Barbara Rubin, the dialect coach on Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, has a consistent way to measure whether she’s doing her job effectively. “In whatever dialect I’m coaching actors to speak,” she told me the other day, “there is a need for clarity in how those actors say their first few lines. If they are understandable, the audience will get on board and the storytelling can proceed. And then I know I’ve done good work.”

Getting to that point can be an extensive process. Rubin, who grew up in South Africa before coming to the U.S. to work as an assistant director to the South African writer/director Athol Fugard, may watch films or television programs featuring people speaking the dialect called for in a play or musical. If she’s working on a dialect she doesn’t know instinctively or thoroughly – as was the case for the east African speech in The Rolling Stone – she will find a native speaker from the area. “I use that person to bounce things off – pronunciation, intonation – so that I’m not making guesses as to how something should sound.”

For The Rolling Stone, her resource person was someone who works with the United Nations. “He’s in Africa at the moment,” Rubin said, “so we would be on Skype or FaceTime at odd hours.”

Saheem Ali, the director of The Rolling Stone, was also a great help to Rubin. “Saheem grew up in east Africa – in Kenya – so his ear was already tuned in the direction of how the characters should speak.”

Rubin tailors her work to the actor. “Some actors like me to give them a lot of notes and recordings. Some actors like to do a lot of work on their own.” Whatever a performer’s method, Rubin aims to get that person confident in speech. “You don’t want an actor to be thinking too much about how their dialect is sounding. Then they can’t concentrate on emotion or telling the story.”

Getting actors to speak a clear approximation of a dialect is essential, but comprehensibility for the local audience cannot be sacrificed. “I remember when I worked with Athol Fugard on a production of his Blood Knot, for the opening of the Signature’s new building in New York in 2012,” Rubin said. “In the cast were two American actors who were worried that their South African speech would not be perfect. So on the opening day of rehearsal, Fugard said: ‘We are not making a documentary. It is important that the audience understands the play.’”

Rubin, who is on the faculty of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and who coaches privately, had previously worked with two actors in The Rolling Stone: James Udom and Myra Lucretia Taylor. She praised them and the other four members of the ensemble. “They were a beautiful cast to work with. They have facility with learning dialect as well as for conveying all the rich drama of the play.” 

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com