Category Archives: FOR THEATRE & PRODUCTION COMPANIES

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.

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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.

Hit the subscribe button at the top of this page and these posts will go directly to your mailbox.

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?

Start From Where You Are – Voice Care

Something that has stayed with me since my training days is the idea that you can only start from where you are, and so with this in mind, I begin.

So, where am I?

Right now I’m in my office getting phone calls and emails from disgruntled actors about viruses and allergies that are irritating their vocal folds and causing them to sound hoarse. They are hoping that as a Voice and Speech Consultant, I can give them some useful advice to help them heal quickly, and to prevent permanent harm to their voices as they go about their work.

Here’s what I’ve been telling them:

PLEASE NOTE: I have collected these remedies and practices from health practitioners and colleagues over my years as a professional dialect coach. I am not a physician, so use your noggin and check with one before trying any of these ideas! You are always responsible for your own actions.

REMEDIES FOR A VOICE THAT IS IRRITATED DUE TO ALLERGENS, VIRUS, OR EXTREME USAGE SUCH AS VOCAL VIOLENCE

What To Try: Drink  Plenty of  Body Temperature Water. Aim for a 3/4 to 1 gallon per day.

Why It Might Help: The fluids help your body to fight the virus or infection. In addition, your vocal folds (aka: vocal cords) must be hydrated in order to function at their best. Ironically, the vocal folds are among the last of the body parts to receive the hydration you ingest. Why? Because as far as your body is concerned, survival is king. Believe it or not, being able to speak like an angel just doesn’t rank very high in terms of survival.  If you don’t drink enough water, your vocal folds will be compromised. It’s as simple as that.

What To Try: Throat Coat Tea (by Traditional Medicinals) and slippery elm bark lozenges (by Thayers Natural Remedies)

Why It Might Help: Slippery Elm Bark, a major ingredient in both Throat Coat Tea and Thayer’s lozenges, makes a soothing substance for practically anything it comes in contact with.  It is particularly effective in soothing mucous membranes. If you opt for the tea, be sure to follow the steeping instructions properly so you’ll get the full benefits of it. (And do be warned that it has a ‘slippery’ texture). Most people I have talked with enjoy the lozenges, which also have the advantage of ease of use during rehearsals. (I like the cherry flavor in particular.)

What To Try: Roxalia (by Boiron)

Why It Might Help: Roxalia is an FDA regulated, over the counter homeopathic medicine, which means that each tablet contains a micro-dose of therapeutically active mineral, botanical, and biological substances. Roxalia in particular contains ingredients that relieve sore throats. The tablets are sweet tasting and pleasant. They have a long shelf life, and are easy to take on the road.

What To Try: Complete Vocal Rest

Why It Might Help: If you are experiencing scratchiness, hoarseness, or even ‘loss’ of voice, these symptoms are happening because your vocal folds are somehow irritated, inflamed, injured or compromised in some way. To sing, speak or even whisper can potentially cause further irritation and slow your healing process.

You wouldn’t walk on a broken leg, right? Doing so might keep the leg from healing properly, right? Think about your voice in the same way. If you continue to perform stressful activities on vocal folds that are compromised, you risk permanent injury or change to the voice, the most common being a loss of vocal range. At the very least, you slow the healing process.

What To Try: Avoid Environmental Stressors (such as car exhaust, theatrical fogs, construction dust, paints, shellacs, hairsprays, air fresheners and cigarette smoke)

Why It Might Help: This one is easy to understand. If your vocal folds are raw and irritated, exposing them to further irritants will only slow your recovery. I have some clients who wear personal air purifiers around their necks if they find that they must be exposed to one of these irritants during rehearsal.

What To Try: Wear A Cozy Scarf, Even Indoors

Why It Might Help: By wrapping a cozy scarf around your neck, your body doesn’t need to use it’s energy to maintain it’s normal temperature. It can instead use it to help your immune system function at it’s best. (It feels nice, too!)

What To try: Change Your Eating Habits: Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, Sugar, and Dairy Products

Why It Might Work: Caffeine and alcohol are considered to be ‘drying’ to the body, as they are diuretics. If you drink 8 glasses of water per day, but drink 5 cups of coffee, the coffee ‘cancels’ the water out, and the effects on your body are essentially the same as if you drank practically no liquid at all. Remember, your vocal folds can only operate well when your body is fully hydrated.

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, many people assert that eliminating dairy products reduces the formation of the thick phlegm that can irritate vocal folds.

As for sugar, recent studies are showing that ingesting the amount of sugar found in two 12 oz cans of soda-pop suppresses the immune system by up to 50% for as many as five hours.  (I’m suddenly thinking about how many colds are caught on airplanes—100 people in close quarters, sharing their germs, and all ingesting cup after cup of soda pop…yikes!!!)

What To Try: Use A Neti Pot

Why It Might Help: Essentially, a Neti Pot is a tiny teapot shaped vessel that you add a purified saline solution to and then pour through your sinuses — in one nostril and out the other–while bending over a sink with your head tipped slightly forward and to the side.  Many people swear by a weekly nasal lavage using a Neti Pot, as it is said to wash out allergens that might be trapped in the sinuses.  Be sure to check with your physician and to read the instructions that come with the pot. (The pot can be found at health food merchants such as Whole Foods, as well as online.)

What To Try: Strategic Rehearsals

Why It Might Help: If you suspect your vocal irritation is being caused by overuse during rehearsal, especially for roles which require extraordinary vocal usage, such as vocally violence, make a plan with your director to only rehearse the vocally violent sections of the piece once or twice per day, and ‘mark’ them otherwise. (‘Marking’ means that you rehearse the scene normally, except for the section where the vocal violence actually occurs. During that section, you remain engaged and connected as an actor, but refrain from actually screaming, yelling, etc.) It may seem like an inconvenience, but marking vocally violent scenes can save you complications in the long run. After all, who wants to be the actor that disrupts the shooting, rehearsal, or performance schedule because they have laryngitis? To my way of thinking, prevention is the best option here.

What to Try: Be Aware

Why It Might Help: Your best defense against vocal trouble is to remain in tune with your body, so that you can take action quickly against vocal troubles. Don’t wait until you sound particularly squeaky or hoarse to try remedies. You’ll get the best results by taking early action.

Enjoy!