Professor Elisa Gonzales finds an authentic voice
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Tuesday, October 20, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
The point of voice class, says new UMass Theater Assistant Professor of Voice and Acting Elisa Gonzales, isn’t to learn how to sound like everyone else.
“There is this precedent of the ‘correct’ way to sound, the ‘correct’ way to be — and that's not a sustainable way to train actors anymore,” she said. Gonzales, who is Chicana, is part of a wave of BIPOC voice instructors and scholars who are looking at how voice connects to, and is an expression of, identity and culture.
“We have to understand and appreciate and embrace home base first. We have to look at our history, at our origin, and to get a sense of self first before we can take possibly take on another character's voice or another person's dialect.” she said, “If somebody asks us to take on General American, for example, we have the skills to do that. But being able to express ourselves through our identity with intelligibility and power and flexibility is the ultimate goal.”
Gonzales is an acting and voice instructor trained in Fitzmaurice Voicework, an active member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA), a performer, a devised theater-maker, and a scholar who examines, among other things, how the discipline of voicework is changing.
At UMass, she’s been teaching beginning acting and voice remotely, and next semester, recognizing that formats like radio plays, podcasts, and other virtual presentations are likely to be part of the theater landscape going forward, she’s offering a voiceover class called The Craft of Voiceover: Vocal Transformation and Storytelling.
“Voiceover artists are busier than ever. They are really having to develop their at-home recording skills and production skills. So not only are we going to explore what it is to vocally transform, and the storytelling aspects of voiceover, I think students will gain a sense of what it is to build a home studio and what it is to produce your own work,” Gonzales said. “I think the skills that you gain in storytelling for voiceover translate to so many other kinds of fields because you really have to learn how to be expressive in new ways.”
Gonzales came to theater and voice via MGM musicals. While not artists themselves, her parents encouraged her to explore. Gonzales fondly remembers weekly visits to the library to check out videos of old musicals and laughingly admitted to writing fan letters to Gene Kelly as a girl.
She took singing lessons and performed with her church choir before trying out for musicals. Her first role was as one of the royal children in a production of The King and I, “and I never looked back,” she said.
Although Gonzales was admitted to Emerson College’s BFA Musical Theatre Program, her college years were also when she developed the appreciation for language and text that have led her to her current career, and she switched to the acting program.
Specifically, she fell in love with playwright José Rivera’s work.
“I think it was the first time that I really saw strong Latinx characters being portrayed on stage, which was really important to me as a Latina myself,” she said, “But also, regular, casual, everyday language wasn't enough for them to express themselves in these situations that they're navigating. The language that José Rivera uses is poetic, magical, and larger than life, and that really was the turning point for me, was finding his plays.”
After graduation, Gonzales headed to New York to find work as a performer. Many of the auditions her agent was sending to were roles “that put me in a box,” she said, and she found that many friends who were also artists of color were experiencing similar frustrations.
“My experience as a Mexican-American, as a Chicana is so different than some of these roles that they were trying to pigeonhole me into,” she said.
Gonzales and a group of friends created the Impulse Initiative, a multi-cultural dance and theater ensemble and committed to creating and producing works that were representative of their diverse experiences. The group performed at the New York Fringe and at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and she got to meet her theatrical inspiration, José Rivera when the group produced his Sonnets for an Old Century.
After 6 years, she moved to San Diego, which she terms a “pivotal” moment in her career because it connected her to a vibrant network of Latinx theater artists in California and helped her find mentors for her career.
“I think for the first time I felt seen as an artist and as valued as an artist,” she said.
Eventually, she decided it was time to expand her training as a performer. Gonzales enrolled at Arizona State University, where she was introduced to Fitzmaurice Voicework, one of several prominent methodologies for training the voice that is practiced in this country.
“It was through Fitzmaurice voice work that I felt able to articulate my need and my desire to incorporate culture and identity into performance,” she explained. “Catherine Fitzmaurice, the founder of Fitzmaurice Voicework, empowers her teachers and her students to think of communication as a fully embodied human experience. There is no way that you can separate your identity from the act of communication, speech, text, and voice.”
Gonzales notes that one of her favorite projects to do with her dialects class is to ask students to investigate their backgrounds and to do a presentation on their own dialects — even if at first they don’t think they have one.
She had the opportunity to explore how her work as a performer and devisor intersected with her voice work while still at Arizona State, when she was part of a team that presented La Casa de Inez, a site-specific work performed at the historic Elias-Rodriguez House in Tempe. “The house was built in the 1800s when there was a wave of Mexican immigrants coming to Tempe to start new lives for themselves. The house was built on a subplot of land that was purchased by a Mexican woman, and she was one of the few female landowners in Arizona at the time,” she said. When her husband left, she had to find a way to bring up her children, and she did everything from opening a pool hall to growing fruit trees to make a living.
“This was a Mexican woman who didn't speak English, who had to provide opportunities for herself. And so we used her story as a way to umbrella the stories of our mothers, our grandmothers, and ourselves,” she said.
After graduation, she took a position teaching acting and voice in Illinois for several years before being lured to UMass in search of a different balance in her career, signing her contract to join the Department mere days before the lockdown in March.
Now settled in western Massachusetts, in addition to her teaching and scholarship, Gonzales is working on a piece that’s very close to her heart and extremely relevant: her grandmother's story of being repatriated to Mexico during the Great Depression, a time when the government was looking for scapegoats for its financial and economic issues. Her grandparents eventually returned to the US, and loved this country deeply despite the way it treated them. “It reminds you of what true patriotism is,” she said, noting that her grandparents’ resilience in the face of the obstacles they faced has been a motivator for her during the pandemic.
UMass Theater’s reputation as a lab for developing new work makes it a great place to work on this piece, according to Gonzales.
“What drew me to the UMass position was really an opportunity for me to develop who I am as not only as a professor, but as a scholar and an artist. I think the teaching is really informed by the professional work that we do outside of the university, by the scholarship that we do, by the creative work that we do. I really wanted an opportunity to be able to develop all of those parts of myself,” she said.