Inside WASTWATER Part 2: Dialect

Inside WASTWATER Part 2: Dialect

Lighting Design rendering by Brandon Wardell 

In this 4-part feature, PerformInk continues its INSIDE series and takes you behind the scenes of Steep’s production of WASTWATER, directed by Robin Witt.

Part 2: Dialect
By Adam Goldstein 

The principal mistake that many productions make when using dialects is that dialect becomes an add-on, a superficial layering on character rather than the mode by which a character expresses themself. Just as our respective geographic origins affect the way that we interact with other people, a theatrical character’s cultural, regional, and class background greatly reflect how an individual articulates the value system comprised of those elements.  In other words, our dialect in many ways articulates us whether we love that or reject it. So, in exploring dialect work for WASTWATER—set around Heathrow airport—my goal is to mine the dialect of the region for as many tools as possible to help our team unlock that us within the ensemble of characters of this piece.

To do that, I always begin with a primary source. This source may be found in archives, multi-media depositories, film/television or even great pubs. Sources must always be verifiable in their authenticity or else inaccuracies can result. For example, using Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey is a bad source for upper-class RP, as she is using a dialect other than her own in the show. If we then were to use her as a source and were we to imitate her sound, our brains would filter that sound creating ostensibly an imitation of an imitation. Thus, every time an actor imitates a Michelle Dockery RP sound, they get further from the root. For me, I choose to locate sources to the best of my ability that come from at most, a half hour from the particular town or city in which a play takes place. This strategy gives a specific root from which to work, limits aural sources to a single, or at most double source, rather than a general population of sound, and centers around a real person speaking in a real context.  

Once I locate my primary source, which I choose based not on geography, but on character, I create a chart using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) that traces the dialect or accent’s changes from Standard American (a neutral foundational dialect). For example, in WASTWATERs Northwest London sound, the vowel combo “ei” as in “bake” shifts so that the first vowel of this diphthong shifts toward an “a” as in the word “back.” We would then work to say the word “bake” while critically aiming for that first vowel shift to ultimately allow the word to sound like “bahyeek.” After tracing these sorts of changes, I identify what I call the music of the dialect. This consists of rhythm, cadence, inflection, stress, tonality, length, etc., all of the elements that give a dialect its unique voice and its value system.

Now that I’ve identified these characteristics, I possess a full picture of the dialect from sound to stress, to culture. At this point, I bring in the actor and begin by offering cultural background of how the dialect functions and how people of that culture express themselves. Together, we then listen to the primary source. Once we’ve listened, I identify just 5-7 key sounds, or as I call them “coat hanger sounds”, and we begin our work from there. I have zero scientific evidence as to why this is, but in every dialect or accent I coach, 5-7 sound changes tends to be the magic number to aid the brain in empowering new muscle memories for the actor without overwhelming them with heady homework. Following an assessment of major vowel shifts, I do the same for consonants that then serve to shape those vowels.  

From this point on, I aim to shape the dialect around the individual actor and to create a custom form of the dialect for each actor in a given cast. We all hear and form sound differently, so it is important that the actor makes the dialect his own as we go, rather than shoot for a standard. This individualization renders the dialect organic rather than affected. With each actor, we work to integrate the sound changes of a dialect into the text in a very close read, precise fashion. 

Dialect cannot be taught generally. Every time we change a sound from our native musicality, we create seismic shifts in intention, stress, value, and focus on a given thought that an actor has to speak on stage. So the work can’t stop at sounds. Here’s a quick example from WASTWATER.  While working on a scene between our characters ‘Lisa and ‘Mark’ we encountered this section of dialogue:


The conversation here surrounded two parts of dialect, specifically for mark, inflection, and stress.  In London and most British dialects, we don’t fully descend in terms of inflection until a thought, action, or want, is fully completed. We make big differentiations between a sentence and a thought. Here for Harry, in the first section of dialogue the thought drives all the way through from “I don’t really want to talk about my work” until he has to say “calm down.” He keeps the ball in the air, not just building emotionally, but also highlighting the repetition, frustrations, and the challenges of his work with the students. Lisa , on the other hand, as more leeway here to choose where to descend, for example on her phrase, “no, please.”  If she descends on this line, it signals a need, or a definitive urgency to having access to Mark. If she keeps the ball in the air before the beat in the text, it plays more like an offering. 

The second aspect of dialect that we played with in this portion of the scene was stress that in a vowel heavy dialect such as our London, plays out often, though not always in mid-word vowel length. For example, in the second portion of the scene, listen to the vowel combination found in the words “scared” and “airport.” The simple act of placing length into the vowel in these words has a dramatic effect on meaning making in the dialogue. Specifically here, these words load the tension, stakes, and tactics of this scene as Mark and Lisa reckon with the determination to cross certain relationship and life boundaries. I love how the dialectical length in the word airport in Mark’s line “You can see the airport” signals a yearning for escape both from the awkward moment at hand and in life.

To accomplish such layering in coaching sessions, we first identified where our key sounds lay and to let those sounds be our operative stress points. In doing so, we were able to support keeping the ends of lines from dropping downward in pitch as most of our sound changes occurred at the ends of lines, shifting our stress point there rather than at the beginning of a given sentence. This helps us to ensure that we drive through the end of a line rather than to it. This aided in distinguishing length of thought versus length of sentence. Secondly, we played with how those sounds carry different tempos and lengths as intention changes. And finally, after tinkering, we landed on a cadence that halts abruptly with Mark’s line “calm down” in the first section, and then floats a notion on “you can see the airport…” in the second section. In both scenarios, the inflection and thought length was guided by key sounds such as the shift to one pure vowel sound of “ehh” in airport from a normally more complex triphthong (three sounds making one) in standard American, “air.

So as you listen, I hope that you’re able to take in how dialect here doesn’t simply denote geography, it also and more importantly indicates character value system, operatives, and in many cases, a different set of stakes perhaps than we would find in our typical sound base.

Dialects often get relegated to superficial functions, but on a play like WASTWATER, dialect serves as a key to unlock the subtext, music, and shifts in Stephens’ text. It is a dynamic, fluid craft. We don’t issue the dialect and walk away. It must evolve in its usage with the performance.  This example above is a rudimentary one, but it serves to help showcase how dialect becomes a support to an actor.  In knowing a dialect thoroughly, we gain the ability to be more flexible in choice, and to manipulate that dialect properly to suit interpretation.  In precision, lies freedom. The goal of any dialect coach should be to generate a dialect that the actor can inhabit with comfort, joy, and a genuine connection that opens up doors to character, relationship, and text. It sounds technical as I explain my version of this craft, and it is in a sense. But, once an actor lives in the dialect for a time, they can find new parts of themselves and as a result, amazing parts of a character.

About author

Adam Goldstein

Adam Goldstein is a Chicago-based director and dialect coach. He is on faculty at Columbia College, Northwestern, Actors Training Center, and North Central. He is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts (BFA) and Northwestern University (MFA).