Mastering a dialect and other vocal challenges

By Simi Horwitz

"I'm a musician, so I have a good ear," says Tituss Burgess, who plays Sebastian, a Jamaican crab—yes, a crab—in Disney's Broadway production of The Little Mermaid. Playing a crab presents its own challenges, but so does the foreign accent. There are so many factors—from vowels to consonants to rhythms to, most relevant, the audience. The actor has to "pick and choose how he approaches certain words or phrases," says Burgess, keeping in mind that audience comprehension takes precedence over authenticity. The character's class and education—even if he's a crab—also affect the way he speaks.

Like all actors tackling an accent or dialect, Burgess has his work cut out for him. So does Raúl Esparza, who plays a lower-class Brit in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. Jennifer Ikeda and Ana Reeder are currently in the process of mastering accents for an upcoming Broadway production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. Ikeda is playing a 12th-century Japanese courtesan–turned–Buddhist monk and a working-class Brit, while Reeder takes on a middle-class English woman and a "Flemish character who has stepped out of a Brueghel painting," she says.

And then there is Amy Walker, an actor who has mastered 21 accents and dialects. To display her talents, she created a film that has generated hundreds of thousands of hits on sites such as YouTube. Seated in a chair, she seamlessly moves from character to character, each of whom introduces herself in a different accent or dialect. A natural mimic, Walker is completely self-taught. "It's really an organic process, and there is no one way I approach each accent," she says. "When I did a Czech accent, I found a Czech woman who helped me with the pronunciation. I interviewed her and recorded her and then listened to the tapes. It's also good to have the visual with the auditory to see how the mouth is moving, especially in accents and dialects that are completely foreign. I find the accents of foreign languages the most challenging because you really have to understand the language's structure and grammar and how words are rearranged as a first step."

Vocal coaches agree there is no one way to master a dialect or accent, but they offer some general tips. "I recommend films, recordings, and CDs of actual people talking in the accent or dialect," not actors, says Deborah Hecht, a dialect coach whose stage credits include Mary Poppins, The Year of Magical Thinking, Grey Gardens, Old Acquaintance, The Little Mermaid, and A Catered Affair.

Adds Hecht, "Gillian Lane-Plescia has produced a series of wonderful CDs…. These are recordings of real people speaking. And she breaks it down into rhythms, sounds, and vocal placement. I would also suggest Googling dialect websites. IDEA is a particularly good one. If you live in New York, you can go to the Library for the Performing Arts or the Drama Book Shop for recordings. Of course, the best thing is to actually talk to people from whatever part of the world your character comes from. You can call the country's embassy or consulate for leads. Or try a local university's international house."

Dialect coach Elizabeth Smith is also an advocate of contacting native speakers and listening to films and tapes, though she warns that they are not all equally effective. "I would call a coach for a recommendation," she says. As for the next step, that's almost a process of osmosis. Smith dislikes the word mimicry for describing what the actor does after listening to tapes or native speakers. "I hate the word mimicry," she says. "That suggests an exact reproduction, and that's not possible since the actor is not the person on the tape. I prefer the word recognition." She adds that the actor should select certain sounds to re-create in order to evoke the flavor of the accent without confusing the audience. Among Smith's roster of stage credits: The Homecoming, The Coast of Utopia, Rock 'n' Roll, and Top Girls.

Another major issue is the other actors on stage. Esparza recalls appearing in a production of the play Comedians in which there was such a broad range of accents, the result was distracting. By contrast, he says, in The Homecoming there is a degree of vocal cohesiveness among the actors playing members of a family. Smith notes that some actors worry needlessly about sounding exactly like their castmates when playing members of one family. "They are from the same part of the country, so the vowels and consonants should be pretty much the same," she says, "but in fact if you listen to people from the same family, there are differences."

Smith, who is British, says working with Esparza was not difficult because "he already came in with some idea of what he should sound like. It's a general London accent, though it is lower-class. I gave him a tape of Michael Caine, who has the right sound. He certainly doesn't speak R.P. the way I do." R.P. stands for Received Pronunciation, the style most identified with BBC broadcasters.

"We also did various vocal exercises to capture certain vowel sounds," she continues, offering an example: " 'Hot coffee from a proper copper cup.' Raúl's got a good ear, but there was one vowel he didn't master: 'born, talk, walk, daughter.' It was never quite rounded enough. That sound is very hard for Americans. But rhythms and cadences may even be more of a problem. While these are instinctive in the native speaker, they're harder for those who are not."

Esparza concedes that the British rhythms are challenging. "An expression like 'I should say,' the British will throw it away, but it's done with a certain inflection and tempo," he says. "And then there's 'I was having a midmorning cup of tea in the neighboring café.' 'Midmorning cup of tea' becomes one word, 'midmorningcuppatea,' and the e is eliminated from café. The British will linger on certain sounds or play with vowels—lengthening them—in ways that we don't.

"Some of the vowels were difficult," he continues. "A word like 'water' is almost 'woe-ter.' I would try to make the sound and then stop, becoming hesitant and self-conscious, which pulls you out of the groove." But on the flip side, when it's working vocally, the spontaneity is there and so too are the gestures and body language. "When I have the right sound, my body gets tougher and thuggish," Esparza says. "My chest is puffed out and my shoulders are thrown back, almost as if I'm shrugging something off. I sink into my knees and become more grounded, leading from my crotch. The sound is so dirty and vulgar."

Each accent poses its own challenges. Ikeda is tackling a Japanese accent in Top Girls, and though she is half Japanese, that's no guarantee of mastery, she says: "My grandmother spoke with a heavy Japanese accent, but I wouldn't say that makes it much easier, because I have to retrain my mouth and lips to work in a new way. In Japanese, the l is not pronounced and the r is rolled. In the play, I have to order a Waldorf salad, which is difficult for the character to wrap her mouth around. 'Waldorf' becomes 'Wah-dorf,' and 'salad' becomes 'sa-ead.' 'Wah-dorf' is pronounced with a flick of the tongue on the roof of the mouth as opposed to the gum ridge."

Reeder speaks about visualizing her mouth as a "cross section, thinking about where the tongue goes," when she has to do an accent. At the moment she has an added challenge: Mastering the Dutch accent is one thing, but imagining what it sounded like in the 15th century is quite another. "There are no recordings," she says. "So far I've listened to contemporary Dutch and Flemish recordings. In the end I'll come to an agreement with the director as to how my speech should sound."

Sometimes it's necessary to build up the oral musculature in order to create the right sound, says Hecht, who on occasion will ask an actor to approach an accent with body language as a steppingstone. "I was working with an actress from Ireland who wanted to get rid of her accent and sound like an American," she recalls. "She was having trouble doing it until I suggested she walk like an American. Suddenly she was taking large strides; her arms were swinging. Her body was relaxed, her jaw was relaxed, and her mouth open. For the first time, she was able to do American vowels and extend the vowel sounds. Then I said, 'Walk like the Irish,' and she became ramrod straight. It was a stiff, contained walk, her lips were tight, and when she spoke the consonants were crisper. I also believe hand gestures can help with sounds. When I worked with Tituss, we used hand gestures to suggest the flowing waves of island life."

For Burgess, mastering a generic Jamaican accent was not enough; the character has to be more specifically placed, he says: "Sebastian is upper-class. He is the right-hand man to the king and a proud presence. He's a court composer, a musician, and a teacher, which means he's been taught. He's been educated." To capture an educated Jamaican sound, Burgess listened to CDs featuring Jamaicans discussing history and language. He then went over the script page by page with Hecht to get the precise rhythms, cadences, vowels, and consonants. "It's a very rhythmic language; it has a certain lilt," he says. "We worked on that. We also worked on certain vowels. The Jamaican vowels are round and the lips are in a forward motion, puckered as if they're about to kiss someone. Americans are more laid-back, more chilled in their facial expressions and body language. The first few days I worked on this, my face was tired. I had to learn to stand and move differently just to get the tonality."

But mastering the Jamaican accent serves an acting purpose as well, he points out: "Sebastian is the only one on stage who speaks that way. He has a different speech and a different mindset from the other characters. His speech reflects his viewpoint, and that's what makes him authentic."