Category Archives: FOR AGENTS, MANAGERS & CASTING ENTITIES

Dialect Myth Du Jour: I’ll Add The Dialect Later

Myth: It’s better to get the lines and blocking down first, and then add the dialect once you’re comfortable with everything else…

Truth: In film and TV this isn’t even an option. Rehearsals are limited and every minute on set costs the studio money, so it’s essential that you are 100% performance-ready with any dialect (or other skills you might need) the moment you first arrive on set. Actually, if you aren’t performance-ready with your dialect well before you even audition, you probably will be passed up for the role entirely.

As for theatre productions, it’s important to keep in mind that the very sounds you utter onstage are a significant part of your character’s life moment to moment. If your dialect is ‘in-progress’ during rehearsals, you will never be free to really connect with other actors and rehearse.  Half of your mind will be always be elsewhere thinking ‘Whoops! That was a dialect mistake!’ or ‘Yes! Got that one right!’

Truthfully, if your dialect is not ready for integration at the first read-through, the entire rehearsal process is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable. Of course, it is this discomfort that makes it tempting to want to put off the dialect work in the first place, but actors who choose that route find themselves in the 11th hour suddenly forgetting blocking, dropping lines and never really being able to just let go and act.

In a production where the dialect work has not been incorporated on time,  the result is most often that an inconsistent and distracting attempt at the dialect diminishes what would otherwise be a solid show. Even if the production manages to escape earning a scathing review, you won’t find audiences rushing to see it.


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.

Dialect Myth Du Jour: The Most Difficult Accent To Learn

Myth: Some accents are harder to learn than others.

Truth: The perception that an accent  is ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ to learn is entirely relative.  What is hard for you may be a piece of cake for the guy sitting next to you.

Accents that seem easy to learn typically have many sounds in common with your own personal dialect.  Or, within your personal life experience, you may have had significant contact with some other dialect that has sounds and features in common with the one you are endeavoring to learn.  For instance, if you grew up in Nebraska and so did both of your parents, but from the time you were two years old until you were nine, you had a live-in guest from Paris, France who spoke English with a French accent, you may find it easy to learn most of the phonemes that happen to be part of that French accent simply because you were exposed to them for so long and at such a young age.  You might then in turn find it ‘easy’ to learn some type of Belgian accent, which happens to contain certain phonemes that are also common to Parisian dialects.

It’s not that the dialect itself is easier. It’s that you had a head start.

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.

Dialect Myth du Jour – Dialect Coaches Speak Many Languages

MYTH: A dialect coach speaks many languages fluently.

Probably not.

It certainly isn’t a requirement for superb work.

In simplest terms, a dialect coach’s job is to ‘help one person sound like another.’ This entails being able to analyze a particular ‘sample’ of spoken language and then guide another person (most typically an actor) in hearing, duplicating, and ultimately integrating the components of that ‘sample’ seamlessly into their work. The job demands a keen understanding of how a particular set of words (the script) needs to be spoken (for authenticity and accuracy) rather than an ability to converse fluently in a foreign language.

There are of course times when a coach will need to have a firm grasp on basic elements of a particular language in order to deliver a good product, but rarely will this require fluency.

Accent Reduction

If you live in Los Angeles (or nearly any major metropolitan area) you’ve seen the handmade signs stapled to telephone poles that say ‘Lose Your Accent!’ or ‘Accent Reduction!’ followed by a phone number where you can purchase lessons.

But guess what?

There is no such thing as ‘Accent Reduction.’

Learning to speak in an accent other than the one you arrived at naturally is an acquired skill. It is something that is added to your list of abilities, not something that erases an ability you already possess.

Think of it this way—when you were a little kid, and you learned how to skip or to jump, did you give up walking? Did the skipping or jumping ‘erase’ your ability to walk? Of course not. You walked when it made sense to walk, and skipped or jumped for enjoyment or to get over an obstacle. To this day you still know how to walk, skip, and jump and you use each of them as they seem most appropriate.

Even if it were magically possible that learning a new accent could ‘erase’ the one you naturally have, as an actor why on Earth would you want to do that? It would only make you eligible for fewer roles.

For the record, the appropriate term for learning a new accent is ‘Accent Acquisition.’

That said, please forgive your agent, manager, or acting coach if they toss around the term ‘Accent Reduction.’ They’ve probably just read a whole lot of telephone poles…

Dialect Myth du Jour- A Light Dialect Is Easier to Learn

MYTH: It’s easier to learn just the ‘flavor’ or ‘hint’ of a dialect than it is to learn the ‘real’ dialect.

I hear this from inexperienced directors all the time: “I am not too worried about the dialects for this production. I’m really just looking for the actors to capture the ‘flavor’ of the dialect…So if you could give the cast one or two pointers, maybe suggest some films they could watch…that’s all we really need.”

When I hear this, as a dialect consultant my heart hurts because I know from experience that every actor involved in that production is going to be negatively affected by this director’s misconception. It’s nearly guaranteed that the acting work will suffer as the actors struggle to ‘find’ this ‘flavor’ the director has imagined and ultimately the actors (not the naïve director) will take the blame in the reviews for having ‘distracting’ or ‘poor’ dialects.

The plain truth is, a dialect is a dialect. (An accent is an accent.) It doesn’t matter how ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ you or anyone else perceive it to be. If you wish to be convincing, no matter how ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ the accent, you will still have to make conscious, consistent changes to your speech pattern, be 100% intelligible, and feel absolutely natural while doing it.

To accomplish this, the same amount of work is required no matter what.

…If someone tries to tell you otherwise, keep in mind that they’re probably not the ones whose performance will be captured forever on film…

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!

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…)