top of page
  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

The Woman's Voice: Prof. Patsy Rodenburg Reflects on Her Career, Overall Work, and Latest Book

What does it look like to help individuals reclaim and fortify their authentic voice by teaching them the foundational principles of breath work, presence, and vocal preparation? In this illuminating and comprehensive discussion with Patsy Rodenburg OBE, an esteemed Author, Teacher, Voice Coach, Theatre Director, and Humanitarian, we learn about her latest book, impactful work in teaching and advocacy, as well as details on her meaningful career. The interview starts with Rodenburg, a renowned expert in the art of communication and presence, reflecting on key themes encapsulated in her latest book, “The Woman’s Voice,” and addressing the personal motivation to write it. She uses her book as a platform to eloquently talk about the pivotal women that inspired her personal and professional life, her mother and grandmother, alongside her lifelong work and unique career journey. Delving into a multitude of topics, we explore the compelling realm of amplifying women's voices, the unique struggles women face in leadership roles, fostering equality, and her work in diverse settings, including maximum security prisons. The interview further explores her views on leadership, group dynamics, the link between theatre and therapy, and empowering women to regain control. Rodenburg generously shares insights into her creative process, vocal exercises, and rituals, offering invaluable tips for physical and virtual presence. Her career wisdom becomes a rich source of inspiration for those seeking to follow in her impactful footsteps. In summary, this interview with Patsy Rodenburg weaves together a diverse range of themes, offering a profound exploration of the complexities and nuances within the field of amplifying women's voices and fostering equality. She provides a wealth of wisdom that extends beyond her primary teaching focus, making this conversation a testament to the enduring power of authentic communication and the multifaceted nature of personal and professional growth. As you embark on this fascinating interview, I leave you with Rodenburg’s words: ‘I don't think we have a chance to save the planet until women speak out.’”

Prof. Patsy Rodenburg, OBE, talks about her career, work and her book The Woman's Voice. Interview by Sorina Crisan Matthey de l'Endroit, PhD, Persuasive Discourse

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. In your latest book, the Woman’s Voice, you mention, “There are an abundance of stories that analyze a man’s resistance and resilience in overcoming ‘outrageous fortune’ but there are too few about women – maybe the world doesn’t expect women to recover from such impacts” (Chapter 11). What is the relevance of utilizing this quote in your book, and where does persuasion appear within the overall context of women’s voices?


Answer: This quote is from Hamlet, and it's about watching a man struggle with finding out who he is, fundamentally a coward who can't take action. I believe women have these stories deeply embedded in them, yet very few people have written about a woman overcoming such challenges. In fact, most of the time when I work with world leaders, women in corporations, and in politics, they are, in a strange way, more wounded, despite being exceptionally good at their jobs. They have had to struggle to be heard, even today. When you go into corporations or schools, women often possess more knowledge than men. But, more importantly, and this is why the woman's voice is crucial on the planet, without placing blame on men, the struggles women face fill them with compassion and a unique level of humanity.


In persuasion, authenticity and authority are crucial. For thousands of years, women's voices have been stifled, or they've been told not to be authentic. Women, in order to survive—and there's no blame because survival is necessary—have often had to mask their power. Many women tend to prioritize being liked over being themselves and expressing their true thoughts. This outrageous fortune is evident when women assume leadership roles. While I don't have scientific evidence, only 50 years of experience, it's clear that women have had a tougher job. Strangely, this struggle often goes unrecognized. For instance, I'm currently working with a brilliant woman who has taken over a large law firm. All the people around her are men, and they have consistently tried to impede her progress. The struggle is undeniable, yet it seems that nobody acknowledges the challenges that women face, and that's a question in itself.


Q2. In the same book, you describe how learning about stories of women who have found their voices has always fascinated you (Chapter 16). Since you have always seen such great meaning in the topic of a woman’s voice, I’d like to ask what persuaded you to write this book at this moment in time and not earlier in your career?


Answer: Well, I didn't think that was happening. I have a nearly written book called “The Bard in the Boardroom,” which is about Shakespeare and his understanding of power strategy in lockdown. I thought I would finish that book. Instead, and this sounds insane, but it's the truth, the ghosts of my mother and grandmother, came into the space, and I realized that these two remarkable working-class women, much more intelligent than my father, had been profoundly stifled. Both of them had opportunities to get a very good education from the working classes, but their fathers stopped them, and it just sort of broke my heart. I knew, you know that thing when you know something in your head, but not in your heart. I knew in my head that it seemed that their energy came into me and said, “write about us.” So, I started to write about them, and they were so overlooked.


Everything that everyone has attributed to my career, “It must have been the influence of your father.” Well, there was an influence, but it wasn't one of profound interest in storytelling and poetry and fairness. I've been driven most of my life by a sense of what is not fair and what is fair. As a child, for whatever reason, my father was profoundly damaged by the Second World War, but he was unfair to the women in his life, and I couldn't bear it. I could see it. So, that's why I wrote about it.


Before, I was working on writing a book (which I haven't yet finished), on how much aid Shakespeare and the understanding of Shakespeare can give to any leader. Shakespeare talks about power, the misuse of power, the underuse of power, all the fundamentals. He also talks about love and the power of love. So, I was writing that book, and suddenly I had to stop because I was called by the ghosts of my mother and grandmother to write about them.


I didn't know what was going to come out. I just started to know that I had to start writing that story. Then, without knowing it, I had to talk about myself as a child because it was, as a child that I felt the injustice of two very remarkable, resilient women, very intelligent, and who were not being given their voices.


And I've always been interested in Shakespeare and that the ethical center of storytelling is about fairness. In Shakespeare, the people who are fair are often the working classes. Again and again, in his plays, it's the working-class person who suddenly speaks out. So, women in the early feminist movement, they had that passion to speak out. Then during the eighties, it became cosmetic power, spiritual, and storytelling power. That was upsetting for me to see. Now, I think it's come full circle. The young women I meet today are quite remarkable. There's hope.


Q3. In Chapter 8, you write the following:

“My mother wanted to learn and my Nanna wanted to teach.

I wanted to teach because I wanted to learn. You learn very deeply when you teach.

My nanna’s lost teaching vocation and Mother’s lost education bedded into me and circulated in my blood. It wasn’t fair and had to be balanced.

I had to find the doors that had been closed to them by their fathers. Their fathers, who maybe through protection or maybe through envy, had blocked their way. And then their husbands: Nanna resisted hers and Mother didn’t.

I know this now, I didn’t then; but I did know that if they had been boys their fathers would have burst with pride.”

Can you please elaborate on the idea behind this quote?


Answer: The craft of teaching is a very honorable one and I don't think anyone talks about it enough.


I believe to teach well, you've got to work very hard all the time. Students say to me after 50 years, “you don't prepare for class, and you've been teaching these exercises, but you never teach the exact same exercise.” You develop, and then after the class, you think about it. It's a relentless pursuit in my mind, a pursuit of education. Let's remind ourselves that the word ‘education’ means ‘to lead forth.’ We shouldn't be just the information intake. In my work, I believe that the vast majority of people have the most amazing voice and that they have been born fully present. So, it's about drawing forth the voice and finding your full power. Women's voices are as powerful as men's. There are differences, but not really in the end because you are leading something forth.


I suppose when you face something difficult – and I've always found speaking difficult – it's your fear that drives you into a place of knowledge. You have to look at something. What I found difficult as a child was what I would call chitchat, being sociable, having conversations that didn't matter. I wasn't a great gossiper, and I'm fundamentally very shy. I wanted to talk about important things but in the fifties, women weren't supposed to talk about important things. We weren't supposed to have a political opinion or chip in and say, “I don't think that's true.” I knew my mother and grandmother had opinions, but they were private opinions. They couldn't be public. Understanding and feeling their loss, I knew that I had to struggle through my own issues. And you still struggle. It's a road that never ends until you die, probably. But you want to teach better every day, and by doing so, you learn.


I've never taught somebody who hasn't taught me something. It's a two-way exchange. It's fantastic what you learn. My brain is full of seemingly useless information because I'm very curious. I talk to everyone I find, but I don't want to talk about everything. That's my problem. I want to have a conversation that matters and a story that matters. That seriousness is important. I've heard male teachers say to me, “You are too serious.” I say to lots of people I teach, “We only experience joy when we take everything that's important seriously. You have to have gravitas to have joy.”


Women are supposed to laugh things off, even jokes against them. I couldn't bear my father's jokes. He decided very early in my life that I had a sense of humor. Not that I have a sense of humor, but the jokes were always to belittle my mother, my grandmother, and me. That's not funny. In the workplace today, in teaching, you'll hear men and older men say, “That woman hasn't got a sense of humor.” They do, but you expect them to laugh at themselves, to find your nasty comments funny, the banter funny. So, I have to protect women in that way. I try to protect my mother and grandmother. My brother reminded me that I'd forgotten. I didn't put into the book that one of my father's jokes about my grandmother was, he would say to his male friends, “She's our washing up machine.” And everyone laughed. I remember her just walking out of the room, and hearing “she's our washing up machine.” I still think it's degrading. I still have male friends who, when I cook a meal, will just sit there waiting for the woman. Even though the women in the room are as important as you. I have male friends who, when I cook a meal, will help to clear up, but I still have some male friends who will just sit there waiting for the woman.


I do this training course in Portugal with wonderful people. We all eat together at lunch, and generally, some men get up to help. At some point, I watch. They're all equal; they're all training to do my work. At some point, I watch some woman saying to some guy, “You should start clearing up.” And there are men who do, but it's just that some are just sitting there holding forth and not doing something.


It's very difficult. If you get into a room with me, it's not easy all the time because I started to teach in very dangerous places like prisons and very tough schools. The only way is to lead, and women are very bad at this. I just have to talk about it. You have to stop what's going on in the room that is unsafe sooner rather than later. You have to stop it. That might mean saying to the very unpleasant guy there who's a bully and a snide mocker, “What are you doing over there? I don't want that in my class.” This is a constant thing that you have to hold the space. Once, I had a very sophisticated woman, a top lawyer in one of the biggest companies in Europe, take one of my classes. She got up to tell a wonderful story. This did not happen in my presence and I heard the story later, but one of the men there laughed at her story in the most demeaning way. I caught up with him later and I said, “It's not appropriate. She's just bared her soul. You knew not to do it in front of me, but behind my back, you still couldn't help putting her down.” Unfortunately, this is still where we are at the moment in some spaces. There are a lot more enlightened men who want to help women than in the past, but the backlash is very high level. I think men are furious about women's power, and consequently, their voice is being heard. As you know from the book, I don't think we have a chance to save the planet until women speak out.


Q4. Your dedication to fostering equality and empowering individuals through teaching is commendable. You’ve taught in diverse environments, which range from schools and boardrooms to prisons. How do you adapt your work and teaching tools to make sure they are accepted by students from such varied backgrounds?


Answer: I believe you just have to show up and be yourself.


When I started teaching four-year-olds, I didn't know I could teach four-year-olds until I simply spoke to them without putting on a silly voice. I wasn't overly nice; I just communicated with them honestly. It's not rocket science to me; it fundamentally comes down to caring.


Despite my many faults, I genuinely want people to do well. Going into a room to help someone requires honoring them and wanting their success. Figuring it out how to do that may not be easy, but caring is the key.


I recall entering prisons out of necessity to make money, not as a choice I could turn down. I was terrified, as anyone would be in a new environment, but the students don't want to see your fear. What they need is assurance that you genuinely want to help them. Thinking about the student, especially as a leader in teaching, is crucial. A leader must keep the space safe. I once told a top executive that some in his team wanted him to fail, a fact he found hard to believe. Getting out of your ego, feeling the space, and maintaining fairness are essential. People might not always like you, but it's about being fair and ensuring group well-being.


As my grandmother used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.” When entering any space, become adept at feeling the atmosphere, much like an actor on stage senses the audience. It's not magic; it's a skill developed through repetition and a commitment to the craft. Understanding why people are in a particular space, like prisoners in a classroom, involves goodwill and the belief that what you're teaching may be beneficial, even if they initially resist it.


Q5. How would you describe your approach to leadership and group dynamics? And how do you see the link between theatre and therapy?


Answer: The major thing in leadership is to look after the group, and at that point something wonderful happens. We call it ‘ensemble’ in theater. It's a community that forms, and instead of the thing that is so patriarchal in terms of leadership, which is called ‘command’ and ‘control’, I stand here; I give out in the third circle; I give out, and I control you. Now, that's not how people want to be led, and it's a weak form of leadership because you don't get everyone's opinion. So if you can, sometimes you have to start a group by saying: “no, you're not going to…” You don’t say it in a rigid command and control way, but you have to be able to say “No, you're not going to behave like that. You're not going to roll your eyes when people speak.” I mean, I'll stop that straight away. It doesn't matter who it is. It can be the most famous actor in the world. I have no issue about that if the group is what I am looking after.


People talk about the safe space all the time. And indeed, you do have to keep a safe space faithfully and you can't talk about it. You cannot say, “We have to keep a safe space.” You have a completely safe space if somebody takes responsibility, holds the space, and says to anyone destroying the space, “That is inappropriate.” You don't say it in an angry voice; and you certainly do not shout at them.


I will tell you what a lot of women do, and I talk about it in the book. Something annoys them, they don't say anything, and it goes on and on, and it festers. And suddenly they say, “Don't do that.” And as a result everyone's saying: “Oh, that's a hysterical woman.” It's not a hysterical woman. It's a woman who's felt something very deeply for a long time but hasn't dared say it until it's really burnt in her. It sort of sets a fire in them. So the best thing to do – and again a lot of my work is a very embodied practice – if you know that you will have a difficult conversation, you have to practice it out loud before it happens. If, for example, you're going into that board meeting, and you know there will be somebody who's always going to interrupt – and if you look at it in a big way, they interrupt a lot of people not just you – but they're most likely going to start interrupting you, because you are the woman, and they know they have more power than you. And you might have to practice saying, “Please don't interrupt me.”


To conclude, and address the last part of your question, I think theater is therapeutic, but it's not therapy. I'm not trained; my work is incredibly practical; it's about embodiment. But if you get present and you get somebody breathing, they're going to experience things; they might even experience what stopped their breathing in the first place, which is usually some form of trauma.


Almost on a daily basis, I very carefully assess what my contract is with people. And it is important to always observe. That's what being in Second Circle presence is: you are looking outside yourself, you're curious, and you notice things. It's just about survival. It's similar to when I had to go into a teaching space when I was 22 and I had to teach people into their forties and fifties. Then you think, oh my God, this is going to be so and so. But in that moment, all you can do is teach what you know, and observe and wish them all well, even though some wishing well might also at times mean that you have to say to someone, you don’t think that's a funny joke, and that they’ve just hurt someone.


Q6. How should one manage ‘power’ in group dynamics?


Answer: I tell people that if they want power and leadership, they have to find the way in which they want to express it.


Generally, if you get let’s say 24 people in the room, some of them don't want it to work. For example, personally, I will say to someone, “Can you please not interrupt me?” But my comment must happen the first time this incident occurs. The great advantage of that, for a leader, is that everyone will then know you can identify the troublemaker within a group. It has happened in the past where I meet with a group of students, and I immediately turn to someone, saying, “Stop rolling your eyes when that person speaks.” The group goes, “Oh my God, she knows.” I say obvious things to women and men, and at times it gets them very upset.


A group is a very intelligent entity, and we need very diverse groups. We need people with different views within a group, because it makes us much more intelligent and able to cope.


If women want power, then they have to look at the truth. People who haven't got power have to be cleverer. For instance, my mother and grandmother were cleverer than my father, but they didn't have any road to power. They knew what was going on. And, if a woman gets that, she gets the respect of everybody without needing to utilize any games. The sad reality is that women have been taught to play games. When I was teaching in the corporate world, a female student of mine said to me, “All the men flirt with me.” I asked, “What do you do?” She thought about it and said, “Well, I suppose I flirt back.” I said, “No.” She said, “But I like flirting.” I said, “So what? You expect them to take you seriously if you flirt?” A good flirt is lovely, but I don't think it's useful in a group.


I have to say, quite obviously, it is a relief getting older. Now, I would say, ‘I don’t dress in a sexual way.’ In general, it doesn't mean that you can’t do that, but you also then have to think of the issues around that. For instance, in my world, I get up, I work, I don’t sit, I have to get on the floor, lying on the floor, I’ve got to get down, and then I’ve got to get up again, and I’m up on my feet most of the time.


A while ago, I worked with a wonderful woman who’s taken over a massive company. She's an engineer, and it was a massive battle to take over this company. She's brilliant and she's doing great. But she said to me that the board and the team does events always involving drinking alcohol and going out and getting drunk. And she said, “I don't feel I want to do that.” I said, “well, I don't think every man and every woman in that team wants to do it either.” She said, “Oh, that's true. There's only one guy that was leading the team and a couple of his friends like to do that.” I said, “You are in charge. What do you want to do?” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “Yes, you can. You don't have to go out and have a team bonding event over booze.” And she said, “Well, I like to cook.” So, I said, “What would you like?” She said, “I'd like to go away and have a three-day cooking masterclass.” And in the end, she said that only two of the men didn't want to do it. And that the rest asked if they could even bring their wives along. And she said, of course you can. This is an example of a woman who took her power and was able to break an unhealthy habit in a company full of mostly men engineers. And as it turned out, only two were unhappy with her proposition.


In short, I believe men must be empowered to help women because they're not used to doing that. There are amazing men. And I believe that when a woman in a leadership position is authentic and doesn't play any games, men will side with her, as the majority of people are fundamentally decent.


Q7. What are some of your overall views on: How should women try to regain their power in the private or public spheres when they realize they are being controlled or manipulated by their male partners or colleagues, respectively?


Answer: Although I'm not a therapist and lack the skills to provide that kind of assistance, I believe it's essential to speak out sooner rather than later. This applies not only to managing a group but also to addressing issues within your own relationships.


In my professional experience, I noticed that this happens frequently in my work within top organizations, which are predominantly male. For instance, in some of the top banking organizations, being the only woman in a room or on a team is challenging. In those environments, you have to decide whether to align with your male colleagues or choose to stand on your own. It’s tough, but I believe playing along doesn’t work out in the end. That doesn’t mean you have to be negative; instead, you should hold your own space and encourage other women to enter that same space. Unfortunately, some women don’t want other women around because they want to be the only woman, and I don’t appreciate that attitude. It was Madeleine Albright who once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The sentiment is clear: we should be promoting women.


It is evident that women in certain organizations are incredibly knowledgeable. Being a white man, educated at a prestigious school such as Eton College, doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. The women who have reached high-level positions are invaluable to any organization, because, in most cases they have worked harder than anyone there. Therefore, organizations need to support each other and help men protect women, without being patronizing.


In professional environments, the importance of mutual support is evident. If faced with challenges, it's reassuring when colleagues step in to address issues collectively. The notion that we don't have to face everything alone emphasizes the significance of shared responsibility.


Gaslighting, a long-standing tactic for control, thrives on isolation. Breaking free from such manipulation involves open communication and sharing experiences. Keeping secrets, like the monitoring of personal affairs, can be detrimental. Sharing stories becomes a powerful means of asserting oneself, not merely a negative expression but a way to stand firm. Gaslighting is not a new concept, persisting through millennia. Promptly addressing it is crucial to challenge the traditional dynamics of control that have endured for thousands of years. Gender equality laws are relatively recent, about 50 years old. Proactive conversations are essential. Fortunately, law enforcement is increasingly attuned to these issues, and various organizations can provide assistance, despite potential challenges in reaching them.


Speaking from experience, taking a proper breath is crucial in my work, which focuses on the presence, body, breath, and voice. And it doesn’t end there, it starts there. Sometimes, you need to take a moment, let your shoulders release, and breathe. When we take a breath, we understand what we feel and think. It may sound simple, but going for a walk and asking yourself, ‘Is this controlling me?’ is powerful. It’s about understanding your power and not letting someone else control you. Command and control happen not just from men but from women as well. Let’s acknowledge that and not assume that women don’t wield such power. If you feel someone is trying to control you, who can you talk to? It’s essential to recognize that the person you’re trying to control often has more power than you in different aspects.


I believe that people who engage in command and control often lack self-esteem. My sister experienced this with a man who sought to control her; it’s a long story I don’t want to delve into. Nevertheless, recognizing when something feels wrong is crucial. It might sound simple, but it’s effective. For instance, questioning why you shouldn’t have your own bank account or needing your husband’s approval for one, as it used to be when I first got married, is absurd. These outdated practices still haunt us, and it’s vital to check in with ourselves and talk about them.


There’s a sonnet of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 35, where he talks about loving somebody so much that I become an accessory to that suite. Sally, a thief, robs from me. This is a dynamic that we find ourselves in, supporting someone in an imaginary courtroom. You know, you’ve been mugged, and you start to defend your mother. That dynamic has to be broken.


Another example is from when I was very young and had just passed my driving test. I believed I was a very good driver. And I remember this boyfriend – I had a gear shift – and as I was driving, his leg would come over. So, I had to push his leg away to change gear. I stopped the car and said, “Do you do that to your male friends when they drive too?” He looked at me, and I said, “Why are you putting your leg to push up? You wouldn’t do that to your friends. I've watched you being driven by your friends. Why are you putting your leg over to stop me from changing gear?” Because it was one of those long gear shafts, and he looked at me, and I said, “Stop it. Stop it. That’s just you trying to control me driving.”


So that is to say that we have to look for these little things often in our lives because they often start very small. It is the same with a group that seems well-behaved. As a teacher, we have to look at the little signs. ‘Oh, that’s not quite right. What’s going on over there?’ And ‘I can’t overlook that. I have to deal with that over there.’ For example, I have to deal with the fact that the guy over there is always playing on his phone when certain people speak, but they’re not playing on their phones when people they perceive as better than them are speaking. So you have to ask them, “Why do you look at your phone when so and so speaks?” Maybe sometimes you do it privately with them. And I say to women leaders, you have a right to look at a group that you are working with and say, “Put away your phones.” It’s the simple things we must do.


One of my mantras is that ‘we do simple things before we can gain our power.’ Simple things are physical, active, and they’re not usually talked about.


In the past, I worked with some very lovely women from a top bank, and it was wonderful. We had such a laugh during one session together because they all came in – I was just teaching the women – and they told me that there was a guy who was their peer, at a very high level, and they couldn’t bear him because he always got too close to them. And I said to them to tell him, “Step back.” And they answered, “What?” I said “you must say: Step back. Does he come in too close to the men?” They said: “No.” So I said, “Okay, we're going to practice that every time I get too close to you, you just step back.” And they started to laugh and said, “But you’re just teaching us to step back?” And I said, “Yes.” But the larger question is, why don’t we do it automatically? And that is because for years, women have been told that stepping back would be perceived by a man as being rude and that will upset him. But it’s simple; in a situation like that you just have to pull away from him. If he touches you, you can just step back. While the women I was teaching laughed during the exercise, a few days later they texted me saying that it worked: He just went away when they stepped back.


Over my career, I’ve worked with a lot of top martial artists, and they taught me that it’s in our DNA that people shouldn’t come in too closely to us. If and when you respect somebody, you don’t come into their circle of energy, which is generally so they can’t hit you. And that is built into all of us.


Q8. In the book, you mention that you chose to change the terminology from denial, a state of readiness, and bluff to first circle, second circle, and third circle of energy. In retrospect, how has your work developed over time?


Answer: My work is changing all the time. It’s relentless, I’m afraid. Actors sometimes say to me, “God, you are relentless.” And I say: “Well, I’m relentless with myself.” It's about resilience.

I started this work many years ago and I’m continuously discovering more about it. I thought it was clearer and it offered more options if my work was referring to the first, second, and third circle.

This is a huge generalization but what we want to be in is our full authority and presence, which is what I call the second circle. I initially used to call this ‘a state of readiness’ because it's about curiosity and openness. It’s what you usually feel when you are walking on rough ground because the body must center, you're looking around at the trees, and in that moment you feel connected. And when I'm in the second circle, I go out to the world, and I allow the world to come in. I breathe in and I gather the world. I breathe out and I go out to the world. It's as simple as that. We are all born with it but then it's taken away from us.

The first circle, I used to call denial, because your body, breath, and voice, as well as your physical impact on the world is about pulling back. When I am in this circle of energy, I might be standing back on my heels, my shoulders might be rounded, I might be pulling energy in so that when I speak, it sounds as though your voice falls away because it's pulled in. And that is generally perceived as a female energy. Again, this is a huge generalization.

For example, people who are in the first circle might be fantastic listeners. They are taking it all in, but you never know what they think. And that's because they're usually shy, for which there's no blame.

One of the things I say to people is that we know even before you speak whether you have impact, whether you are to be noticed. For instance, when you go to the theater, the curtain goes up and you see the actor standing with their feet together and looking down before they speak so, you think to yourself, hmmm servant, maybe. But if the same actor is trying to be a warrior, with the same posture, then there's a problem in their physicality. If you’re trying to be a warrior, you have to be in the second circle. You look out at the audience, and you make eye contact. Impact means that you have to come out to people in your audience and receive them, it’s about give and take.

The second circle is where we want to be, which is the circle of energy where you are looking around and you are taking things in. You notice the bird in the tree, and you're also going out. And that's I think, our natural state.

Now, many people walk at night listening to music using earphones. I would suggest that that's not safe. Technology is closing us down. We thought that technology would open up communication and, in many ways, it has, but it's now closing us down. Many people work on the computer all day long and at that point, they're pulling in, their head is coming down, and that affects their voice because it diminishes it.

The third circle, I used to call ‘bluff.’ It is all about command and control. And most bullies I've come across are in third circle. They speak out and they speak at you. They don't ever want you to answer them back. Now these are again, generalizations.

I think there are weakness to being in the first and third circles. Some people think that the third circle is power. But it isn't power, it's force. I give out, but I never receive, I never receive somebody's story, never receive their energy. I take an idea from them, and I never say: “That's a fantastic idea.” But then I use it the next day in the board meeting. And people in third circle are also weak, because they're desensitized to the world.

For example, the man who I talked about who worked in a bank was in third circle. It doesn't mean to say that they're bad people. They've often been trained to do that, but what they have is cosmetic power, force. So as soon as the women started to make a step back, at first, he couldn't figure out why they were stepping back. And then he did, because ‘bluff’ is a shield.

Great people are vulnerable. There’s power in vulnerability. And you cannot build a group until everyone is present, everyone is accepting of each other, breathing through the group, listening to the group, and not cutting off from the group. And that doesn't mean it's all lovey-dovey. This is all misunderstood. A community, a group, a team is made up of people who are working together, in service to something. In acting, you are in service to the play and to the audience. You're in service. It doesn't mean to say that you must like everyone. That's sort of naive. I mean, the problem with bad teaching often is the feeling and belief that everyone has to like you. No, it's impossible to stand in front of 24 people and for all of them to like you. Impossible. And further, the idea of perfection is impossible. What are we telling young people, that perfection exists? It's madness. Of course, they're upset because, how can anyone be perfect?

Q9. Can you please address the link between persuasion and the second circle?

Answer: Most people tend to view persuasion as a form of force.

For instance, if you speak at somebody, interrupt them, or shout, it’s perceived as weak because nobody is really listening to you. The concept of the second circle revolves around staying open, breathing with each other, and actively listening. It's about a give-and-take dynamic—a delicate balance. When engaging in a discussion, you have to remind yourself to listen. The critical aspect that third-circle individuals struggle with, until they shift away from it, is acknowledging that anything is possible. Transformation is possible.

There's a certain tyranny in certainty. Admitting that you could be wrong or that others might have valid points is crucial. At times, I’ve found myself disagreeing with someone on most things, but then they share a personal story, revealing a hint of compassion. This sparks my interest, and suddenly, you can discover common ground. For example, there's a journalist on television whom many find obnoxious. However, I noticed he supports gun control in America. So I thought, “maybe we can build a bridge there.” The only way out is through the second circle, where there’s a genuine give-and-take. Listening becomes a practice, and no one is deemed unworthy of being heard.

I often hear people say, “Oh, you know a lot about this and that,” but I simply talk to people. Every person I meet knows something I don’t. It's the joy of life—engaging with someone you might perceive as a taxi driver, only to discover they coach a rugby team. Life is enriched when you learn something new from everyone you encounter.

I shared advice with a student once, who was talented but destructive. I emphasized the distinction between being difficult and being destructive. I don't mind difficult people, as long as they listen. I recounted an incident where a talented, opinionated student dismissed the group's work as “crap.” Instead of dismissing him, I engaged in a conversation about his martial arts expertise, acknowledging that he knew more about it than I did. This opened up a dialogue, demonstrating the importance of listening and learning from each other.

In essence, communities thrive when led well, with leaders intervening only when necessary. It’s akin to the alpha male or alpha female Bonobos, intervening only when the group needs redirection. True discipline, derived from the word ‘disciple,’ signifies being on a journey—whether it's exploring quantum physics or any other pursuit of knowledge. In our interactions, we need to uncover the parts we don't know and learn from each other. That’s the essence of building a strong community.

Q10. I would like to shift our conversation towards tips and tools. For our jobs many of us are required to do both physical and virtual presentations. In your experience, what are some tools and tips that people should learn about and implement in their lives, when it comes to physical presence versus virtual presence?

Answer: Well, it all comes from us. Technology helps in one way, but it doesn’t help with screening. You still have to put the craft into it, which is essentially about rediscovering who you are in your presence. Where are you? Am I present? You then you have to open up the body. When I think back 50 years ago, when I was teaching young people, their bodies were in much better shape in terms of alignment. The spines were straight, not pulled down, which allows for proper breath and presence. So, it's a very simple routine you have to get into. It depends on what you are doing. If you can do it live, then you can use technology. Often, people just slap on a radio mic and get loud, but it's just mumbling. You don't hear the words. They think technology is an aid, but it's not the thing itself. The thing itself is you—your presence with your body—without the wrong tensions in your body, particularly around the jaw, neck, shoulders, and spine. You need to release those tensions.


First, you have to get your stomach released a bit because the breath has to go down there. You've got to get your knees unlocked and the energy forward on the front of your feet. You can do that quickly by walking with energy down a corridor; your body starts to come into alignment. Remember to breathe, this is crucial even on Zoom. People lost their voices during COVID because they were sitting there not breathing, slumped, and with closed throats. You've got to sit up, release your shoulders, open the rib cage by stretching over each side, and let the breath go down.


Another quick trick is to stand beside a wall, keep your shoulders released, put one foot in front of the other, keep the energy forward on the balls of the feet, and breathe by pushing. The breath will go down, and if you breathe, you've got the breath for your voice.


We now know that if we don’t take a breath, we can’t feel or think. That’s why people say, “I go to the board meeting, it’s my turn to speak, and I forget everything.” Just take a breath, and it will come back because the brain lights up again, and you come back.


So, you've got to get the body, the breath, the presence, and then just warm up your voice. It's like a bit of a warm-up in the morning. Remember when you have a baby lying in bed, and they start humming? They warm up their voice. We need to use our voice; this is critical for adults. The voice gets rusty and dusty if you don't use it, even if you read aloud. But it gets more interesting because it's the fundamentals of the embodiment work that I do; we get everything going so that we don't have to worry about it. I don’t want anyone standing in front of an audience worrying about their voice, but that has to be worked on.


What we also know, critical for children, is that if you speak something out loud fully, we remember it differently, deeply. If children read out knowledge or speak it, they start to learn it differently. This is fundamental; this is how we lived. Writing was originally just for administration. Anything worth knowing about the group, the morals of the group, or information about the group had to be learned aloud.


We just have to start using our voice again. If we do that, there's good news. A bit of that work every day for 10 minutes, and your voice is going to improve. It's not this mysterious thing that happens; I think the body remembers how it should be. The body knows it doesn't like not taking breath; that’s why you pass out. The body thinks, ‘Oh God, better knock 'em out so I can breathe again.’ So it will come in and help you—the body, your breath system, your mind, your heart—will come and join you if you release these tensions.


Q11. Can you share some tips for when we have a cold and need to deliver a presentation but struggle to catch our breath?


Answer: When this happens, you have to make sure you're getting that breath in because we tend to get so wrapped up in worrying about our voice that we forget to breathe. What I suggest is, if there's a desk in front of you, just place your hands on it and gently push against it to feel that breath going down. Hydration is key, so drink a lot of water. But sometimes, the voice just gives out, and you can’t force it because pushing through might cause damage.


Generally, though, you can work through colds and sore throats as long as you focus on your breathing. Avoid using aspirin and gargling with it—many people do that, but it can lead to hemorrhaging. The vocal folds just need some steam, so breathe, and you can get through it. If your voice goes without pain, that might indicate a more serious issue because it's affecting the vocal folds. So, you've got to be cautious and take care of your voice. It’s a resilient instrument that needs attention and a warm-up.


You should learn how to enjoy using your voice; and they should be practiced more in schools. Before a presentation you should practice aloud because speaking engages a lot of muscles. Don’t think it’s going to happen magically; you’ve got to do it out loud. Your presence, your breath, and your voice—practice them, and you’ll start to enjoy it. The human voice is an incredible instrument, and everyone has an amazing one.


Sometimes the gift is the curse, and the curse is the gift. If you struggle with your voice, you have to really work on it. I never go into a room unprepared. One director once said to me, “You’ve probably done these exercises three times today,” and I said, “Yes.” He remarked, “It’s like the first time,” and I replied, “Well, that's what actors do.” You must turn up as though it's the first and only time you've ever done these exercises. So I show up as though it’s the first and only time I have to do this and train everyone. And I just come in and do it. I know it backward and forward. Now, you might say, “Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? It’s like you’re just reciting something.” But you’ve got to own it and speak it from yourself, whatever it is. That’s what a good actor does.


Q12. When do you do your vocal exercises?


Answer: I do them in the morning. It’s a lovely thing to do. And then I take it into some text work. I’ll read something out loud. It’s like a musician. If you want to be good at something, you’ve got to work at it, and some of the students I teach get very angry with me because I tell them it's not haphazard.


If you teach craft and you do something, you get joy. For example, I'm not a potter; I’ve tried a bit of pottery and I'm useless. But the first time you get the clay on the wheel correctly, you go, “Wow, I’ve just done it, I nailed that,” there’s joy. So it’s constant work, but also constant satisfaction.


We have a wonderful saying in theater: The amateur thinks it will go right, but the professional knows it will go wrong, it will go wrong. You just have to do the work. If it goes wrong, and you realize, “Oh, I’ve just made a mistake,” you take a breath and go back.


I remember that very early in my teaching career, I had two major epiphanies. The first was when I was in a prison teaching very tough customers, and I thought, “Oh, I seem to be able to control them.” It was a bit dangerous, but fundamentally I felt I could talk to them, appeal to them, and get them working without flattery, just normal. The second moment was in teaching, and I thought, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” but because I had done enough work, I knew what to do next. There was an act of trust.


Q13. To me, the way you prepare your voice for the day, in the morning, sounds almost like a ritual. Is that an accurate depiction?


Answer: I think ritual is a very good word. I think theater is a ritual. I think meetings are rituals. It doesn’t have to be pompous, but formal.


For example, if you are giving bad news to someone, you should not be casual; you shouldn’t. I’m now beginning to work for the National Health Service (NHS) to try and improve the communication of doctors and nurses. You shouldn’t go in and say, “well, it’s bad news. You know you’re going to die.” You’ve got to come in with your full presence. You’ve got to be clear. And I am not talking about the person’s accent; it’s just about clarity. You don’t want those who are listening to you to worry about the word you’ve just said. You have to show them respect; enough respect to be formal, not informal.


Around 2008 I was working with a big bank, and I was teaching them my presence and communication work. There were two people, a man and a woman, heads of some departments, and they were tasked with firing very high up people. Being fired is terrible, and they were firing people who at that time had been with the company for years and who had made a lot of money for the company. And the woman said to me, “I’m going to fire them in the way that you have taught me, which is to be present, be direct, to make eye contact, to be clear, and honest.” And the man just went and did it fast because he thought she was taking forever. And she reached out to me about 10 years after the event, and she said that those people she fired were still in contact with her because she showed up, showed them the respect of doing it formally.


So, that is to say that I think ritual is part of form. It can shift. Ritual is the container. For example, theater is the container because it is contained, and it’s incredible because it can make you listen to unbearable truths; but you are contained enough to bear it. Just like a child knows when you read a story to them that it could be a very frightening story, but the ritual of starting with ‘Once upon a time’, then telling the story, and ending it with ‘they all lived happily ever after,’ is the container, and that is ritual. And rituals prepare us for something important.


Q14. Speaking of rituals and children, when you have a situation in which the child is raised happy and in a loving environment, what type of rituals or exercises do you believe the parents and teachers should do with their children in order to make sure that they help strengthen their voice and that children maintain their presence as they grow? And is there anything that you think can be incorporated in the school curricula?


Answer: Read out loud to them and get them to read out loud back to you.


Look, it may sound unusual; I don’t think it’s odd, but you have to teach them Shakespeare’s work. I love Shakespeare and his work because I think he believes in our humanity. You might think, “Oh, he’s old-fashioned.” No, the themes he addresses are not old-fashioned. Yes, the language may be, but he talks about all the things we all, at some point in our life, will lie in bed at night worrying about. For example, the concept of power if somebody’s bullying me or I might have hurt that person by mistake. Then he also talks about love. And we may ask ourselves in our lives: Is this love? Is it conditional or unconditional love? Or is this justice? Is this fairness? What is leadership? We all experience these things, and we must understand that we’re all experiencing them at one point or another, and that we’re not alone in that way. And talking about things that are difficult and not shaming anyone is also important.


Sometimes students get very angry, but it’s not because they’re uncomfortable about me saying, “Can you try that again?” They get very angry because they’ve had parents who’ve said, “Everything is great.” I remember my son coming home from school, and he had a medal around his neck, and I said, “Oh, you’ve got a medal.” And he said, “It’s not fair I got one.” Children have an incredible sense of fairness. And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We lost, I’ve got a medal anyways. But we lost, it’s not a fair medal.” And the point I am trying to make is that I think we can do such a thing as over-love. We can over-protect them, but when we fail and get back on the horse, so to speak, our brain grows. We have to face failure, but we have to face failure and then be supported. One of my rules to my teachers is that you don’t give a note/grade to someone unless you can change it because grades are very scary. Or for instance, if HR says to you, “You are this, this, and this,” but they don’t help you, then that’s not enough. That’s where I come in as a teacher and the embodied thing. You tell the student that they are doing this, and that maybe this is the exercise they can do or that this is what I would suggest that they do to get out of it.


So again, you have to risk it within the family that your child is going to, at times, dislike you intensely because you’re stopping them from doing something. I can tell a story about my son. I don’t know if he likes me telling this, but when he was about four, and we were in the bathroom and getting his teeth cleaned, he got hold of the toothpaste and started to squirt it around. And, of course, it’s fantastic. Any of us would like to do that; it’s a fun thing to do to squirt the old toothpaste around. And I stopped him, and he didn’t like that. And he tried to get it back, I said, “Stop it. No, you’re not going to squirt toothpaste around.” And he went very quiet and looked up at me and said, “I’ve got a secret about you.” And I said, “Oh, what about?” And he made a shape of my head with his hands and then said, “I want to do this.” And he then punched my head, well, the imaginary head. And I just roared with laughter. And I said, “Of course you do, because it’s fun.” And then he started to laugh, and then I said, “You know, my students feel that about me. Sometimes they want to punch my head because I say, ‘It’s not good enough. I can’t hear you. An audience member has just walked through the rain and queued, and they can’t hear what you are saying, so that’s not good enough.’”


I believe that everything in life is a balance, and I say to people that it’s an honor to work with everyone. But when somebody gives you a note, they care enough about you to help you. And as a teacher, you have to also then say to them, “Try doing it this way now.”


Q15. And when it comes to children who have experienced trauma—such as enduring a traumatic accident that has left them scarred, both physically and emotionally—how do you think parents and teachers can help them regain their voice and presence in that situation?


Answer: This is out of my expertise, really, except my knowledge tells me that trauma ends up in the body, particularly in the breath. The nicest thing you can do to help them release their body is to breathe together. Maybe if you just lie on the floor with them, you’ve got a little cushion holding your head, and you put your feet on the floor and just breathe.


That’s only deep knowledge that I’m sharing. I don’t teach anything that I don’t know deeply. I have very strong suspicions about things, and I think of myself as somebody who is very slow of study. I study very deeply. I know students who have had terrible lives, and I always say to anybody I work with, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. If it’s uncomfortable, you can stop because if we breathe, something might come up.


I think what happens to us is that when we get traumatized, if we stop breathing, we’ve stopped feeling the trauma. So very simple stuff. I have done this with top therapists as the embodiment person, but it’s not my expertise, although I touch on it in the classroom often. I have students coming from all sorts of backgrounds, some of them terrifying, and equally, there are people who have come from what seems to be an affluent background but have never had the attention of their parents. You know, we all need full attention. We all need somebody’s second circle on us, with unconditional love.


I’m optimistic because I’ve even had students that are refugees, and they’re actually the ones that work very hard in a way that people who feel that everything’s fine with them don’t. And if the work works, and generally, it works, then for example, you don’t go into a top investment bank with people who do not want to work with you. In the book, I tell the story of this guy coming in and saying, “Oh, I hate all this sizzle and no stake, it’s all cosmetics.” And you just do the work with them, and it works, and they feel the difference. And then at the end, he said, “Oh, there’s a lot of stake. You gave me some stake.” So this is ancient wisdom that I am teaching. This goes back thousands of years. The exercises I do go back; they’re of us, they’re of our body, our breath systems, and our presence.


So you can give them your full attention and breathe with them and stay with them.


It’s important to remember that we don’t get everything right all the time; that would be a sort of arrogance to believe that. For example, when a student has a breakthrough, they’re normally on a text. I don’t do it. I do it on Shakespeare or another great text, and when they suddenly have a breakthrough, everyone wants to stroke them. And I’ll say, “just let them be for a bit, let them assess what’s happened. Don’t make it better.” And maybe sometimes we just have to think, “Oh God, I’ve just got to stay here for a bit.”


My expertise is understanding. And I think now I’m very good at diagnosing exactly where the tension is. And it’s often very small. The trauma tension is very small in the body. My analogy is to think of a lake, a still lake. And the tension goes in like a small pebble, and the ripples go out, and you see where the ripples go into the shoulders and the jaw. But sometimes it comes back right into the breath somewhere. And I didn’t know any of this when I left college. I just stumbled across it. You would get somebody to breathe because they’re going into the theater performance and they’re suddenly talking about rape. And at that point I’m thinking, “Oh my God, nobody told me this could happen when I trained.” And so of course you go and find out about it, and they say, “Oh yes, they’re breathing. They’re now just remembering something.” And generally, just the relief of taking a breath is a great healing thing. Not always. You need support staff that can have much more knowledge than you do about certain things. So go carefully. Go gently.


Q16. Your body of work includes several outstanding books, and I’m eager to learn about your creative process. Can you share insights into how you approach your writing?


Answer: I write by hand, and I write speaking every word aloud as I write it. Then it’s my voice. A lot of playwrights know that. I might not be too loud, but people who watch me at the kitchen table writing can see that my mouth is moving—I’m mouthing it. I’m feeling the words, feeling the rhythm. When I edit it, I’m just reading it out aloud and fiddling with it in that way. But you can’t do this unless you have passion and care about what you are writing; you’ve got to think that it matters.


I believe that we can all have a lovely read of something glib and funny. In my case, I can’t do anything that I don’t feel or study deeply. I know what I know, and I continually learn more. At one point very early in my career, when I was making about £3,200 a year and working everywhere, learning my craft, I was working with somebody who is now right at the top of the pop world. She saw my potential, and she said, “Come and work with me.” It was an extraordinary sum of money that she offered me in the 1970s—around £60,000 a year. Out of my mouth came, “Oh, but I don’t know enough.” Thank God that John, my late husband, had the same view as me, which he shared with me when I went home. We didn’t have money; I never thought I’d make money. I never went into this profession to make money. I said to him that this has been offered to me and I’d have to go and work with pop stars and all that. He said, “You don’t know enough.” And, I said, “Yes, that’s right.” You’ve got to knock on your heart sometimes and think, do I really know something? I’m always prepared to admit when I don’t know, but you have to know something.


There’s a lot of teaching and coaching that is just based on cosmetic stuff, which is great maybe. A lot of people don’t want stuff that changes them. I have students who’d much rather lie on the floor, not do any work, but that’s not what I can do because there are always students who want to seek to excel, and we need very good leaders. As we recently saw here in the U.K., during the lockdown, when the government was led by people not knowing anything about what they were doing. I mean, this is tragic. Not having people around them that know or listen to them deeply. Today, it’s got very unfashionable to know something deeply. I think it’s changing, but you are mocked. I don’t care. I’ve been mocked all my life, people saying, “God, she’s so passionate about it. Ohhh.” Well, that’s the way I am, and I don’t want to live another way.


Q17. From the many things I admire about your work is that you choose to work with diverse individuals, from everyday people to those in the spotlight. From my perception, you treat everybody equally because they’re a student and you’re a teacher, and you realize that when you are teaching you are also learning from them. It’s like an exchange. What are your views about teaching diverse students?


Answer: Everybody’s got a wonderful story.


When I started as a voice teacher, other voice teachers would ask me, “What do you mean? You just teach ordinary people?” And I said, “Well, that’s interesting and I’m out of my depth a lot of the time.”


For example, I couldn’t have written The Right to Speak: Working with the Voice if I hadn’t had all these wonderful work experiences. I remember that many times I used to put down the phone thinking, ‘Oh no, what have I said yes to?’ Then you learn. And, it’s Chaucer who says, “The life’s so short, the craft so long to learn.”


It’s important to teach everyone because today we need people who communicate better, truthfully, and authentically.


Q18. In hindsight, looking at your overall career, is there some advice you’d like to share with those readers who are fascinated by your career track and would like to do something similar?


Answer: Go out and try things. It’s very hard to say this, but I learned a lot doing jobs that didn’t pay much. A lot of the people that I teach want to dive into all the big corporate stuff where they can earn sometimes eye-watering amounts of money. I think you’ve got to put your focus on the work, not on what it gets you.


It’s like students saying to me, “I want an Oscar.” Well, you’ll probably get an Oscar if you just do the work. And sometimes, actors come into my workshops when they’re in town, either in New York or another city, and they join my class for a bit and then they say goodbye and off they go. And I’ll ask my students, “Do you know who that person was?” And most of them say no. And then I tell them, “Well, they’ve got an Oscar, and you don’t even know who won the Oscar 10 years ago for best actor. So why is it so important?” We’re dangling something that is cosmetic. Of course, it’s lovely to get an Oscar. But it’s the work that matters because if you do the work correctly, you are changing people, the audience, particularly when you are fully present, and especially in theater.


There’s a story which happens to so many actors during their lifetime. If you do the work, and often in theater, you’re not earning a lot of money, but you will be standing on a subway or in an underground station, and somebody will come up to you and say, “I saw you play that role 20 years ago,” and you’ve even forgotten the role, bur then you realize, ‘Oh yes, yes, I did that. Yeah, that was, yes, I did that on Broadway.’ And it’s changed them. You do the work to change them. And that’s worth doing because a great, well-told story transforms. It awakens and transforms, yet not all the audience, not all the time. Sometimes you might have to look at it 10 times before you go, ‘Oh.’ And this might be 10 years down the line when you are told by someone, “That play touched me.”


We must focus on and do storytelling and good communication. And we now know that this also applies to the corporate world, because here as well, we need to do the work. Today, we want to do business with people who listen and tell us stories. Often you have all these people who know every bit of data – they can spout data, data, data – but what people need to do is to bring their humanity to the forefront, and like that they can get more and even deeper connections to most of their clients.


Concluding Remarks: And on that perfect, positive note, thank you very much for sharing your life experiences and knowledge with me and our readers. I’m honored that you took such a long time to talk with me.


Answer: Oh, my pleasure. Well, of course, it matters to me. Thank you.

Thank you for reading this interview. Please remember to subscribe to our newsletter, to receive updates about upcoming interviews, articles, and podcast episodes.


Prof. Patsy Rodenburg, OBE, talks about her career, work and her book The Woman's Voice. Interview by Sorina Crisan Matthey de l'Endroit, PhD, Persuasive Discourse

Author, Teacher, Voice Coach, Theatre Director & Humanitarian | United Kingdom

Patsy Rodenburg OBE, a London native, stands as the world’s preeminent voice teacher and coach, boasting over four decades of expertise in restoring individuals and groups to their innate voice and presence. Recognized for her mastery in Shakespeare, Rodenburg fuses classical theatrical principles, including those from Greek texts, with a profound understanding of the body, breath, and voice. Her distinctive methodology centers individuals in their authentic voice and presence. Working with clients, ranging from those in positions of influence to those in schools, boardrooms, and even prisons, Rodenburg imparts foundational principles of breath work, body, and vocal preparation. The transformative impact of her teachings is evident in a profound shift in voice, presence, and breath, cascading positive effects across both professional and personal realms. To learn more about her work, sign up for her workshops, and/or buy her books, please access her website (link here).

Illustrations: The main article photos and the profile photo are made available on Prof. Patsy Rodenburg's official website (link here).


bottom of page