Accent is a crucial layer of storytelling

“Accent is a crucial layer of storytelling.” Dialect coach Erik Singer analyzes actor accents in a Wired.com video interview. “A well-executed accent can be the sharpest tool in an actor’s toolbox. But when an accent is off, everyone notices. Everyone.”

Check out the video here to view clips of 32 actors doing accents, and Singer’s take on their work. In his estimate, Idris Elba is one of the best. Example: his performance as Nelson Mandela.

Another dialect coach, Doug Honorof, says in an interview in The Filmmaker Lifestyle, “Actors do not need a language teacher at all. They are not learning a foreign language; they are just creating the illusion that they have learned one. What they need is an illusionist. Dialect coaches are illusionists extraordinaire.”

“Ultimately, I am not teaching the actor a language,” says Honorof. “They don’t have to speak the language. They just have to look like they do. It is all smoke and mirrors with foreign language work.”

Working With the Best

ORion Productions founder Sinéad O’Riordan: “The lack of strong female roles and the hugely competitive nature of the industry inspired me to establish my own production company.” O’Riordan, a Dublin-based actor and producer, works in both theater and film. She recently produced and acted in the Irish tour of playwright William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer and starred in the 2013 indie film The Bible Basher.

O’Riordan comments on acting for stage and for film. “Really I would approach both the exact same,” she says, “and apply the same techniques for both. Once I am given a script, be it a theatre or film piece, then I will read it once and let it settle. I will read it a second time and let it settle, and on the third read I start to have an image of the character forming in my head. Sometimes I will look at a blank wall just to envisage what that character would look like and indeed what traits they may have.

“I will then start to develop various physical idiosyncrasies or work on certain physical attributes that the character is given from the script. Does she have a limp, is she heavy, frail, etc. I then work on different vocal ranges and try to give my character a voice.”

Internet Streaming for Accents

Sinead O'Riordan in "The Woolgatherer"
Rose in “The Woolgatherer”

“Of course this is all dependent also on where the character is from, as you would use different parts of the nasal passage and palette, etc. for different countries. I tend to stream radio stations from where that character is from to familiarize myself with the accent. In The Woolgatherer, for example, Rose was from South Philadelphia, so I streamed some Philadelphia stations to help me with that. I then get working on the background of the character and build a character profile and history. In The Woolgatherer the author gave certain key notes about Rose, i.e., she was religious, she had an alcoholic father, she was institutionalized a lot of her life, so based on this I would just sit down and write out her life history.

“So by now I would have a good idea who my character is, where she is from, how many siblings she had, memories she may have. There are different challenges associated with each discipline, to be honest. In theater everything is live and organic and I love the adrenalin rush and feelings that this can evoke. There is something so intimate and exciting knowing you are standing in front of hundreds of people who came to see you. You can feel and taste that energy all around and this can feed you and your performance. If you make a mistake then you just run with it.

“Of course, in film the director can yell cut and you get to perform it all over again. But film is wonderful also, and the energy on a film set is so much different to theater, but equally as fulfilling and exciting.”

ORion Productions

"The Bible Basher"
Indie Film “The Bible Basher”

O’Riordan established ORion Productions “…with the aim of creating my own work and allowing myself to pursue my passion for theatre and film. Orion is a prominent constellation named after a hunter in Greek mythology and I wanted a name which reflected her passion and determination to pursue something which I loved.

“If I believe in something I will go after it wholeheartedly. I want to work with the best and attract the best to my company. I figure if I can be a good producer and produce work that is of a very high caliber, then I can attract great talent to work with me.”

Positivity Breeds Positivity

“I also had some very negative experiences in the industry where my confidence and self esteem was low, especially when somebody told me that I had no place in the arts, so I promised myself once I created the company that I would only try to work with positive energies and with people of the same mindset as myself, and never again allow myself to be bullied by those who think they know better, when they actually do not. I turned the negative into positive. Positivity breeds positivity.”

The Woolgatherer was my first time in an actor/producer capacity. Initially it was hard switching hats, but I soon became accustomed to it. It was the most amazing experience to date. I feel that this was when I was born as an artist. I developed a wonderful friendship with the playwright of The Woolgatherer, and we still regularly email each other. He gave me some information on the character Rose, which wasn’t included in the script, and he sent me the most amazing inspirational letter which I included in my program so that the entire industry could read it.

“What a true artist and gem William Mastrosimone is. I admire him hugely. Luckily that production garnered five-star reviews and had sell-out shows. Working as a producer and actor can be mentally draining, especially a couple of weeks before the show, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I view acting and producing like putting a baby into a crèche. Nobody will look after that baby/production as good as yourself, especially if you are in it, so this keeps me motivated at all times.”

Storytelling Appeal

The film "Coming Out"
Julia in “Coming Out”

“I aim to create high quality professional productions with intensely driven characters which allow all aspects of the human condition to be explored. Strong female roles that resonate with audiences and bring an awareness of important issues, both social and personal, to the public. For Rose in The Woolgatherer, it dealt with real issues that hinted towards Rose’s mental health and institutionalization, but there was also some welcomed humor in this highly intensive cavalcade of emotional and psychological journeying.”

O’Riordan proudly quotes one reviewer: O’Riordan’s portrayal of the anemic Rose, with her enamoring twitch and constant itch due to a psychosomatic rash, wholly embodied the on-stage character. The unrelenting strength of such characterizations was nothing short of mesmerizing.

“Prior to The Woolgatherer, I played Carol in Oleanna, a college student who believes she has been sexually harassed by her professor. It takes a bite out of political correctness gone wrong and the failings of the teacher/student relationship.” A review of this play states: Sinéad O’Riordan delivers a very strong performance throughout, achieving an awkward fragility in physicality and voice in the first scene which belies her confident, punky appearance and manages to play upon a knife’s edge of fragility and feistiness. Her performance makes Carol’s complexity and apparent fickleness utterly convincing.

“Later this year,” says O’Riordan, “I am producing and taking the lead role in the highly controversial The Motherfucker With The Hat where I will play a working class Bronx addict. Again, very real issues that audience members can hugely resonate with. This will be a European premiere and I am so excited about it.

“First seen on Broadway and nominated for six Tony awards, it is full of fiery, funny and apologetic characters. It is an honest mash-up of poetry and profanity by master American storyteller Stephen Adly Guirgis. I will produce it with my working colleague Andrew Lynch, who will also play the leading male role of Jackie. In fact, it was Andrew who brought the play to my attention. It is sure to set tongues wagging, but hey, if you are not willing to do something controversial then you are in the wrong game.”

Pre-Production for The Good Sinner

"The Good Sinner"
“The Good Sinner”

“On the film side of things,” says O’Riordan, “I am in pre-production on a feature film called The Good Sinner which is written and will be directed by my Kerry filmmaker Maurice O’Carroll. And I just wrapped filming a TV promo called Seanchai which we are hoping to get commissioned. In fact, we will be pitching it to US networks also, as it revolves around Irish mythology and reinvigorating the Irish culture.”

The entertainment community in Ireland has not been immune to the anger and bitterness sparked by the recent economic downturn in Ireland. Opportunities and funding for actors and filmmakers can be limited, even difficult to find. “To be honest,” says O’Riordan, “the situation hasn’t affected me hugely. I established my own company with the intentions of creating my own work and not having to depend on others to give me work. So while there may be a lack of funding in the arts, I was never receiving this funding anyways, so I am used to standing on my own two feet and trying to be innovative in ways and means of creating the funds for my productions. So it hasn’t really affected me.

“Now, saying that if you are applying for funding, it just means there is a lot more competition out there and you need to be creative in ways of showing the funding bodies that you and your productions are worthy of the bobs. I have a few projects that I have submitted for funding, but I am already hatching plan B for when they say No. In this industry there is anger and bitterness but I try to steer away from it all.”

Check out Sinéad O’Riordan’s showreel and her website.

 

Comedies Dark Blue and Pitch Black

“The whole female subject matter, female sexuality in an Irish film is untried territory… but that’s exciting to me to do something new,” says actor and playwright Laoisa Sexton of her debut play For Love. The play was staged off-Broadway by the Irish Repertory Theater in 2013.

Laoisa Sexton
Laoisa Sexton. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

Laoisa (pronounced Lee-sha) Sexton has written the screenplay for her stage play, and is now working to shoot it in Ireland. “I am working with the producer Paul Heller. He was the producer of Withnail and I, Harold and Maude, amongst others, and some of my favorite films. It is a big dream to get this achieved, and it’s been tough. A dark blue comedy, an unflinching look at three Irish working class women looking for love and sex in modern day Dublin is apparently a hard sell.”

Sexton’s play followed its New York run by touring six theaters in Ireland. “We hope to get another mount of the play in the next few months,” Sexton says, “as it was a huge hit. People come up to me still quoting lines from the play!”

From Acting to Storytelling

Moving from acting a role to creating a play comes naturally for Sexton. “I’m an actor and I think as an actor, and as a performer you know that you are a vehicle through which a writer tells stories. Your purpose is to help tell that story, that’s why you’re there, the only reason you’re there, that’s your purpose as an actor.

“Writing plays is just the next step for me as an actor. It’s certainly a way of getting to play characters that you want to play, too. Things you would not necessarily get cast in if it wasn’t your own. Writing helps make work. You create work for yourself and for others. That’s pretty amazing, ye know.

“Waiting around for the next job makes me anxious,” Sexton continues. “I’m only happy (well, let’s say focused, not lost) when I’m working… sad but true. It’s the way most actors are, but you must help yourself, create work, I have always done this in some way. I need to be working to stay a little bit sane.”

Performing is the Key

Sexton says of her playwriting, “Well, I’m an actress first, and writing is a relatively new discipline for me. I’m a voracious reader and I had written a few things before, but feel only now I’m getting to understand what it is or how it is to write a play. I really don’t know how anyone could be a playwright without being a performer.

“As a performer you are in the lucky position to be privy to so much, as you know what works on the stage, how you can affect an audience not just with language but also visually, delivery, through character, how you can manipulate your audience through character and behavior, so many things.

“It’s called a play for a reason, says Sexton. “Theater is elevated and should move, affect, lift in all kinds of ways. If something makes an audience happy, sad, angry, laugh, cry, uncomfortable, then to me the play has succeeded in some way.”

Laoisa Sexton in For Love
Laoisa Sexton in For Love. Photo credit: Show Business Weekly

First Come the Characters

“I don’t really set off to write a story, but I start with my characters, not necessarily themes. The themes come after, after I’ve mixed things up and had a bit of a Barney with myself.

“People are endlessly fascinating – what we do to each other, how we feel, hide, deal, love and hurt each other, what we are equipped for, how we do things without regard or consequence to other human beings. In a flash of an instant a person can make a decision that is hugely life changing, but somehow can do it so quickly without thinking it through.”

Avoiding Tired Settings

“I’m not really interested in writing plays that take place in living rooms or kitchens or in one place. I don’t need to see people boil kettles and answer the door to a nosey neighbor who is divulging information to drive a plot. I have seen that so many times. It’s the basis for all sitcom, isn’t it?  And seems so tired, so old fashioned, so done. And when I see that in a play I just think that writer is a bit lazy, unless they bring it to the next level.

“I like to push the idea of the stage in itself, and use certain conventions to bring you into different worlds, take you there… and to dance a little… dancing is important to me in my plays. Dancing in clubs, bedrooms, etc. It’s a way of dreaming… getting to your fantasy life… getting away from your real life… having another life. I guess it’s all about dreaming for me.”

Interacting With an Audience

“A play is different every night to a certain extent,” Sexton says, “mostly because of the energy of the audience and how they relate, react. Actors walk offstage every night talking about the audience, as audiences walk out of the theater talking about the actors and what they have experienced. It’s your job as an actor to make an audience listen to your story, to hit those notes that the director has guided you to, that you found in rehearsal. Sometimes it’s as simple as hit that word right and you have them (the audience). Simple is best, being clear.”

Comedies Dark Blue and Pitch Black

Sexton’s second play, The Last Days of Cleopatra, will be staged in New York in August of 2014. “It’s inspired by many things,” Sexton says, “and also my Mother’s death… sort of. It’s a pitch black comedy about love, sex, death, forgiveness, redemption and dancing. It’s about a Dublin family who don’t communicate. They are about to lose the one thing that’s holding them together.

the stage: The Last Days of Cleopatra
The Last Days of Cleopatra. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

“There are huge challenges in getting a new play produced in New York, hey in any city,” Sexton continues. “There is no real structure set up to help Irish artists who live here. You’re kind of in no man’s land. We had to do an Indiegogo campaign to go on tour to Ireland with For Love, as we did not receive any funding for any government organization, and the funding arts organizations in the United States told me to go to Irish sources, and the Irish funding opportunities are only for plays leaving Ireland. So our mates kicked in twenty dollars here and there, ye know.

“But no one is giving anyone a hand out, ye know. It’s just the way the arts are. You have to find ways around things, support and allies to help you, believe that it will happen and put it out there, get all the duckies in a row and push forward. It’s a fight to do your own work, new work. You might get lucky, you will definitely get hurt, but if it’s something you need to do, you will find a way. That has been my experience.

Georganne Aldrich Heller is coproducing The Last Days of Cleopatra. She is a brilliant lady and I worked with her as an actress a few times. We did a great show together, Ladies & Gents (performed in the toilets in Central Park), and also produced with the Irish Arts Centre. It was a massive hit. She’s an amazing lady as she has such a love of new Irish plays and likes daring new work and champions new Irish work.

“Theater is a labor of love. Anyone who’s in it knows it. You can’t be in it for the money (unless doing a huge commercial Disneyesque production on Broadway, and even those can fail). I don’t think any real artists are in it for the money, or start out that way anyway. Money is great, and I know there are people out there who are doing it for cash or notoriety or to get women or whatever.”

A Night Out in a Frilly Dress

“But I think if you truly value your craft you can see that at the end of the day you will get those things in time maybe (if that’s what you’re after), but you need to work hard at what you do. Real artists, at least the ones I admire and look up to, are the ones that care and who are ruled by passion and the need to do something great and put something good out there, even if they fail. They don’t care about the red carpet or worldly possessions. All those things are great when you have worked hard, but at the end of the day that’s just a night out in a frilly dress. They are just little extras. But you just do what you need to do, to be.

“I like to try and push things all the time. This new play is a little stylized in terms of style, language, delivery. People will laugh and cry and hopefully dance. Dancing is good. This one was inspired by the Samuel Beckett quote, ‘Dance first, think later…it’s the natural order’.

“I think a play should be just that: chat about stuff, fight about stuff, feel, and then maybe dance a little.”

A True Wanderer

“I am kind of adept at dealing with change and chaos,” says Sexton. “I was adopted by Irish parents in Québec and moved to Ireland where I grew up all over. We moved around a lot (an understatement). I went to a ton of different schools all over Ireland and we were never really in one place for very long. We lived in the country and in cities. We never owned houses.

“Actually we lived in an abandoned hotel once, on the west coast of Ireland. It was very eerie I remember. I was only a child but it was like the film The Shining. My Da actually got the place exorcized as there was a ‘presence’ as he called it. Not that I was told this until I was grown up, but there was one room which was very cold, and you could definitely sense something was weird in certain corridors. We all felt it. Anyways that’s another play.

“I suppose I’m a very energetic person. Maybe that’s why. I’m not sure how it affects my storytelling but I like living different places. It’s definitely the best thing a person can do… travel. I could actually be on tour for long stretches of time and be okay with it.

The Last Days of Cleopatra
Laoisa Sexton in The Last Days of Cleopatra. Photo credit: copyright@trevormurphy.tv

“I now live in New York, writing stories that take place in Ireland. They are not necessarily Irish stories, but take place there, as that is what I know. I like to write in a place, with a feeling of that place, with the music of that place, the accent of that place. To me it’s not so much an accent but the rhythm that instructs the piece and that is I suppose what I know, no matter where I am.”

Writing Away From Home

“Also maybe it’s true that you can look at a place better when you are away from it. I mean some of the best Irish writers wrote the best Irish books living in other places in Europe, and yet their concerns were life in Ireland or the stories were saturated in Irish life, like Ulysses. Indeed some of the best writers wrote the best stories in exile, not just Irish ones. I suppose you can kind of look at things better from a distance, or maybe not look but maybe see.

“I like to think I am writing a new play, not just an Irish play, cos a lot of the themes are universal, ye know, not just Irish.

“It’s funny, I am writing a new one about this alcoholic megalomaniac, and all the women in his life, the damage he causes. I showed a bit of it to someone and they said that it was very brittle and the character was unforgiving, but yet we look at old Irish plays like Juno and The Paycock. The Da Captain Boyle is often portrayed as a lovable rogue, but yet he is a lowly alcoholic and has betrayed his family. But when you do that in new plays, people get offended and tell you it’s cruel. But if someone is wearing a costume and it’s an old play with beautiful flowery language it’s okay.

A Rich Violent History

“I think it’s important to write about modern Ireland and my generation. Who we really are. We have a rich violent history, but we are not a country of red heads sitting around staring into the flames in a thatched cottage. There are so many stories to tell that are new and fresh and there is a huge new crop of Irish writers that are doing that.”

More on Laoisa Sexton:

The Last Days of Cleopatra on Facebook. The play premiers at Urban Stages August 20 to September 7. See the Facebook page for ticket information.

Sexton is also shooting a short film You Are Beautiful. See the Facebook page.

All photo credits: Copyright@trevormurphy.tv

 

Costume Design and Story

Designer Brianne Gillen (disclosure – Brianne is my daughter) talks about her costuming work. Most recently she costumed a stage performance of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.

Costume Supports the Story

I wanted to know: whether in recorded media or live performance, how does costume design move the story forward?

Costumer Brianne Gillen
Costume designer Brianne Gillen

“Costume design is hugely important for the story,” says Gillen. “Often, what a character is wearing tells the audience a lot about them before they even say a word of dialogue. You can tell a character’s socioeconomic status, sometimes their profession, the time of year, the city they live in – all by what they have on.

“The costume offers a glimpse into the character’s personality, and often it’s on a subliminal level. Because we all have an idea of what clothes convey, we immediately, and without even realizing, make a judgment about who a person is when we see them. A good costume designer helps the audience do this with a character.

“I really do think,” she says, “that, unless the story specifically dictates otherwise, the costumes a character wears should look like their own. The costumes shouldn’t pull focus unless it’s called for. That’s why it’s sometimes unfortunate that contemporary pieces don’t get nominated for a lot of awards. Don’t get me wrong, the elaborate fantasy and period pieces require an enormous amount of time, work, and talent and should be applauded.

“But I think it’s too easy to forget sometimes that the modern pieces, when done right, require just as much thought and planning. A designer might be shopping more than making from scratch, but he or she still has to carefully weigh what would be right for each character and their place in the story.”

Getting Into Character

A well-designed costume helps an actor get into character.

“I’ve had so many actors tell me,” says Gillen, “that they love getting their costumes because it really helps them complete their process and feel like their characters. This is especially true of period pieces, since the silhouettes are often so different from what we wear today.

 

The costume helps them get their ego out of the way and then they start to discover new things about their character.

 

“An actor will often move quite differently in their costume, which helps them feel less like themselves. It’s always fun for me when an actor has been doubtful about wanting to wear something because it’s so different or they’re afraid they won’t look ‘pretty’ enough, and then they start acting in the costume and find that they love it.

“The costume helps them get their ego out of the way and then they start to discover new things about their character. And then on the flip side of that, sometimes an actor will have insecurities about pulling off a look, and then their costume gives them a new confidence.”

Costume Budgets

Many filmmakers have little or no budget for costume. When a director or filmmaker tells actors to pull from their own closets, what key costume guidelines should be followed?

Gillen says, “I think that depends on the project. It is important, though, that the actors do have a somewhat specific set of guidelines, that way there will be a more cohesive look to the film or play. Make sure the actors know their characters well enough, and even some of the other characters, in case they have something they can share. It’s always good to have the actors bring several choices, so that the director or costume supervisor can have final approval, and not get locked into something that might not work as well because it was the only option.

“Be sure to let the actors know the overall color scheme of the piece as well, and whether there are any they should avoid because they’d clash with the set or another actor. And of course if it’s a film, be careful of patterns that are too crazy or might do strange things in HD. That’s another reason it’s good to have backups, in case you look in the monitor and a piece of clothing starts flaring or just not looking right on screen.”

Collaboration Between Designers

What kind of collaboration needs to occur between the costume designer and the lighting director and set decorator?

Costumes for Meh-tropolis Dance Theater
Costumes for Meh-tropolis Dance Theater

“It’s important,” Gillen says, “for the costume designer to talk with the other designers. You don’t want to have spent huge amounts of time creating this beautiful, one-of-a-kind green dress, only to find in dress rehearsals that the set is the exact same shade of green and so the actor ends up looking like a floating head! Then one or both designers will have to scramble to change their design.

“It’s always a good idea to know what the other designers are thinking, and vice versa, so that everyone can work together to create the best look possible. That collaboration can be really fun, too. I recently worked on a musical comedy that featured a number where the women wore crinoline dresses. It made the number even funnier when their skirts wouldn’t fit through the doorways on stage. For several years, I worked with a great lighting designer on some dance pieces, and I always loved collaborating with her and seeing what her lighting and color choices did to my costumes.”

What to Avoid When Costuming for the Camera

“As I mentioned before, be careful with patterns, especially when working with HD. It’s always a good idea to test something by looking at a monitor. It sometimes is so hit-or-miss, but some patterns you think won’t work will be fine and others turn into a wavy, flaring mess. I’m a stickler for continuity, too. It happens to everyone that there are occasions when you just don’t catch something, but it’s usually preventable if you pay a little extra attention to detail. Be careful when using clothing with logos, especially sports teams. Often there are licensing rules associated with these, and unless the production team has cleared them (or is willing/able to do so in post-production) there could be legal issues down the line. I find it’s better to just avoid them in the first place, or find a subtle way to cover them up for filming.”

See Brianne Gillens blog GownsBy… And she is a contributor to the London-based Guise magazine.

This interview also appears in The Filmmaker Lifestyle.