Category Archives: Dialects and Your Acting Career

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.

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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.*********

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.