by Jean Schiffman
As a native New Yorker whose parents still tawk the tawk, I've cringed through many a West Coast production of a Neil Simon play. Often West Coast-bred actors think if they remember to drop a few r's at the ends of words, they're home free. Or they go to the opposite extreme: "Da boidies choipin' in da trees." It's enough to make a Brooklyn girl feel a little f'klempt.
But we can't all have the perfect ear and flawless mimicry skills of a Tracy Ullman or a Mike Myers. So what's a California kid cast as a Noo Yawka to do if the director doesn't hire a dialect coach?
Despite the absolute impossibility of adequately describing a dialect in one short newspaper column (and without using phonetic symbols), I talked to actor/teacher Lynne Soffer, who lived in New York for the first 23 years of her life and has been the Bay Area's premiere dialect coach for 20 years, working with every major theatre from American Conservatory Theater on down, as well as coaching for film work. She offered some tips for getting yourself into that specifically New York mode, and some general methods for learning any dialect.
Start out by determining your character's ethnicity. Within the greater New York area are many ethnicities, each with its own traditional version of a New York dialect. After all, New York had at one time the biggest mix of immigrants in the United States, and many lived in ghettos and enclaves, where their accents developed and stuck.
For Jewish, think Paul Reiser or Woody Allen. A distinctively Jewish sound might be what Soffer calls the intrusive "g," as in Lawn-Guy-lind (for Long Island). For Italian, there's Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny: yoots for youths. Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker was old-fashioned Irish, talking about goils wearing poils and putting erl on their hair (note the Irish/New York interposition of "oi" and "er" sounds). For Puerto Rican, listen to Rosie Perez or comedian Paul Rodriguez.
Next, figure out the socio-economic class. My father, from a lower-middle-class family, grew up on the streets of Harlem and the Bronx and therefore has a heavier accent than does my mother, who was from a more middle-class Brooklyn family. "The heaviest accent is blue-collar," said Soffer.
But that brings up another issue: What are your character's aspirations? If you're playing someone who's trying to move up in the world, that person might have a much lighter accent. On the other hand, a Jewish gangster wannabe might try to sound more Italian.
The period of the play is important, as is the character's age--Archie Bunker can use that heavy accent because he's an older character. Linguists have noted that the regional dialect of New York is fast going the way of the dinosaur. As Soffer pointed out, there are teenagers in New York today who affect L.A. Valley-Girl accents because they've heard them on TV. And plenty (like Soffer herself) were taught to speak in a neutral non-accent.
An important key is intonation. For example, typical of a Jewish intonation is the upward inflection that makes everything sound like a question. And the music of Italian New York dialect sounds very similar to the Italian language itself. You can get a feeling for the intonation simply by listening to it a lot.
Before we get off the subject of ethnicity, a word of warning: This whole field of dialects is ripe for embarrassing ethnic stereotypes. It's probably wise to tread lightly and choose the lighter version rather than the heavier version of any accent. For example, not all older New York Jews have Yiddish accents (ekta for actor). Nor do Italians necessarily sound like Mario Puzo wiseguys. And while David Letterman can get away with poking fun at Rosie Perez' speech, you risk mocking the character you're playing if you lay the accent on with a trowel. Also, pointed out Soffer, you don't want to be doing A View From the Bridge and have the audience thinking about My Cousin Vinny.
"R" you talkin' ta me?
Once you've gotten a handle on the context in which your character lives, here are some generic New York sounds to go for:
That tricky "r." Mostly, you drop it at the ends of words (acta for actor) and usually in the middles of words (Califawnia). Some New Yorkers also add nonexistent r's: idear for idea. Just be careful not to open your mouth too wide when you drop your r's, or the word will come out actahhhh, and you'll sound more Tennessee Williams (or Cheers) than Wendy Wasserstein. This is a hard sound to duplicate, though, because of idiosyncrasies. For example, party is neither potty (a common mispronunciation) nor pahhhty; it's sort of halfway between potty and pawty.
Which brings us to the two-syllable "aw-uh." It's a sound that never made it across the Rockies, said Soffer, and is therefore hard for Californians to pick up. It appears in words like talk, ought, water, and the like. The key is to make your lips come forward and (very subtly, please) separate the sound into two syllables: Taw-uhk to me. Westerners, said Soffer, don't distinguish between don and dawn, walk and wok, dotter and daughter, Bohston and Bawstin. But to play a New Yorker, ya gotta.
Nasality. If you're playing a female who lives in Queens, you could try talking through your nose--but once again, Fran Drescher notwithstanding, beware of stereotypes.
The glottal stop. This involves, as the dictionary says, "interrupting the breath stream during speech," and some New Yorkers do it to certain consonants in the middles of words, thereby losing the consonant entirely: "What's da ma-uh witchoo?" Soffer cautioned against going too far with this, though--the audience might have trouble understanding you.
And do avoid the "a" problem. Chicagoans stretch out their a's, as in ceht for cat, and often actors think that's a New York sound, but it's strictly Great Lakes. To be safe, stick with your normal "a."
To learn how to do these sounds, Soffer suggested making your own tape of TV shows (old Rhoda reruns are excellent), movies (It Could Happen to You, with Rosie Perez, for Puerto Rican), and authentic speakers. She also recommended some books: J.C. Wells' series Accents of English; Jerry Blunt's two books, Stage Dialects and More Stage Dialects, and American Dialects by Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman. For film, she advised hiring a coach. "But get up to speed before the first day's shoot; otherwise your speech will change during the shoot."
Finally, said Soffer, "The big thing with dialect is you have to be a human being. You have to find out where that New Yorker lives in your body, and believe it. There's a point in coaching where I have to say to actors, 'You don't believe it. Stop trying to do the sounds right and start living the life.'" BSW/D-