Category Archives: FOR THEATRE & PRODUCTION COMPANIES

How To Learn Any Dialect

Many people have questions about the steps involved in mastering a dialect for use in performance, so today I am going to explain at the most essential level, the steps involved in this somewhat complex but highly rewarding process. The steps occur roughly in the following order, but please note that during steps one through five there will be some overlap. Additionally, it is important to remember that to be successful, one’s focus must be on detail and precision, while at the same time remaining in a creative and playful mindset.

THE DIALECT ACQUISITION PROCESS

1) HEAR THE TARGET-– The first step in the process is to truly be able to hear all of the individual sounds of the dialect you are learning. This step is the foundation of all the others. If you can’t actually hear a sound, the likelihood of you reproducing it accurately is very low indeed. I must note here that by ‘hearing’ I mean recognizing not only the sounds that your own dialect shares with the target dialect, but also the sounds that are quite different from any sounds you utter in your own life. This step of the process is often the longest. It is also the step that many people attempt to rush through, only later to find themselves really struggling. Take your time here. Simple repeated exposure to a ‘new’ sound will eventually cause your brain to recognize that sound, and when it does, you are ready for the next step.

2) PHYSICALLY DUPLICATE THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDS — As you listen to an audio sample of the target dialect, you may find that you hear certain sounds but you are not automatically able to physically reproduce them. This is normal. Here’s why: As you speak in your own language and dialect every day you are actually ‘working out’ the muscles of your face, lips, tongue, jaw and soft palate. As you do this, these articulators become strong and flexible in very specific ways. Your target dialect may require a different type of flexibility and strength than you currently have, and you are going to have to do some work to acquire the agility necessary for the task. Please note that it is absolutely normal to feel awkward and and a bit clumsy during this part of the process. It really does happen to everyone.

3) COMBINE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDS– During this phase of the process, you combine the individual sounds of the target dialect (aka phonemes) to create words and phrases as well as non-sense words and phrases. There are many ways to go about this, and a qualified dialect coach can help you find the process that works best for you.

4) APPLY THE SOUNDS TO A PRE-DETERMINED TEXT– This is the step where you apply what you’ve learned about the target dialect to your script or any other pre-determined text. To do this, you must be able to recognize the pronunciation patterns involved in the dialect. This part of the process is often referred to as ‘using substitutions.’  Actors familiar with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) can easily mark their scripts with the necessary sound changes. Those without this skill must find alternative means such as comprehensive word lists. (If you aren’t familiar with the IPA, or had a ‘bad experience’ with it in the past, please don’t let this stop you from working with dialects. A good dialect coach can help you find a way to succeed.)

5) EXTEMPORIZE– Once you can accurately and consistently reproduce the sounds of the target dialect in scripted speech, it is time to begin practicing speaking off the cuff.  As you embark on this step you will likely notice that your dialect work seems to take a step or two backwards. You’ll make mistakes and fall out of the dialect. Don’t panic. Keep in mind that it’s a complicated task to try to quickly translate your own thoughts into the target dialect. Even if you consider yourself to be ‘good with dialects’ this stage of the process can reveal shortcomings. Stick with it, be mindful and specific, listen to the advice your dialect coach offers you, and you’ll get there.

6) INTEGRATE– Once you are able to remain accurate and consistent with the target dialect while using scripted material and while speaking your own thoughts aloud, you are ready to integrate the dialect into your acting process. This of course involves being able to think and speak the thoughts of another person (the character), pursue the actions of another person (the character) while remaining easily and comfortably within the confines of the target accent. If you’ve taken the time and made the effort necessary to master the first five steps, this part of the process will be quite enjoyable.  You’ll find that you are quickly able to ‘just do your job’ and act. There may be high-stakes moments in the script where remaining in dialect is a challenge, but a good on-set dialect coach can help you through those little glitches.

Hey! You made it through! I’m guessing that today’s topic may have sparked some questions. I love questions! Ask yours here in the comments section, or by writing to me at dialect411 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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.


Theatre Companies: Put Your Money Where The Mouths Are

Word of mouth is the single biggest contributor to a play’s success. Nothing gets people into seats faster than a good personal recommendation. No well-designed postcard or billboard can begin to compete. People want to hear about your play from someone they trust—a friend, co-worker, or even a respected theatre reviewer.

A metropolitan city such as Los Angeles may have a dozen or more union theatres and many dozens of equity waiver venues for an audience member to choose from on any given night. Without exception, great productions draw great audiences. Good ones on the other hand, can leave a theatre struggling for revenue.

When the historic Pasadena Playhouse closed it’s doors earlier this year, many venues began to re-think their product and practices. After all, if a ‘good’ theatre such as this was forced to consider Chapter 11, what danger would the other venues be facing? It became glaringly obvious that theatre-goers were going to be very judicious with their funds and that theatres would have to try harder to remain in business.

Recently, in order to create more value for theatre patrons, lobbies have been spruced up, houses have been made more comfortable with seating repairs and air-conditioning overhauls, and special events have been planned in conjunction with performances. I’m also noticing that restrooms are being kept cleaner and made as welcoming as possible with flowers and flattering light. Even snack bars are seeing an upgrade. Alongside box-store water and nacho chips, one can now find the likes of Metro Mint Water and Bumble Bars. All of these details have been honed in an effort to bring superb value to the theatre patron, and to inspire positive word of mouth.

There’s one tactic though, that so far only a few venues have had the savvy to pursue— that is to modify casting and rehearsal practices in order to achieve a higher quality product overall, especially when it comes to integrating dialect into performance. The changes these select venues are making are simple, extremely cost effective and can boost a production from ‘good’ to ‘great.’ Personally, I think everyone should know about them.

Here are the practices those at the leading edge are adopting:

1) Keeping a dialect consultant on staff to review the theatre’s entire season of scripts and to alert the production team of voice and speech challenges they may be facing in mounting certain plays. In this context, the dialect consultant typically provides detailed reports and custom written and recorded dialect acquisition materials.

2) Including a dialect consultant as a central part of the casting process. (A dialect consultant can quickly determine an actor’s dialect abilities and help save a theatre from casting an actor whose limited skills might negatively affect the rehearsal process or prompt a bad review.)

3) Providing actors with MP3’s of the target dialect along with the audition sides, so those who audition can properly prepare.

4) Casting only the actors who accurately present the target dialect during auditions, or barring that, planning adequate time between casting and the first read-through for actors to master the dialect with the help of the production’s dialect coach. (Learning a dialect takes time, no matter what an actor’s skill level is. Not even dialect maven Meryl Streep walks onto a set without substantial preparation.)

5) Membership companies are making training a central part of their mission.  For instance, if a play requires a Baton Rouge accent, the entire company is given access to group dialect classes months in advance of auditions. (This not only creates value for the theatre patrons in the form of a better show, but it also creates value for the company members in the form of new skills for their resumes.)

Final note: I love Metro Mint Water, comfy seats, and after-show soirees, but I feel it deeply in my bones that these lovely gestures alone will not be enough to keep audiences buzzing about live theatre. Only exceptional work onstage  can inspire this kind of response.

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.