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Accent on Dialect Coaches

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Dialect coaches give great interviews. They'll talk eagerly to you about the "marvelous ears" of Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, and Lily Tomlin. They'll run on about "cup" vowels and vowel shifts and "schwas" and hard and soft r's. And while they're gabbing, they'll slip into accents from more countries and counties than you can count. They will tell you how they worked with someone to develop a period English sound or some obscure Mittel-European twang or central African who-knows-what, and suddenly they'll speak in a plummy Edwardian or a guttural Slavic or a high-pitched Ugandan-Rwandan mix. Over time, the effect is like joining a United Nations kaffeeklatsch.

No one tries out more dialects on you than famed coach Robert Easton, who calls his company the Henry Higgins of Hollywood, Inc. He'll get going on "received pronunciation"—more often known as RP—in Edwardian England as contrasted with Victorian England, and he'll be changing his "oh" sounds to "oh-ooo" and then changing back. This is the same Robert Easton who likes to be known as "the dialect doctor" and will fax a roster dense with the names of actors he's aided. The list begins with Joss Ackland, Don Adams, Mark Addy, Jenny Agutter, and Jason Alexander and ends with Jane Wyman, Michael York, Susannah York, Alan Young, and Daphne Zuniga. The names, by the way, are in tiny print because there are so many of them; after Daphne Zuniga's name is the phrase "and over 2,600 others during the last 41 years."

Phew! And what Easton will tell you, after all those years of being on call and combining his work with an active acting career, is that dialect coaching is in demand now as it has never before been. "Audiences are getting more sophisticated," he says, "They want more-authentic dialects." It's not like the old days, he'll go on, when movie producers saw characters as either Americans or foreign: "If [the character] wasn't American, you gave the part to a foreign actor. You used to have Russians playing Spanish a lot. Now audiences are too sophisticated for that."

Other dialect coaches concur. Kate Maré—who most recently worked with the actors in the Broadway revivals of On Golden Pond and The Glass Menagerie, and for the latter had to ask herself, "What's the sound that Tennessee heard?"—says about the demand for more-articulated accents, "You can't get away with just a flavor of it. Some people are afraid that dialects are going away—and some of them are—but what playwrights are writing about is much more specific. It's not just a generic British person." Coach Joel Goldes, notes that it's necessary to get accents right because the average person hears "many more accents—much more than 10 years ago—in everyday life. People all over the country have the experience." Jessica Drake, busy as a dialect coach on Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, will even pinpoint the origin of today's heightened concerns. "To be honest," she says, "I think what started this whole thing rolling was Meryl Streep's performance in Sophie's Choice."

In Constant Demand

What may or may not have been primarily triggered by the chameleonlike Streep (who Maré suspects develops accents on her own) has grown to such a scale that coaches with established reputations are constantly pursued. As dialect coach Stephen Gabis, who mostly takes on theatre assignments, says, "I have no life. Then again, I'm traveling to different parts of the world in my mind. I'm going from Manchester Mancunian with Slag Heap to Liverpool Scouse for Lennon. For The Baker's Wife, it was a light sort of French deal. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—I was digging up my mother's Brooklyn roots. I'm bouncing between all these different things."

Yes, there's a whole lot of bouncing going on—or what in Hollywood used to be referred to as bicycling between soundstages. At the moment, dialect specialist Deborah Hecht is spending time with Uma Thurman on the set of The Producers discussing how to be funny in Swedish. What the two of them are aiming for is, as Hecht phrases it, "Mel Brooks as opposed to Ingmar Bergman Swedish. It has to be believable, but certain sounds must be exaggerated. Matthew Broderick has punch lines based on delivery of Swedish. When Uma says books as 'bukes—the bukes,' he says 'byukes'—b-y-u-k-e-s. You have to be looking ahead to that clue." It's a different vowel game for Hecht on the upcoming Roundabout Theatre Company revival of William Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. When she's sitting down with Lynn Redgrave, Kate Burton, and other skilled drawing-room-comedy players, Hecht points out that she and they are after "upper-class British, but not a posh-posh kind of sound." Note that even a Brit such as Redgrave may have to learn a British accent that isn't her own. Hecht says the assignment is made easier because "most of them have done British accents before, and many of them have worked together before."

Gabis is readying the musical adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the title of which has been shortened to The Mambo Kings. "That's been a hoot," Gabis says about refining Cuban accents when only one cast member is Cuban. The conscientious coach mentions that part of the challenge is "modifying sounds that don't exist" for some of the cast. "There is no 'sh' in Spanish," he illustrates. "For 'shedding,' you get 'chedding.'" Gabis is also involved in the musical vocal arrangements because it's important to "know how far to go with accents in the songs." Of his overall goal, Gabis makes the kind of statement every one of his colleagues supports: "I'm always trying to go for accuracy, but with clarity. Clarity is really the thing. You don't want to be taken out of the world of the play."

Goldes, meanwhile, has been shuttling between the film's Art School Confidential and the Tom Cruise–starrer War of the Worlds. On the former, he's confabbing with Jim Broadbent, as well as with young actors Sophia Myles and Max Minghella, "on all his shooting days." The situation here is that the English actors are playing Americans. "Most English actors are adept at working in different accents," Gabis says, but it's the similarities between American and English sounds that trip up performers. "Those distinctions are very hard to hear," he says. "Things are tricky going both ways." With War of the Worlds, he's tending to Canadian actor Justin Chatwin, who's playing Cruise's son. "He has a slight Canadian accent," Gabis reports, "so I'm seeing there is no trace of 'outs and abouts.'" Gabis pronounces "outs and abouts" as "oots and aboots." He has been meeting with Chatwin a couple of times a week over several weeks, which is not an uncommon schedule for any dialect coach trying to cadge time when so many other obligations pull at an actor.

Of Memoirs of a Geisha, Drake says, "This movie is unusual. I had a staff on this movie, which has never happened before." She's talking about the unusual requirements of a large Pan-Asian cast and a story—told in English—that begins in 1920 and continues until shortly after World War II. It was much more work than she could handle alone. "Out of eight leads, six couldn't speak English when we started," she says, adding, "There isn't anyone on the film who wouldn't say it was the hardest thing they've ever done." But the movie came after Drake amused herself on something altogether different: "I just did The Pink Panther with Steve Martin," she recalls. In finding the famed French-influenced patois of Inspector Clouseau (memorably created by Peter Sellers in the original series), she says with Martin, an accomplished comic actor, she was always asking, "What's the funniest sound that can come out of his mouth?" She says, "Comedy is fun to do because you can run wild."

Talk to a handful of dialect coaches about their entry into the field and you hear the same story over and over again: Just about every one of them started as an actor. Easton still takes on the occasional role. (In 1991 he played a judge in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and will do his voice for you at the drop of a funny hat. He'll also tell you that in 1970, he was named by the now-defunct magazine Show as one of Hollywood's 12 best character actors.) Most of the coaches have, however, hung up their acting gloves, in large part because they have no time for it. "For years [coaching] was my day job," Drake remembers. "I hid it, but that's what I did. I was in New York and waited tables. But I went back to Los Angeles, where I was born, did episodic TV, and got tired of the whole life. I wanted to buy a house and live like a grownup. I came out of the closet about my coaching."

Others interviewed for this article were less conflicted about being recognized as dialect specialists, and once they threw themselves into work that Hecht describes with a cheerful "fascinating," they all began or continued serious study. Hecht and Drake studied with the late Edith Skinner at the Juilliard School and with the still very active Tim Monich. They'll seek out otolaryngologists to understand how throat muscles operate. They're all conversant with Daniel Jones' English Pronouncing Dictionary and John S. Kenyon and Thomas A. Knott's A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English. They've long since conquered phonetics, and they hope the actors with whom they work have as well. Hecht contends they indeed have.

Do Your Homework

But that's hardly scratching the accent surface. Heaps of homework go along with the career. "I have a notebook with me at all times," Easton says, emphasizing that he's "very compulsive" about his research. He regularly tapes people all over the world—which is easy to do if, like him, you're on some far-flung movie set: "I never tell people I want dialect research. I say, 'My name is Robert Easton. I'm studying.' Everybody has the perception that everything they do is normal." What information he's amassed he's entered into the reference library he's been accumulating for 50 years. Gabis says, "You have to look like a private eye…. You can get on the Internet." Dialect coaches insist on the importance of keeping up to date, because dialects are constantly changing and have always evolved inexorably. Joel Goldes attests that he must "make sure everything I'm doing is current. I get fresh samples all the time." And often what coaches collect, they edit onto custom-tailored tapes they then hand to actors on a given production.

To keep abreast of what's happening with contemporary English as spoken in England, Goldes swaps sessions with British linguist Derek Rogers. Hecht is still moving to get "all my things onto computer." Drake says, "I have a huge one of those old card files full of recorded tapes. I'm trying to digitize all of these. My daughter will probably be doing this after I'm dead. It's enormous upkeep." And Drake has another concern: There has never really been an American tradition of formal training for dialect coaches. She worries, "Where is the next generation coming from? It's not clear. We're all so busy, we're not teaching in drama schools where we can teach the next generation. We could use a conservatory of some kind, but I'm not sure how that's going to happen. I'm sure there are young people out there who want to do this."

Dialect coaches work in many ways, but they like to be brought onboard a project as soon as possible. And that can translate into beginning work with an actor before rehearsals start, possibly as early as immediately after the actor lands the job. Nevertheless, they'll deliver in a crash-course hurry when need be. "Many producers don't want to budget for it" is what Goldes remarks—and don't want to give prominent billing, either. (Although dialect coaches' names often appear on a program's main credit page, just as frequently they're buried in small type at the back.) When taking on a theatre job, Gabis says, you have to "hope the stage manager is on your side. A good stage manager is essential. In musicals, you're competing [for rehearsal time] with others—the fight director, the choreographer. You really have to pray and light candles." If it's theatre, dialect coaches like to be at the first read-through and then attend dress rehearsals and previews. If it's a movie or television show, they like to be present for shooting so they can make corrections between takes, and then they hang around for postproduction in case there's looping. No matter whether it's stage, film, or television, they're prepared to troubleshoot things, such as what to do when employing an accent gets in the way of expressing strong emotions. And they're also ready to work with actors and directors on determining the point at which too much authenticity threatens audience comprehension.

When it comes to naming actors who have trouble mastering dialects, coaches keep mum. But Easton will happily refer to a technique he terms "Easton's Half-Assed Respelling," which is what he'll try when an actor has problems hearing a particular sound. (Or Easton will, as will others, simply shift gears and work on different combinations of muscle training.) But just about every dialect coach will gladly run off the names of those who've been successful students. You hear about the likes of Gary Oldman and Liev Schreiber. Here again, Easton—who had to coach 42 actors on Gods and Monsters in a wide spectrum of Southern accents—has the jump on everyone. He'll praise someone like Robert Duvall and reminisce about working with Laurence Olivier on The Betsy and John Gielgud on The Loved One. What he liked about the latter two was "having lunch with them and talking to them about the old days"—presumably in their own accents. BSW

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