And Week 2 is a wrap

Just like that, it was Friday afternoon – Day 10 of calls, and the end of Week 2 of rehearsal. The intensive nature of our work on the floor – blocking, which is all about playing with space, interaction, and finding actions to suit the words and words to suit the actions (thank you, Mr Shakespeare) is occupying our working hours each day.  Continue reading “And Week 2 is a wrap”

Notes on the freelance life: voice work

Go Right
Image by Dramagirl via Flickr

Yesterday was hardly typical, and it was memorable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had three freelance jobs that took me cross-town a couple of times through pouring rain and crazy traffic; Brisbane doesn’t respond well to the wet. The second was a confirmation (if I needed it) at day’s end that the business of voice and acting is not nearly as complicated as so many would have it. The workshop I did with a group of Year 12 Drama students at 8.30 that morning paralleled the voice-coaching work I did with a Hollywood actor later that afternoon. Both sessions came down to getting the whole body involved in realising thought and then connecting – fully and truthfully – on breath and through word … what else is there?

The other job yesterday was a screen test for a television commercial. Somewhere around lunchtime I found myself sitting in one of those hired waiting rooms in the suburbs with a whole lot of other hopefuls. I was reminded again as we sat there how important relaxation is to the business of auditioning – the least fair part of acting, as someone once said. Watching that room of actors was an object lesson in itself; some worked their phones, others listened to music, some stared into the middle distance. The tension was palpable.

My take on all this … I really believe that relaxation is almost impossible unless the actor possesses the mental freedom that comes from confidence. Confidence in turn, comes from knowing you are as prepared as you can be. Where that comes from takes us back to basics – realising thought and connecting, fully and truthfully on breath and through word – having the craft skills or a process to work from.

Still waiting for the results of the screen test … as always, no point in deliberating … moving right along. It was a chance to perform, to network, to extend experience in the business … the job would be bonus.

Accent or Dialect?

An interesting blog post on OurBrisbane.com 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.

Listening to books: Alan Bennett at the BBC

I can thoroughly recommend Alan Bennett at the BBC which is currently available from Audible.com or the iTunes store. I’ve just finished listening to the inimitable Mr Bennett reading what is a miscellany of his work from the past 30 or so years, and all via the BBC. By the way I very much also enjoyed his reading of The Uncommon Reader which is all about HM the Queen’s discovery of the joys of books and reading. It’s a wonderfully witty little piece of fiction, and the reading is made all the more enjoyable by Bennett’s own droll performance style. He’s got a great line in character voices.

With Alan Bennett at the BBC, we get pieces which range from anecdotes during interviews, pieces from his radio plays and television productions, diary entries and commentary on family, friends, and people he’s worked with; his portrait of Peter Cook, a colleague from Beyond the Fringe is especially moving.

I love Bennett’s work as actor and writer. He is a most English playwright whose brilliance lies in an ability to capture the poignancy and detail of the ordinary lives of his characters. His wonderful series called Talking Heads must be one of the finest collection of extended monologues ever written for actors. They are funny, achingly sad, wise … the whole box and dice that make up a good piece of actorly text. Talking Heads was written for the stage and filmed for television, and if you don’t know it, then treat yourself and do something about getting access now. You’ll see Bennett at work in Talking Heads in a piece called A Chip in the Sugar. You’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite, but I still vividly recall Maggie Smith as the alcoholic vicar’s wife who found companionship and love with an Indian grocer in the extraordinary Bed Among the Lentils. Bennett  like Chekhov, writes plays which bob and weave their way between comedy and tragedy, wrong-footing their audiences at every turn, and the adroit Maggie Smith was perfectly cast in the role.

Anyhow … Bennett can time a punch line to perfection. He tells a slew of jokes in Alan Bennett at the BBC … many of which are self-deprecating. However there’s one which is particularly pertinent which concerns the late Harold Pinter. We’ve all be appropriately reverential toward the great man and his memory of late, so it was a bit of a relief then to hear Bennett tell a Pinter joke.  On the occasion of Pinter’s 50th birthday, Bennett recalled being asked by someone from the BBC for an appropriate way to mark the occasion. He says he couldn’t think of anything at the time. Only after he’d put the phone down did he think of suggesting, ‘… perhaps 2 minutes’ silence?’ Delightful.

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Slam poetry and the power of speech

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Rhetorical power was the subject of some attention this week. One of the US Democratic Party’s hopefuls in the presidential primary race gave a marvellous ‘Yes We Can’ concession speech which used repetition to make its point. Barack Obama is a forceful, clear speech-giver. You can catch it here.

I like this take on the force and power of ‘good’ speech by slam-poet Taylor Mali.

Don’t know what a slam-poet is? Neither did I. Thanks Wikipedia.

Did I leave the best to last?

Perhaps I am just being patriotic, but I reckon these Aussie guys are pretty darn hot in the voice-over artistry stakes. The two contenders for me are Keith Scott and Jim Pike.

Since I wrote this post, Keith Scott has removed his demos. Jim Pike’s is still live and kicking. Enjoy!

I wrote a while back about Don LaFontaine being a voice stylist who set the standard for a generation. Keith Scott bills himself as ‘Australia’s leading voice impersonator’ and can do a nice line in LaFontaine styling in his movie promo. Scott shows that he can not only match that standard but take it further. Oh, and he does some pretty nifty impressions along the way in his audio compilation from 2005.

Then there’s Jim Pike whose voice is everywhere on the airwaves. Jim’s compilation on his webpage gives a taste of the range and style of an ‘educated Aussie’ voice. It’s not bad when it comes to dialects and accents either. Enjoy.

Actually there’s no competition going on here. All of the guys I’ve written about in the last little while are masters of their art and craft.

Next time, I’ll go in search of female voice artists.