Faculty Interview: Judith Shahn


After 26 years on the faculty at the UW School of Drama, Judith Shahn, senior lecturer in voice and dialects, is retiring at the end of the academic year. Before she leaves for world adventures, she sat down to reflect on those 26 years.

What were you doing in your career before coming to UW Drama?

I got my BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and from there I went right to New York and started trying to get work as an actor. I got some off-off-Broadway, some extra work in film and television, and some commercial stuff, but I didn’t really know who I was. I was trying to be who everyone else thought I was and that was difficult as a young person in New York.

I came out to Seattle in 1984 and immediately got sucked into the community. It was amazing how many doors opened right away. I began teaching voice at Seattle Children’s Theater. I remember thinking: I’m not really a voice teacher, but they were like, “You’ve been trained. You know what to do.” Then they asked me to direct and I thought: I’ve never directed before, but they were like, “Well, now you will!”

I taught at Cornish College of the Arts for four years and I also freelanced as an actor and coached a lot at ACT Theatre. ACT was really my artistic home at the beginning.  I coached A Christmas Carol for ten years.

I got very excited about teaching voice. During my time at Cornish, I trained with Kristin Linklater and eventually became a Designated Linklater Teacher. It was this renewed career for me. It was finding something that felt like home. It’s been 26 years of finding my own voice within this method that I emphatically and passionately believe in. I’m so grateful for this training that gave me this structure, philosophy, and challenge to pass onto generations of students.

I trained with Kristin Linklater and eventually became a Designated Linklater Teacher. It was this renewed career for me. It was finding something that felt like home.

Can you describe the Linklater method?

The method is known as “freeing the natural voice.” Kristin’s teacher, Iris Warren said “We don’t want to hear your voice, we want to hear you through your voice.” This is really compatible with actor training. Your first job as an actor is to find who you are. As human beings we’re born with a three to four octave range. As we get more and more adult and we get more and more trained by society, the range gets reduced. As we learn to protect ourselves in the world, we tighten. The task of voice training is to free the body, mind, and breath so that whatever text you’ve got, whatever character you’re playing, your voice comes through.

What is a typical class day with the PATP?

That has changed over the years and it’s been wonderful being part of that change and developing curriculum—daring to do new things. Now, we have Physical Awareness three days a week. I love starting the day in this way. We have all of the PATP students in the room and I lead them in bringing awareness to what’s going on in their bodies right now. How can they begin to shift that and open themselves and be ready and willing to work? We end by singing a song. My goal is not to be perfect, but to just get us singing together so that everyone will go off down the hallways with a little joy and harmony.

With the first-years, we’re working on the basic voice work. This quarter we’re working on Shakespeare sonnets. Sonnets are a great way to crack the world of Shakespeare. It’s 14 lines, it’s got a structure, and it’s got a story. We spend a quarter and they work on one sonnet. My work with the second-years is a combination of voice, speech, and dialects. Throughout their training, I do one-on-one work with the students because there’s only so much you can hear in a room full of voices. I coach the productions as well.

How has the School evolved over the past 26 years?

To see the School gain a presence in the national consciousness is really something; to see that our training is having an effect on current American theatre because our students work all over the country and the world.

Each leader of the PATP has brought changes. Most recently, with Val (Valerie Curtis-Newton, head of performance), we started to revamp the curriculum because we were teaching too much. Val looked at the rest of the University, where professors teach two classes a quarter at most and she looked at how much we were teaching and said, “It’s not good to work like this. It’s not good for the students. We’re going to reign this in.” Scott (Hafso, lecturer in speech and singing) and I began to work together to mine the best of what each of us does in voice, speech, and singing, and I’m happy with what we came up with. It did make a difference to not overwork.

I also think the students began to change. We got more rigorous with the kind of student we were looking for. Val brought rigor. We started defining: What are our expectations after the first year? After the second year? For graduation? We found a way to evaluate the students effectively.

How does your teaching feed back into the work you do outside the School?

As a teacher, one of the great gifts is getting to witness people change. The graduate students have to come into the room with their own desire to change and those that do, the trajectory from first year to third year is really something to witness. It’s a gift to work with someone every day for three years. When I work with actors in the professional theatre it’s a month and off they go. When I work with business people, it’s over the course of a month or a few weeks, or just a couple of sessions. I’ll miss the depth of time and intensive relationships that I have with the students here.

I hope to do more acting as I go because I have also learned from the students. I’ve seen such wonderful work from them and it’s inspired to me to keep acting.

As a teacher, one of the great gifts is getting to witness people change. The graduate students have to come into the room with their own desire to change and those that do, the trajectory from first year to third year is really something to witness. 

What do you have planned, or dream of doing in retirement?

I’m going to continue my business, Vibrant Speaking, where I work with individuals, small businesses, and lawyers on public speaking, presentation training, and accent reduction. I’d like to act more. I’d like to do film. I want to travel. My husband is 12 years older than me, so it feels like it’s time to have some adventures together. I want to start a community choir where we sing songs from around the world and people might come and go freely, but we would just sing together.

It’s been an amazing ride and I feel really grateful. I feel grateful that these 26 years have enriched me; that I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing, dedicated, talented students, and a very supportive faculty.

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