How to Make Use of the Chest and the Diaphragm – An Actor’s Skill

To have enough breathe we need to make the best use of the chest cavity. If you want to make an assessment of what your capacity is, take as comfortable a deep breath as you can, without pushing your chest out, sticking out your abdomen or heaving up your shoulders. Start counting aloud in a normal audible speaking voice. Probably the last few numbers will emerge in a forced gasp, the actor running out of breath. A clear count up to fifty is what to aim for. The director Tyrone Guthrie said that someone who wants to be a classical actor should be able to speak about eight lines of dramatic verse in one breath, obviously without rushing it. One thing that may have happened is that you’re breathing out between words, wasting breath. If you want an example of economy when breathing, think of a swimmer doing the crawl: every bit of breath must fuel his energy, and breathing out must be rapid and precisely timed to that moment when his mouth and nose are above the water.

Chest Diaphragm

The actor must breathe both with the chest, by expanding the rib cage, and with the diaphragm, the horizontal muscular wall between the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity. We cannot consciously control it, except by relaxing the abdominal muscles; when we do this, the diaphragm drops, and the capacity of the chest is increased. So we have two ways of breathing in and out, the first by letting the rib cage expand outwards, not upwards. This we can liken to the opening of a pair of bellows. If at the same time the abdomen relaxes, and protrudes slightly we are in effect lowering a piston, the diaphragm. This process is called ‘rib reserve’ breathing. It needs to become a reflex action, which requires continual practice. All exercises to develop actor’s skills need patient and positive work, in the same way in which experienced musicians, singers and dancers keep their skills in constant health.

Try this exercise when properly relaxed. Stand up, check that your posture is upright without either tension or sloppiness. Put one hand flat on your lower ribs, the other on your solar plexus. Take a deep breath, and feel the rib cage expand automatically and the abdomen protrude slightly; if it doesn’t let it go, flexing the stomach muscles to release them. Repeat the earlier counting exercise, raising the diaphragm by gently pulling in the abdominal muscles: this is pushing” the piston up to expel the breath. When you’ve gone as far as you can without discomfort, continue breathing out by lowering the rib cage, or rather letting it lower itself, a process rather like a bellows closing. The transition from abdominal breathing to rib reserve must be smooth and effortless, without any unnecessary muscular tension, or change of posture. The audience will have no idea how hard the actor has worked to gain this extra breath capacity; they’ll just enjoy listening to him speaking well with good supported tone. You now need to experiment some more with the breathing process. Start speaking softly and then get louder – a lot of dramatic speech has the stress, the emphasis or the meaning at the end. Typical of this is the comedian’s joke with its tag or punch-line; here’s Archie Rice, John Osborne’s clapped-out comedian in The Entertainer,

Here! Here! Here, I’ve just met a man with a lemon stuck in his ear! A lemon stuck in his ear! So I went up to him, I said: ‘What are you doing with that Lemon stuck in your ear?’ and he says: ‘Well, you know that man with a hearing aid – well, I’m the man with the lemonade.’

An awful gag, but it takes as much skill to play it as a good one.


Try this: take a full breath, and say Hah! with some force, still with the hands in place. If you say it by lowering your rib cage the sound isn’t as clear, as rapid, as strong as it can be when you propel it from the diaphragm- Try it again, this time punching it out by a quick pull-in with the solar plexus. Now follow-up Hah! by immediately taking a quick breath, to replace the breath you’ve used, releasing the tummy muscles. During all this, the rib cage need not have moved at all. This is called a ‘snatched breath’, and must be rapid and soundless. The actor breathes without showing it, without lifting the head, arching the back, or raising the shoulders. As the timing and pace of dramatic text is indicated only by the punctuation used, there are often long passages broken only by a comma; here, to sustain what may be a rapid passage, the snatched breath becomes essential. ‘Breathing’ the dialogue, finding when to breathe to facilitate the speaking of the text is something the actor can work out in rehearsal, or even before when studying a long speech, so that he never runs out of breath.

Now vary the exercise using the words Hoo Hee, punching them out quite loudly, and again voicing them quite softly, but using only your diaphragm. You’ll probably manage five to six times loudly, ten to twelve times softly. Nearly all work on the basics in voice class involve repetition and variation of single sounds and combinations of sounds, most of which sound quite inane without the framework of actual words. The purpose is to make the sound correctly every time, and acquire agility and ease with voice and speech. Now try to vary the duration of the word. Say ‘WHAT … ARE … YOU … SAYING?’ slowly, loudly and deliberately, and try to feel the transition from using the diaphragm pushing up, to the rib cage slowly closing in, not down.

The actor must find out how his body works, and teach it to function easily. A big chest is no guarantee of good breathing capacity, and a lot of notable runners have been markedly skinny, but lithe and flexible with a large chest expansion. The actor who means business should try to find time every day for breathing and speech work, as it takes time and practice to work on the flexibility of the diaphragm and develop particular muscles. Every actor should have his favorite voice book to hand, Cicely Berry, Clifford Turner, or whoever he feels most useful.

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment


About the Author: Cody Riffel is a regular contributor to MegaHowTo. She likes to write on variety of topics, whatever interests her. She also likes to share what she learns over the Internet and her day-to-day life.

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