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Spotlight on Speech, Diction and Voice-Overs: Part 2 of 2

Spotlight on Speech, Diction and Voice-Overs: Part 2 of 2

Achieving Accent Precision

Voice and dialect coach Kate Wilson won't go so far as to say that actors on stage may fudge less familiar dialects and accents. Indeed, she talks about the need to respect the authenticity of the character and the playwright's intention.

Still, there is a degree of latitude, not least because the audience has the right to understand what's being said. Equally relevant, the nature of a theatre?its acoustics?and the demands of performing in it, which require more breath, "just naturally open up dialects and accents," she says.

And then there's the genre of a piece. That, too, plays a role in reshaping dialects and accents. "There are certain rhythms that go with musicals, for example. And those rhythms, not to mention lyrics, which are usually very American, may infringe on the authenticity of the foreign-born character's speech."

That having been said, Wilson stresses that a generic Slavic or Middle Eastern sound, as a case in point, is no longer acceptable. "All you have to do is turn on the TV and you'll hear 13 different dialects and accents from any given region. The world has become smaller, and writers are becoming more specific about where their characters come from. August Wilson, for example, is talking about African-Americans from Pittsburgh in whatever period the respective plays are set."

Her point is that African-Americans from Pittsburgh speak differently from, say, their counterparts in Chicago; older African-Americans don't speak or have the same cadences or rhythms as their kids or grandkids; and everyone's vocal style is influenced by the era.

Learning to Layer

Layering is a concept Wilson cites a lot. Consider her work with actor Aasif Mandvi, who plays the Persian peddler in "Oklahoma!"

"We are talking about a Persian peddler [that means he is of a certain class] in Indian territory in the Midwest at the turn of the century. In addition, there were so many transients around, everyone?including the peddler?was exposed to people who came from any number of places and incorporated elements of their dialects and accents, while losing some of their own."

Nailing down precisely what a Persian peddler of that era would sound like is clearly not feasible. But listening to tapes of older Persians who are small-time merchants and live in the Midwest is doable, she says. Obviously, contemporary Persian-born Americans do not sound like "Oklahoma!" 's peddler, but perhaps they hint at it.

Wilson is a strong advocate of going to the source whenever possible, and using that as a springboard to learning accents and dialects. In her work with the other "Oklahoma!" actors, she obtained records of homesteaders from Missouri in 1904, and played them for the cast, always mindful of the homesteaders' origins. Some had their roots in the South; others had theirs in the West.

Similarly, with the characters in "Oklahoma!," some are from Kansas City; others from Oklahoma. And there are subtle differences in their accents and dialects, despite the fact that there was a fair degree of social mingling among these people.

Adds Wilson, "And wherever possible [if relevant], we incorporate the actor's own accent and/or dialect. Actor Shuler Hensley, who plays Jud, comes from Georgia. And it is quite conceivable that Jud did as well."

Wilson likes actors to meet (if possible) people from the region--or country--that their characters come from. When she coached Sam Robards, who played an Austrian in Arthur Miller's "The Man Who Had All the Luck," she and Robards went to the Austrian consulate to track down an elderly Austrian-born person who might indeed suggest the character Miller had created.

"We found such a person and interviewed her at length, taping what she said. It's very easy to assume that an Austrian accent is the same as a German accent. There's a similarity, but an Austrian accent is softer. Listening to that woman talk made that real to us."

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