Studying a Text: ideas, lines, sounds


There are probably almost as many ways of learning a script as there are actors. For me, and right now starting rehearsals for a new show it’s read, read, read the script, getting the sense of the arc of the story and my character’s role in telling it. I think it’s Anthony Hopkins who learns his lines by reading a script 100 times, and that’s it. By then, he’s immersed in the words, and works them off impulse. Well to me that’s how his relaxed natural right sounding speech seems to grow from the text.

Now the role of Fraulein Schneider also requires an accent … one more thing to factor into the process of lines learning. It’s less to do with the words, and more a coming to grips with the ideas contained within or behind the words. I’m not sure where I came across the idea of words being like the flotsam and jetsam that float on the tide. They are the residue of an impulse or an energy that birthed them. Now I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and certainly I love words and the power of the crafting by the writer of those words … their sound on the ear, their butting up against one another, they playfulness with rhythm in a line … but … it’s the impulse behind the words that intrigues me initially as I chase down a character’s mindset and temperament and energy. So, it’s important for me to learn the impulse contained within words sounded in a particular way. Speech style is a function of character, and it’s not something to tack on at the last minute like a final coat of paint.

A good script is often written with the sound of the accent in the writer’s head, so coming to grips with those sounds and relating it to character and to the given circumstances of the play is part of the role study. I know good writers sweat over the choice of just the right word in a speech … and the actor in turn has the task of making that word, and that word alone the only choice for the character at that moment. So, back to the accent … I need to get stuck into the accent-drilling soon.

I’ve always recommended learning dialect and accent by working with a native speaker of the actor’s own gender, and this is the way I approach it. I’ve asked a German friend to help me learn Schneider’s Berlin accent. I will start by asking her to speak to me in a Berlin accent, so I can get a sense of its rhythm and tune. I will then ask her to read a text well known to voice coaches called Comma Gets a Cure. It contains all of the lexical sets/sounds of English so the actor gets a sampling of all of the vowel and consonant changes in the accent. There is also another text that’s often used by actors when working on English dialect or accent, called The Rainbow Passage. Either will work. You can download them from the IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive), a fantastic resource for actors. By the way, IDEA (which was founded by Paul Meier from UKansas) contains many samples of native speakers reading one or other of these passages, as well as a sample of relaxed speech. I’ve decided not to use IDEA’s samples however, as I have a native speaker to refer to.

I plan to record Gaby reading the text, watch the movement of her mouth, especially of the lips and the degree of mouth opening, so as to get a feel for the placement of the sound in the vocal channel … is it lively physically with energetic movement around the mouth; forward on the lips, or is there a sense of sound being made further back in the mouth, and so on. You can only get a sense of this from an audio recording and only if your hearing is really acute. It is so much easier with a live model where you can observe the movement and ask the speaker to repeat and demonstrate.

The next step for the actor is to apply the vowel and consonant sound changes to the play script using the IPA (International Phonetics Alphabet). If you can’t use the IPA, use a method of annotating that works for you, that is, one where your notation recalls the sounds you heard. This is what any phonetic transcription should do. Whilst I am at it, I will also check the pronunciation of proper names, and record them. I should mention that at this stage of the process I am listening closely for sound changes, but also for the rhythmic patterns and the ‘tune’ that defines the accent. After this, I will continue reading the script out loud; always out loud. I need to start hearing myself making these sounds from within my head, as well as objectively through the recording and get used to their feeling natural and easy.

As the first few weeks of rehearsal as books are still largely in hand, I will continue listening to Gaby’s reading so that the rhythm and tune drop in and sound changes become familiar. During this immersion stage, I will record myself once or twice a week reading Comma Gets a Cure to ensure I’m in tune and consistent with sound changes. I’ll then begin reading and recording parts of the text to download to my iPod and listen while commuting. In this way, using immersion and a real-life model, I should be able to get a good grip on the lines … so that as scaffolding, I can start hanging meaning on them during rehearsals. Using this approach, it should be possible for the actor to improvise in the accent. It should feel as comfortable as my old Birkenstocks.



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4 responses to “Studying a Text: ideas, lines, sounds”

  1. will Avatar

    hey i’m an actor on a soap opera and your blog really helped me WOO!!!

  2. Kate Foy Avatar

    Thanks Will. Good luck!

  3. Sherry Avatar

    I’ve been reading your blog, you seem so cool, calm and collected. After the day I’ve had this is just wonderful. I think your Groundling grab-bag is just brilliant! What an inspiration you are! 🙂

  4. Kate Foy Avatar

    Thanks Sherry. My pleasure, and thanks for reading! Not so sure I’m always cool, calm, and collected … but it helps!

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