Monthly Archives: April 2010

Serious, Serious, Serious! (And Now For Something Completely Different)

I’ve been serious, serious, serious thus far in blog-land.

When it comes to voice, speech and dialect work, serious can be good, but to get the very best results, you’ve got to be sure to fuel your sense of play, too…so…

Time for some fun!

Here are a few of my favorite voice and speech related clips for your enjoyment— a bit of tricky dialogue, some ultra-specific mimicry, some Shakespeare and an unusual demonstration of the potential of the human voice…

First up, a simple sketch from The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson was king…

Next VO actor Josh Robert Thompson demonstrates the fine art of voice matching. (Voice matching is essentially dialect work taken to the next level…)

Here Actor Brian Cox teaches a bit of Shakespeare to the world’s smallest Hamlet.

And finally…Tuvan Throat Singing (Overtone Singing) meets John Newton’s Amazing Grace. There are no tricks or devices here. This man is making this sound with his voice and nothing else.

Have you got favorite voice, speech and dialect clips?

Post them in the comment section!

Dialect Myth du Jour – Dialect Coaches Speak Many Languages

MYTH: A dialect coach speaks many languages fluently.

Probably not.

It certainly isn’t a requirement for superb work.

In simplest terms, a dialect coach’s job is to ‘help one person sound like another.’ This entails being able to analyze a particular ‘sample’ of spoken language and then guide another person (most typically an actor) in hearing, duplicating, and ultimately integrating the components of that ‘sample’ seamlessly into their work. The job demands a keen understanding of how a particular set of words (the script) needs to be spoken (for authenticity and accuracy) rather than an ability to converse fluently in a foreign language.

There are of course times when a coach will need to have a firm grasp on basic elements of a particular language in order to deliver a good product, but rarely will this require fluency.

Accent Reduction

If you live in Los Angeles (or nearly any major metropolitan area) you’ve seen the handmade signs stapled to telephone poles that say ‘Lose Your Accent!’ or ‘Accent Reduction!’ followed by a phone number where you can purchase lessons.

But guess what?

There is no such thing as ‘Accent Reduction.’

Learning to speak in an accent other than the one you arrived at naturally is an acquired skill. It is something that is added to your list of abilities, not something that erases an ability you already possess.

Think of it this way—when you were a little kid, and you learned how to skip or to jump, did you give up walking? Did the skipping or jumping ‘erase’ your ability to walk? Of course not. You walked when it made sense to walk, and skipped or jumped for enjoyment or to get over an obstacle. To this day you still know how to walk, skip, and jump and you use each of them as they seem most appropriate.

Even if it were magically possible that learning a new accent could ‘erase’ the one you naturally have, as an actor why on Earth would you want to do that? It would only make you eligible for fewer roles.

For the record, the appropriate term for learning a new accent is ‘Accent Acquisition.’

That said, please forgive your agent, manager, or acting coach if they toss around the term ‘Accent Reduction.’ They’ve probably just read a whole lot of telephone poles…

Dialect Myth du Jour- A Light Dialect Is Easier to Learn

MYTH: It’s easier to learn just the ‘flavor’ or ‘hint’ of a dialect than it is to learn the ‘real’ dialect.

I hear this from inexperienced directors all the time: “I am not too worried about the dialects for this production. I’m really just looking for the actors to capture the ‘flavor’ of the dialect…So if you could give the cast one or two pointers, maybe suggest some films they could watch…that’s all we really need.”

When I hear this, as a dialect consultant my heart hurts because I know from experience that every actor involved in that production is going to be negatively affected by this director’s misconception. It’s nearly guaranteed that the acting work will suffer as the actors struggle to ‘find’ this ‘flavor’ the director has imagined and ultimately the actors (not the naïve director) will take the blame in the reviews for having ‘distracting’ or ‘poor’ dialects.

The plain truth is, a dialect is a dialect. (An accent is an accent.) It doesn’t matter how ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ you or anyone else perceive it to be. If you wish to be convincing, no matter how ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ the accent, you will still have to make conscious, consistent changes to your speech pattern, be 100% intelligible, and feel absolutely natural while doing it.

To accomplish this, the same amount of work is required no matter what.

…If someone tries to tell you otherwise, keep in mind that they’re probably not the ones whose performance will be captured forever on film…

Fit To A ‘T’

In ‘Three Is A Magic Number’ I suggest that as an actor, mastering three dialects that ‘fit you to a T’ is a savvy career move.

So… what makes a dialect ‘fit to a T’?

It boils down to this: A dialect that fits to a T sounds good on you—that is to say it’s a dialect that compliments your unique physical looks and energy.

When you are ready to find dialects that fit you to a T, here’s where to start:

1) Look In The MirrorLiterally. Look in the mirror. What do you look like? Which parts of your ethnic heritage show on your face? Did you get Grandpa’s Italian good looks? Or do you look more like your Irish grandmother?

2) Ask Around-Ask a wide variety of people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) “Based on my looks alone, where do you think my family originally came from?” Ask at least 25 people (more if the answers you get aren’t conclusive) and keep careful note of the answers you receive.

Armed with the above information, you can narrow down your dialect choices significantly, but you’ll need another layer of information if you want to select the dialects that will be the most lucrative for you.

Here are the next steps:

3) Look Around– Every time you find yourself at an audition sitting in a room filled with ‘you-alikes’ who are all waiting to read for the same role you are, ask yourself “What do all these actors sitting in this room with me have in common? What’s the basic /broad-stroke picture being painted here? Is everyone giving off a prep school vibe? Does everyone seem maternal? Aggressive? Innocent? Why were we the particular actors chosen to be here?”

When you figure out what everyone in the room has in common, you gain a clue as to how casting directors ‘see’ you. And by understanding how casting entities see you, you will have one more piece of the puzzle that will allow you to choose which dialects will be the most lucrative for you. For instance, if you look like you might be British, and are constantly being sent out to play blue-collar characters, it would not behoove you to spend all your energy trying to sound like the Queen Elizabeth. It would be a bit of a long-shot to bet that a casting director would call you in to ‘be’ one way (working class) and ‘sound’ another (like a British Royal). It would make far more sense for you to work on some type of working-class British dialect because that’s the kind of role you’ll be the most likely to land.

4) Study Your Resume– Perusing your actor resume can provide you with another level of information. Take a look at all the roles you have been hired to play and see if you can spot casting trends there.  Among the roles you’ve played, are there racial/ethnic trends? Socio-economic trends? Personality trends? All of these facets should play into your ultimate dialect choices.(Make sure not to consider roles you were cast in during any type of actor training course, as these roles are often given to ‘stretch’ an actor. They won’t help you find the information you need for this project.)

And then… Once you’ve finished all the steps above, one of two things will happen–either you’ll have a ‘Eureka!’ moment, and clearly see which dialects would sound particularly good on you, or you’ll discover that you could use a bit of professional guidance.  Once you’ve got your personal research in order, if you need assistance you can consult a reputable dialect coach to help you decide which dialects might be lucrative for you, or you might find that working with an image consultant is what you need.

The Voice and Speech Trainers Association can help you find a dialect coach in your area. You can find them at http://www.vasta.org

In Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, the personal branding guru is Sam Christensen. He can teach you how to see yourself through the eyes of a casting director, and then learn how to market the heck out of your acting product. You can learn about Sam’s work at SamChristensen.com. In addition there are also many video excerpts of his work available on YouTube.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with this little dialect adventure. You can contact me at dialect411(at) gmail(dot)com, or leave a comment below!

Good luck and good fortune to you!

Three Is A Magic Number

The best advice I can give about how to use dialects to bring the most earning potential to your acting career is this:

Find three that fit you to a T and learn them so well that you can walk into an audition using any one of them and everyone in that room believes that’s exactly how you talk when you are relaxing at home.

Insider Info

If your actor resume includes a section that looks pretty much like this…

DIALECTS – English (RP), Cockney, German, French, American Southern, New York

…any savvy casting director will suspect that you have listed the dialects you were introduced to during an actor training program, and are most likely proficient in none of them.

(They also tend to suspect that you are over-estimating your other abilities…)

What Are They Expecting?

You may recall that last week I asked you to consider what might be possible in your acting career if you made the time and effort to master several dialects other than your own. But what does it really mean to ‘master’ a dialect? Exactly what are casting directors, directors and production companies actually expecting of actors? Honestly this varies a bit from project to project, but at the very least, every casting entity is expecting actors to be able to deliver in the following three areas:

Consistency:This means that the actor is able to maintain the exact same dialect throughout the performance (every single take)–even when the character they are playing goes through high-stakes situations such as a death scene, or an emotional breakdown.  Anything less than 100% accuracy adds cost to the production, whether in additional takes, or in looping and editing time.

Clarity: The dialect the actor uses must be such that the script’s dialogue is completely understood by the intended audience. It hurts a project’s appeal (read as ‘the project ultimately loses money’) if the audience finds themselves drawn out of the action because they have to ask ‘What did she just say?’ This aspect of acting with an accent requires a bit of finesse, and often the aid of a dialect coach, or co-ordinating dialect coach or consultant.

Appropriateness: Here’s where things start to get complicated–Exactly what makes a dialect ‘appropriate’ for a particular project? There are numerous factors to consider here, and each project’s script must be carefully analyzed in order to address this issue and create a fruitful outcome. That said, however, here are four areas that seem to pop up frequently. Being aware of and addressing them will help you choose which dialect to bring to an audition.

1) Authenticity–Some projects require that the dialects are 100% authentic, and others require only that the dialects are consistent. If you are making a film about the people who live on one block in Queens, New York and in that film those people come in conflict with characters who reside in another neighborhood of New York, using authentic dialects would be considered appropriate, as the clash in the two dialects would enhance the conflict among the characters. Many projects do not require this level of specificity, however.

2) Character’s Purpose–Among many other things, a well chosen dialect can augment a character’s purpose within a story. It can lend an air of mystery or familiarity, mistrust or allegiance, and add to the overall impact a character has in a script. Dialects can also be chosen (or created!) purely for comic effect, such as the one Peter Sellers created for  ‘The Pink Panther’ films.

3) Kinship–Many times it makes sense to ensure that characters who are members of the same family have accents that reflect this relationship. Typically, people who live within the same household for a long period of time influence one another’s accents. There are many exceptions to this rule, so each script must be carefully analyzed, and cast according to the findings. As an actor without access to the whole script, you can still make some informed choices about dialect by analyzing the sides you have access to, perusing the project’s breakdowns, and mining ProIMDB.com for further clues as to what might be appropriate.

4) Geographical Accuracy– It can be important to match an actor’s dialect to the stated hometown of the character in question. If a character states “I’m from Nashville, Tennessee” (and upon reading the entire script, you find this to be the truth) then a dialect from Nashville is what is required. While it may be obvious which accent is required, in actuality an actor may be able to squeak through the first round of auditions using some other kind of southern accent. Sometimes an actor may even get through every audition round and end up being cast using an inappropriate accent.  Here’s something that few actors realize though (until it happens to them); many times a project will begin shooting—and then someone on set will suddenly realize that the accent the actor is using won’t work for the project, and they will ask the actor to change the dialect. Today. For the next take. (This, of course, is not possible.) After all, if the actor actually had the skill to be able to act using the other accent, s/he would have done so from the start. Right?

Let’s pretend for a moment that you find yourself in this very situation…

What happens next is typically one of two things:

In episodic television if your character is not re-curring, the director gives you the note to change your accent (now) and then you are forced to fake it which results in a significantly diminished performance on your part. (Read as ‘You can’t use the footage for your reel.’ and ‘They probably won’t ask you back.’)

Or, in a film or re-curring TV role, a dialect coach is rushed to the set to try to ‘fix’ you. No matter how skilled that coach is, however, the situation is harried and awkward enough that once again your performance will in all likelihood be diminished. Most actors describe the experience of this ‘fix it’ situation as feeling like they are being poked with a stick. No one enjoys it. You’re better off using an appropriate dialect to start with, and keeping a good line of communication open with the director to make sure you are on the same page from the start about what this character sounds like.

There are heavy expectations placed on actors when it comes to dialects, but these expectations absolutely can be met, and by meeting them an actor can find themselves reaping very lucrative rewards.  I am writing this blog so that every actor who commits to doing the work will have at their fingertips all the tools, tips and insider information that they will need to succeed at using dialects as a means to increasing their castability.

I’ll be here every Tuesday and Thursday.

Hit the subscribe button at the top of this page and these posts will go directly to your mailbox.

You Have An Accent

Yes.

You.

You have an accent.

No joke.

No matter what anyone has said to you in the past, I am here to set the record straight. You have an accent. I have an accent. Everybody who speaks (and even everyone who signs) has an accent. Every person, everywhere on the planet has an accent (also referred to as a dialect), we just don’t take much notice of the ones that are very similar to our own.

And…

If every person has an accent, it follows that every character in every commercial, every film, every TV show, every web series and every play also has an accent.

So…

How much have you been relying on your own personal everyday accent to fit every role?

How many more roles would you be eligible for if you took the time and did the work to really master a few strategically chosen dialects?

How many more jobs might you book?