Category Archives: Dialects and Your Acting Career

What Is Good Speech?

Back when I was earning my MFA, one of my most influential professors told me that ‘good speech’ is speech that gets you what you want.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

You see, I loved words. I wanted to honor them. To ‘do them right.’ I was the child who loved her dictionary (and its pronunciation key) so much that I occasionally took it to bed as if it were a teddy bear. I was the young lady who had already been through two actor training academies where ‘good speech’ was a requirement for advancement. I was the undergrad who had worked herself silly to make sure that her fancy training program didn’t send her to one of their remedial ‘regional speech’ or ‘S-issue’ clinics. I was the person who had even changed the way she pronounced her own name because a respected voice and speech teacher had told her to.

And this !?#! professor had the gall to tell me that good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want?!?!?

Gaaaaaaaah!

But she was right.

100%.

I felt like an absolute fool for never having seen it on my own, but I was not foolish enough to ignore the truth of it.

Good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want.

Forget about ‘supposed to.’

Forget about ‘proper.’

Forget about ‘right.’

These are concepts that can actually diminish your possibilities.

Instead, focus your energy on continually increasing your awareness and flexibility so that your body’s voice and speech mechanisms will become hair-trigger responsive to your acting impulses and the needs of the script.

The Truth

Everyone tells you. Your acting coach. Your publicist. Your agent. Your manager.

Don’t lie on your resume because a lie will eventually come back to haunt you.

It’s very good advice, and if you’re a working actor, you probably took this advice to heart long ago.

But here’s the thing—What if you don’t realize that there’s a lie on your resume? What if, for instance, you have listed in your skills section ‘Dialects: British RP, Cockney, American Southern, New York, Irish’ because six years ago you were enrolled in a respected acting conservatory where those dialects were taught as part of the curriculum?

And you got an ‘A’ in the class?

And your instructor told you that you were ‘really good with accents?’

That sounds fantastic!

But —

When was the last time you actually tested any of these skills?

When was the last time you recorded yourself acting while using your New York dialect and had that recording analyzed by a professional dialect coach?

When did you last walk into an Irish bar and successfully convince the Irish patrons that you were from Kilkenny?

If you want to be a competitive actor, any skill (dialect or otherwise) that isn’t performance ready today should be removed from your resume until you have given it a thorough tune-up and put it to the test…

…because even an accidental lie will eventually come back to haunt you.

Competing With ‘The Real Deal’

Recently someone said to me “I can’t really see the point in learning dialects. I mean there are so many actors from all parts of the world. Aren’t those actors going to book all of the dialect jobs anyway? Scottish guys will play Scottish guys, and South Africans, South Africans, right?”

Before I started working as a dialect coach well over a decade ago, I would have been tempted to agree, but here are two valuable things I’ve learned over the years through first-hand experience:

1) Many times, casting directors are really hoping to hire a particular actor (because they seem perfect for a role), but can’t end up recommending them because the actor’s attempt at the target dialect was such a disaster during the audition process. There are actors I see sitting in coffee shops today that should have been in some pretty great projects…

2) An actor who happens to already speak in the target dialect may indeed bring with them a 100% authentic sound, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this actor’s performance will ever end up being intelligible to the target audience. Nor does it mean that they possess the personal awareness and skills necessary to make the specific pronunciation or pacing modifications that may be vital for particular sections of a film or play’s text.

A trained dialect actor will often as not, beat ‘the real deal.’

Food For Thought

Two things to keep in mind:

1) Most audiences cannot distinguish between poor dialect work and a poor performance. They just sense that something is ‘wonky’ and irritating and they cease to be properly engaged in the story.

2) No other skill on an actor’s resume (not singing, dancing, bareback riding, or martial arts) is so intimately entwined with an actor’s process as is dialect work. Any dialect you use for a performance will always be inextricably linked to every action you play, every intention you pursue. If you want the freedom to do your best acting work, you must have the target dialect ready to integrate* at a project’s first read through.

* You’ll know you are ready to integrate a dialect when you’ve mastered it to the point of being able to extemporize while remaining accurate and consistent.

A Good Private Dialect Coach

A Good Private Dialect Coach…

…understands and respects your craft.

…is honest with you about how long the process of mastering a dialect really takes.

…can help you determine which dialects will be the most marketable for you.

…will adjust their teaching style to suit your abilities and strengths.

…will help you stay motivated when the going gets tough.

…will tailor written and recorded materials specifically for you.

… will spend at least as much time preparing materials and lessons for you as they will in actually meeting with you.

…can demonstrate, describe, and transcribe or chart the sounds they are teaching you.

…provides a level of training that no group class or commercially available dialect CD can ever achieve.

… has a true love of language and while they can’t possibly know everything there is to know about every dialect, language or word on this planet, they will happily help you find the answers you need to perform your job with excellence.

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.

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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?