Cicely Berry CBE 1926 – 2018 | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Friday, 19 October 2018

The entire Central community is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of esteemed alumna, Honorary PhD and Vice President of the School, Cicely Berry CBE.

Born 17 May, 1926, Cicely Berry was Voice Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was world-renowned for her work as a voice and text coach.

She attended Central as a student on the Teaching Course from 1943 – 1946 and then returned to the School in the 1950s to teach, which she continued for many years.  “Central was the centre of my life in so many ways”, she said of her time at the School, and her incredible impact on the field of Voice Studies at Central and more generally cannot be overstated.

During her career, Cicely Berry conducted workshops all over the globe, including Korea, Russia, and Asia. Her work also extended to prisons, using Shakespeare as a vessel to find confidence in speaking and response to imagery. One of her earliest teachers was Barbara Bunch.

From rehearsals at the RSC, to workshops and Master Classes in Seoul, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro, her work was documented in diverse languages, producing new understanding in the power of voice, language and communications. Her influence extended into other areas as well, including film and politics. Having coached prominent politicians on effective public speaking, she once asserted that the political sound byte was “destroying democratic debate.”

She was as much the political activist as she was a humanist and voice director. Whether it was working in a penitentiary or on a film set, she strived to help people find their authentic voice, full in the belief that when one has found their voice they can find their place in the world.

Cicely Berry was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In 2012, she was appointed Vice President of the School at an event to unveil her official portrait, which now hangs alongside portraits of Central’s founder, Elsie Fogerty and Gwynneth Thurburn, Central alumna, eminent voice teacher, Vice-Principal, and, later Principal of the School.  Berry commented at the time that to have her “portrait hanging beside Fogerty and Thurby could not be a greater honour”.

Professor Gavin Henderson CBE, Central’s Principal, said:

“Cis Berry has been so much a part of Central’s DNA and for so long, indeed for more than 70 years, that it is difficult to register that she has passed away.  Her influence will be with us for many years to come, as will the force of her personality – but she leaves a space that is impossible to fill.”

 Jane Boston, Course Leader of Central’s MA/MFA in Voice Studies and Chair of the International Network of Voice, said:

“Cicely Berry’s theatre and vocal arts legacy is one that uniquely combines passion, insight, expertise, social conviction, and deeply held humane values. Her investment in the power of theatre was total and her belief in its potentialities was immense.  Theatre and society were indivisible in her view. Throughout a long career, her theatre practice retained a connection to the burning issues and social concerns of the day.  The way in which she combined the personal and the political stands as a model for all present and future theatre practitioners who seek to keep theatre live, vibrant and relevant.  This is her gift to theatre and we lose it at our peril.”

Claudette Williams, Central’s Senior Lecturer in Voice, said:

“It's very difficult to quantify how much Cis impacted my life! I met Cis as a student at Drama school, then as an actor at the RSC and lecturer at Central.  She was the first voice practitioner to empower me by her championing of actors from all backgrounds to believe in their vocal potential.  She taught with humour in an atmosphere of playfulness! If an exercise didn’t work it would be discarded as ‘crap’ with much hilarity from all present, and another found. It was never you the actor.  Her endearing smile, her wicked sense of humour and her passion for the alchemy of the WORD/ WORDS will abide in me always.  Thank you Cis!”

Geoffrey Colman, Central’s Head of Acting, said:

“Hers was not a craft for the privileged locked away in some safe and utterly irrelevant theatre space. Her belief that when ‘words fail, violence prevails’ rejects the notion that the theatre is just a place for entertainment, and acknowledges - no celebrates that it is a place for social change. As a voice teacher she understood the sacred power of language and - fundamentally - the absolute power acting itself.”

Ayse Tashkiran, Co-Course Leader of Central’s MA/MFA in Movement: Directing and Teaching and Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said:

"It is with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Cicely Berry; she will be so missed.  I have been lucky enough to see her in action with actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company and sitting next to her in dress rehearsals was always a prickly kind of pleasure.  Her commitment to the ‘work’ was absolute.  And she was always very direct, generous and supportive of movement work.  The last time I saw her was in 2016, seated in a noisy RSC canteen where she generously talked to me about her time as a student at Central (1943-46) recalling that she was taught movement by Gerda Rink. She was very illuminating about the work of the seminal movement teacher Litz Pisk with whom she crossed over as a teacher in the 1960’s. This far reaching conversation will remain with me always - especially our contemplation of ‘gravity and levity”.   

Central extends its heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time.

Cicely Berry’s theatre and vocal arts legacy is one that uniquely combines passion, insight, expertise, social conviction, and deeply held humane values. Her investment in the power of theatre was total and her belief in its potentialities was immense.  

Jane Boston, Course Leader of Central’s MA/MFA in Voice Studies and Chair of the International Network of Voice