Finding a Dialect Coach Who's Right for You

Dialect coaches will tell young actors that it's not a bad idea to "have a few accents in your back pocket," as Hollywood-based Joel Goldes puts it. He says that often an actor's appearance is a good guide to what accents are initially valuable. "People come and learn a handful of dialects to match their looks," he volunteers, advising that if an actor has been told he or she can play Irish or French or Italian or Cuban, those are the dialects worth refining. And then continuing to practice, since, like anything else involving muscles, dialects need regular workouts.

The way to find a dialect coach—particularly if there's none on a production the actor is part of—is to ask for referrals from acting coaches, agents, casting directors, or other actors. (New York acting coach Harold Guskin tells his actors to start before they've delved deeply into developing the character.) These days it's also a helpful idea to get on the Internet, where you can Google "dialect coach" to turn up names. Goldes, for instance, can be found at Robert Easton, also in Hollywood, puts his phone number prominently on all his promotional materials. As for finding a coach with whom the actor is compatible, Goldes recommends a sample session, especially if the actor is looking for a lengthy relationship.

In New York, Stephen Gabis will coach students privately if he knows them and has worked with them before. Deborah Hecht teaches in the NYU graduate acting program and finds she has almost no time for private students. (Kate Maré is on the faculty of Juilliard, but admission to the school is strict and requires taking the entire program.) Incidentally, no one knows how many dialect coaches currently operate, although Hecht says, "There are a ton of them across the country—wherever there's a theatre, there's a coach." She figures that in New York there are half a dozen devoted full-time to the field; Goldes estimates a couple dozen are available in Los Angeles, or maybe between 30 and 50 if those coaching as a sideline are included.

When it comes to rates, dialect coaches don't say too much. They're often working at negotiated day rates. Goldes, however, lists his rates on his website: $200 to $300 per hour (with a two-hour minimum) when working preproduction or on set, and $85 to $125 per hour when working at his office or over the phone, with an actor typically spending $95 per session for one or two sessions when preparing for an audition. Ask Goldes if those are fairly standard rates and he'll say he's been told they're somewhat lower than the going rates elsewhere. (Others also say their rates are low.) He'll mention, as will Hecht, that rates can be trimmed for "struggling" actors. Hecht even mentions she's done the occasional pro bono job.

Every dialect coach interviewed suggests actors begin working on an accent for a particular role as soon as possible—meaning well before rehearsals officially begin. The idea is to get the accent into the mouth, the head, and the body so it becomes second nature. But they will also acknowledge that early starts aren't always possible and they're ready to grab whatever time they can. (Gabis talks about stealing "18 and a half minutes" on "giant musicals.") Hecht, though, believes there may be a point beyond which it's not a good idea to impose an accent. "If an actor is very far along, [adding an accent] can change the way you feel," she notes.

By the way, coaches confide there are some actors who have more trouble conquering accents than others and that even actors who have an ear for music can encounter problems. But they also say the number is low. Gabis thinks most actors are in the profession because they're eager to be "playful," and that playfulness is part of acquiring accents. Some accents are more difficult than others, coaches admit: Slavic, Asian, Scottish, Welsh, and South African accents come up as noticeably challenging.

What can the actor who wants supplemental training or who hasn't the ready cash to hire even a trimmed-rate coach do? There are books with CDs available. Gillian Lane-Plescia is highly recommended. Lane-Plescia, a revered English coach, has a series with titles like "Italian Accents for Actors," "French Accents for Actors," etc., featuring native speakers. She's also compiled "Accents for Black Actors." There are also Robert Blumenfeld's "Accents: A Manual for Actors," David Alan Stern's series "Acting With an Accent," Jerry Blunt's "Stage Dialects" and "More Stage Dialects," and Paul Meier's series of CDs and booklets.

David Finkle