Talk Of The Town

Dialect coach helps "Wire' actors - even Brits - learn to speak like true Baltimoreans.

January 22, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF


Almost-Baltimoreans know this sound. Real Baltimoreans say it.

No, it's not the whoop of the first swimmer downyocean on Memorial Day, nor the bellow of Willie Don Schaefer contemplating Parris Glendening's gift of African violets, nor the frustrated cry of the pixilated Ravens fan.

EHOHOO is the classic Baltimore "O." As in "NO," when you clinch your brows, crinkle your nose, pucker your lips and emit the sound "NEHOHOO." As ancient Highlandtowners once vowed, "Nehohoo way I'm moving out Blair Road."

EHOHOO is one of the sounds of Baltimorese that BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange imparts to actors on David Simon's HBO cops and drug dealers series The Wire, which is set on the very meanest streets of Bawlmer. Leeseberg-Lange is a dialect coach, and she's worked mainly with Dominic West, a British actor who plays a homegrown homicide detective named Jimmy McNulty.

McNulty's "good police," in the parlance of the show. He ignites the storm that results in The Wire's joint homicide-narcotics investigation. McNulty's a white guy from West Baltimore.

Dominic West comes from Yorkshire, in the north of England. He brings with him a hint of the Yorkshire accent, which sounds like this bit from the ancient and anonymous Cleveland Lyke Wake Dirge: "This yar neet, this yar neet, Ivvery neet an' all/Fire and fleet an' cannie leet/An' Christ tak up thy saul" ... On this night, on this night/Every night and all/Fire and flame and candle light. And Christ take up your soul."

So you could think it might take some doing to convert West into a Baltimore talker. But it hasn't, Leeseberg-Lange says.

"When he talks in everyday life, he has a Yorkshire accent," she says. "When he's talking in formal business situations, he has what is contemporary British standard."

That's about how Prime Minister Tony Blair talks. Even Queen Elizabeth II is drifting away from the Queen's English toward contemporary British-speak. And her grandson, Prince William, hardly sounds posh at all.

"[West] can speak, as most English people can, in multiple accents," Leeseberg-Lange says. "And, as a British-trained actor, he can speak in any number of accents. Which made my work incredibly easy. Because he's very facile. And he already understands that the action has to make the meaning. It isn't about the accent, it's about the meaning. It's about what's going on in the scene. And that made him an incredibly easy actor to work with. "

West is certainly versatile. He plays the cheating lover Renee Zellweger shoots in the ultra-hot movie version of Chicago. His last New York stage appearance was in the Noel Coward role in the ultra-chic Design for Living, Coward's brittle tale of a menage-a-trois.

"The reason they hired Dominic is because his rhythm pattern is slightly different than anybody else's, and they wanted him to stand out," Leeseberg-Lange says. "It would help set Jimmy out from everybody else.

"The majority of the scenes, the majority of the series, takes place on the west side, and Jimmy McNulty is from the west side. So we gave him a west-side Baltimore accent and gave him those basic sounds to play with and to use to create the meaning in his lines."

She's doesn't write or rewrite the script or interfere with the director either.

"I frankly think we get a bum rap on that one," she says, meaning dialect coaches. "Our desire is to enable the actor to use the text that the writer has given them to expand in the direction they and the director and the writer want to go. ... Then the creative choice [is] between the director and the actor and the writer. And I'm just the person offering choices."

In the Baltimore area, she says, people use more diphthongs and triphthongs than they do in other parts of the country. They're sounds that glide over two or three vowels, like that EHOHOO.

"When I came here from teaching in the Midwest four years ago," she says, "I found that the sounds I had to correct there were the exact opposite of sounds I had to correct here. I had to tell people here to flatten things and I had to tell people there to round things."

We pucker up here to pop out our diphthongs and triphthongs.

"People in the Midwest would say nobody talks with their mouth puckered," she says. "Here, people say nobody talks with their mouth that flat."

Leeseberg-Lange came here from Indiana's Valparaiso University, where she was an associate professor teaching voice, diction, dialects and acting. Her resume runs to a dozen pages and includes a host of acting, directing and vocal coaching assignments. She's taught here as adjunct professor and instructor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Howard Community College and Catholic University in Washington. She lives in Ellicott City, where her husband, Tom, is director of music ministries at First Evangelical Lutheran Church. "He's an organist and composer and director of six choirs and a fabulous artist series," she says.

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