Killer Assumptions

Assumptions are necessary for human survival. For instance, we all assume that gravity will be there to keep us from floating away. (So far so good on that one!) If we were forced to double check every single detail of our lives, we might go mad trying.

Some assumptions however, can be problematic. Below are a few that I run into regularly in my work that I thought you might like to know about. All of these assumptions have cost people time, money and career opportunities. I hope that by listing them here, you’ll be able to avoid this fate!

Some Actors assume that their college actor training program adequately prepared them to use dialects in a professional acting setting.

(This is almost always not the case.)

Some Agents and Managers assume that actors can deliver on the dialect promises listed on their resumes.

(What they aren’t aware of is that the actor may have placed certain dialect skills on their resume because they took dialect classes while in college…(see above) or are otherwise misinformed about their proficiency.)

Some Casting Directors, Agents, Directors and Producers assume that asking an actor for a ‘light’ version of a dialect is doing them a favor because it will be less work for them.

(Bottom line: A dialect is a dialect. The same basic amount of work goes into preparing one for performance.)

Some Directors, Casting Directors,  and Producers assume that acting in a dialect is ‘just talking’ so actors should be able to switch dialects at a moment’s notice.

(The truth is that actors (all actors — even ones with shiny gold statues on their mantels) need time to prepare. It’s the same kind of time actors would need to learn to twirl a gun on their finger, accurately shoot a target, slam their gun into a holster,  jump on a horse and ride bareback across the plain all in a single take while acting their hearts out delivering the film’s climactic dialogue. In my opinion, dialect work is stunt work. It’s stunt work that the actor must do him/herself and it’s stunt work that can’t be faked well using current technology. Only rarely can ADR begin to save an uneven dialect performance, and when it can, the budget takes a hit.)

Some Casting directors, Agents, Directors, and Producers assume that if a person can speak a particular language (Other than English) fluently, then they must also be able to speak and act in English using a dialect influenced by that language.

(Not neccessarily true — They’re related but separate skills.)

Some Actors, Casting Directors, Agents, Directors and Producers assume that certain dialects are ‘easier’ than others.

(In truth, every individual will have their own list of which dialects are more or less difficult for them.)

Some Actors assume that Producers and Directors understand the complexity and demands of acting while using a dialect other than the actor’s own and so will properly support the actor’s process.

(For many reasons (too many to go into within this post) this is sadly, very seldom true. Working actors are often faced with shouldering the burden of performing without proper preparation — even Oscar winning actors attached to potentially Oscar winning screenplays often must push to get the proper prep time and adequate dialect support staff on board.)

Do any of these assumptions look familiar to you? 

Have you ever fallen victim to one of these killer assumptions?

Are there other assumptions about dialect that you’ve encountered you’d like to share?  

I’d love to hear from you on this subject.

Joy to you,

Pamela Vanderway





Cold Reading in a Dialect

What should you do if you are in an audition and the casting entities suddenly ask you to read the scene again — only this time using a dialect other than your own?

In general, you should ask if you can have a few minutes to prepare. I say ‘in general’ because if you haven’t previously mastered the dialect that you are being asked to perform in, a few minutes of preparation will not be enough time to make a favorable impression on those who are hoping to cast you. In fact, it could hurt your chances considerably. If you find that you aren’t intimately familiar with the dialect you are suddenly being asked to perform in, you’ll need to make a (slightly nervewracking) decision:

1) You can either tell the truth about your lack of skill in this area and risk hearing “OK, thank you, we have seen what we need” — And then when you don’t get the role, (because statistically speaking you probably won’t) you may end up forever wondering  if you could have landed that role if you’d have been able to nail the dialect.

OR

2) You can just go for it, (do sub-par work) and run the risk that the casting entities may write you off for future auditions because they get the impression that either you don’t possess a basic understanding of your own skill level or that you have ‘a really bad ear.’

If on the other hand you are suddenly being asked to perform in a dialect that you have previously mastered, I suggest that you ask the casting entities if you may have a few minutes to prepare. They are very likely to say yes. When they do, here’s what I suggest you do:

1)  Find a quiet spot where you won’t disturb anyone if you are talking to yourself.

2) Set a timer for 1/2 the time they’ve allotted you to prepare.

3) Using a smart phone (or an ipod) and some headphones, listen to audio samples of the dialect, specifically whatever sample you have used in the past to ‘tune in’ to the dialect. This of course will take a bit of foresight on your part. You’re going to have to take the time to pre-load your ipod or smartphone with samples from every dialect that you have mastered, and you’re going to have to remember to bring your smartphone and headphones to every audition without exception.

4) Practice applying the dialect to the text. Slowly. Deliberately. (You may find it useful to keep a written list of the basic rules of the dialect somewhere in your smart phone to help with this step.)

5) (Breathe and center yourself.)

6) Practice some more. If you have a voice recorder on your phone, record yourself speaking the lines and listen to them, making adjustments as necessary. (If you usually use an iPhone or iPad and David H. Lawrence’s Rehearsal 2 App for your auditions, it will come in very handy for this step.)

7) When your timer goes off reset it for half the time you have left and record yourself again, this time acting the script as fully as you will do for the audition.

8) Listen to this recording, and make adjustments as necessary.

9) When the second timer goes off, take a relaxing breath, center yourself and return to the audition area, ready to work.

Break a leg!

– Pamela

Note:  This post was inspired by a question I received from an actor who had listened to Inside Acting Podcast’s ‘Audition Horror Stories’ (ep. 44).  If you aren’t currently listening to this podcast I hope you will soon. The show is entertaining, informative, warm and honest. Good stuff.

American Dialects — An Addictive Map

What a treat I’ve just discovered in Internet-Land! It seems Christian missionary and professional linguist Rick Aschmann has a hobby outside his career of working in Native American languages — He’s been collecting samples of American accents and organizing them in a meticulously detailed online interactive map complete with links to audio and video samples of regional dialects. Here’s an overview of what his ongoing project looks like:

And here’s where you can go to interact with it!

Mr. Aschmann has included many technical descriptions which I think will interest those of you who are comfortable with the International Phonetic Alphabet and entry level linguistics, but even if you have no experience whatsoever, the map is an entertaining romp through the bounty of dialects America has to offer. Just look for cities marked with little green dots and follow them to the audio and video links Mr. Aschmann provides.

Have fun!

–Pamela Vanderway

P.S. You know those little dishes that some stores have where you can take a penny or leave a penny for someone who might need it? When you find a dialect sample that you love (on Rick Aschmann’s map, or anywhere else), I hope you’ll come back here to Dialect411.com and share your link and your thoughts or questions about it so I can share it with our readers here. You can leave your link in the comments section or if you’d rather you can email it to me at dialect411 (AT) gmail (DOT) com. Leave a link /Take a link. I promise that as our collection grows, I will find ways to make it easier and easier for you to find exactly the links you need for your next project. You know, if every one of my subscribers and Twitter followers offered up just one link, we’d already have one of the largest collections of dialect links on the internet. I’m pretty humbled by that thought. Thank you so very much for your support! Your participation here and on Twitter (@dialect411) has made these first nine months of Dialect411.com really lovely for me. Happy New Year, my friends! May this year be your best yet!

Vocal Rest

Did you spend this morning doing ADR for a horror film or voicing a violent video game? Last night were you shouting to be heard over a live band?  Has a cold or virus left you sounding  a little like Brando in ‘The Godfather’, Kathleen Turner circa 2009, or Billy Bob Thornton in ‘Sling Blade’?  If so, vocal rest might be just the ticket to helping get you back to your optimum vocal self.

What Is Vocal Rest? Vocal rest is the process of resting stressed, irritated vocal folds by not speaking so that inflammation can begin to subside and healing may occur. It involves not only eliminating day to day speaking, but all forms of vocal communication including whispering. Many voice professionals even caution against thinking about speaking, as you might end up causing further irritation by adducting (bringing together) the vocal folds unconsciously as you are thinking about what it is that you wish you were saying aloud.

When Is Vocal Rest Helpful? Vocal rest is used in a variety of situations. Temporary irritation of the vocal folds can occur for many reasons such as over-use, exposure to chemicals or extreme temperatures, or even mechanical traumas such as smoking or undergoing certain medical procedures. Whatever the reason, if your voice seems the slightest bit off, vocal rest coupled with re-hydration is typically recommended for mild to moderate cases of vocal irritation. Many actors traditionally engage in vocal rest at the very first signs of vocal irritation so that vocal impairment will not prevent them from securing work or end up delaying a production schedule. (NOTE: Always consult with your physician on matters of health! This post is intended to impart basic information about vocal rest. It is not meant to take the place of proper medical diagnosis and treatment.)

Why Is Vocal Rest Helpful? When you speak, your vocal folds must vibrate to produce sound. When your vocal folds become irritated or inflamed in some way, each instance of vocalization can wind up further irritating them.  In choosing to remain perfectly silent (usually for a day or two) you are eliminating a source of further irritation thereby giving your body’s repair mechanisms the greatest chance of restoring your vocal folds to their former glory. Another (surprising!) reason is that when it comes to your vocal folds, modern science can’t necessarily fix what you break. Currently, otolaryngologists are fairly limited in what they know about the properties of healthy human vocal folds. Why? Because no animal on the planet has vocal folds with the same complicated structure as ours. Study has mainly been limited to what is observable in human corpses and what is revealed during laryngoscopy or experimental surgeries. Dead bodies don’t vocalize, Laryngoscopy can offer only an external view, and experimental vocal surgeries are performed on vocal folds which are experiencing extreme malfunction rather than on healthy folds, so mankind’s collective knowledge of healthy human vocal folds is not what we’d all like it to be. Bottom line — take care of what you have today and every day. You only get one voice.

How To Succeed At Vocal Rest: Vocal rest is simple to prescribe, but challenging to perform. Your physician may tell you “Just go home for two days and don’t speak or whisper” but it’s not until you actually try to stay mum that you realize how much you normally talk each day. Most of us are incredibly reliant on our ability to speak in order to get our needs met. By the time you actually figure out how you can remain perfectly silent your vocal rest period may be over! To succeed at vocal rest you need to have a plan. The overall goal of this plan will be to eliminate from your environment the temptation to speak. Everyone is different, but here are some strategies I’ve seen clients use with success:

1) Consult your upcoming appointments and re-schedule every phone call and meeting you have for the next few days.

2) Eliminate the temptation of answering the telephone. Either change your outgoing message to explain that for the next day or two you will not be reachable by telephone and provide an email address for your callers to utilize or perhaps forward your calls to a trusted and competent friend who will act as your personal secretary for the next few days. (This friend will communicate with you via email except in the case of true emergency.)

3) Prepare to stay at home alone. Being alone greatly reduces the impulse to speak. If you live with other people, find an area of your home where you can isolate yourself from others, or even consider checking in to a hotel.

4) Make sure you have all the basic supplies you will need to be comfortable during vocal rest — food, plenty of water, and any other supply you typically require.  Avoid having to run out to the store!

4) Find something you can truly enjoy doing in silence by yourself. One of the most challenging aspects of vocal rest for social people such as actors, is simply the fact that silence isn’t very social. Do yourself a big favor and use vocal rest as the perfect opportunity to do something (silent) that you’ve really wanted to do, but haven’t had the time for. Read a fantastic novel or stack of plays and screenplays or work on that quiet crafting project you’ve really been wanting to get to. Use the time to study the career of an actor you admire. (Choose an actor, go to IMDB.com and use it as a playlist for a movie marathon. For maximum impact try watching projects in the order in which they were produced.) Journal. Paint. Update your actor profile on the various casting websites. Color in a kid’s coloring book. Cut out paper snowflakes… You know yourself best. Find some activities that are just right for you!

5) Drink plenty of water. Vocal rest and proper hydration go hand in hand. I know you’ve heard this a zillion times, but optimum hydration is really important to your quality of life. Not only is water essential in the healing process of  irritated  vocal folds, it’s key to helping prevent the irritation in the first place. As an actor proper hydration is particularly important to your career. Your body is composed mainly of water, and requires plenty of it to run all of its various systems. When your body lacks enough water to function at an optimum level, it begins to ration fluids, reserving them for the most essential areas (such as your brain and your blood) so that you will remain alive. Your vocal folds and your skin are among the first body parts on the ‘non-essential list’ and they are among the first to experience dryness. Unless you are a heckuva character actor, dry wrinkled skin and a creaky voice aren’t major selling points, so it’s a stellar idea to drink plenty of water not only during vocal rest but every single day.

Final Note From Your Coach: If you are experiencing difficulty with your voice, do consult your physician! While vocal rest typically has no side effects, it is by no means a cure-all. Make sure that you have all the diagnostic information you need to make the right treatment choice for your long-term vocal health. As always, if you have questions send them to me here in the comments section or @dialect411 on Twitter.  I’m here to help.

Mastery

Mastery is a complicated and fascinating thing. When you first start out to master something (such as learning to snowboard or becoming an old-west style trick-shooter,  or even achieving the ability to speak in a dialect other than your own while hitting your mark, finding your light and acting at the same time)  — when you first start out — as you put in effort, you experience results.

You work and light bulbs go off!

You practice and you exceed your expectations!

You work and you reap rewards.

It’s a giddy and joyful experience.

Somewhere down the line however,  (and you never can tell exactly when this will occur) you realize that you’re still putting in plenty of work, but your skills don’t seem to be improving much further. You’ve hit a learning plateau and it feels like the party is over.  Practicing isn’t fun anymore and the work you’re doing really does feel like work. Soon you may feel like you want to (or should) give up.

And if you were to give up, you wouldn’t be alone.

Far from it.

It’s during this plateau phase that most people give up their quest for mastery.

Most people give up.

Most people.

Most people give up during the plateau phase of mastering a new skill.

Wow.

Most people give up.

On one hand that’s kind of a sobering thought. On the other hand it’s also a pretty spectacular opportunity for anyone who is willing to continue to work for an unknown length of time without constantly reaping rewards.  Why? Because those who continue practicing a skill solely for the sake of practicing eventually find themselves ahead of their competition. It just happens that way.

As an actor that might mean that when a role comes down to you and two other people, you end up getting cast because you actually do know how to brandish a firearm, or yodel, or handle technical lingo while your competition — doesn’t.

You can have an edge over your direct competition (those actors you keep running into time and again at auditions) you just have to learn to expect the plateau, to accept it, to manage it and perhaps even to grow to love it. Here are a few books on this subject that I have found to be immensely valuable:

‘Mastery’ by George Leonard — This is one of my all-time favorites. I hope that all of you will find a way to give yourself the gift of reading this insightful book.

‘The Dip’ by Seth Godin — This book  actually does not discuss the topic of mastery directly, but rather focuses on recognizing and managing the plateau (which Mr. Godin refers to as ‘The Dip’).

Enjoy!  (If you have other books or resources on this topic to recommend, it would be lovely of you to add them to the comments section.)

Learn How the Industry Utilizes Dialects

I invite every professional actor who would like to improve their chances of being cast to try the following experiment:

For the next week, as you listen to radio commercials, watch television, visit internet video sites and go to the cinema, I encourage you to make written notes of every fictional character  you see or hear that is not speaking in what you would personally consider to be a General American dialect. (NOTE: If you live outside of the United States and/or are seeking acting work primarily outside of the U.S.A. simply make notes based on characters who speak something other than what is perceived as the ‘preferred’ dialect of the market you are targeting.)

To the very best of your current ability write down the following observations (writing them down will help you get the best results from your efforts):

1) The name of the dialect you are hearing (for the purpose of this experiment, it will work just fine to take a note such as ‘Australian/NewZealand-ish’ or ‘Irish’ instead of ‘County Kerry, Ireland’ if you’re not exactly sure what you’re hearing).

2) The name of the show the fictional character appeared in and the episode name or number if possible. (Just to be clear, this experiment does not encompass documentary or reality style entertainment.)

3) The genre of the show (action, crime drama, situational comedy, children’s show, commercial etc.).

4) Approximately when the show was produced (Currently? Within 5 years? 1990′s? 80′s? 70′s? 60′s? etc.)

5) As many details as you can think of about the kind of character being played. Were they — The hero? The villian? The victim?  Were they wealthy, middle-class, or poor? Urban or rural? Honest/trustworthy or dishonest/shady? Overtly sexual or a-sexual? Educated or uneducated? Naturally astute or rather dense? Refined or gritty? Did they ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in the end and how did you as the viewer feel about this win/loss?

6) Did the accent sound authentic to you?

When the week is over, go back and read the data you have collected and look for patterns.  I cannot tell you exactly what information your particular entertainment viewing habits will yield, but by investing effort in this little experiment, I’m confident at the very least you will begin to see:

A) How many dialect role opportunities there are out there. (More than you think.)

B) Which dialects are currently being associated with which types of characters. (This is something that changes over time and is heavily influenced by world events.)

C) Just how often productions are forced to hire an actor who is not really ready to act in a particular dialect. (And by extension, how you can increase your odds of being cast by mastering dialects appropriate to your career.)

I hope you will give yourself the gift of performing this experiment and look forward to hearing from you about your observations!

Enjoy!

Tuning Up Your Acting Resume

Today’s post is very straightforward.

I’d like to encourage you to read this.

And this.

And then I really hope you’ll do this: Grab your fancy ‘eeeee-lectronic’ calendar and schedule in a perpetually-repeating appointment time twice a year so that you can remember to regularly perform a resume skills evaluation. If you haven’t done a resume skills evaluation before, rest assured that it’s pretty straightforward. The idea is to vigorously test each skill that you have listed on your resume and determine if you can honestly claim to be proficient at it or if you’ve been giving in to ‘resume inflation.’

To perform a resume skills evaluation, you’ll want to use every means you have at your disposal to effectively evaluate your skills. If you have juggling listed on your resume, video record yourself doing it so that you can have a good idea of how smooth you look while catching those pins.  If horseback riding is listed, head over to some stables and see what you’ve got.  When in comes to dialects, recording yourself is helpful, but you’ll need feedback from someone else knowledgeable to be sure you’ve really got the goods. (If you’ve made the effort to create an ongoing relationship with a dialect coach, you can handle this evaluation over the phone or via Skype in probably under an hour.)

A few more things:

1)    This time of year is great for skills evaluations. Summer is over, the holidays have yet to catch us up in their wake, and the giddiness of pilot season isn’t a distraction.

2)  If a reminder from your electronic calendar isn’t enough to kick you into gear, you might consider working with a buddy. Synchronize your calendars and hold each other accountable for following through with your evaluations.

3) The second article I invited you to read was written by Joe Von Bokern, one of the three talented and refreshing co-authors of the blog ‘Playbills vs. Paying Bills’ which chronicles the professional lives of actors Ben Whitehair, Joe Von Bokern, and Emily Beuchat as they pursue acting careers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York respectively.  Playbills vs. Paying Bills  is always such an enjoyable read.  I want to personally thank Joe Von Bokern for publishing his story. When all of us have the wisdom to be this transparent and candid, we’ll revolutionize the entertainment industry.