Tag Archives: business of acting

Myth Du Jour: Your Dialect Coach is Judging You…

MYTH: Dialect coaches are constantly judging others on the way they speak.

TRUTH: Probably not. Here’s why: The amount of energy and focus involved in listening to every single sound that an actor utters and analyzing those sounds in light of some particular dialect goal is enormous. Trust me, it’s intense work! If a coach were to try to judge every sound every person in their vicinity spoke every day, they’d burn out quickly. (I just read this blog aloud–including this sentence- and it clocked in at 44 seconds, during which time over 400 individual sounds were uttered. That’s around ten sounds per second…Intense, yes?)

So relax! If you see your coach somewhere and they aren’t ‘on the clock’ they are probably listening to what you are saying rather than how you are saying it.

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.*********

The Truth

Everyone tells you. Your acting coach. Your publicist. Your agent. Your manager.

Don’t lie on your resume because a lie will eventually come back to haunt you.

It’s very good advice, and if you’re a working actor, you probably took this advice to heart long ago.

But here’s the thing—What if you don’t realize that there’s a lie on your resume? What if, for instance, you have listed in your skills section ‘Dialects: British RP, Cockney, American Southern, New York, Irish’ because six years ago you were enrolled in a respected acting conservatory where those dialects were taught as part of the curriculum?

And you got an ‘A’ in the class?

And your instructor told you that you were ‘really good with accents?’

That sounds fantastic!

But —

When was the last time you actually tested any of these skills?

When was the last time you recorded yourself acting while using your New York dialect and had that recording analyzed by a professional dialect coach?

When did you last walk into an Irish bar and successfully convince the Irish patrons that you were from Kilkenny?

If you want to be a competitive actor, any skill (dialect or otherwise) that isn’t performance ready today should be removed from your resume until you have given it a thorough tune-up and put it to the test…

…because even an accidental lie will eventually come back to haunt you.

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.

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.