Category Archives: FOR ACTORS

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.

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Speech Class: Vowels and Consonants

I’m not going to try to hide it from you. Today’s post isn’t light reading. It’s equivalent to an hour’s worth of private coaching, or a session in an acting conservatory classroom. The upside is that this post is free which will save you anywhere from $75 -$200 in coaching fees, or even more when compared to the cost of prestigious private acting conservatories. (Cha-ching!)

If you are fairly new to learning authentic, actable dialects, it can be very helpful to know a few terms before you head off to hire a dialect coach. Familiarity with common linguistics terms will make communicating with your coach easy, and it can help you to quickly get your bearings if you find yourself in the unhappy situation of having no access to a coach and thus being limited to working with commercial dialect acquisition CD’s.

To get the most out of today’s lesson on vowels and consonants, you may find it valuable to glance back at this post explaining the difference between written and spoken language, and this post that elucidates the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds of speech, and this post which will give you a good understanding of the body parts responsible for speech sounds.

Today I want to share with you a few things about vowels and consonants—exactly what they are, how you can tell if a sound you’ve never heard before is a vowel or a consonant, and I’ll even a throw in a bit of acting theory related to these two groups of sounds.

First, a basic definition: In the arena of spoken language, linguists consider a speech sound to be a vowel  if it is comprised of an uninterrupted, unimpeded voiced stream of air.  On the other hand, a speech sound is considered to be a consonant  when that sound is a voiced or voiceless stream of air that is stopped, impeded, or interrupted in some way by the articulators.

If you are not keen on wordy definitions, here are some more ways to think about these two groupings:

Vowel= unimpeded or uninterrupted voiced stream of air.

Consonant = voiced (or unvoiced!) stream of air that is somehow interrupted, impeded or stopped.

We could even go out on a limb and say that vowels are more static in nature, and consonants are more dynamic…

Here’s why:

When you happen to speak a sound that has been classified as a vowel, you’ll find that you can do so without moving any of your articulators during the creation of the sound, and you’ll also notice that your articulators aren’t constricting your breath channel enough to cause audible friction.

I want you to try a little experiment, but you’ll need to learn a tiny bit of the IPA (The International Phonetic Alphabet) to do so, so here is the International Phonetic Association‘s Vowel chart which shows all of the vowels  that are used in the many languages on Earth.

If you are curious about exactly what sounds each of these symbols represent, you can go here and listen to dialect coach Paul Meier pronounce them for you using a nifty interactive version of this chart that he and coach Eric Armstrong co-created. There are also other interactive versions available on line. If you listen to several, you’ll begin to notice where the IPA chart leaves off and the human element comes in…

For now, merely notice the very first symbol in the upper left-hand corner. It looks like this —>[i].  If you happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, this symbol represents the sound you’d use in words such as ‘flea, me, sweep, greedy, and easy.’ (If you don’t happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, now might be a good time to check out Mr. Meier’s/Mr. Armstrong’s interactive vowel chart and listen to this sound.)

Now for the experiment: I want you take a few moments to speak the sound [i] in a sustained way…sort of like a monk chanting…any note you want to use is fine…just speak [i] in a sustained way for as long as your breath allows. Then do it again and as you do, allow your mind’s eye to focus on your articulators (your jaw, your tongue, your teeth, your soft and hard palate, your gum ridge etc.). Notice how they don’t have to change position at all while you are making this [i] sound? That’s one of the hallmarks of a vowel sound. You can take up the position of a vowel sound and then remain in that position as you send a voiced stream of air through the shape you’ve created with your articulators. No moving necessary speech-wise. (You will of course have movement within your body in order to exhale the air you need to vocalize, and so that you can engage your vocal folds, but we can safely categorize these as movement needed for vocal production rather than movement required for speech.)

See? Vowels have a sort of static quality to them.

Consonants on the other hand will involve some combination of articulators to be moving, or to be placed in such close proximity as to cause audible friction.

Here comes another chart from the International Phonetic Association…This one is dedicated to consonants (not all of them, though). I’m sharing it with you not to overwhelm you, but in an attempt to be as precise about our discussion as possible. (This blog has readers from around the globe, so it would be folly to assume that everyone’s idea of how to pronounce a particular written word will be similar…Please don’t get scared off by this chart!)

Again, let’s start by looking at the upper left hand corner. See that lower-case P sort of symbol —>[p]? If you happen to speak General or Standard American English this is the unvoiced sound you’d speak in words like ‘promise, pepper, apt, sleepy and deep.’ If you’d like to hear this sound pronounced, Paul Meier can help you out here.

Experiment time again: I’d like you to try pronouncing this sound and sustaining it like you did earlier with [i]… Go ahead… Give it a whirl… Try to chant like a monk using a [p] sound…Can’t do it, can you? Me neither. It’s just not possible. The speech sound [p] can’t be sustained because it is a sound that is ‘stopped’ ‘impeded’ or ‘interrupted.’ Say [p] a few more times. (You might find that you end up adding  a voiced ‘uh’ kind of sound right after it out of habit. Don’t worry too much about that right now.) Instead, send your mind’s eye to what’s happening with your lips… Say [p]… Can you say it without moving your lips? Nope.  [p] is a consonant alright. A voiceless, stopped consonant that ends in a little mini-explosion of air. Pretty dynamic!

Take a look back at the IPA consonant chart. Near the center of the chart you will find something that looks like a lower case ‘S’—> [s]. If you happen to speak General or Standard American English, this symbol represents the voiceless sound you’d use in words such as ‘sea, storm, essay, east, and less.’ (Check with Mr. Meier here if you’d like to hear this sound.)

One more experiment: Try to speak a sustained [s] sound. How long can you sustain it? As long as you have breath exhaling from your lungs, right? Try another sustained [s] sound and as you do, send your mind’s eye to your articulators… Notice how they don’t have to move once they are in position for the [s]? [s] happens to be an example of a voiceless,  impeded (but not stopped!) consonant. As you say [s] two of your articulators (your tongue and your gum ridge) are in such close proximity  that audible friction occurs. We can consider that friction to be dynamic.

Okay, enough tech talk! If you’re still here, I commend you! (If we were in a room together right now, I’d be passing out celebratory cookies, so consider yourself virtually cookied!)

At the beginning of this post I promised you a little vowel and consonant theory, so here it is…

Many people assert that at the core of the matter, the informational content of a person’s spoken message is contained in the consonant sounds, while the emotional content of the message rides out on the vowel sounds.

(Yeah, go ahead. Read it again. Let it sink in.)

Information loves a consonant, Emotion seeks a vowel…

I’ll leave you now, but with some questions to ponder and then talk about over tea. (And if you’d rather wax poetic in my comments section, have at it!)

Knowing what you know now about vowels and consonants, why do you think that that many people have come to the conclusion above?

Do you agree with this conclusion, and if so, how might you take advantage of this idea in your craft?

Joy to you,

Pamela


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

Breaking the Language Barrier

Did you know there’s a difference between learning a new dialect/accent in your native language and learning one across language lines?

If you happen to speak Polish with a Warsaw accent and you learn to sound like you are from Gdansk for a project shot in Polish, you aren’t in much danger of losing  (or forgetting)  your Warsaw accent during the process.  But, if you are a bilingual or multi-lingual actor seeking work in projects shot in languages other than your native language, you will want to pay special attention to how you go about learning accents of that language or you just might find yourself losing out on jobs.

Here’s what I mean: For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that you are an actor who grew up speaking Polish (or Urdu, Tsakonian, or Icelandic) who is seeking work in the English-speaking industry of American film, and that when you speak English many times Americans ask you ‘where are you from?’ and tell you that you have a ‘lovely accent.’ Let’s also assume that you have been hearing from your agent, manager and even casting directors that you need to ‘get an American accent’ so that you can be eligible for more roles.

If you are like most actors you will take the advice of these professionals and start Googling around for terms such as ‘American Accent’ ‘Learn American Accent’ and ‘Accent Reduction’ until you find a teacher. You will then invest months of time and thousands of dollars learning to sound ‘neutral’ for the sake of your career.

Let’s also assume that you are a model student who devotes the appropriate amount of time and attention to learning a ‘neutral’ American accent, and thus have managed to sound like you are 100% ‘made in America.’

Your agent is happy. Your manager is happy. You are happy.

You are getting sent out to audition for American characters right and left.

…and then your agent sends you out to audition for a role using your ‘old’ accent… the one everyone called ‘lovely’…

…and the weirdest thing happens…

…You can’t quite remember how you used to sound…and you lose out on a job that you probably should have landed.

Whoops.

This scenario is extremely common.  It’s also extremely avoidable if you aware of a few things:

1) When your agent suggests that you ‘get an American accent’, they don’t typically mean that you should eradicate the one you have.  They are asking you to add something to your skill set. They are trying to get you to add value to your acting product.

2) Not all dialect coaches/accent coaches are created equal. (Did you know that anyone can call themselves a dialect coach or an accent coach? Ummmm…Yikes.) If you want to have a great experience with a dialect coach, you have to make the effort to shop around and find one that possesses the skills you need, has substantial experience working with actors, and is coming from the philosophic viewpoint that there is no one ‘right’ way to speak English.

3) You need to be clear with your dialect coach about what you are asking them to do for you. If you hire a coach to ‘get rid of’ your accent, most coaches will earnestly try to help you do exactly that. Be mindful of your language. Always ask your coach to help you ‘add’ a new accent. Tell them you want to be able to keep the accent you currently have, but also be able to switch into the new accent at the drop of a hat. A good coach will be able to construct your lessons with this goal in mind. If you’re not sure if you’ve found a good coach, you might ask them to explain the strategies they’ll employ to help you achieve your goals, and evaluate from there. (You might also want to review my post ‘A Good Private Dialect Coach‘)

4) It’s essential to keep a record of your original dialect for future reference. Even when you hire the best coach money can buy, learning a dialect while crossing language lines is a tricky business. Language is a fluid (some would say ‘living’) thing and the human mind is extraordinarily complicated and mysterious. When it comes to dialect work and crossing language lines, the mind tends to want to substitute new pronunciations for the old, and you must consciously resist that urge. If you are a native speaker of Somali seeking to increase your opportunity for employment in American film, you may find that as you learn a ‘neutral’ American accent, some of those ‘neutral’ pronunciations will sneak their way into your daily speech, and your lovely Somali accent will start to morph into something new.  I advise that before starting any dialect lessons (no matter how good your coach is), you use the guidelines I shared here and make a thorough recorded interview of yourself, as a safeguard. (You’ll be your own accent donor!)

Before I sign off, I have a favor to ask of you — If this post doesn’t directly pertain to your own career, would you please pass it on (email it, Tweet it, send it in a sparkly greeting card) to someone you know that could use it?  It’s my birthday this week and knowing that this information got out to someone who needs it, would start my new year off with a smile. :-)

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.

How To Interview a Dialect Donor (It’s Easy!)

To me, one of the most rewarding side-benefits to being a dialect coach is having a reason to interview and record dialect donors. It’s a rewarding experience I hope that all of you can have at some point, especially if you are an actor. If you’d like to try it yourself, but don’t feel like you have enough info to know exactly what to record, I hope today’s post will give you something to go on…

Recording a Dialect Donor: The Basics

Ideally, when a dialect coach records a donor for one of their clients, they record materials of four different types: extemporaneous speaking, biographical information, diagnostic text(s), and vocabulary or place names specific to a given project. Let’s break these down and discuss each type:

1) Extemporaneous Speaking and Biographical Information

For me, extemporaneous speaking and the gathering of biographical information have a bit of overlap, as I often use gentle questions such as  ‘Where were you born?’ or ‘Where is your family originally from?’ to get my interviewee relaxed and talking. I then collect any biographical information that does not surface during the interview at the end of the session (while still recording). I suggest allowing a minimum of 15 minutes for extemporaneous speaking, as you want the donor to get over  any nervousness they might initially feel when the ‘record’ button has been activated. Personally, I tend to record 30-45 minutes per subject. Here are some questions that I tend to ask my donors. I start with these, and then often other questions are added as I go along. The key here is to find a subject that your donor is enthusiastic about, as this will yield the most interesting and lively stories.

Where were you born?

Where did  you grow up?

What was it like growing up there?

Have you been back there as an adult? Has it changed? How?

What is your earliest memory?

Did you ever get into trouble when you were little?

Did you have any favorite relatives?

Were there languages other than English spoken in your household? In your neighborhood? Were you encouraged to learn them?

Were there any school teachers that made a lasting impression on you?

You were born in _____ , grew up in _____, where else have you lived?

What do you/did you do for a living?

What got you interested in that career?

If you could do anything now, what would it be? Why?

How do you like to spend your time?

What are you really proud of?

2) Reading of a Diagnostic Text

For the purpose of dialect collection, a diagnostic text is a written passage that contains all of the sounds and typical sound combinations of a particular spoken language. Having donors read texts such as these aloud ensures that you will have a complete ‘audio picture’ of the dialect you are researching.

The two most famous diagnostic passages for English are The Rainbow Passage and Comma gets a Cure. TheRainbow Passage is a public domain document, and Comma Gets a Cure is free to use as long as you give credit for its use as requested by the authors of the passage. If your subject is willing to read both passages aloud, then I suggest recording both passages. Personally, I make it a practice to give my donors time to read the passages silently to themselves before we record them so that they feel comfortable. Not every dialect collector does it this way. Some feel that the passages are best read cold. In the end, I hope you’ll do what feels right for you.

3) Pronunciation of Vocabulary Particular to a Specific Film or Theatre Project

If you are recording a subject as preparation for a project, be sure to bring an easy-to-read list of any words in the script that you have questions about, so that your subject can record their pronunciation of these words for you. The types of words to look for might include colloquial phrases, place names, proper names and slang or jargon. Don’t worry too much about a word list being too long. (Lists look longer than they sound!) You’re better off recording a little too much than you are trying to track down your donor for additional recording sessions.

4) Biographical Information

Earlier in this piece I mentioned that I tend to lump biographical information in with the extemporaneous speaking section of the interview. This is true. At the same time though, I keep a written list with me of the following to make sure that I properly collect all the information I will need to use each interview for current and future projects. The more information you have about your donor, the more accurately you can determine whether their dialect will suit a particular project in the future.

Here is what I always try to find out about each donor:

What year were they born? (Be sure to record what year it is you are making the recording, too!)

Where were they born (City, State/Province/etc. and Country)?

Where have they have lived including the ages they were when they lived there, and how long they resided in those places.

Which ethnicity/ethnicities do they identify as their own?

Where were their parents (or the people that raised them) born and raised?

What were their parent(s) occupation(s)?

Were other languages than English spoken at home? Which ones? How often?

Do they consider English to be their first language? If not, what was their first language, at what age did they start learning English, and who taught them to speak it?  Where was/were that person/those people from?

What is/was/will be their occupation (depending on age of donor)?

What is the highest level of formal education that they have earned?

And that, my friends, is really all there is to interviewing a dialect donor so that you get all the information you need to perfect your next dialect!

One Last Note:

I promise to write more on the technical aspects of recording dialect samples soon, but here are a few tips in case you want to record something right away: Be sure to record in a quiet space. Turn off fans, running machinery, background music etc. as these will detract from the value of your recording. Make sure your recording device is operating properly (test it!). In addition, as the interviewer, it’s advisable to keep your own vocal contribution to a minimum so that your subject can provide you with good samples to edit later. True, you do have to ask questions, but when at all possible use physical rather than vocal cues to encourage your interviewee to continue their story. Having your donor sign a release form is also a very good practice. That way both of you are on the same page as to how you plan to use their donation. Speaking of donation– If you want your recording to benefit others, you might consider becoming an associate editor at The International Dialects of English Archive which is a wonderful (free) resource for dialect samples.

Happy recording! –And as always send me your questions here, or on Twitter @Dialect411!