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Staged accents

March 30, 2003

Here's what Pamela Vanderway is listening to in her car: "We milked the cows. We fed the chickens. We slopped the pigs. And then we went off to work." And again. And again. The voice of the woman with the Southern accent is music to Vanderway's ears. She's a dialect coach.

After spending a recent afternoon at the Pasadena Playhouse, where she'd been teaching the cast of "Star Quality" how to sound like upper-crusty Noel Coward characters, Vanderway was now driving to the Furious Theatre to catch a performance of "Mojo" about a Cockney crew of rock 'n' roll promoters. Under Vanderway's tutelage, the American actors have learned to drop their H's every time they scream "Bloody 'ell" and say "wot" in place of "what" without a trace of self-consciousness.

And the woman from rural Kentucky heard through the car speaker? She's the star attraction of a CD Vanderway created for the nine actresses in "As It Is in Heaven," a period piece about Shaker women now playing at the Actors Co-op.

With three casts performing simultaneously around town and a bevy of Tony- and Oscar-winning actors among her clients -- she won't reveal their names -- Vanderway has become L.A.'s accent maven of the moment. She's gotten there by being gentle in demeanor but unsparing in her critiques. "I love actors," says Vanderway, who describes herself as a "speech and voice consultant." And the only thing she loves more than actors are dialects. "I celebrate every accent," Vanderway says. "It's like a bird singing. You don't say, 'Who cares about the canary?' You say, 'Hooray, there's canaries, hooray, there's herons!' "

Vanderway will wax ecstatic about the underrated Rhode Island accent ("It's like New York, but it's got all these chewy sounds in it"). She'll offer a five-minute discourse on "Mid-Atlantic" speech, which dominated Hollywood films in the '30s and '40s ("In gangster movies from that time, all of a sudden you'll hear it slip out when the guy with the machine gun says, 'I'll have to ahsk the boss.' "). She can explain why English accents sound so elegant (they have more vowel sounds than their American counterparts). And Vanderway still can't get over her triumph last year, when she managed to find an Angeleno who spoke Zulu. "The South African consulate came to the rescue," says Vanderway, who needed someone with an authentic accent so she could coach the South African characters featured in a production of "Saturday Night at the Palace." "They had a woman there, a professional singer, who spoke Zulu. I had her read these lines with as many inflections as she could think of."

Vanderway uses traditional tools and new tricks to bring her students up to snuff. At the Playhouse run-through, she had underlined all questionable pronunciations with green ink. At previous rehearsals, problem lines had been marked in purple, red and blue. "If there's a single word underlined by a lot of different colors, that means an issue has come up over and over and we need to work on it," she says.

Unlike her "Star Quality" castmates, Jane A. Johnston had to learn a working-class North Country accent to play the maid. Vanderway typed out Johnston's lines and marked up each word, syllable by syllable, with a series of curlicues and squiggles known as International Phonetic Alphabet. Invented in 1888, the symbols translate written text into spoken sounds. For example, "alone" would begin with an upside-down "e" representing the "uh" sound known as schwa. But many actors aren't familiar with the IPA system.

To make sure everyone enjoys a gut-level understanding of the accent they're trying to learn, Vanderway burns customized CDs on her home computer, drawing sound bites from her collection of 300 field recordings that document ordinary people speaking in their native accents. At the first read-through of a play, Vanderway hands out these "primary source" CDs. "I tell the actors, 'Don't look at your script for accents right now. Just take this CD, listen to it every single day for at least a week and then we'll talk.' You'd be amazed how the human mind works; it picks things up. Give people the little nudges they need, and they will find the accent themselves."

Furious Theatre co-founder Brad Price, who plays one of the blue-collar Brits in "Mojo," says those nudges come in the form of intensive one-on-one lessons with Vanderway, who's apparently equipped with unerring radar when it comes to detecting wandering accents.

"I remember one night during rehearsals for 'Mojo,' I hadn't had a chance to listen to my CD for a couple of days and wasn't sure where to put my tongue on these two lines. In the play before this one," he says, "I was Irish, so I just slid into whatever I thought I could get by with. Pamela came up to me afterward and said, 'You were Irish tonight in two places.' "

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