Category Archives: FOR THEATRE & PRODUCTION COMPANIES

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.

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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.

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.

Top Ten Dialect Posts

The other day a new reader asked me which Dialect411 posts did I think they should take the time to go back and read. At first I thought ‘all of them!’ Then I realized that in four short months I’ve already posted 35 entries and reading all of them might indeed be quite an undertaking…

So today for your enjoyment, I present to you what I think are the Top Ten Dialect411.com posts. Whether you were with me from day one or just arrived last week, these ten will give you the essential information you need to benefit from the posts that lie ahead!

If you have time to read only three posts, I recommend:

1)  What Are They Expecting — Which explains exactly what it is that casting entities and productions are looking for when they are casting dialect roles.

2)A Good Private Dialect Coach — Which lets you know what to look for when hiring a professional dialect coach.

3) The Steps To Learning Any Dialect — Which describes the process of learning a dialect, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised…

If you have time for three more, I offer you:

4) What is Good Speech (You might be surprised.)

5) You Have an Accent (Yes, you.)

6) Myth: I’ll Add The Dialect Later (You can try…)

And if you want more, check out:

7) Fit to a ‘T’ — Which explains an effective tactic for using dialects to increase your casting opportunities.

8)  Voice Care Practices (Actual Title: Start From Where You Are) — This is where I share information on caring for your voice when the voicing gets rough.

9)  Finding a Dialect Donor — Where to look if you’d like to try your hand at recording your own dialect materials.

10) How to Shop for Dialect CDs— Tips on what to look for in the theatre bookshop if you must rely on purchased goods.

That’s it! My choices for the 10 essential Dialect411.com posts!

But…I am one of those people who always likes to send my guests home with a little extra, so if you’re ready for dessert, please enjoy:

Why? A Tangent Worth Taking — The post I almost didn’t publish, but the one that has garnered the most response.

Which are your favorite posts? I write this blog for you and love hearing about what you enjoy and what you’d like to see more of! Leave a comment here or send me a private email at dialect411 @ gmail dot com!

How To Shop For Dialect Lesson CD’s

About once a week for the past fifteen years someone has asked me “So… which CD’s or books should I buy to learn a dialect?”

I just did the math on that.

Turns out, I’ve attempted to answer this question nearly 800 times.

OK.

I get it.

Everyone wants to buy a CD.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a CD (or a book) about flying an airplane either.

But what are the chances that when you’ve finished with that book or CD, you can jump into the cockpit of a jet and fly like a Blue Angel?

See, that’s the catch.

When acting in a dialect other than your own, you run a high risk of crashing and burning. And just like the Blue Angels, you are working in close proximity to others, so your mistakes can end up dragging someone else down with you. Sure, no one actually goes to the hospital over a badly trilled ‘R’ or a Southern Georgia accent that keeps drifting over to London and back, but snarky reviews, low ticket sales, and tainted reputations are deadly common.

Books and CD’s (and videos) can be very useful in learning a dialect but you need to keep in mind that that these are just components of your dialect solution, rather than the solution itself.

No matter how great the CD is, it’s wisest to make sure you get feedback and coaching from someone knowledgeable at the same time, especially if you don’t have a strong history of dialect success. (Meryl, you have my blessing to skip this step in a pinch.)

That said, at some point you may need to shop for a commercial CD, so let me share with you what to look for.

When shopping for a commercial dialect CD, look for all of the following features:

1) Recordings of  the target dialect spoken by natural speakers of that dialect (not just the instructor’s own attempt at the dialect — it’s not enough). The best recordings will be clear of ambient noise and include the dialect donor reading a diagnostic passage as well as speaking extemporaneously.

2) Transcriptions of those recordings into English and into the IPA.

3) Recorded instructions about what are often referred to as ‘sound changes’ ‘substitutions’ or ‘signature sounds.’ (Be aware that these ‘sound changes’ are nearly always presented in terms of their divergence from the General American dialect. If you happen to speak a dialect other than General American in your every day life, you might easily find yourself confused or misled.)

4) Written versions of those instructions which include the use of the IPA or at the bare minimum a spelling approximation of the sound changes. (Spelling approximations are subjective, and thus less reliable.)

5) Recorded practice word and phrase lists.

6) Discussion of the dialect’s rhythm, intonation, inflections, common words and sayings etc.

7) Information on where to learn more about the dialect, words and phrases, the IPA etc. (usually in the form of web links).

And now the (slightly bitter) truth. I have yet to find a single product that meets all of these basic qualifications. Paul Meier’s work [paulmeier.com] comes close, as does the work of  Gillian Lane Plescia of dialectresource.com and the folks at Accenthelp.com, so you might want to start in there somewhere. If you are looking for a common dialect (Received Pronunciation British for example), you may wish to buy materials from more than one source to make sure you have the tools you need to get started.

Enjoy shopping, but as a dialect coach, an actor advocate, and an audience member I hope that you’ll help keep the skies friendly, and won’t fly solo until you’ve worked with a qualified dialect professional. You’ll be happy you did.

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.*********