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.' "
Vanderway's ear is so keen she even spruced up the British accent of a British actress. Carolyn Seymour, who plays the grande dame at the center of "Star Quality," says, "At the start of rehearsals, I sort of had the [attitude], 'Well, I don't need any help' -- and then she started giving me notes. And I'm going 'eeuughh -- oh dear.' I was amazed at how many Americanizations Pamela caught me at, like the use of the R sound at the end of a word. All of us in the cast go 'uh oh' when we see Pamela come in. But she has a great sense of humor, which makes it all much more pleasant to take."
Sound of sounds
Growing up in the tiny town of McKenna, Wash., Vanderway was intrigued by "idiolects," the one-of-a-kind speech patterns unique to each individual.
"As a kid I was an annoying child because I always played the Stop Copying Me game," she says and laughs.
Midway through her drama studies at California Institute of the Arts, Vanderway realized performing, for her, was optional; what she really enjoyed was rehearsing. "I was most interested in the rehearsal process and the amazing variety of sounds the actors were producing."
Vanderway put together her own master's degree program, focusing on speech for actors. She graduated in 1995 and spent a semester at the University of North Carolina, where she taught Matthew Broderick how to talk like a West Texan in Horton Foote's "The Death of Papa."
Returning to California, Vanderway traveled cross country by car, tape-recording as she went. "You go into a coffee shop and just start talking to the people sitting around," she says. "Somebody asks what you do, and you say you help actors sound like other people. 'How do you do that?' I'd tell them, 'Well, first of all, I talk to people and record them.' I'd have them sign a little release and that's it."
Back in Los Angeles, Vanderway launched her business by tutoring friends for free. "I called people up and said, 'You're an actor. I'm a dialect coach. Will you take lessons from me if I give it to you for nothing?' And it worked."
In one regard, Vanderway is eternally optimistic about accent acquisition.
"I believe anybody can learn an accent," she says. "It's a matter of time, awareness, focus." On the other hand, Vanderway recommends six to eight weeks of preparation per accent and has no patience for actors who think they can pull off a convincing dialect without doing their homework.
She's received plenty of panicky phone calls begging her for emergency dialect repair. "Some companies get three quarters of the way through rehearsals and have their hands cupped over their ears and say, 'Please, someone come and save us!' " Vanderway says. "But it's like if the lead breaks her leg and somebody goes on with three days' notice -- it's not the same show. So I've stopped doing that. I've started to say, 'Sorry, I can't do that, but next time, consider calling in a consultant for your audition process.' "
Vanderway has been urging 99-seat theaters to entrust herself and other members of the Voice and Speech Trainers Assn. with more responsibility. Last fall, she became Furious Theatre company's permanent dialect consultant.
Vanderway, who also has advised most Actors Co-op productions since the company's 2001 staging of "As You Like It," acknowledges, "Accent acquisition is not as glamorous as learning to ride a horse for a role, or learning martial arts. You don't get that big feeling -- 'Oooh! I figured out how to flip that R, pop that R, cap that R.' "
But the payoff can be palpable. "As It Is in Heaven" director Marianne Savell remembers the night the Southern accents gelled. "A week before the Shaker play opened, Pamela was at a rehearsal and suddenly, everyone had accents. I said, 'OK, you guys can't have accents only when Pam's here.' And Pam said, 'No, I think this was their breakthrough.' And she was right.
"Literally out of the blue, there were accents, and the actors were suddenly free," Savell says. "Pam understands that actors struggle, and they have plateaus, and they have breakthroughs. She makes them feel very safe. Yet she's very clear when you're not doing it right."
What: "As It Is in Heaven"
Where: Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Post-show discussions on Sundays
Ends: May 18
Contact: (323) 462-8460
What: "Star Quality"
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.
Ends: April 13
Contact: (626) 356-PLAY