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Monday, August 20, 2012

*My interview with Yale-trained Dialect Coach Doug Honorof

When I was a young actor in NYC, I would go to the Lincoln Center Library and listen to dialects on vinyl. They have an incredible collection. The first time I went to a more specialized level of dialect work was for a production of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold...and the boys."  The dialect was one of South Africa's, more specifically that of Fugard himself. I met and worked regularly with a dialect coach in NY, the year was 1984. 

in 2007, As an actor living in Memphis, I was asked to do a dialect by filmmaker William Bearden. Since I could not find a dialect coach in Memphis, I contacted the Lincoln Center Library and after some phone calls and emails, I tracked down the man I am featuring here. I have worked with Doug Honorof twice and have recommended him many times to actors--for various reasons. Some actors in Memphis have strong dialects and need to attend to it in order to compete in New Orleans, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. 

 Doug Honorof designs dialects, accents and character voices for stage, screen and voice-over. As a voice and speech trainer, he has lectured and coached at top institutes including Yale School of Drama and Tisch/NYU. He's also worked with many top screen and Broadway stars.

What is the journey that brought you to dialect work? When did you discover that you wanted to pursue it?

I have been interested in acting and in languages, especially accents, as long as I can remember. I heard a lot of different languages and voice types at home and in the neighborhood growing up. Maybe that is why, or maybe it has nothing to do with environment. As I get older, I tend to think there is a lot more pre-progamming than we like to admit. Maybe I was just born to this...What I can say is that I didn’t know there was such a thing as dialect coaching until I was in my 30s, so that part of it came later. After I finished my master’s in phonetics, I started teaching English pronunciation to non-native speakers. I would mimic the accents of my students so that I could figure out how their vocal behaviors were different from mine, you know, so I could tell them what adjustments to make. By the time I started my educational mentorship at the Yale School of Drama, I already had a whole lot of accents bouncing around in my head. I started that mentorship, incidentally, because I was really curious about how actors approached the accent problem. I was writing a research paper at Yale on second-language mimicry, and realized that the process had to be different – easier, actually – for actors working on a second accent in their own language. The process of accent learning in your own language is more straightforward; you don’t have to struggle to produce the words and the grammar themselves.

What did you take away from your  training at Yale? (for the actor who will never get a chance to train that way—what was most valuable to you?)

In addition to the many things I learned about acting at the Yale School of Drama, I learned to actually perform accents there, you know, to act past the accent so that I would not sound like a walking accent.  I already knew the technical aspects of producing accents; before studying at Yale Drama, I had already learned to make all the sounds of the world’s languages on demand as a phonetician, but we phoneticians would speak in our street voices, pause, say the target word perfectly in accent, then switch back into our street voices to finish the sentence. Bizarre and unnatural. My teachers in the Acting Department gave me the courage to speak in accent improvisationally. When I coach, I typically stay in accent the entire time. I coach in accent. It has to be in you. It has to be a part of you. You can’t be thinking about it while you are performing. I try to set an example while coaching or teaching, not just to model it that much more, but to make the point.

Can you reduce the accent of an actor with a regional dialect?

Yes, but I would not put it that way. I guess what you mean to ask is whether I can teach actors to present themselves without a noticeable regional accent at an audition or in an interview so that they sound more pan-regional; maybe just American but not localizable beyond that. Actually, the process is similar whether it is for a role or for real life. The actor can then choose to adjust the voice completely in real life or just incorporate aspects of the new voice. It is really all about identity and persona even if it is not for a role. Not everyone feels the need to reduce a regional accent in real life; some people just switch personas when they feel it will help them professionally.

Who are the actors that impress you most with their ability to do dialects?

I tend to like Minnie Driver’s accent work a lot. But I wouldn’t say ‘do dialects’ so much as perform full-bodied characters who happen to have an accent that may be specific to a place, group, class and time. The voice is all about group membership and identity/status within the group. It is character work.

Are there certain sounds that are in common around the globe that relate to class/ status?

No. The speech code and local stigmas associated with particular sounds are pretty much arbitrary.

What is the mouth capable of doing? How can it create so many distinct sounds in such a small area with just the tongue, teeth, cheeks, soft and hard palate? Are these ultimately your tools?

Well, don’t forget the lungs, larynx, velum, uvula, very plastic potential configurations of the lips and the infinite variation of the sizes of the various cavities (oral, nasal, pharyngeal, subglottal, sublingual, etc.). When you add it all up, there are many degrees of freedom; especially once you add in control of melody, duration of sounds and loudness contours, plus variations in timing and rhythm. It isn’t just about sounds; substituting sounds alone will just make you sound stilted. Besides, the way the sounds overlap one another can be dialect specific.

Some actors explore the articulatory business by ear, some by eye and some by physical adjustment based on sensory feedback. Some learners relate very strongly to phonetic transcription as a way in; others don’t look at anything on paper at all.  I don’t generally need to coach all of that explicitly; sometimes a slight adjustment to one articulatory setting will allow the actor to adjust the rest automatically without thinking about it too much. The thing is, we have all these voices in our heads; that is one way the audience knows when a voice is untrue.  Except for foreign language work, which is another beast altogether, I often sense that I am coaching actors to access voices they already know more than I am teaching them something new.  It can be as simple as intensive and repeated listening to recordings of native speakers, shadowing and then getting tips on how to let out the voice you basically already have in your head.

How long should an actor prepare for a dialect required for a film or play? Assuming it is different from his/ her own dialect? How much time should they spend per day?

Well, sometimes we have to make due with whatever little time we have just to create the illusion. Ideally, say, in a proper training program, you learn your first accent in class, then work it for six months. A second accent you might have to work three months. The third, much less time. I sometimes work with actors the day of an audition. That is better than nothing, but it isn’t ideal, obviously. Just sleeping on it alone has value. If the learning is rushed, sometimes it is hard to keep the accent consistent and to be able to extrapolate when new lines are added at the last minute. That happens a lot in TV, especially, where this work can sometimes be very seat-of-the-pants.

Can you talk about rhythm for the actor? Can you talk about melody in dialect? Can you talk about tempo for the actor?
Rhythm tends to be a dialect or language feature. Melody can be a dialect/language feature or very person-specific. Tempo tends to be more person-specific. It is not true that all U.S. Southerners talk slowly, for instance. Just listen to recordings of Eudora Welty if you don’t believe me. That brings up a really important issue, actually. We deal with iconic archetypes a lot because stage plays and scripts for on-camera acting jobs are forms of literature, but sometimes the archetypes look more like stereotypes. We might struggle against stereotypes at times and downplay them to give a believable performance. Or we might exaggerate stereotypes at times for comedic effect. The actor makes choices. The director makes choices. Sometimes the writer does not even intend the stereotype despite the way the part appears to be written. Whatever the case, stereotypes come up a lot.

How do humans ultimately communicate with each other? Why do humans communicate with each other?

Spoken language is not entirely about conveying information. And I don’t just mean that sometimes it is about conveying misinformation, though it can be that, too. I mean that we communicate a lot about ourselves through our voices: what groups we belong to; where we stand within a group; how we see ourselves as individuals or in relation to the listener; our mood; very subtle nuance. Sometimes we communicate gesturally or via facial expressions using codes that are shared by other members of our groups. Less of human communication is universal than you might think. Dialect coaches deal with all of those aspects of character and communication, even the silent aspects sometimes. People who communicate through signed languages also convey more than just information in an analogous way.

Are the British (RADA, LAMDA, Central, etc.) providing better training for their actors than the Americans?

I am not sure the British are teaching anything very different, though, to their credit, British acting programs may do a bit more text, verse and IPA than many American programs. A lot of American programs focus more on yoga, which they call voice, and may place an actor in a state of heightened relaxation that can be very helpful, but is not itself really 'voice' training in the usual sense. I don't know that the British are inherently more successful teachers, but it may be true that they are less shy about holding students to a standard in general over there. In the US, we are very creative, which is great, but sometimes our educational system tends to coddle.  Also, circumstances are just different over there. My sense is that it is okay in Britain to be a little more honest in talking about and exploring class differences. I am not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, just that we have more taboos about voices here. For good historical reason, there is so much tension in American culture surrounding various groups viewed as victimized or marginalized, and there is so much pressure to push for equality on many fronts, that we tend to have to face some internal discomfort to play across social classes, economic classes, race, religions, ethnicities, etc. Many Americans are really afraid of offending people, so some shy away from this work. The British are just less touchy-feely about these things in general, so maybe they play more freely on that front. Dialect work is all about play. Not only that, but for a relatively small archipelago, Britain has an awful lot of regional dialects packed close in together. In the United States, as you move westward, we have less regional dialect variation over large tracts of land where people tend not to have settled very long ago. We have wildly different dialects, but for a country of our size, you might expect more. Perhaps we are just less sensitized to dialect. That is probably not true, but who knows. This being said, I am American and my own American students do great dialect work. There are other competent American dialect coaches, too, and many great American actors who do excellent dialect work, so let's don't concede too much to the Brits. I mean, especially after the Stamp Act and everything. Brits and Americans aside, I have also been especially impressed by the dialect work of actors coming out of Australian drama programs.

What are your thoughts on Constantin Stanislavski?

I like to look at his thinking as it progressed over time, not just his early work.

Are there any teachers you have had that inspired or impressed you most?

I have been very lucky; I have not had a single bad drama teacher – though let me say I feel very sorry for all of my teachers because I am a much better teacher than I am a student. But I did have one improv teacher whose style I found especially helpful. That was Armando Diaz. He would mostly just sit and watch and call, “scene,” but, when feedback was necessary, he would respond to what we brought very honestly and critically but without moral judgment or emotion. He also had this way of structuring activities so that we would make many discoveries on our own. As an actor you need honesty, but you also need a safe space to dare. Arbitrary feedback is not helpful, and too much feedback can be overwhelming. When I am learning, I need to fix one problem at a time. I have tried to emulate Armando’s style a bit.

Are there any exercises you feel an actor should practice daily—regarding diction?

Everyone has different issues. Daily – great. Time of day matters a lot, too. Some people are just not morning people; others get tired after lunch. You need to know yourself and work smart. I like to work frequently throughout the day to reinforce the learning rather than for long, tiring stretches, but some people are just obsessive and have to work till they drop and that works for them.

My teachers used to instruct us in ‘Eastern Standard Speech.’ Is this still relevant? Is there any standard for an actor today who wants to work nationally on TV or film?

In the US, that Standard Eastern Speech for the Stage (or Good Speech, or Mid-Atlantic, or World English or Cultivated/Heightened American Stage Speech) was part of the whole glamour craze in the early days of Hollywood in a period not too long after declamatory stage speech reigned supreme. So-called ‘standard’ American wasn’t just used on stage or on camera, either. Some middle-class American women, for instance, behaved as though they had been to finishing school. Newscasters (who still talk funny), were taught that accent. Narrators used it, too. Looking back at old films, you almost get the no-doubt-false sense that anyone who didn’t work with his or her hands wanted to sound elegant – which often meant wanting to sound like the British aristocracy. I am not sure many still feel that need for glamour in our flip-flops-off-the-beach age – and even younger members of the British aristocracy no longer sound so elegant. We live in an era in which university professors wear blue jeans, an article of clothing traditionally associated with laborers, cowboys or farmers. The world has changed, for better or worse, and that accent does not ring true with audiences as being anyone’s native way of speaking. But I still teach that sound for period pieces or stylized parts. I usually hate it for Shakespeare, though, and I am not alone in this. Early Modern English is hard enough to listen to without adding that artificial accent to it; when actors perform Shakespeare that way, they tend to become obsessed with the words rather than the meaning. The Bard’s words are interesting, to be sure, but acting is not really about the words. Besides, Shakespeare's characters are not all Kings and Queens, and when they are, why not just go all the way and choose to do a genuine royal accent so you at least sound specific, and like a real person speaking? But certainly there is a present-day genericized equivalent of Eastern Standard that allows an American actor to shed regionalisms and class-inappropriate pronunciations. Personally, though, I tend to like specific choices over generic ones, most of the time. Specific voices trigger associations for me.

Once you are hired to work with an actor, what are the stages of your involvement?

That really depends on what the actor or producer requests. Every job is different. Sometimes I help with original research – every dialect coach is part dramaturg. Sometimes I collect audio or a/v materials for the actor to work with...samples of real people talking. It is nice to have as many different models as possible to play with while working up a character. I can help with that when the budget allows. We have a narrative passage called “Comma Gets a Cure,”  which more-or-less has every sound of English appears in every possible order. You can download it from the International Dialects of English Archive or Visual Dialect Archive websites. I might record native speakers telling that story, and a story of their own, then help the actor get inside that speaker’s head. A lot of that process is imitative, initially, but some is psychological or focused on shifts in posture, etc. I try to get the actor speaking spontaneously in accent before they get off book. Then we often work on the dialogue with many different reads so the actor doesn’t get locked into anything. With stage work, I often hear the actor again after load-in to check intelligibility in the space. There might also be yoga-like voice warm-ups. For on-camera work, I often help the actor on set. Directors have different ideas about how to use a coach, though. Some just have me there in case the actor wants to check in. Others have me there for first-team rehearsal and then have me actively side-coach when necessary. (That is common with fast-paced TV work where there isn’t much time to prepare the actor, especially for foreign language lines.) We might do wilds, which are not often used, but we might do them, anyway. I also often come back in for post. I also work with actors for auditions or just building a collection of voices, especially transformational character actors or voice actors who play a range of roles. In those non-production jobs, we tend to take things more systematically as we would in a conservatory program in order to give the actor some tools that allow the actor to work more independently. But it is always helpful to have someone listen to you and give feedback. What actors need from me more than anything is ultimately my ear.

What do you do if you have very little time to coach an actor on dialect?

I pray a lot. Honestly, most of my TV work is like that. Sometimes you can use an earwig or just prompt in person between each take, for instance, but only some actors can work that way. The coach has to strike a balance between lobbying for enough time to get the job done and staying out of the way, so with truly impossible situations, you just remind yourself that it is bound to come out better than it would have if you were not involved at all.

To what extent is an actor’s acting choices relevant to dialect work?

To every extent. Dialect work is character work with a dialect, so to speak. It is all about the acting. Except for some very broad comedy roles, for instance, the dialect should be transparent to the audience – unnoticed. That means dialogue coaching (of which dialect coaching is one form) is really a form of acting coaching. I don’t teach straight scene study or acting in the usual sense, but many of the concerns are identical. The director's interpretation is also paramount.

Once an actor gets on the set, what do you feel their priorities should be?

Ideally, by the shoot day, the actor should forget about the dialect altogether because by then, the character’s voice should just roll off the tongue, and the coach should be there just to give notes to the script supervisor. (“Oh, look. Another great take on the dialect front.”) Also, there should be world peace. ;-)

You can email Doug Honorof at