“Ich bin ein Berliner!” or trying to sound like it.

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I had my first accent coaching session with a German colleague yesterday. She’s a native of Berlin, teaches German language at university here in Australia, but has been immersed in an English-sounding world for around 10 years or so. As a result of this, I had to ask her to work at strengthening her German accent for ‘capture,’ as it’s quite light and now contains several distinct Australian vowel sounds.

My colleague is clued up with regard to variations in dialects in German, and had fun trying to capture the differences between a standard German and the Berlin dialect. She described it as “rough, sloppy, my parents would scold us if we spoke like that!” As she spoke to me in German, using both dialects, it seemed to me that Berliner German is punchier, quicker and harsher-souding than standard German, It’s more energetic and ranges wider in pitch. There are good clues here to speeech tempo-rhythms which usually carry over from a non-native speaker into the new language. So English spoken with a Berliner dialect would most probably have these characteristics.

As far as applying dialect in role is concerned, the actor needs to look at the identikit presented in the text, at least to start. You look for clues as to environment, education, age, class and lifestyle of your character. These point you in the direction of an informed choice … acting is all about making choices. And here’s one of my first.

I’m thinking that my character, Fraulein Schneider, although a Berliner herself, is probably going to speak with a standard or higher-class German than this rougher-sounding argot. There are clues in the script about how she was wealthy as a young woman (she was born around 1870), but has since fallen into poverty, probably since the financial drubbing Germany received after WWI. Schneider’s education would most probably have inculcated a ‘correctness’ of speech … which doesn’t mean she can’t get down and dirty (dialect wise) if she has to with some of the lodgers in her boarding-house. We’ll see about that though as rehearsals unroll and characters develop. All part of the adventure!

And the picture? It’s a portrait of Heinrich Zille (1858-1929) one of Germany’s best loved social critics. It’s his 150th anniversary and there is a retrospective exhibition of his work on show in Berlin right now. My colleague pointed me in the direction of Zille’s cartoons, which dealt with the everyday life of the streets in Berlin during the years leading up to the time-frame of Cabaret. I’m keen to get hold of some of his drawings. These can be particularly rich for an actor searching for fragments with which to build a character. Off to the library!

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.