Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
With apparent ease these days, so many comic performers have been impersonating the Kardashians, Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton. Angela Merkel. Vladimir Putin. You’d think anyone with a decent ear and a knack for mimicry could take on a different accent or dialect.
Some can. But in 1992, Tom Cruise starred as a young Irishman in the film ‘Far and Away,’ and although the crew included one of Hollywood’s top dialect coaches – Tim Monich, who’s worked on everything from ‘Cold Mountain’ to ‘Django Unchained’ – Cruise’s brogue is widely ranked as one of the lamer Irish accents on film – if not one of the worst accents, ever.
Tom Cruise attempting an Irish accent:
So sounding Irish may not be so easy as imitating a Lucky Charms leprechaun. Here’s Anne Schilling spelling out to her graduate students at SMU just some of the physical details that go into articulating a proper Irish accent:
“The tongue has a chance to spread across the mouth, yeah,” she says in a mild, purring brogue. “It also gives the tongue a chance, then, to come forward like this a bit more instead of the lips doing all the work. What that also means is the jaw doesn’t have quite as much vertical movement. The cheeks kind of help to keep it in there, but it’s not a tight-lipped dialect.”
In other words, speaking an accent is a physical, muscular thing. It changes your face, it changes your rhythms. Schilling tells her students that Irish speakers have a higher pitch than we do and a higher speed: “One hundred and seventy words per minute is what’s been measured for an average Irish speaker – as opposed to an American 90 words per minute.”
Her students chuckle. God, we’re slow pokes. It’s true. Americans speak at little more than half an Irishman’s speed.
Here’s Irish performer Saoirse Ronan:
That’s why when we visit Europe or Asia, everyone sounds like they’re on fast-forward. Meanwhile, to Europeans and Asians, we sound almost sleepy. Even a bit … slow-witted. Think of John Wayne.
Or Barack Obama.
Obama and Wayne are from entirely different areas of the country, different races and backgrounds. Each has an individual sound. Yet both speak in a measured, deliberate pace.
Today, Schilling’s class is aiming for a generic Southern Irish accent. Northern Irish is different because of the Scottish influence. Actually, it’s been said there are as many Irish accents as there are Irish counties.
“The internet has completely changed voice coaching,” says Schilling. “Now you can go on YouTube and call up someone talking not just from that country but even from the very town your character comes from. If my students need to get that granular for a character, I tell them, don’t watch those ‘how to’ videos where an actor imitates an accent. You can find videos of actual town meetings. And don’t just listen to them. Watch how the people argue, how they move when they talk.”
Why go to such detailed research? Actors don’t always have to, actually. But human voices have power. They can charm or terrify. They can sway huge crowds.
And Schilling points out that Meryl Streep is famous for her facility with different accents for a reason: Her Oscar-winning performance in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ in 1982 considerably upped the expectations for film accents and dialects.
“She was just so precise,” says Schilling. “She learned both Polish and German for the role. [Her voice coach was Jan Biczycki, who’s worked almost entirely in European films.] You could hear the change over time – people just weren’t satisfied any more with the cliched accents we’d been getting.”
The goal of the best voice or dialect coach is invisibility, Schilling says. Audiences should forget about the actor’s accent; the sound is just the character naturally expressing herself. All of which is probably one reason voice coaches are the most ‘unsung’ designers of a show. Achieving the right “soundscape” onstage is actually a big deal. “But I understand why it’s not noticed,” Schilling says “You can’t see it.”
It’s also true we tend to consider accents a kind of vocal decoration, an actor’s show-off display. A trick. But recall the last time you saw a film, TV show or stage play in which a performer delivered a wretched accent. You stopped paying attention to anything else whenever he spoke. That’s all you heard – that noise. So much for being just decoration: The bad accent fundamentally changed your experience of the show.
It’s not that an accent itself should be invisible. Rather, it can deliver so much data about a character: class, education, race, country of origin, general emotional outlook, even how long they’ve been in this country. But all of this information should be picked up so quickly and easily by listeners, it should feel almost intuited.
“Our accents and dialects,” says Schilling, “they make us who we are, they’re where we come from. And the audience is so smart, the audience knows that accent or dialect is not separate. It is the identity of the character, and thus is at the heart of the story.”
Imagine the various actors who’ve played James Bond over the years – Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan – using their real Scottish, Welsh or Irish accents. It would make Bond a rather different British icon.
Schilling herself started as an actor in New York. But in 2000, she got a year-long gig at Cincinnati Shakespeare. She says she was doing plays she loved with people she loved but still felt unfulfilled.
“And while I was there, there was a vocal coach,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Ohmigosh, I want to do that’ – because it was such a supportive role, it was such a positive role.”
Schilling got her master’s in speech from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She’s worked with theaters in England, LA and New York. In the past six years in North Texas, she’s been our busiest voice coach – at the Dallas Theater Center, WaterTower, Second Thought.
Recently, with Kitchen Dog, she faced a rare challenge. It’s one thing for a film actor to hold an accent for a minute or two on camera. But in the play, ‘Ironbound,’ Karen Parrish was on stage for 90 minutes, without intermission, playing a Polish immigrant in New Jersey. She’s a maid who’s taken a silk slip from her employer — just to wear for her husband:
With Schilling’s help, Parrish says, sustaining that accent actually wasn’t so hard. She had key phrases she could repeat during the day to retain that rhythm, that sound, in her head.
“And one thing that really helped was pronouncing all of the syllables,” Parrish says. “We especially in the Southern states kind of ooze through our words. But a word like ‘beautiful’ is very specific. It’s ‘bee-you-ti-fool.’ You know, it makes a big difference.”
This is the way Schilling helps actors – to find their characters, even find what their own voice can do.
“What I love about voice is it’s this bridge between the inside of a person and other people,” she says. “And I’ll even tell actors you can touch people physically with your voice because it’s going to create reverberations. So whatever you do vocally is a physical experience for the audience.”
We can feel that voice, and not just via our ears. Certain speakers, their voices can resonate in our chest. When we say we’re ‘all choked up’ after some heartbreaking scene, it’s literally true: We’ve been unconsciously tightening our throats in sympathy for the characters suffering and weeping onstage.
The right speech, the right voice, Schilling says, they can hold an audience spellbound.
We may even breathe in time with the actor.
You’ve talked about how the best vocal coaches, their work, should be invisible. But in a way, you already are invisible. There’s no Tony Award, no Emmy Award, no Oscar category, no recognition for ‘best dialect coach.’ Probably some actor has done it during some ceremony or other, but I can’t remember ever hearing an actor accepting an award on TV and thanking their dialect coach.
So it’s not surprising when people hear ‘voice coach,’ they think of Henry Higgins. He’s the only ‘voice coach’ most people have ever seen or heard of. And he’s a terrible example.
[Laughs] We – the Voice and Speech Trainers Association – we’ve talked sometimes about ‘Should we unionize?’ And we’ve talked about, ‘All right, how do we make sure that we at least get credited in a program – so that our profession is really even known?
Personally, for myself, I don’t really care. Again, I’m more in it to try to support the actors, to support the production. And at the same time, I go, ‘No, it is important. The soundscape of a play is a massive part of a show’s success.’
And it is getting better. Dialect coaches are in demand these days. And it’s becoming more of an art – especially when more time is given to it. A lot of the time I have difficulty blaming the actor when I know how many things are getting juggled in a production, and how little time an actor is given for vocal work.
What did you give up – if anything – to pursue this? I suppose you gave up acting to some degree.
Well, I suppose, as an actor and then going into academia, moving around so much, it was family. It kept coming up – ‘Do I want to settle here?’ And it was ‘No, no, no.’ I lived in Seattle, then New York, had that stint in Cincinnati, then moved to London. And came back to live in California [she taught at California State University-Long Beach]. Moving around was great for me, career-wise, developing my own skills.
[Laughs.] But it was terrible for family and relationships.
I would say that, yeah – and yet I’m actually close to my siblings.
Do you have any preparatory rituals you feel you must do? Beyond the usual warming-up exercises, that is.
It completely depends on the time I’ve got, and as is so often the case with coaching, it’s a teeny increment of time. But sometimes, a director asks, ‘Can you warm them up?’ I know a lot of people think of voice work as just, ‘Now we’re going to run through a lot of, um, I dunno – “
Yeah, things like that. But to me it’s really about getting the whole body to be a part of the vocal experience – as opposed to being just the lips and the tongue. That’s going back to ‘Pygmalion’ – that whole Henry Higgins thing, like you said. To me, it’s a full-body experience. To expand the chest, to feel it in there. That, to me, is a ritual. But the other ritual I have, if we don’t have time for a warm-up, is checking in with actors, just asking ‘Where are you today? How are you doing? Let’s just start with hearing where you are.’ I’ll have them read some text so I can hear where their voice is at that point in the day.
I really try to listen to the actors, to hear where they are – so I can speak to what they need and what the play needs. You know, as opposed to coming in with a battering ram and saying, ‘Do this. This is what must be done.’
This may seem odd, but have you ever had to help a local actor speak with a Texas accent?
No, actually. Not really. The last time I had to coach someone on a Texas accent, I was in England, so this is back aways. It was a musical, a production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ and when I was talking with the director we were going through the soundscape, he said he wanted the parents to have Texas accents. And without even thinking, I asked, ‘What part of Texas?’ Because Texas is a huge state with all kinds of accents.
But again: British director, British audience, British cast. And I remember him looking at me and blinking, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this poor director, of all the five billion things he has to think about — what part of Texas?‘
And his answer was, ‘Um, Texas.’ And I was, ‘Got it. Right. Point taken.’
In all this, what inspires you?
People. People inspire me. People’s stories inspire me. I just find people’s abilities to talk through their stories and give voice to them – I find it so brave. I find it incredible.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Images on top and outfront: Shutterstock.