Megan Kerr

Barbara Houseman: “My mother didn’t want me to go into theatre, that was not part of her grand plan”

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Barbara Houseman is a voice and text coach living in London. Plenty of famous faces including Daniel Radcliffe, Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh and Martin Freeman have had the pleasure of working with the enigmatic coach. Recently she’s been keeping herself busy working as associate director on the play To Kill A Mockingbird. Tutoring both adults and children, Barbara ensures they’re vocally healthy and can be heard clearly, which with children “comes and goes”. Getting along with everyone is part of her role, but she especially loves working alongside TKaM’s director Tim Sheader. “With Tim [who she has known for six years] it’s been easy from the first time.”

Barbara read To Kill A Mockingbird back when she was at school, like most of us. But this is the second time she and the company have done the show, she reminisces, the last time being two years ago in London. What does she like most about the book? “I think seeing everything through Scout’s eyes.” But Scout isn’t her favourite character: “I suppose I have a soft spot as an adult for Atticus and Maudie Atkinson, but I think all the characters in it are so roundly drawn,” she admitted after a few pensive moments.

A career in theatre was not going to happen, as far as Barbara’s mum was concerned: “My mother didn’t want me to go into the theatre…that was not part of her grand plan, but she wanted me to have more confidence.” Her mum had met a woman on a train, when Barbara was three-years-old, who was an elocution teacher. After some persuading the woman, who wouldn’t normally take on such young children, agreed to tutor her from the age of five. At 14, Barbara went to college – at the suggestion from her teacher. “When I was about eight she said, “I think you ought to go to Central School of Speech and Drama and train as a voice teacher”…and I went [adopts child voice] “Okaayy.”

Barbara eventually went on to work at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company for six years alongside Cicely Berry who is still there at the age of 90. “She is an amazing inspiration. She changed the way that people worked on voice and text in this country and made it much more imaginative and less about rules.” Then in 1998 Barbara decided to go freelance. “I left because it’s very demanding working at the RSC – as of course it should be, but I felt I just wanted to spread my wings.” Not one to stay still for long, she took off on an 18 week truck trip across Asia. “It wasn’t difficult [leaving] because I was like Oh, I’m going away on a very long holiday.” She was also lucky enough to already have a job lined up with Tim Supple at The Young Vic when she returned.

What is the main thing actors struggle with? “I think most actor’s problems come from them trying to remedy problems they don’t have or trying too hard.” She insists that the best acting comes from trusting that, if they feel it and it’s really happening then it will show. All of this comes from a woman who so obviously enjoys what she does and loves to help people further their acting careers. “The nice thing about working as an associate (and working with Tim as an associate) is the freedom to really contribute as much as I possibly can.” But she’s got to have dealt with some difficult actors, right? “I couldn’t possibly say. I’ll say nice things about people but if something didn’t work so well, because they’re in the public eye it’s not appropriate.” However, she does mention a particular actor who she had worked with and he didn’t want to engage in the work. Six months later she had to work with him again and it was perfectly fine. [This actor] then admitted he had been having a difficult time before and apologised.

Her two long-term clients, Daniel Radcliffe and Jude Law, have been with her for 10 years and six years respectively. “We work very hard, but we have a great deal of fun because I think we’re very comfortable together. They’re just really down-to-earth, good human beings.” Barbara has worked with Mr Radcliffe since he was 16: “I remember he came out with a book list of all the books he wanted to read and the books he’d already read and I’m like Oh my god! Daniel! You’re like way ahead of me. He’s such a nice guy, so self-effacing and just huge fun.” One actor she would love to work with is Kate Winslet, “Quite a lot of my wish list has been ticked off, but I think Kate Winslet’s somebody. Especially to see how she works on-stage.”

Barbara has worked with a variety of noteworthy actors and directors, but claims her main achievement is “seeing actors really own a classical text like Shakespeare” and having the audience understand the voices she moulded. It’s not hard to understand why those she’s worked with have returned, with her beaming smile and reassuring attitude – I felt I could own the stage too.

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