Over the past month, I had the opportunity to take a five class series from professional dialect coach Doug Honorof. Based in New York, Honorof has worked with actors and served as a script consultant on numerous film and television projects.
The series began with Articulatory Flexibility, which went through the nuts and bolts of how we make sound, and turn that into language. The intro class was a tertiary look at dialect charts, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and diagrams of mouth placement during specific sounds. While there was a lot of technical information introduced, it was broken up with group practice of the various sounds. It was a wonderful way to enter the world of dialectical study, and re-examine the capabilities of my mouth, an already-intimate instrument for the actor.
The following weeks were spent in Dialects I and II, where we prepared and practiced chosen dialects before workshopping them with Doug. As I struggled through Sardinian, Dublin, and Puerto Rican dialects, Doug would practice the accent alongside me, even while giving his instruction. I was floored watching him switch between eight different dialects in a day, making leaps across countries as well as demonstrating and explaining the tonal and cultural differences between domestic dialects.
Working with a dialect expert in an educational setting was invaluable as an actor. The voiceover world’s high-profile projects and producers are finally acknowledging the responsibility and consequences that come with casting actors to play across their cultures and experiences. There is a greater demand not only for stories about different identities, but for said stories to be authentically representative. If our current artistic mediums, particularly video games, wish to promote themselves as culturally-significant works, then producers need to honestly engage with the communities these stories come from, going beyond isolated projects, and working towards changing the culture of who is making games, writing scripts, and directing projects. The difference between engagement with or concession towards a particular group can mean the difference between a work being representative or exploitative.
While the ethics of voice casting are an ever-constant conversation, one that delves into the complexities of one’s identity, a good place for the actor to start is in the classroom, having the opportunity to understand the historical context and development of dialect as a facet of culture. Vocal affects and accents are just one part of a character’s identity, and stories are about characters not caricatures.
Reflecting on my experiences, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with fellow voice actors in regards to their work on games, the medium with perhaps the most fantastic and speculative settings. Their own dialects, whether native or learned, fluent or familiar, gave them a starting point to build voices for their characters, and better serve the world and story beyond their individual role.
Let’s say your next copy is for a working-class rebel in a cyberpunk setting. An actor could synthesize their dialect training, unique vocal sound, and the script’s specs to make a choice that is not only bold, but comes from a place of truth. Maybe that voice is how the actor imagines a historically working-class dialect like cockney would evolve in the future. The actor’s knowledge creates a voice that is authentic to both our own world and the world of the game, and can better represent the culture used for inspiration. In this way, for actor and audience alike, dialect can be used to reveal character and culture, whether real or imagined, and give real weight to the voices behind those stories.
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