It was a little over a year ago that I met Pamela Vanderway on Twitter. We were discussing my near annual “fake a Jamaican” gig, in which I do a Jamaican accent for a radio commercial, and we had a great conversation on what it takes to learn a dialect or accent. Since then, we have talked about a wide array of topics, and I have discovered the she is an idea generator, a lover of the arts, and probably more energetic than 90% of the people I know. As a dialect coach based in Los Angeles, she has worked with many, many actors on acquiring the proper dialect for films, television, and other projects. You can see her work on her website at Dialect 411, and follow her on Twitter. I was able to squeeze into her busy schedule and ask her a few questions about her profession, how she became a dialect coach, and more. Here is part one.
Tell me a little about your path to becoming a dialect coach. When did you decide this is what you wanted to do, and was there a special program you were in or developed to get you there?
For every coach I’ve met, the path has been different. I was training to be a professional actor when I realized that more than any other thing, dialect work was what I wanted to do. After earning my BFA from California Institute of the Arts, I searched for programs in the United States that were geared toward training dialect coaches. While I found many schools with speech therapy and linguistics programs, I could not locate a program which integrated the scholarly side of dialect coaching with any sort of deep understanding of the actor’s craft. I decided to approach CalArts to ask if they would consider creating a masters degree program that would meet my needs. Fortunately for me, CalArts is known for creative risk-taking so I was invited to work with the faculty at CalArts to design a program in which I could earn an MFA in speech studies for actors. For two years I observed nearly every speech and dialects class session the school offered and took notes on course content, instructional style and student progress. In addition to speech, I took voice-for-the-actor classes, sometimes repeating the same course in order to deepen my knowledge and to observe how a different set of students may or may not influence the outcome of the class. I took text analysis, theatre history,and various film history courses. I regularly observed student actors as they worked with their acting teachers. I tutored students in phonetics, eventually working my way up to co-teaching courses. I also tended to ‘crash’ every class, rehearsal or student film set I thought might enrich my knowledge, studied every scrap of dialect information I could lay my hands on in those days before the wonder that is Google, and worked on student film and stage projects in every capacity I could. My philosophy was (and continues to be) that the more one knows about the big picture of something, the more skillfully one can enhance that picture with their talents.
My training of course did not end with my MFA. To better understand and serve my clients, in addition to the dialect research my job requires, I’ve taken group and private voice and voiceover classes, ADR classes, traditional storytelling classes, marketing classes, earned my 200-hour Yoga RYT certification, explored movement modalities such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Technique and Hellerwork, attended voice conferences, and observed actors rehearsing as much as possible so that I have exposure to the myriad approaches an actor may have to his/her craft. I even took horseback riding lessons for a while in order to experience centering and grounding in a new way. I really love what I do and want to provide my clients with the most comprehensive instructional experience I can, so I’m always open to trying out new modalities and techniques.
Many people equate “dialect” with “accent.” Are they the same?
The terms ‘dialect’ and ‘accent’ are hotly debated in linguistic circles. Ask five professionals and you’ll get five variations of an answer. Me? I tend to be of the mind that a dialect includes word and phrase choices while ‘accent’ is a word referring to pronunciation and musicality alone. That said, since I work mainly one-on-one with my clients, I allow myself flexibility in my usage of these terms, so that my client feels as comfortable as possible. (I figure that since learning a dialect is about as challenging as learning to walk on the high wire, I should extend comfort to my client wherever I can!)
Does an actor have to immerse themselves in a dialect in order to become “fluent?”
The simple answer is yes. An actor needs to have sufficient exposure to the specific sounds, rhythm and melody of a dialect in order to be able to accurately duplicate these components and then effectively integrate them into performance. How much time will be sufficient? That’s the million dollar question. Every case is different and depends on many factors including how much experience a person has at learning dialects at the professional level, how much prior exposure to the target dialect a person my have had incidentally in their life thus far, and how many components in the target dialect differ from the actor’s own dialect. This list only scratches the surface.
Clearly this isn’t a simple process, and there is no “Rosetta Stone” to get it done quickly
It’s a complicated formula to say the least. One thing I can say for certain is that anyone who claims to be able to teach an actor a dialect in one or two lessons is being overly optimistic. The actors you see collecting shiny golden awards are spending weeks and months rather than hours preparing for those award worthy dialect roles.
Is there a particular issue that would cause an actor to have more difficulty learning a dialect? Are there habits that you need to overcome or break before learning a dialect?
As I mentioned a little earlier, many factors influence the length of time that dialect training may take. One factor I have not mentioned though is an actor’s ability to hear. When an actor is living with significantly compromised hearing, learning a dialect can become quite challenging indeed. If the hearing loss is great enough this is a challenge that unfortunately may not be completely overcome. As far as habits are concerned, the only habits one must overcome is any tendancy one might have to give up when the going gets rough. Learning and then integrating a dialect is a project that requires a great deal of energy, focus and specificity coupled with a sense of curiosity and permission to step outside what is known and comfortable. The process can be at times thrilling and at other times a bit intimidating. As long as you don’t hit the first rough patch in the road to learning a dialect, declare yourself ‘not good at dialects’ and quit, you’ll reach your goal.
Look for part two of this interview tomorrow, where you get to hear more about the dialect acquisition process, and find out just what the heck these are: