with Diana post-divorce and after the famous Martin Bashir interview in which she spoke in a soft, simpering voice and looked out under her fringe to deliver the immortal line: “There were three of us in this marriage.”
Stewart Pearce would not have allowed that interview.
He went on to work with her on every aspect of her life: what she felt, what she wore, how she spoke, how she was going to deal with the paps.
“She was the personification of beauty. She was beautiful, intelligent, charming. She had a deep inner knowing, an intuition. I would sometimes go with her in the background to events. People with Aids would say that she healed them. There was a luminosity about her.”
She was fascinated too by the expansion, in the mid-1990s, of the mind, body, spirit movement and turned to complementary as well as traditional therapies to deal with her bulimia.
She might not have been surprised to hear that several thousand people will visit the Mind, Body, Spirit festival at the RDS in Dublin this weekend.
Stewart Pearce leads the line-up of speakers where he’s billed as a “legendary sound healer, master of voice and angel medium”.
In fact, he’s as comfortable talking about angels and mystics as he is discussing prime ministers and actors.
He’s seen angels since childhood and, yes, since I’ve asked, he can see my guardian angel, about shoulder-level on the right-hand side.
Many are cynical yet the numbers coming to his workshops and lectures are increasing.
Take one small example: four years ago, 150 people came to see him; last year, that had increased to almost 700.
“I’ve been saying these things for 30 years. Now I’m not being shown out of rooms, I’m being invited into rooms. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t talk about emotional intelligence even in the theatre industry, now they are saying Stewart tell me more.”
But what are people looking for?
“Hope,” he says. “Unquestionably hope and a way out of the interminable cycle of shame and guilt. Angels give hope.”
He talks of angels as “extraordinary beings of light, orbs of light” but before you get lost in a discussion about heaven and hell (“there is no such thing as hell,” he says), he recounts a story about the Gaza Strip.
He was there five weeks ago to join a peace missionary friend. “If there is hell on earth, it is there. It was petrifying.”
His friend, an artist and musician, works with groups of teenage Palestinian and Israeli musicians, introducing them to harmonic sequences and the idea that music can heal.
When they came into rehearsal, they looked at each with hatred, Pearce recalls.
Then they played together —Beethoven, Brahms, it doesn’t really matter what — and the enmity dissolved.
The music transformed them. They were hugging at the end.
But even people who don’t live in a war zone are facing ever-increasing pressures.
The problem, says Pearce, is that we live in our heads: “We are so fast. There is always something we have to do. It’s all about doing, doing, doing.”
There is noise everywhere, he says. And stress. It was not always thus, he says, harking back to Shakespeare’s time when people were, he believes, less stressed.
He knows a thing or two about the world of the Bard as he helped pioneer the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre between 1997 and 2010.
The literature of the time shows that sentences — even those intended to be spoken — were longer.
That meant breathes were deeper and, so the theory goes, people were more grounded, more in harmony.
Now we speak in short sound bites, take shallow breathes and complain of feeling ungrounded.
Nobody is suggesting travelling back to Elizabeth l’s court with its 13 different classes, lack of health care and sorrowful political economy.
“Yet,” says Pearce, “it seems to me that there was a way of life then that was infinitely preferable to what we are experiencing today because people are so stressed out.”
The way out, he says, is to start to focus on the breath.
“Our breath is our life voice,” says Pearce, adding that it’s the first action we achieve in this life and the last thing we do. Yet, somehow in between, we seem to ignore this vital source.
He mimics what happens when you ask someone to take a deep breath: his shoulders rise, his chest puffs out and he inflates like a balloon that might whizz around the room when released.
If that rings a bell and you’d like to find out how to harness the power of your voice, you can hear Stewart Pearce talk at the Mind, Body, Spirit Festival, which runs at the RDS, Dublin until Monday.
* See www.mindbodyspirit.ie/
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