Don’t Let This Happen To You

Casting Directors, Directors and Actors — Here’s an example of why it’s a good idea to develop an ongoing relationship with a dialect coach…

I once was hired to coach a play just before the first read-through (late) at a prominent AEA theatre. The theatre company had interviewed me intensely via telephone as the play required not only several accents, but the use of several languages as well.  The company wanted to be absolutely certain that I spoke Italian, as one of the characters in the play spoke only Italian. I was honest with them and told them that I lacked the vocabulary to be considered fluent in Italian, but that my pronunciation was excellent, and I had an understanding of the grammar as well. In my professional opinion, as long as the play was entirely scripted and no last minute changes or improvisational elements were involved, I felt I could handle the job competently. I assured the theatre company that there were several native Italian speakers that I would consult  with for the project to ensure that my work was accurate and authentic.

I was hired, and since the first read-through was imminent, over the next day I put in long hours consulting my Italian experts, marking my script and preparing written and recorded materials for the cast.

Flash forward to the first read-through: The actors are assembled and the first read begins. Pencil in hand and script on my lap desk, I listen intently to every sound of every word that each actor speaks, marking my script (using the IPA) every time there is a mismatch between the intended dialect and the actor’s pronunciation. I will base my individual coaching sessions on these notes, so it’s imperative that they are detailed and accurate. All is going better than I had hoped. The actors have prepared well and except for a few missed sound changes here and there, I can see that the bulk of my job will be to help them with dialect integration issues and not with dialect acquisition. I am relieved. We’re getting a very late start with the dialect, but if every single actor works on the dialect as if their career depends on it, we just might make it.

Then something happens which to this day I cannot wrap my head around. The actor hired to play the Italian-speaking role begins to phonetically sound out the lines as if they were in the second grade.

Slowly.

Very badly.

The cast and crew seem to stop breathing. Except for the actor struggling to sound out their lines, there is tense silence. People begin glancing nervously at the director, and in my direction too.

This actor’s pronunciation is so far off that I cannot even begin to take notes on it. I hold my pencil, but I am frozen in disbelief. I feel terrible for this actor. They are clearly out of place, utterly miscast and actively humiliating themselves.

The director (now pale) calls a break at the end of act one and he and I go into the hallway for a private conference. He tells me that he is shocked. He doesn’t understand why the actor can’t read any of their lines. I ask him how the actor managed it during auditions. He explains that originally the actor was called in to audition for a British dialect role and so he had only heard the actor read the English language lines.

Here’s the gist of our conversation from there:

“How did this actor come to be cast in the Italian role, then?” I asked.

“They seemed right for the part, and we realized that they could act as understudy for the British role as well. –We did ask them directly if they spoke Italian.”

“And what did they say to that?”

“They said –Speak Italian?!? — I AM Italian!”

Ack! This actor was miscast simply because the director and casting director did not have the expertise to properly audition people for dialect roles. They were unable to see that the actor’s response to their question was not adequate enough to base a casting decision on, and now the production was about to pay the price. If the theatre had hired a competent dialect coach to consult during the casting process, this problem could have been avoided entirely.

How did this story end? Much to my dismay, the theatre made the choice to keep this actor in the cast. Having a soft heart for the rest of the actors in the cast and knowing how one bad performance can absolutely kill a show at the box office, I comped the theatre dozens of extra hours of private coaching for this actor in trying to bring them up to speed. Our work together brought significant improvement, but even at the end of the run, the actor never sounded truly Italian. The show’s reviews were lukewarm and the crowds stayed away. One actor’s poor dialect performance not only reflected badly on the actor in question, but also threw other actors off, contributed to an uneven performance overall and hurt the theatre’s revenue.

And what about the actor?

Why did the actor opt to mislead the director and CD in the first place?

It turns out, they didn’t really mean to. They were mostly just trying to be pleasant and funny in the audition. They wanted to be memorable.  (As you can see, they were…) They felt they were ‘good at accents’ and because they had never studied a foreign language they didn’t see much of a distinction between the two. They had no idea the amount of work it would take to master the requirements of this role. They were simply inexperienced. They were so inexperienced that they didn’t even realize that their British dialect  (the one they needed to know as an understudy) was not very good either.

They were sure it must have been…

Why?

Because they got cast!

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