Q & A: An Interview with Secret Garden Dialect Coach Lisa Nathans

We chatted with Lisa Nathans, the voice/text and dialect coach for The Secret Garden, to find out more about what a dialect coach does and what are some challenging aspects of the dialects in the show. Read more below!

What is something people might not know about the difference between an accent and a dialect?
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary an accent is “a distinctive manner of expression: such as, a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region, or an individual’s distinctive or characteristic inflection, tone, or choice of words.” Whereas, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a dialect as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language.”

Within the western theater world however, I’ve often heard an accent defined as someone’s way of speaking English, when English may not be the speaker’s first language (i.e. an Italian accent). Therefore a dialect could refer to someone’s way of speaking English, when English is the speaker’s first language (i.e. an English dialect).

 How do you become a dialect coach?
As with many professions, the journey to becoming a dialect coach can have more than one path. My journey began during my undergraduate conservatory actor training at both Boston University and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. During my early training I was fortunate to not only spend time living abroad soaking up other ways of speaking, but to also learn from various voice and speech professionals about the world of accent and dialect coaching. After a few years working as a professional actor I started getting asked if I could also coach/direct the voices and accents for the various productions I was a part of. I began to realize just how much I LOVED coaching/teaching, and that I desired further training in the field. First of all, I wanted to learn about vocal health, so I could teach voice and speech skills in a healthy way for performers. Unsure of where to start, I contacted Judith Shahn, who became my mentor, and began studying closely with her at the University of Washington, where I also ended up teaching for the Professional Actor Training Program. While working with Judy I completed two separate voice and speech certifications, one with Kristin Linklater and one with Louis Colaianni, before I journeyed to complete my Master of Fine Arts in Voice Studies through the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England. During my time at Royal Central I learned more about accent/dialect transcription and the International Phonetic Alphabet, made friends from around the world, and continued to listen/absorb other ways of speaking that differed from my own. In fact, a few old friends/colleagues from my time spent abroad have generously lent me their ‘ways of speaking’ as they are natives from Aberdeen, Scotland and Yorkshire, England two of the dialects used in this production. The short answer to this question is networking and skill building!

I believe you can learn any skill in the theater as long as you are willing to study, and collaborate. I am a firm believer that meaningful art cannot be created in a bubble. Collaboration is always key.

How many dialects are there in Secret Garden?
Technically, I would say The Secret Garden has five dialects. These include a Northern Yorkshire dialect spoken by the characters Martha (the housemaid), Dickon (her brother), Ben Weatherstaff (the head gardener), Mrs. Medlock (the housekeeper), and various other members of the Misselthwaite Manor staff.  Mary Lennox speaks with a British English dialect called Received Pronunciation or RP for short. This dialect was originally spoken to distinguish the upper classes in England. It was a dialect spoken by those who may have been received in court by royalty, until recently it was the standard form of spoken English heard on the BBC. Received Pronunciation is also used by Colin Craven, his family, and by various other characters from Mary’s life in Colonial India.  However, the character of the Soldier who we encounter in Colonial India, speaks using what might be referred to as a ‘working class’ dialect of English called Cockney. Mrs. Winthrop, the headmistress for the Aberdeen School for Girls, uses a slight Scottish dialect, and finally the characters of the Fakir (a Hindu magician) and the Ayah (Mary’s nanny) speak and sing both Hindi and English throughout the production.  Because both English and Hindi are considered co-official languages in India, the question arises as to whether these characters speak with an accent or dialect.

Which dialects are the most challenging, and why?
The answer to this question is somewhat subjective. What might be a challenging dialect for one actor could be a piece of cake to learn for another. Often the most challenging accents or dialects are the ones that require a completely different use of muscle memory to create vowel and consonant sounds than the speaker may be used to using in their everyday life. For The Secret Garden I feel that the Scottish and Yorkshire dialects are perhaps the most difficult for this reason. Scottish in particular is a very muscular dialect and requires a good deal of tongue/jaw tension. The tension in the tongue and jaw seems to result from the duality of having to pull the tongue back for certain sounds, while simultaneously having to reach/roll the tongue forward to produce others.

 What is/are your favorite dialect(s)?
I have fallen in love with the Yorkshire dialect during the process of coaching this production both in DC and here in Seattle. This dialect comes from the historic county of Yorkshire in Northern England, and therefore has roots in the Old English and Old Norse languages. Yorkshire tends to be spoken, in musical terms in a ‘major key,’ with intonation patterns that go up at the ends of each sentence.  For a truly enjoyable example of the Yorkshire dialect I recommend watching the delightful YouTube sensation, a young Yorkshire native named Millen Eve.

Some Yorkshire words to listen for in the production include:

  1. ‘Ey Up (pronounced Aye-Op): an informal greeting, meaning ‘Hello.’
  2. Aye: means ‘yes.’
  3. Summat: meaning ‘something.’
  4. Wuthering: wind blowing strongly and making a howling sound.
  5. Tha: meaning ‘you.’

 You might also hear Martha say to Mary Lennox, “Tis a fair wonder grand folks children don’t turn out fair fools, bein’ washed and took out to walk like they was puppies.” What do you think this Yorkshire sentence means?

Are there any other tidbits of knowledge you wish to share with our readers?

During this production you will not only hear the characters speak in various dialects, but also listen to them sing in them. This is not an easy task! Whenever the shape of a vowel changes, this correlates to the shape or space inside the mouth also changing, which ultimately leads to a change in pitch. Let’s look at the vowels of ‘U’ and ‘I’ to unpack this concept. To speak the vowel U in the English language requires a more open, hollow space inside the mouth. However when speaking the vowel I in the English language, the space inside the mouth narrows as the back of the tongue raises towards the soft palate. Given the large amount of open space inside the mouth the vowel U is believed to have a deeper intrinsic or inherent pitch and a more hollow resonance, than the vowel I which is formed using a small amount of open space in the mouth, and therefore believed to have a higher intrinsic or inherent pitch and a brighter natural resonance.  A metaphor for this concept might be thinking of the difference between the sound qualities of the double bass (a large string instrument) versus the violin (a smaller string instrument). Therefore, when the performers learned to sing in their various dialects, they not only had to learn the key vowel and consonant sound changes for this ‘new way of speaking,’ but they also had to negotiate entirely new inherent pitches for every vowel when singing each musical note! For example, when the Yorkshire speakers sing the word “Come” in the song Come Spirit Come Charm.  The inherent pitch for the vowel ‘O’ in the word “Come” when spoken in an American English dialect is much higher than the inherent pitch for the vowel ‘O’ in the word “Come” when spoken in a Yorkshire dialect. It’s like changing the inherent/natural pitch of the vowel ‘O’ from a sharp note to a flat note. The real challenge then becomes learning how to sing the correct musical notes, without going sharp or flat when singing, using the new vowel shapes required to sing in the dialect.

For answers to additional questions, contact Lisa at nathansL@umd.edu.


Click here to find out more about The Secret Garden and to purchase tickets.

Author: The 5th Avenue Theatre

The Nation's Leading Musical Theater

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