Category Archives: FOR THEATRE & PRODUCTION COMPANIES

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.’

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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…

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…)

What Are They Expecting?

You may recall that last week I asked you to consider what might be possible in your acting career if you made the time and effort to master several dialects other than your own. But what does it really mean to ‘master’ a dialect? Exactly what are casting directors, directors and production companies actually expecting of actors? Honestly this varies a bit from project to project, but at the very least, every casting entity is expecting actors to be able to deliver in the following three areas:

Consistency:This means that the actor is able to maintain the exact same dialect throughout the performance (every single take)–even when the character they are playing goes through high-stakes situations such as a death scene, or an emotional breakdown.  Anything less than 100% accuracy adds cost to the production, whether in additional takes, or in looping and editing time.

Clarity: The dialect the actor uses must be such that the script’s dialogue is completely understood by the intended audience. It hurts a project’s appeal (read as ‘the project ultimately loses money’) if the audience finds themselves drawn out of the action because they have to ask ‘What did she just say?’ This aspect of acting with an accent requires a bit of finesse, and often the aid of a dialect coach, or co-ordinating dialect coach or consultant.

Appropriateness: Here’s where things start to get complicated–Exactly what makes a dialect ‘appropriate’ for a particular project? There are numerous factors to consider here, and each project’s script must be carefully analyzed in order to address this issue and create a fruitful outcome. That said, however, here are four areas that seem to pop up frequently. Being aware of and addressing them will help you choose which dialect to bring to an audition.

1) Authenticity–Some projects require that the dialects are 100% authentic, and others require only that the dialects are consistent. If you are making a film about the people who live on one block in Queens, New York and in that film those people come in conflict with characters who reside in another neighborhood of New York, using authentic dialects would be considered appropriate, as the clash in the two dialects would enhance the conflict among the characters. Many projects do not require this level of specificity, however.

2) Character’s Purpose–Among many other things, a well chosen dialect can augment a character’s purpose within a story. It can lend an air of mystery or familiarity, mistrust or allegiance, and add to the overall impact a character has in a script. Dialects can also be chosen (or created!) purely for comic effect, such as the one Peter Sellers created for  ‘The Pink Panther’ films.

3) Kinship–Many times it makes sense to ensure that characters who are members of the same family have accents that reflect this relationship. Typically, people who live within the same household for a long period of time influence one another’s accents. There are many exceptions to this rule, so each script must be carefully analyzed, and cast according to the findings. As an actor without access to the whole script, you can still make some informed choices about dialect by analyzing the sides you have access to, perusing the project’s breakdowns, and mining ProIMDB.com for further clues as to what might be appropriate.

4) Geographical Accuracy– It can be important to match an actor’s dialect to the stated hometown of the character in question. If a character states “I’m from Nashville, Tennessee” (and upon reading the entire script, you find this to be the truth) then a dialect from Nashville is what is required. While it may be obvious which accent is required, in actuality an actor may be able to squeak through the first round of auditions using some other kind of southern accent. Sometimes an actor may even get through every audition round and end up being cast using an inappropriate accent.  Here’s something that few actors realize though (until it happens to them); many times a project will begin shooting—and then someone on set will suddenly realize that the accent the actor is using won’t work for the project, and they will ask the actor to change the dialect. Today. For the next take. (This, of course, is not possible.) After all, if the actor actually had the skill to be able to act using the other accent, s/he would have done so from the start. Right?

Let’s pretend for a moment that you find yourself in this very situation…

What happens next is typically one of two things:

In episodic television if your character is not re-curring, the director gives you the note to change your accent (now) and then you are forced to fake it which results in a significantly diminished performance on your part. (Read as ‘You can’t use the footage for your reel.’ and ‘They probably won’t ask you back.’)

Or, in a film or re-curring TV role, a dialect coach is rushed to the set to try to ‘fix’ you. No matter how skilled that coach is, however, the situation is harried and awkward enough that once again your performance will in all likelihood be diminished. Most actors describe the experience of this ‘fix it’ situation as feeling like they are being poked with a stick. No one enjoys it. You’re better off using an appropriate dialect to start with, and keeping a good line of communication open with the director to make sure you are on the same page from the start about what this character sounds like.

There are heavy expectations placed on actors when it comes to dialects, but these expectations absolutely can be met, and by meeting them an actor can find themselves reaping very lucrative rewards.  I am writing this blog so that every actor who commits to doing the work will have at their fingertips all the tools, tips and insider information that they will need to succeed at using dialects as a means to increasing their castability.

I’ll be here every Tuesday and Thursday.

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You Have An Accent

Yes.

You.

You have an accent.

No joke.

No matter what anyone has said to you in the past, I am here to set the record straight. You have an accent. I have an accent. Everybody who speaks (and even everyone who signs) has an accent. Every person, everywhere on the planet has an accent (also referred to as a dialect), we just don’t take much notice of the ones that are very similar to our own.

And…

If every person has an accent, it follows that every character in every commercial, every film, every TV show, every web series and every play also has an accent.

So…

How much have you been relying on your own personal everyday accent to fit every role?

How many more roles would you be eligible for if you took the time and did the work to really master a few strategically chosen dialects?

How many more jobs might you book?