Give us an 'ah'! (as in 'father')

Dialect coach Kate Wilson helps actors grasp not only how their characters speak but also how they think.

April 04, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Kate Wilson and Laurence O'Dwyer are making fish faces at each other. MThey are seated at a small table in Center Stage's sixth floor rehearsal hall working on the word "call."

Wilson, who is a dialect coach, advises more use of the lips. "Those are the vowels the Brits travel on," she says to O'Dwyer, an actor playing a British architect in Center Stage's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession."

This is serious work -- the kind of intense attention to craft that can make the difference between a good performance and a superb one. And though O'Dwyer is an award-winning actor and former drama professor, he not only welcomes his sessions with Wilson, he relishes them, frequently breaking into hearty laughter.

"Kate's a real learner and, my Lord, she knows everything. She's very passionate, and one of the great things for me about Kate has been her enthusiasm for [one's] success," O'Dwyer says later.

Wilson's field -- described variously as speech, voice or dialect coach -- is one of those backstage crafts little known to the general public, but considered essential by most theater directors. If she does her job right, audiences probably aren't aware of her contribution at all. And that's fine with her.

"All the people I've learned from say, 'Don't get in the way. Serve the story.' I need to come in and be invisible," Wilson says, her own voice low, warm and melodic.

Humble as Wilson may be, she inspires awe in the directors who work with her. "A huge, huge, huge talent," is the way she is described by Stephen Wadsworth, a Seattle-based director Wilson credits with helping her find her niche in the theater only a few years ago.

"I believe her contribution to the American theater over many, many years will be a major one, deeply felt, and ultimately something that is passed down through her work," he says. "A pathfinder is what she will be."

One indication of the talent of this 32-year-old is her hectic schedule. Here's a recent Thursday, during which she juggled rehearsals for three productions in two cities:

* 9 a.m.-11 a.m. -- Coach acting interns rehearsing Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington.

* 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. -- Work with the cast of Euripides' "The Trojan Women," the current main stage production at the Shakespeare Theatre.

* 2 p.m.-3:15 p.m. -- Drive to Baltimore.

* 3:15 p.m.-5 p.m. -- Attend technical rehearsal of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" at Center Stage.

And there was an interview and dress rehearsal yet to come.

Nor does this schedule take into account the fastidious homework Wilson does on each production. For a play like "Mrs. Warren's Profession," in which it is important to keep the dialect consistent, she starts by identifying all the vowel sounds in the script, underlining each in a different color.

In this case, she used red for the short, taut "o" as in "ostrich"; green for the "ah" as in "father"; pink for the "aw" as in "call"; and orange for the liquid "u" as in "rebuke." Next, she makes up a list of all the words with each of these sounds and another list of proper nouns unique to the play. Each actor gets a copy of these lists.

Besides the color coding, Wilson's script is filled with more detailed pronunciation guides taken from Daniel Jones' "English Pronouncing Dictionary," a volume she turns to so frequently, she has already worn out several copies.

Finally, she begins working with the cast, all the while re-reading her script as often as possible. Approximately three times a week, she meets with each actor for a one-on-one, hourlong session in which she goes over every word the actor will speak on stage, concentrating on rhythm and inflection as well as dialect. And these are only the externals; at its core, her coaching examines not only how characters speak, but also how they think.

Wilson's work on Shaw and Euripides demonstrates the wide range of tasks her job can entail. For example, Irene Lewis, director of "Mrs. Warren's Profession," explains that because Shaw is a playwright with a definite political agenda, the chief problem is, "How do you make it a human being delivering lines that when you first read them sounded like proselytizing?"

"With Shaw," Wilson elaborates, "suddenly an essay will come out of an actor's mouth. You start by making it human. It must sound like what I call 'the nature of thought.' "

"The Trojan Women," on the other hand, features a traditional Greek chorus, which often speaks in unison and sings. So in this case, much of Wilson's coaching has involved working with a half dozen actors at once, focusing on articulation and phrasing.

No matter what the task, attention to detail remains the foundation of Wilson's approach. "It's the kind of detail most directors temperamentally can't get into. I'm astonished at how Kate can go into every comma, semi-colon, period -- things that drive me nuts," says JoAnne Akalaitis, director of the Shakespeare Theatre production. "I think Kate is fantastic."

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