Category Archives: Dialects and Your Acting Career

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.

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.

Myth du Jour: Actors Need General American Accents

Myth: To work regularly, you need to be able to speak in a General American Accent.

Reality: The reality of this situation is that for each and every actor the rules are different. (Doesn’t seem fair, I know. Sorry ’bout that.)

It comes down to this– the way you speak is one essential component of your unique, complex acting product and if you take the time to harmonize your speech skills to the rest of your acting product, you can maximize your casting opportunities. The General American accent itself contains no magic. It’s just a tool. If the General American accent ‘tool’ fits well with your acting career, great. Use it. If there are other tools (other accents) that fit better, stop fretting over the General American accent and make sure you master those accents so that you can find yourself booking jobs more frequently.

If you are dubious about my claim, I encourage you to take a few minutes and make a list of all the high-profile actors you can think of that don’t use a General American accent very often (or ever) in their careers. There are plenty of them.  There are also plenty for whom a General American accent is indispensable. Your challenge as an actor is to figure out into which category your own acting product logically falls and take action as needed.

Here are some places to start if the idea of thinking about your acting product/image/essence/brand (whatever you’d like to call it) is new to you.

1) You may find value in this blog post I wrote earlier this year.

2) You may benefit from attending personal brand workshops such as those taught by Sam Christensen in Los Angeles and NYC. (If you live outside these cities, you can see clips of Sam’s work on YouTube.)

3) You may wish to invest in a dialect fitting with a qualified dialect consultant who specializes in such matters.

I hope you’ll enjoy this part of your journey. If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me here in the comments section or at dialect411 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Learning a Dialect: Five Ways to Squeeze in the Time

Becoming convincing in a dialect and being able to maintain that convincing nature while acting in a film or play doesn’t happen overnight. Even when you are familiar with the most effective dialect acquisition techniques available on this pretty blue planet, learning a dialect is still going to take a bite out of your schedule.

How much of a bite? It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly, but it’s a smart move to budget a few hours per day for anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks. For now let’s assume two hours per day for six weeks…that comes to 84 hours.

So, it’s going to take around 84 hours to master an unfamiliar dialect…

Wowza.

It’s in realizing this that most actors decide to put off their dialect aspirations.

After all, who’s got 84 extra hours?

Believe it or not, you do.

Really, you do.

You just need to be clever about it.

Here are five clever ways to sneak a little dialect work into your skill set without wreaking havoc on your life:

1) Listen while you commute. Many actors report that driving while listening to dialect source materials on the stereo not only allows them to squeeze in an hour or more of practice per day, but also has a calming effect during traffic jams. If cars aren’t your thing, try wearing headphones on the train or subway. You may not feel as comfortable responding  aloud to your recordings, but you can at least listen for details. If you are fortunate enough to have created recordings for yourself that have long interview sessions with a dialect donor, public transportation commutes can be a convenient time to listen to those.

2) Listen while you work out. If your daily workout includes walking, swap out your Lady Gaga recordings for your dialect materials. (Do be careful walking around wearing headphones. Remain aware of your surroundings!) With the advent of cell-phones with ear pods, even if you happen to be responding aloud to your dialect recordings, most people who pass by you will assume you are on the phone.

3) Listen on your way to lullaby land. Head to sleep 15 minutes early and squeeze a little practice in then. There have been no formal studies done as of yet to directly verify this, but since dreams appear to be our way of processing the events and information of our lives, it seems to follow that practicing a dialect as you drift off could have its benefits.

4) Listen while you do housework. Simple tasks such as folding laundry, sweeping the floor or deadheading roses provide great opportunities to practice your dialect. (And it won’t add a single minute to your busy schedule!)

5) Listen in lines and lobbies. When you have a wait ahead of you, even if it’s only going to be five minutes, try listening to your dialect materials.  Learning a dialect requires consistent exposure over time, so every little bit counts.

Annnnnd a bonus idea…

6) Listen while you relax. This one’s not necessarily a time saver, but I mention it because some actors report that they learn more quickly when they work on their dialect in a relaxing environment. Consider donning your ear buds and heading out to swing in a hammock or lie on the beach, or try working on your dialect while you enjoy a hot bath. (Safely please.)





Serving Your Client

If you owned a restaurant, would you cook good food only when you thought ‘good customers’ would be coming?

If you owned a hair salon would you give great haircuts only to ‘important’ or ‘high profile’ clients?

Of course you wouldn’t.

You’d give it your all every day because  you would have invested a great deal of time and money and probably would have given up many wonderful opportunities and life experiences just so you could pursue the dream of running your own business.

You’d work like crazy to protect your investment and to make it grow.

So why is it that some actors only bring their A-game when they are up for a ‘good’ role in a ‘great’ project?  Why do so many struggling actors prepare less for an Equity waiver show or a workshop performance than they would if they were given the chance to play the side-kick  or love interest in the next Brad Pitt flick? What gives?

During my career I’ve received many phone calls and emails from struggling actors who ‘need to get some quick information’ about a dialect for a show that opens in mere days — a show they’ve been rehearsing for weeks.  Of course sometimes this happens because the actor isn’t aware of what really goes into learning a dialect, but a fair number of these calls come so late because (as the actor tells me) ‘it’s only a workshop’ or ‘it’s just a short run in a small theater.’

Huh?

Am I to understand that this type of actor only acts for ‘important’ audiences in ‘long-running shows’ produced in ‘colossal theaters?’ Do they only audition for film roles that are guaranteed to be blockbusters? And if so does this perhaps explain why they are still struggling in their career?

I know that you are not one of these actors, but today I want to encourage you to treat your acting career with the same care you would give to a brick and mortar business. It’s not only potentially lucrative, it’s one of the most personally rewarding choices you can make.

I invite you to step back and look at your acting career as if there were four walls and a front door…

What exactly is the product you are selling?

What makes your particular product so valuable? What separates it from the competition’s?

Who exactly are your customers (current and potential)?

In what ways do you come in contact with your customers? (In person? On line? Only during a production, or are there other contact points?)

What do your customers want?

Do you have employees? Sub-contractors? Vendors? Do you have good relationships with those entities?

Do you have specific plans for the growth of your business?

Do you plan to improve or change your product in any way?(This of course, is where dialect work might come into the mix. Mastering a dialect would fall under the heading ‘Product Improvement and Optimization.’)

If you’ve never looked at your acting career this way, I wish you a happy adventure as you answer these questions for yourself. You may also want to grab a few primers on running a business. There are numerous books available that describe how to run your acting business, but you can also learn many things from authors outside the entertainment industry. You might perhaps try some of Steve Chandler’s or Seth Godin’s many works. (Seth’s book ‘Tribes’ can be particularly useful for actors.)

If running your acting business is already second nature to you, I encourage you to lend a hand and mentor another actor who could benefit from  your knowledge.  You’ll not only help someone out, you’ll probably end up learning something new yourself!

Joy to you,

Pamela

Cashing in on CNN

Watch the news.

Watch the news because art does indeed imitate life. What are today’s biggest headlines tomorrow become the backdrop for the stories we will tell in film, television and theatre.

The BP oil spill for instance has already inspired scores of screenplays that are now being or shortly will be shopped around Hollywood. Do you happen to be the type of actor who could easily be cast as an oil worker from Louisana? Would your agent recommend you for an audition based on a breakdown describing a BP-type executive?

Now the real question: Are you ready to walk in to an audition tomorrow and authentically sound  the part?

If you are, you have an edge over your competition.

Oh, Hollywood… Why You Done Us So Wrong?

Learning a dialect well enough so that you can blend it seamlessly with your acting work takes research, preparation and targeted practice over time. It takes commitment, awareness and the drive to step outside of your own experience into something new and different. It takes the will to follow through to the finish line, despite unforeseen challenges, dips and plateaus.

It takes the very same things to learn a new dialect as it does to give a great performance.

Most professional actors are chomping at the bit for opportunities to give great performances.

Why is it then, that the idea of learning a dialect intimidates so many actors, from aspiring artists to Academy Award winners?

Is it something about the way dialect coaches are portrayed in film and other media?

Is it because of this?

And this?

If you’re hesitant about the idea of incorporating dialects into your acting career because you think it might involve something like what you just saw in these videos, please allow me to set the record straight.

(Feel free to click your heels three times and repeat after me…)

These Hollywood portrayals… are related to the real-life experience of learning dialects… in the same way a capuchin monkey whacking on your head with an inflatable toy hammer… is related to constructing something like the Disney Concert Hall.

Yeah. About that much. Seriously.

Okay?

If you want to bring a new dimension to your acting career, learn a new dialect.

If you’ve got what it takes to give a great performance, you’re already halfway there.

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!

Real Housewives of New Jersey

Yesterday there was so much hubbub on Twitter about little Gia’s accent on ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ that I Hulu’d (Hulu.com) the show (Season 2, Episode 6) this morning to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Now I’m hoping that you will do the same because regardless of your opinion of the show, there’s a scene that as an actor, agent, manager or dialect coach, you simply need to see. I’ll explain a bit here, but truly you will get more from watching 90 seconds of this show than my words alone can ever reveal.

Starting at 16 minutes into the show, housewife Teresa takes her young daughter to visit with the child’s manager and the manager explains “There’s a couple of areas that we need to improve right now, um… the main focus being the Jersey Accent. She’s got it. You’ve got it. I’ve got it. We all have it. She is not booking things. For instance, you know…the Christian Slater movie, she didn’t book that. I think she could do better, you know if this situation is remedied at this point.”

She then goes on to request that the child pronounce the word ‘dog’ and when she does, the manager criticizes her pronunciation and states that ‘in reality’ it’s pronounced differently than Gia is pronouncing it. You can see the discomfort on both Gia and Teresa’s faces as they contemplate their need to be ‘remedied.’ They are then sent to work with a dialect coach who continues in a similar vein.

This 90 second clip is wonderful, as it clearly illustrates a difficult situation that plays out every day in the entertainment industry.

***An agent or manager wants to help their client book more jobs, and they see that adding a dialect might help, only their personal bias regarding dialects coupled with a lack of effective wording inadvertently leaves the client feeling attacked.

***The client also wants to book more jobs, but upon hearing that they need to be ‘remedied,’ becomes closed and defensive. Even if they do seek the help of a competent dialect professional, they will not be in a very good frame of mind for adding a new dialect to their skill set.

***The dialect coach approaches the target dialect piecemeal, teaching a sound here, a word there, in whatever order the coach decides might be effective. The client can’t ‘hear’ what they are trying to teach and becomes frustrated.

Clearly, this system is broken.

Everyone wants the same thing–They want the actor to book more jobs–but the means being used to try to reach the goal are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Change is clearly needed.

Personally, I am a firm believer that change starts with the individual. I believe that each of us who can see a problem, must contribute to a solution if we expect to actually reach one. For today’s problem, my contribution is to continue to write this blog, and to network like crazy in order to make sure that every single day at least one more actor, agent, manager, casting director or director reads it and learns something that helps their career run more smoothly. My absolute dream is that every actor in SAG has a subscription to Dialect411.com and learns all they need to know about how dialect work fits into their career, as well as how to prepare to work with a dialect professional privately or on set, so that every production has an even better chance of becoming a true work of cinematic genius than it does today.

If you too would like to contribute to improving communication and outcome in the arena of voice and dialect work, but don’t know what you can do to help, here are some suggestions:

If you are an agent, manager or casting director: When you suspect that an actor might benefit from learning a General American (or any other) accent, resolve to use positive words to express this to them. Keep in mind that ‘losing’ or ‘permanently modifying’ an accent is generally not a lucrative move, and that General American speech is not superior to any other dialect on this planet. The manager on ‘Housewives’ would have done better to say something like “The reason I brought you in today is because I realized that we can make Gia eligible for more roles if she learns a General American accent in addition to her fabulous New Jersey accent. What do you think of that idea?” (I am quite confident that if the manager would have used words similar to these, the result would have been an excited young actress, rather than the sullen one we see in the show.)

If you are an actor: First, my advice is to make an effort to become educated about dialects, because they will almost surely come into play in your career at some point. Of course if you are making time to read this blog twice a week, you’re off to a good start. In addition, work at developing a long-term relationship with a qualified dialect coach(My May 4, 2010 post will help you know what to look for). Lastly, learn to ‘translate’ for the people (agents, managers, casting directors and directors) that may be well meaning, but might phrase things a bit negatively. Work hard not to take it personally. Try to look past the unfortunate choice of words and hear that these people are just trying to help you.

If you are a dialect coach: Remember that a normative approach to speech does not serve the acting community. You may personally prefer a particular dialect, but that doesn’t mean that that dialect will necessarily suit a particular actor’s career.  As I discussed in last Thursday’s blog post, there really is no single ‘right’ way to speak. Good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want. In addition, when working with a client who may have had an experience similar to the one this young actress had on ‘Housewives,’ be mindful that they might be arriving to you a little emotionally ‘beat up’ and they may have the idea that something is wrong with them. Help your client to be as creative and responsive to the dialect sessions as possible by always being clear that you are teaching them to add a skill rather than to remove a problem. It can also help to be very mindful of your coaching language. I go so far as to try to avoid using the word ‘right’ when giving a client feedback on their pronunciation attempts. I endeavor to say ‘good match’ instead, just so there is no question about one dialect being superior to another.

To all of you who are willing to pitch in to make this part of our industry run more smoothly– thank you, thank you, thank you!!! If you have more ideas that you think might help, please post them in the comments section!

Lastly, I never imagined I would be saying this, but ‘Thank you, Real Housewives of New Jersey! You really gave me something to think about!’

******** Oh! Remember that each week in June I’m giving away complimentary dialect fittings to three lucky subscribers! To be eligible, all you need to do is subscribe via e-mail (see subscription button at upper right of screen.) For more details, go here.*********