Tools for iPhone-Toting Actors

When the first generation iPod came out in 2001, I immediately saw its potential as a tool for learning in Higher Ed, and especially in my field, theatre. I was one of the first, via a loaner from AUC (Apple University Consortium in Australia) to take it for a test drive and report on the results in the actor-training program which I headed at the time. I had to prise it away from students’ hands when the time came to give it back to Apple. Apart from the wonder of light-weight, portable music – something we take for granted these days, but was less common 9 years ago – the obvious application to lines-learning as well as dialect acquisition was obvious.

Now we have the iPhone and the iPod Touch with a slew of apps that grow by the hundreds on a daily basis, and, of course, there are several voice recorder apps that are useful for taking notes, lines-learning and dialect drilling. One that I have used for a while is called Recorder – plain and simple, but it does the job of recording your speech and playing it back. You can append text notes, and pause and resume, and choose from lower and higher quality sound for recording – I’d recommend always choose higher quality. There is wifi syncing built in to Recorder, so you can also upload the files to your computer for later reference. There are other recording apps, and you might want to check out the listings in the iTunes Store; just type in ‘audio recorder’ in the search pane. The iPhone 3GS has a voice recorder built in; I can only assume the sound quality will be high. There is also a video on board the 3GS – now that could be very useful for recording rehearsal notes; I’m thinking choreography for dance or fights.

Some other apps you might find useful: the complete works of Shakespeare. It’s searchable and need I say, enormously useful even if you are just hunting for a quote, or learning a sonnet a day as you commute – a good practice, as Laurence Olivier noted. I can also highly recommend Open Culture which has links through to free books, poetry and plays. You might also want to grab Love Art: National Gallery of London to feed the imagination. There is excellent commentary on some of the National’s great paintings – gorgeously rendered on the iPhone screen. Just type in Shakespeare, Open Culture and Love Art in the iPhone Apps section of the iTunes Store, and download. All free!

But, apart from any one of the many Twitter iPhone apps, perhaps one of the most important is Urban Spoon, which will find and rate coffee shops, cafés and restaurants in your vicinity. Highly recommended. Urban Spoon is also free; again, just type in Urban Spoon in the search pane in the iTunes Store.

Now if only there was only an iPhone app to turn on my electric blanket as I drive home from the theatre on a winter’s night.

PS It’s not an app, but a great tool. I subscribe to the American Theatre Wing’s Working in the Theatre vodcast, and download it to my iPhone. Looks and sounds great.

Life snippets: a collector’s tale

I’ve been collecting snippets of my life for years. I guess I am a confirmed diarist at heart, although the collection process is random and not nearly as organised as it might be. I’ve had a camera since I was 11 years old – a Box Brownie as I recall – and have been collecting images from the world around me since then. I’ve kept journals and diaries – especially when I travel, and with the advent of portable audio recording tools back in the early 1980s, started grabbing bits of my life this way as well. For a long time my collections were a diaspora – scattered far and wide. Diaries got too hard to organise, and got shoved in big boxes – audio cassette tapes likewise. I won’t even start with the photos and negatives, hundreds – probably thousands of them tucked away in drawers and boxes, fading away. The movies are few and far between; I’ve relied more on still photography to capture the world out there, that is until I got a small, dedicated, very portable, and easy to use video camera earlier this year (a Creative Vado HD).

Where is all this going? Well, until the advent of digitisation, my packratty collection of memorabilia lay scattered. Now I have the opportunity and the means to convert my stuff and share it – publish it around. Some of this takes time: scanning old photos for example can take forever, but the results are well worth it, especially after the magic of Photoshop or iPhoto has been put to use getting rid of scratches and blotches. As for diaries or traveller’s tales – apart from a quick scribble in a tiny notebook to jog the memory when I got back to the keyboard, I stopped keeping a hardbacked diary when I found out about blogs. I now share photos on Flickr or Facebook, videos on Vimeo, or in the case of private materials for my family and friends only on my Mobile.Me gallery. With the advent of aggregation tools like Friend Feed, I can suck in all my tools and apps from around the web and share in the one spot. The easier the better say I. I want to be able to access the stuff as easily as I can create it. Bottom line though: always back up your digitised collections in a different place. Burn to a DVD and put in a safe or keep away from your home, or send your files into a ‘cloud.’

My absolute favourite collector’s tool right now in terms of ease of creation and sharing has to be Audioboo. I recorded this Boo earlier today. It’s about the delight of re-experiencing a moment in your life via the intimacy of another’s voice – in this case, my children’s voices recorded on Christmas Eves and birthdays over the years.


The process of recording, copying, and sharing used to be laborious – I had the collection of cassette tapes digitised by a tech friend 10 years ago. With Audioboo you just click and record on your iPhone, then click and share with the world; it’s the same spontaneous (though you can pause and resume) process that I used all those years ago with our trusty, kid-friendly cassette tape-recorder-player, but how much simpler. The original cassette tapes are tucked away in the safe, but I now have a version which I can share far and wide. It is a precious artefact that my kids and I adore. I recommend your grabbing some audio moments in your life for later; you won’t regret it.

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Accent or Dialect?

An interesting blog post on today – it’s a performing arts blog run by Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson – caught my attention.  It had me reaching for the keyboard; it was about one of my favourite topics, something I’ve been dealing with for years – voice training, specifically dialect and accent work for performance.  I can’t resist when I see the terms dialect and accent used interchangeably, and incorrectly.  Voice coach pedantry, OK?  However, I didn’t have much luck logging in to the site for some reason – there is only so long you can wait for the spinning beach ball to come to rest – so I decided to write a response of my own.

Here’s the response I would have posted if I had been able.  Bear in mind others may use the words differently, but most of the voice and speech coaches I know tend to agree on this usage of the words when working with actors.

First up – the question of  accent,  or should that be dialect of spoken English?

Many voice coaches use this differentiation: accent is what you hear when a non-native speaker uses English – there are echoes (stronger or lighter) of his or her own native language in an accent. Dialect, on the other hand, is a variation on English spoken by a native speaker of English – so, more correctly, we speak of Australian dialects, American dialects, UK dialects of English – and of course, there are varieties in these. Linguists might carp a bit about what might be termed a simplistic differentiation, but this is the one that hits home for most.

Helen (Howard -voice coach) is absolutely right in what she notes about work on dialect or accent for performance – and it applies whether you are working on dialect or accent.  No quibbles at all.  Equally, the audience can pick inconsistencies really quickly, so this is a key requirement – keep your changes few but consistent.

When it comes to the original query from actor Dirk about whether or not an actor should use an ‘accent,’ I’ve come across this one over the years most often when I’ve been directing or voice-coaching a play translated from another language.  A recent example that springs to mind is ‘God of Carnage‘ by Yasmina Reza (recently performed at Queensland Theatre Company) trans. into English by Christopher Hampton from the original French.  If you saw the show you’d know that the Australian actors used their own Australian dialects, and that no attempt was made to use French accents (Dieu merci!), meanwhile the locales referred to were still clearly French.  The current Broadway production was spoken with American dialects, and I can’t be certain, but I think locales may well have been relocated!

I recall being asked once when working on a Chekhov play whether or not Russian accents should be used … and then how to differentiate ‘class divisions’ or regional differences which clearly existed in them.  The answer to the first is ‘no’ (see The God of Carnage example).  However, some of Chekhov’s characters are non-Russian; how does one express their foreign-ness linguistically?  Clearly, in the original, they would speak Russian with a German/French (etc) accent.  The director/voice coach usually decide upon something like this – the ‘locals’ use their own dialect of English (it’s in translation, right?) whilst the foreigner speaks a dialect of English (Australian/American/British/Canadian/NZ etc etc) in a German/French (etc) accent as per the original.

Class is trickier.  I remember for years in the UK hearing servants or members of the ‘lower orders’ using Cockney – as the dialect of choice!  Times have changed, and we’ve got a little more flexible about all of this.  RP doesn’t rule any more for the upper classes either.  Linguistic diversity, like colour-blind casting, is part of the contemporary stage.

One thing that doesn’t change however, and as Helen rightly points out, is that actors must work at whatever choices have been made regarding this key part of characterisation.

Audioboo – who?

It was a pleasure to speak this morning on ABC Radio 612 Brisbane to Spencer Howson. He’d undoubtedly been up and about at some ungodly hour – in the way breakfast hosts usually are.  My interview, scheduled for 6.40am got me out of bed a little earlier than I had anticipated … but how could I refuse?  I had been invited yesterday to talk about AudioBoo, that newish audio blogging tool which I wrote about some time back. Spencer was all bright and sparky and I a little more ‘early morning-ish’ but we cleared up what Audioboo is, how it works and, along the way, diverted into a chat about the slew of new media tools and their potential uses.  Seems very few, if any others in SE Queensland are boo-ing right now. Wonder how long that will take to change!

You can read the transcript, and listen to or download the interview on the ABC website.

You can also listen to a world of boo commentary, including a huge range of voices, dialects and accents on Audioboo’s homepage.  And if that’s not enough for you, visit my Audioboo profile and listen up. Alternatively you could subscribe via RSS or the iTunes Store and never miss one of my boos again.

If you’d like to know a little more about Audioboo you should see Documentally’s post on Our Man –  and follow him; he’s a beaut podcaster and social commentator.  Documentally’s comment that an audio post serves as a ‘catalyst for the imagination’ of the listener reminded me of another old saying: ‘The pictures are better on radio.’ How true it is.

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Another great tip on speaking Shakespeare

I came across John Clancy‘s blog yesterday via a recommendation from an actor acquaintance. Scrappy Jack’s World-Wide Theatricals and Dime Museum – how could I resist – is a treasure trove of stuff, witty, well-written and full of wise saws and observations. John’s post Making Shakespeare Dull is a beauty. Here’s an extract, but please read the rest of the post.

Shakespeare used poetry to write drama, not the other way around. Since the formal, rhythmic constraints of blank verse shape the thoughts and expressions of his characters, the actor must understand and respect the rules of the verse. But neither the actor nor the director should ever be concerned primarily with the beauty of the language. Shakespeare has already created the language; your job is to make sure it is heard clearly. The creative team must be concerned with action, character, and drama. The reason Shakespeare’s plays are still performed is not because of their gorgeous language, but because of their theatrical economy, wit and intelligence. You are never reciting. You are always playing. The character is never engaged in wordplay for it’s own sake, but only to complete or initiate an action. One must accept that the characters speak in this fashion, understand the rules and governing principles of the style and then banish the idea of “poetry” and all of the word’s passive associations in order to chase and follow the actions and thoughts of the character and the play.

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Working on text – the early phase of rehearsal

Upfront – this is an out of the archive post reworked a year or so on. If you’re a regular here you may have already read my rehearsal and performance blog posts for the Empire Theatre’s 2008 production of Cabaret directed by Lewis Jones.  I played the role of Fraulein Schneider. You can find these posts elsewhere on the site. Just type ‘Cabaret’ in the search pane, and stand back. I’m revisiting some of my posts on actors’ process, which I hope you may find useful. As always, I would love your commentary.

Sunday’s rehearsals swung into a first shuffle-through of the play scene by scene. This was table talk about character, backstory, and relationships followed by a work through of a couple of scenes in which my character first appears.

First appearances are critical for character revelation. For a start, an audience starts to make up its mind about how it relates to a character. First appearances are also where a play’s obligatory exposition is revealed. A good play will give out the information on who, what, were, why and so on via character interaction and dialogue that hopefully doesn’t beat you over the head, as well as through other subtle clues in the script. These are things the actor needs to pick up and feed the character.

I find this part of the process, this combing through the text, to be a bit like a forensic analysis of a crime scene. However, there is something you also need to bear in mind, and that is to balance what the character knows with what the actor knows … or as it’s often expressed, don’t play what’s on the ‘next page.’ I got a bit carried away myself today wondering how significant the first mention of Jewishness in the play would be to my character. Of course the audience is going to prick its collective ears at this point … ‘Uh oh, we’ve got an issue here that is going to come back later!!’ but the characters themselves are at this stage, blissfully ignorant of the fate in store.

This is what I like about these early turning over the text rehearsals … playing with possibilities and making choices, and seeing where they lead. It’s good to have a director like Lewis who allowed me to stumble my way around the set, getting its geography and furniture layout into my head, getting the feel of ownership that the character would have; it’s my house after all – it was once a large home and where I was born and where I grew up. Alas, nowadays it’s been converted into a boarding house. Yes, this was one of the creative choices I’ve made, along with what has brought Schneider to where she is right now … New Year’s Eve 1929.

I’m really going to enjoy the next phase of rehearsals, and it’s going to include something I’m not all that familiar with … making the transition in and out of a musical number. I’m sure it’s going to be all about finding the right energy level and bridging from speech to song, though handily all of my songs tend to do this with quite a bit of ‘spoken in rhythm’ appearing on the score. Although we are not singing within scenes yet, this finding the right heightened energy was something the director worked on quite a bit during the final run-throughs of the scenes this afternoon.

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