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.
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Very, very nice. This is the best post to date. I especially like your point on clarity.
I would actually make Character’s Purpose it’s on category. Often times the other three sub categories in your Appropriateness section are what actors tend to hang on to but if the dialect fits the others but doesn’t serve a purpose for the character it’s baggage that will get in the way. For example, an Irish play. I’ve actually found it LESS troublesome to watch American’s do this without an accent then to have a variety of different attempts at Irish accents from the different actors.
Well done, Pamela!
Michael, could your trouble with the Irish play you mentioned lie in the words ‘attempt’ and ‘variety?’ It sounds like the type of production you mention here failed to choose appropriate dialects for the piece, neglected to cast actors who were able to perform in those dialects, and likely did not provide materials and coaching early enough in the process. When casting a project, the dialects should be determined before the casting process, and a dialect consultant should be hired to advise the casting directors on each auditionee’s true dialect skill level. In addition, dialect samples and supporting materials should be made available online for the auditionees in advance of the audition. Once casting is complete, actors should begin dialect training at once. The dialects need to be completely ready to go before the first read through.
Pam, completely agree. I feel some actors, however good they are, can’t accurately portray a dialect. In a situation like that, I think the director’s wisest choice is to get back to basics (i.e. dump the dialect) so you don’t end up having a production like I described. But you’re definitely right, ideally all of this would be worked out before casting and read throughs. I’ve just seen a number of actors fake it well enough in a 30 second audition piece but when it comes down to it they can’t sustain it for an entire play.
[quote]I’ve just seen a number of actors fake it well enough in a 30 second audition piece but when it comes down to it they can’t sustain it for an entire play.[/quote]
Much like I’ve seen actors who can sustain ACTING for 30 seconds but then when you get them in a two hour play you slam your head against a wall and say, “Fool me once, dammit.”
Michael, you bring up such great points. Speaking entirely from a casting entity’s point of view, the most lucrative course of action is nearly always to cast a skilled dialect actor in the first place. However, if you are in a very small market, or in a membership-type theatre situation you may need to try other tactics as your casting choices are limited.
Sometimes an accent can successfully be removed from a play without reducing the play’s impact, and other times that just doesn’t serve the play, due to the dialect (colloquial word usage) that may be in the script. Imagine hearing ‘Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?’ or ‘I ain’t got none’ in a crisp Standard or General American Accent and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t have the same impact an appropriate American Southern accent would…
If the market you are in can’t supply you with the skilled dialect actors you need for a particular play, many times the wisest option is to choose another play to produce. Emotionally it’s a hard choice to make, but it is a fiscally sound choice that will help keep your theatre or film company in business.
If you are in a small membership theatre situation, there are two main paths you can take to avoid a dialect disaster and the empty seats that accompany it…
1) Only produce plays that suit the current skills of your members.
2) Continually improve the skills of your members (and still choose plays accordingly). Invest capital in training your members to be skilled with dialects, regardless of your current season. Membership theatres that offer ongoing training to their members typically produce higher quality work than those that don’t. In my professional experience, given the right amount of time and some quality training nearly every actor can succeed at being able to work in a dialect. (The exceptions are persons with a hearing loss, or a major injury to one or more of the articulators.)
I like what you said about having seen a number of actors fake it well enough in a 30-second audition, but then not be able to deliver the product for an entire play. This is a common occurrence and it happens for many reasons. Here are a few:
First of all, actors want to be hired, and many will exaggerate their abilities in order to get their foot in the door. Furthermore, some casting entities fail to adequately test the auditionee’s skills during the audition process. Hiring a dialect consultant to join in the casting process takes care of this problem. When brought aboard at the right time, a skilled dialect consultant can quickly weed through the ‘fakers’ and help casting entities get the right actors for the piece.
There is another oversight that contributes to the problem you mentioned; sometimes a production won’t hire a dialect coach early enough in the process nor pay them for enough contact hours to do the cast any real good. Instead the coach is hired to attend a rehearsal or two, hand out notes and that’s that. This practice, while common, is a tragic waste of production funds. Proper coaching as I mentioned before, begins prior to the first read-through. Coaching is provided one on one with each cast member, and the coach attends nearly as many rehearsals as the director. This of course costs money. And that’s the rub. Many small theatres don’t have the budget to support paying a coach $10,000 or more to coach a play. That’s one of the reasons I decided that this blog is worth writing. If theatres can’t afford to hire coaches because attendance is down, but attendance is down because the work is mediocre we are in a theatrical catch-22. As I see it, the way out of this conundrum is to empower the actors, and change the system from the inside out. Give every actor who wishes it the information they need to be able to learn how to work with dialects at a level that the most successful producing entities demand. Empower the actor, change the industry.
Excellent advice from someone who obviously knows where-of she speaks.