“Ich bin ein Berliner!” or trying to sound like it.

I had my first accent coaching session with a German colleague yesterday. She’s a native of Berlin, teaches German language at university here in Australia, but has been immersed in an English-sounding world for around 10 years or so. As a result of this, I had to ask her to work at strengthening her German accent for ‘capture,’ as it’s quite light and now contains several distinct Australian vowel sounds.

My colleague is clued up with regard to variations in dialects in German, and had fun trying to capture the differences between a standard German and the Berlin dialect. She described it as “rough, sloppy, my parents would scold us if we spoke like that!” As she spoke to me in German, using both dialects, it seemed to me that Berliner German is punchier, quicker and harsher-souding than standard German, It’s more energetic and ranges wider in pitch. There are good clues here to speeech tempo-rhythms which usually carry over from a non-native speaker into the new language. So English spoken with a Berliner dialect would most probably have these characteristics.

As far as applying dialect in role is concerned, the actor needs to look at the identikit presented in the text, at least to start. You look for clues as to environment, education, age, class and lifestyle of your character. These point you in the direction of an informed choice … acting is all about making choices. And here’s one of my first.

I’m thinking that my character, Fraulein Schneider, although a Berliner herself, is probably going to speak with a standard or higher-class German than this rougher-sounding argot. There are clues in the script about how she was wealthy as a young woman (she was born around 1870), but has since fallen into poverty, probably since the financial drubbing Germany received after WWI. Schneider’s education would most probably have inculcated a ‘correctness’ of speech … which doesn’t mean she can’t get down and dirty (dialect wise) if she has to with some of the lodgers in her boarding-house. We’ll see about that though as rehearsals unroll and characters develop. All part of the adventure!

And the picture? It’s a portrait of Heinrich Zille (1858-1929) one of Germany’s best loved social critics. It’s his 150th anniversary and there is a retrospective exhibition of his work on show in Berlin right now. My colleague pointed me in the direction of Zille’s cartoons, which dealt with the everyday life of the streets in Berlin during the years leading up to the time-frame of Cabaret. I’m keen to get hold of some of his drawings. These can be particularly rich for an actor searching for fragments with which to build a character. Off to the library!

The Actors’ Nightmare

I was chatting with a couple of theatre colleagues this morning and as inevitably happens, we started swapping trade stories. We discovered that we shared the same kind of anxiety dream, what I’ve always called the actors’ nightmare. You’ve probably also experienced them if you’re an actor or have had to give a public presentation. It goes something like this … and there are lots of variations.

You’re on stage in your pyjamas (or the wrong costume). With me it’s pyjamas.
You’re backstage but cannot find your way to the stage.
You are in the wrong play.
The stage keeps moving and you’re sinking.

Recognise any of these? Welcome to the actors’ nightmare. These usually happen towards the end of rehearsals and in some ways are like old friends. “Ah” you say, “I’ve had the nightmare. All’s well with the psyche.”

Studying a Text: ideas, lines, sounds


Out of the archives. This one floated into posts read by someone today. Over three years on and I’m doing another show, but this one in my ‘own’ Australian dialect of English. ‘Colleen’ has her own, distinctive way of speaking … an ideolect … which is part of the fun of vocal characterisation for the actor.

There are probably almost as many ways of learning a script as there are actors. For me, and right now starting rehearsals for a new show it’s read, read, read the script, getting the sense of the arc of the story and my character’s role in telling it. I think it’s Anthony Hopkins who learns his lines by reading a script 100 times, and that’s it. By then, he’s immersed in the words, and works them off impulse. Well to me that’s how his relaxed natural right sounding speech seems to grow from the text.

Now the role of Cabaret’s Fraulein Schneider also requires an accent … one more thing to factor into the process of lines learning. It’s less to do with the words, and more a coming to grips with the ideas contained within or behind the words. I’m not sure where I came across the idea of words being like the flotsam and jetsam that float on the tide. They are the residue of an impulse or an energy that birthed them. Now I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and certainly I love words and the power of the crafting by the writer of those words … their sound on the ear, their butting up against one another, they playfulness with rhythm in a line … but … it’s the impulse behind the words that intrigues me initially as I chase down a character’s mindset and temperament and energy. So, it’s important for me to learn the impulse contained within words sounded in a particular way. Speech style is a function of character, and it’s not something to tack on at the last minute like a final coat of paint. Continue reading “Studying a Text: ideas, lines, sounds”