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It's a Living : Talk This Way : DELIVERING DIALECTS AND DIALOGUES IS A COACH'S JOB: HOW THEY DO IT

August 28, 1994|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

When Santa Monica native Linda Gray won the role of Sue Ellen Ewing on "Dallas," she turned to dialect coach Robert Easton to learn a Texas accent--and was so good that she was asked to tone it down on the set because she was showing up other cast members.

When Kenny Rogers did a guest stint on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" he got into the lingo of the new Old West under the guidance of dialogue coach Steve Posner, who also helped out guest stars Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. And when it comes to speaking Cheyenne on that CBS series, cast members learn the language from dialect coach Eva Allrunner, a Cheyenne whose grandfather and brother were chiefs of the Oklahoma-based tribe.

Dialogue coaches and dialect coaches may not fulfill the same function--the former primarily assist performers with their lines, while the latter teach various accents and languages. They do, however, share a common goal: to ensure that actors and actresses deliver those lines correctly and credibly.

A dialogue coach's job description usually broadens when the cast includes children. Now working on the CBS sitcom "The Nanny," Posner is available at guest stars' request and often "runs lines"--rehearses dialogue for accuracy rather than interpretation--with the entire cast before the weekly taping. But most of his time is spent with the show's three youthful stars, Madeline Zima, Benjamin Salisbury and Nicholle Tom.

"With young, inexperienced actors, you'll run blocking (the performers' movement before the cameras), give them business to do, give line interpretations, discuss what the beats of a scene are, all in concert with the director," Posner says. "Because school is a priority and the kids aren't always on the set, I'll write down the blocking and let them know what cues have been changed." He also relays directorial instructions to his young charges and on tape day remains on the set, going over lines, reminding of any changes and being cheerleader as well as coach. Posner has a Ph.D. in psychology.

A doctor of a different sort is Robert Easton, who bills himself as "the dialect doctor--accents cured, dialects strengthened." Perhaps the field's best-known practitioner, Easton, who began almost five decades ago as a performer and still acts occasionally, has participated in productions the world over.

Recently, he's been working with "NYPD Blue's" Dennis Franz and "Melrose Place's" Heather Locklear for the upcoming ABC miniseries "Texas Justice."

He coached Jane Fonda for the Appalachian-set TV movie "The Dollmaker," for which she won an Emmy, and taught British-born Jane Seymour Americanese for various projects pre-"Medicine Woman." When Easton worked with Gregory Peck on the miniseries "The Blue and the Gray," he urged the actor to deliver the Gettysburg Address in the resonant tones viewers would expect rather than in the high-pitched nasal voice the 16th President actually possessed.

"I usually urge actors to tape the coaching session and then listen, listen, listen," Easton says. "I keep guiding them. They imitate themselves easier than they would a (non-personal) tape."

Not all performers have aural acuity, he notes. "Many are extremely visually minded, so I'll write it out for them, respell things. I talk to them about the differences in the tongue position, or the mouth or jaw, and also how the vocal cords should resonate."

And not all jobs actually call for teaching dialects, according to Jessica Drake, a Juilliard School of Drama graduate who turned Marion Ross into Russian-Polish-Jewish grandmother Sophie Berger in "Brooklyn Bridge," now running on Bravo. In the months ahead, we'll see the results of her work with Sally Field and Ron Silver for NBC's upcoming miniseries "A Woman of Independent Means." Drake also worked with Tom Hanks to help perfect his Forrest Gump-ese and recently worked on the miniseries "Return to Lonesome Dove" and the TNT film "Broken Chain."

"Sometimes," she says, "I have Americans who need to clean up their speech. It can be bad, and you can't understand it."

When it comes to ensuring authenticity, Easton has a two-story library and file cabinets galore; Drake does painstaking research to track down appropriate audio and videotapes.

The dialect coaches' work is most often done before or during filming. But that was not the case in what may have been Easton's greatest challenge: improving Japanese actress Yoko Shimada's phonetically learned English for the miniseries "Shogun" in post-production looping, with close-ups that were already edited. Shimada went on to win an Emmy--for acting in a language she did not even speak.

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