I have three thrusts for my professional research/creative work. In order of prominence they are: Dialect Coaching, Voice and Text Coaching and Acting. As perhaps the least well-known or documented part of my work, I want to take the time to write a statement about my Dialect Coaching:
The term Dialect Coach is somewhat of a misnomer as dialect refers to the vocabulary people use and the writer usually provides that, whereas accent refers to the actual sounds people make when they speak. The role of the Dialect Coach is to help actors to be able to communicate through another accent in the most authentic way possible. In order to fulfill that role as successfully as I can, I need to know as much as possible about the accent and to then use whatever of that knowledge is useful to facilitate the actor’s process in transforming.
There are two sides to dialect work: a mathematical side that involves learning the sound substitutions needed to change from one’s own accent into the character’s accent and a more intangible artistic side that requires an actor to be able to hear, and then adopt, different tunes, rhythms, pitch and stress patterns. Given how long it takes us to learn our own accents it is quite amazing to think that actors need to learn to sound as believably like someone else at worst within a matter of days and at best a matter of months.
Usually in the theatre an actor has a number of weeks to learn an accent; however, they are also concentrating on learning their lines and their blocking at the same time. Working with PTC I usually get to see actors once or twice privately and then I go to rehearsals and runs and take notes that I record and send to the actors. At The Shaw Festival because the actors rehearse two different plays at the same time, rehearsal periods feel longer and I may be able to see them four or five times privately or in small groups during that time.
In some ways the math part of the dialect equation is quite straightforward: to become a Londoner the word LAKE will sound like the word LIKE; to become someone from Belfast the word LIKE becomes LAKE; in a Yorkshire or Irish accent the UH sound doesn’t exist so LUCK always sounds like LOOK and BUCK always sounds like BOOK. To become French turn your TH sounds into Z and S; German turn them into D and T; in London they can be V, D and F. Once you know those things you can go through your script and mark the changes and learn them – simple! Except of course it’s not quite such a straightforward change from LAKE to LIKE etc. as there are more subtle nuances at play in the sound changes that involve the placement of the sound and the position of the tongue to name but two. Helping an actor to hear with the specificity needed can be quite a feat involving me offering pictures, movements and more as ways to get them to achieve what I am looking for. That is the fun and frustrating part of the job. Finding the key to an actor is one of my greatest pleasures and I love being in a room with someone trying to work out the best way to get them to understand the sound we are trying to make, or to feel the rhythm the accent operates under, or to find the way to express a strong emotion through a filter that is totally foreign to them – a Southern Belle expresses anger quite differently from a New York Docker and from a Salt Lake born actor!
Everything I do in this work is based on helping the actor to sound as if when the hit the stage or set that they were already talking like that and that they will continue to talk like that when they leave the stage and set behind and that requires huge amounts of creativity as I try to find a connection with the actor’s process and then capitalize on that to release them into their ‘new world of sound and expressivity’. It is a very vulnerable place from which to operate for an actor and I pride myself on being able to make anyone comfortable with this and to be able nudge them into taking the risks required to find this new world. For me, everyone goes through a ‘sounding like crap’ stage – those moments of not knowing and of having to deal with sounding weird – and I take great pleasure in nurturing actors through this by being playful and supportive and by convincing them that playing through the tough times will ensure they break through into the other side, the land of freedom where they can forget about how they sound and just focus on communicating with their partner/s in this new world.
In order to achieve this I regularly engage in chatting sessions where the actor gets to talk with me in the accent. This is actually an incredibly demanding way to work because there is no script with the answers in front of them and yet it is so incredibly worthwhile because it allows the accent to sink in more deeply, which also increases the number of words known in that accent meaning that should an actor forget a line they will find it easier to improvise authentically because they have a wider experience of the accent beyond the text.
This past summer working on “Enchanted April” at Shaw on a Standard English accent with an actor very unconnected to everything that accent represents – class, status, life experience and sound – in order to help him sound comfortable and therefore believable in the accent and in the role, I decided to forego the studio approach and took him out for walks and Afternoon Tea (something classically English and very middle class) so that he was working in a relaxed atmosphere and then a very specific British class-based atmosphere. This helped him to find himself in the accent and gave his characterization more depth because he was able to connect the sounds and tune and rhythm to his inner self rather than creating something that was just held near to him and very much outside him.
At the same time I was also working with another actor who was playing a role that communicated mostly in broken English and fluent Italian including one virtual aria completely in Italian. This actor had Italian friends but had never studied or spoken the language before. As part of our work together, to give him ownership of the song in particular I used a Shakespeare exercise to deepen his connection to and understanding of the words he was singing. What that meant was that in preparation for our session I made myself a literal translation of the song – so with the words in the Italian order rather than in the poetic order of the American translation – which included various different related meanings of the English words. Then when he came in for the session I relaxed him, lay him on the floor and fed various words into him by saying the word, asking a question about the word, repeating the word and then allowing him to say the word. For example: ME: WORLD. Does that mean your entire universe? WORLD. JEFF: WORLD. ME: WORLD. Does that mean that mean a ball that hangs in space? WORLD. JEFF: WORLD. There was no expectation that Jeff would do anything with the word as in make it sound any particular way, more that the word had room to resonate in him and the hope was that then when he sang the song he would be able to have a sense of creating the words in the moment as opposed to presenting words that he had lived. I attended rehearsal that night and the difference was palpable to everyone.
I suppose the biggest achievement in my Dialect Coaching career was being the Additional Dialect Coach on Sir Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. I got the job because of my long history at Shaw and my track record of obviously being someone that worked well with actors and who actors liked, as I had never worked on a film before. It was of paramount importance to Philippa Boyens – co-writer and co-producer – that I could shift from being a teacher into being a coach and that I was good at building positive, nurturing relationships as Peter is renowned for the warmth and friendliness of his sets and companies.
Because the film was a major commercial endeavor we were lucky and had time to work with many of the actors in our office before having to work with them on set. Most of the major characters dealing with Dialect work had private or small group sessions with us where we had a chance to really delve into the minutiae of what was needed. I employed many of the techniques I use at Shaw while coaching: I had chats with John Callen and Peter Hambleton – the actors playing the dwarves Oin and Gloin – in Scottish on a regular basis, correcting sounds as we went to help them feel comfortable and natural in their accents; I also chatted with Mark Hadlow and Jed Brophy – Dori and Nori – to help them feel believable and comfortable in their accents as well as working on specific drilling sentences focusing on specific sounds that needed attention. I started Lee Pace – Thranduil – on his Standard British journey; I had a session or two with Evangeline Lilly as part of her introduction to Standard British; I worked with John Bell (Bain) and Luke Evans (Bard) together using Luke (who is Welsh) as the standard for John’s Welsh accent for film two, getting John to listen to Luke and then mimic him so that we started to establish a family sound which we then extended to Peggy and Mary Nesbitt who played John’s sisters in the film. Then I was lucky enough to work mostly with the day players – actors who came for short periods of time to play the supporting roles. That meant that I would get a session with them of around an hour and the next time I would see them would be on shooting days. I worked with the Hobbit who was seen in the trailer for film one, the Orc who lost his head in film two as well as the Orc killed by Thranduil, the Tollgate Keeper and others in film two.
What was particularly interesting working in this field was the sense of huge swathes of time for some of the work followed by phases of having to work extremely quickly and under huge pressure. I would be very interested in more film work if I could find it to try and practice the different skills that were needed to succeed here. I am mostly satisfied with the work that’s represented on screen – and I don’t think that most of it was re-recorded during post-production – but I have learned that more confidence in what I know could have helped me to help some people more effectively and I would love the opportunity to try again. Due to family circumstances beyond my control, I had to leave the production early, however I went with a knowing that people had enjoyed working with me and that they had felt my work had been a good support to them.
Interestingly, I increasingly find that practicing Dialect Coaching incorporates my knowledge from the other two areas of my research. My technical knowledge of how the voice works helps me to help actors move their voices around to find different dialects safely and healthily and I know how to compromise when concessions need to be made. My understanding of text allows me to have almost instinctive knowledge of how stress patterns and rhythms work in different accents and then to help the actor understand how and why certain words need to be stressed in order for the line to make sense. It also helps me to be a good voice for the importance of the text and that using the accent’s rhythm and tune actually illuminates the text for an audience, whereas getting the vowel and consonant substitutions right while still coming from an America/Canadian/New Zealand mouth set and stress pattern can muddle an audience and prevent them from getting the sense the writer intended. My acting experience allows me to empathize with the people I work with, as I know how vulnerable an actor’s process can be and we talk the same language and I speak from experience rather than conjecture.