A dialect coach is an acting coach who helps an actor design the voice and speech of a character in the context of an on-camera (film, television or commercial), stage or voiceover production. The coach often does original research, prepares training materials, provides instruction and runs lines with the actor. A dialect coach will give the actor "notes" that focus on issues of credibility, consistency, and intelligibility—three areas in which dialect work can present special challenges to the actor. A dialect coach may also be employed to help comedians hone impressions, corporate employees adopt a dialect that is considered desirable to their profession, or to help singers balance tone and articulation (diction), especially in a second language, though most dialect coaches are not trained to coach singing technique itself.
- 1 Other designations
- 2 Background and skill set
- 3 Hiring and management of coaches
- 4 Status and compensation
- 5 Cost-cutting for low-budget productions
- 6 Job prospects
- 7 Professional societies
- 8 Notes and references
In everyday English, the word dialect can be used to imply that a variety of speech is perceived by the speaker to be "substandard" (e.g., "I don't speak English properly; I speak dialect"), nevertheless the term dialect coach persists as the primary designation for an accent or language coach in the US and Canadian entertainment businesses. However, other designations may also be used. Some dialect coaches will refer to themselves as dialogue coaches (or by the historical designation, dialogue directors), especially when working on a second language or when offering acting coaching on straight dialogue in the performer's own language or dialect. In the opera world, coaches who help performers with articulation of lyrics (often in an unfamiliar language) are called diction coaches. In the United Kingdom, dialect coaches are sometimes called voice coaches, though this usage is not common in the US film and television businesses where the term "voice coach" would generally be understood to refer to a singing coach (a.k.a., a vocal coach). Likewise, on US stage productions the term voice coach is also avoided to prevent confusion with either a vocal (singing) coach or someone who coaches actors in techniques for inducing a state of heightened relaxation prior to a rehearsal or performance, and who may offer guidance on breath support or vocal practices intended to promote effective placement of resonances in the upper body, the actor's availability of expression and appropriate projection. In some cases, voice warm-up coaching integrates full-body work in yoga, movement or balance. Many actors believe that such warm-ups and exercises reduce the likelihood of vocal abuse, most especially during expression of high intensity emotion outdoors or in a large house in the absence of electronic amplification. A dialect coach may also be engaged to coach voice in this latter sense in conjunction with theatrical dialect coaching. In fact, some coaches see voice and speech as an expression of the actor's inner life rather than as the focus of a 'technique'. Such views may naturally lead to a single practitioner coaching across the domains of acting, speech and voice and, in theatrical contexts, being credited as voice and speech director.
Background and skill set
While voice coaching has developed out of many decades of collective artistic exploration of the performer’s craft, dialect coaching proper merges knowledge from elocution training at least as old as the Renaissance theatre with knowledge from descriptive linguistics, especially phonetics and phonology. The latter fields of study find their earliest roots in anatomy and physiology in the former case, and philology in the latter.
In an earlier era, especially as the talkie was becoming the primary format for film in the 1930s, it was more common for dialect coaches to have learned their phonetics from teachers within a prescriptive rather than descriptive (linguistic) tradition, but the basic skills gained were similar. Although dialect coaches do not share a uniform background, today they are likely to be trained in drama as well as dialectology, linguistic phonetics, and linguistic history (most often, the history of the English language), and may have an additional concentration in the theory and praxis of adult language acquisition. Linguistics training becomes especially relevant when the coach is asked to render dialogue from one language into another and then to guide performers in creating the illusion that they speak the second language. Not all dialect coaches do second language work, however. Some, following a different path to a career in dialect coaching, will complete a speech program or mentorship dedicated specifically to dialect coaching or a more traditional voice and speech course with an emphasis on stage speech, voice and text. Rarely, in lieu of a dialect coach, a clinical speech-language pathologist may be hired to work on a production even with actors who present with no pathology such as would require treatment. Although the phonetic training of speech pathologists is generally focused only on the sound-system of the politically dominant language of their native licensing jurisdictions, a clinician may be able to help an actor who needs to learn the clinician's own sound system. Those few language teachers who specialize in pronunciation may also rarely be employed in a limited capacity in lieu of dialect coaches. However, only those speech-language pathologists and language teachers who have additional specialized training in drama are normally engaged to work with actors on dialogue.
Most professional dialect coaches do not aim to become specialists in any particular accent or language, but specialize in acting and in a process that allows them to research, analyze, recall and model accents and languages, and to simplify and communicate their analysis very quickly for actors. Because actors cannot always accurately gauge their own degree of success in embodying and consistently maintaining an accent, the coach must also become adept at monitoring and giving feedback as the character voice solidifies. A well-trained coach will also know how to identify the appropriate dialect and how to locate appropriate native-speaker consultants and other speech resources (archived recordings, published work on dialect history, etc.) By way of these resources, the coach discovers exactly what needs to be mastered in order to embody the target accent, and then shares those discoveries with the actor. Because coaches also have experience with a wide variety of acting techniques, coaches are able to equip an actor to channel the new character not only in terms of voice, but often also in terms of body language, facial expression, and other culturally encoded aspects of the communication of identity. Over the course of a career, a dialect coach may work on hundreds of such accents and languages.
Hiring and management of coaches
On a film or television production, dialect coaches are typically hired by the production coordinator, or, in some cases, by the unit production manager, production supervisor or executive producer, though sometimes a director will take on this responsibility. Dialect coaches may work with any members of the cast, but are brought in especially often to work with celebrity actors who are frequently cast in roles which require accents other than their own. Whenever possible, the director (or in the case of television, the producer) will often consult with the dialect coach early in the process, just as they do with other creative department heads such as the art department and costume department. They do this to help ensure that the dialect coach will train the actors in a manner which supports the director's overall vision for the production. This meeting takes place as soon as possible during the pre-production phase of the project so that the accent work can be well under way before the actors have started memorizing their lines. Once a scope of work and any directorial input have been given, the coach will prepare actors remotely, on set or at the Production Office. In the case of a serialized television production, in practice there may be no opportunity for a meeting between the episode director and coach. Furthermore, television shooting scripts may not be finalized until very close to the day of the shoot. Consequently, unusual flexibility is required of the television coach. A first meeting between coach and television actor may be scheduled, for instance, around a costume fitting as late as the day before the shoot. On a film or TV set, the coach usually reports to the key second assistant director who may call the coach in on the same schedule as the actors being coached. Many directors will ask that the coach be present at any read-throughs or at least for first-team rehearsal. While the shot is set-up, the coach will be kept in close proximity to the actors to be coached. Often, the coach will have a dressing room in which to conduct the coaching, or, on location, a room in the honeywagon or half a double-banger near the actors' trailers. On set, the dialect coach will be issued a wireless headset and given a chair (exclusive or non-exclusive) or at least a half apple (that is, half an apple box) in video village to facilitate access to the director and to the script supervisor who may be asked by the coach to pass notes on pronunciation and intelligibility to the post-production team. An on-set coach may also work with an actor between takes if needed, especially on last minute changes to the script. Later, the coach may be brought back for dubbing or to pick up new lines during the post-production process, sometimes via a feed from a remote studio when the actors are no-longer available in person.
On a stage production, dialect coaches are typically brought in by a director or artistic director with contractual terms negotiated by a producer or general manager. Coaches work closely with the production stage manager who coordinates meetings with the director and coaching sessions for the cast collectively or individually. The coach will often also be present to give notes to the actors at some rehearsals, partial runs and full runs. Coaching typically takes place throughout the rehearsal process, but especially before the actors begin memorizing their lines and again after the show is loaded into the performance space. Understudies may be coached alongside the principal performers or after the show goes into previews. Coaching may continue in a limited way during a run.
Status and compensation
In the film and television businesses, a dialect coach receives compensation similar to that of a department head. Coaches are customarily given on-screen credits for their work on films, but less commonly receive on-screen credits for their work on serialized television. Despite the creative nature of what coaches do on a production, and although they may develop close working relationships with stars, directors, writers and producers, coaches may receive inconsistent treatment from production to production in, for example, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the UK and the US; in those jurisdictions, dialect coaches remain among a very small minority of crew who are not unionized. Furthermore, to date, there is no membership branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that incorporates dialect coaching, nor is there a peer group of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences that accords active membership status to coaches.
In the theater, coaches who help actors hone dialects or character voices typically seek compensation on a par with designers and may be credited as dialect coaches, dialect designers or voice and speech directors. Dialect coaches are not unionized for live performances in Canada, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the UK or the US.
In Australia and New Zealand, dialect coaches who are employed on a film or theatre set are covered under the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
On English-language Canadian film and television productions, dialect coaches are unionized under the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. Coaches are not unionized under the Union des artistes for French-language productions in Canada.
Cost-cutting for low-budget productions
Due to budget constraints, producers of student films and stage plays, showcase theater and slimly financed independent films and web series may avoid hiring a dialect coach, and instead substitute the services of a low-paid or volunteer native speaker model in hopes that the actors will be able to learn mimetically, retain the accent and act in it without expert guidance or monitoring. In some such cases, cast members may themselves pay a coach, sometimes in consultation with the director, though employing crew is not normally regarded as a cast member’s responsibility. In other cases, actors may attempt to self-study the dialect using commercially available training materials or web-based voice archives which host native-speaker recordings of oral histories or interviews or other scripted speech. The majority of such archives also provide native-speaker recordings of phonemically balanced narrative passages, especially Comma Gets a Cure, which is structured around the lexical sets of English and other phonological patterns of potential interest to the student of dialect.
While there are many hundreds of voice and speech trainers connected with drama courses throughout the English-speaking world who may control a stock of stage dialects for general use, far fewer specialize in dialect coaching. A web search of dialect coaches with Internet Movie Database listings produces fewer than 100 living film and TV coaches worldwide, the majority showing few recent jobs, credited or uncredited. Most of these dialect coaches work on an ad hoc basis on individual productions. However, in some cases, a coach may become attached to a theatre company as a resident voice and speech director, especially if the coach has a second specialization (esp. Shakespeare or voice).
As with many aspects of the entertainment business, entry into the field of dialect coaching is very competitive. Because dialect coaches are not always called for every day of a shoot, many coaches find a way to supplement income while maintaining their availability for coaching, often by acting, directing (including animation voice directing), teaching in related areas (public speaking, etc.) or taking on private students, especially for auditions. Outside of the entertainment businesses based in English-speaking countries, dialect coaching is less common, and opportunities more rare.
Dialect coaches, especially those who teach in theater education programs, may become active in such professional societies as the Australian Voice Association, the British Voice Association, the International Centre for Voice and the Voice and Speech Trainers Association.
Notes and references
- Fitzmaurice, Catherine. (1997). Breathing is Meaning. In Hampton, Marian & Acker, Barbara (ed.), The Vocal Vision, 247 - 252. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. ISBN 978-1-55783-282-5.
- Rodenburg, Patsy. (2002). The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-31229514-6.
- Linklater, Kristin. (2006). Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language, Revised Edition. Nick Hern. ISBN 1854599712.
- These claims have not been rigorously tested in controlled clinical trials.
- Berry, Cicely. (1973). Voice and the Actor. New York: Hungry Minds, Inc. ISBN 978-0020415558.
- Knight, Dudley. (1997). Standard Speech: The Ongoing Debate. The Vocal Vision, 155-184. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. ISBN 978-1-55783-282-5.
- Blaise, Cynthia. (2003). Coaching dialects for film. 'In R.Dal Vera (ed.), Voice and Speech Review: Film, Broadcast and e-Media Coaching and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training, 26 - 32. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 1557835225.
- International Dialects of English Archive. .
- Visual Accent & Dialect Archive, University of Maryland
- BBC Voices
- The Speech Accent Archive
- McCullough, Jill & Somerville, Barbara. (2000). Comma Gets a Cure (Honorof, Douglas N., ed.). 
- Honorof, Douglas N. (2003). Reference vowels and lexical sets in accent acquisition. In R.Dal Vera (ed.), Voice and Speech Review: Film, Broadcast and e-Media Coaching and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training, 106-122. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 1557835225.
- Kopf, Ginny. (1997). Dialect Handbook: Learning, Researching and Performing a Dialect Role. Orlando, FL: Voiceprint Pub. ISBN 0965596060.