Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Turn Off Your @^#*)@#%^& Cellphone!!!!!

I have a bit of a pet peeve.

It starts out small. The light in the corner of your eye, just for an instant, you can't even be sure it was there. Then again. Then another one, in a different place. Then the unmistakable tinkling sound, followed by a whispered "shit!" and the sound is suddenly cut off.

Cellphones in the theater.

I feel this way about both the movies and more conventional theaters, where I go to see plays. They aren't always great works, and sometimes not even very good, but dammit, I am there to watch the movie/play and it is SO DISTRACTING.

This was my experience at a play this past September 11.

The show was called 110 Stories, and was basically a bunch of actors with scripts reading the true accounts of people who were at the World Trade Center during the attack on September 11, 2001. For me, this is kind of a tough show to see in the first place. No, I wasn't in New York, I was in Northern Virginia, at school, and my dad was in Crystal City at a hotel for a meeting, pretty much across the street from the Pentagon. Please, no one share their ridiculous conspiracy theories at this point. Yes, THERE WAS A PLANE IN THE BUILDING. It was harrowing, and scary, and most of the day was spent watching the incessant footage on the news and worrying about our parents, many of whom worked in DC or the Pentagon, and who had a really hard time getting home. It felt like 9/11 happened to me.  To my community. I think it felt closer to those of us in Virginia, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, than anywhere else in the country. There were close calls for a lot of my friends' parents, one of whom was supposed to be at the World Trade Center that day, but had finished a day early and come home. I still well up with tears sometimes when I think about it. And there I was, twelve years later, listening to the harrowing experiences of the people in New York.

Or at least, trying to.

Because two seats down, some older gent was on his phone. I guess he was expecting a text or something, because he kept turning on the screen and looking at it, then putting it down. Every five to ten minutes. Finally, some wonderful, blessed soul leaned over and in a voice exactly as annoyed as I felt, asked him to stop. He did, very apologetically.

Then the girl on the other side of me fell asleep. She woke up about two thirds of the way through, and started texting. Seriously. Not even trying to hide it. Eventually she got up and left. Before the show was even over. It had gotten to the denoument, there wasn't that much time left! But I guess she didn't really want to be there. I guess neither she nor that other guy respected the actors or their fellow audience members enough to turn their phones off and disconnect from the outside world for two hours.

That's one of the things I love about going to the theater, to any theater. I can disconnect. Maybe my rage was an overreaction, but I always get distracted by those little screens lighting up in the corner of my eye. Guess what? Unless you're a doctor, it's not that important. If someone is on their deathbed, you should be there, not at a theater. I know there are plenty of people out there who don't see the big deal. "So what?" you may ask, "We live in a social, connected society now, this is the way it is. I want to tweet about how jiggly the camera is!" But what you may not understand, is that some people go to the theater for a cathartic experience. I know the producer had a catharsis during 110 Stories, because he was so full of emotion by the end of the show that he was practically crying on the stage while thanking everyone who made the project possible. I was a little jealous. I kind of wanted that release. Maybe the show didn't do a good enough job of grabbing my focus, but I feel like they didn't even really have a chance, thanks to a couple of inconsiderate patrons.

I know, as an actor, that I want to reach out to my audience, to communicate with them on an intimate level, even if there are thousands of people, to create a shared moment with each of them. If they're all on their phones, I can't do that, whether the performance is live or recorded. You can't reach someone whose attention you don't have. I promise you, cellphone user, you will get all those texts when you turn your phone back on. You can call people back. Tell them you were in a movie/play, they will understand. You can wait until afterwards to IMDB that one actor because you know you know him from something but you can't put your finger on it. You can wait until afterwards to take your turn in Words With Friends. We, as a society, put way too much emphasis on instant response. Just because somebody doesn't answer back in five minutes, doesn't mean they don't love you. It just means they're in the middle of something right now and can't respond. And no, it's not enough to have it on silent or vibrate, because I know that even though it's not ringing, you're going to feel it, or it's going to light up on its own, and you are going to pick it up and look at it. If you're meeting up with someone after, tell them you're in the theater now before the show starts and you'll text or call when you get out.

Just like with texting and driving, IT CAN WAIT.

Unless of course, you're a doctor on call. Then you are excused.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Recently I've had a few auditions where I've needed to use distinctive accents. I thought it would be good to address some of the tips and tricks that help with accent work.

First of all, it's very important to practice. A good tip I had once was to mimic people's accents when they talk to you. It's surprising how few of them actually notice it. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would put on accents when we walked around DC or went shopping, trying to be as convincing as possible. Be careful though, if you're doing a British accent and meet a British person you may have an uncomfortable conversation on your hands. Don't be afraid to have fun with it either, play around with accents whenever you can! I always get a kick out of doing Yakov Smirnoff impressions, and really getting on my co-workers' nerves.

The first step to mastering a foreign accent is understanding its origins. Accents are always easier if you speak the original language, even a little. Every language has rules of pronunciation, and if you know them, you can apply them to English. French, for example, uses hard R's, and sometimes roll them, depending on the region. It's also spoken at the front of the mouth, like they're constantly kissing as they speak. When you first practice French, puckering your lips like that helps get an idea of where the accent lives. Obviously, once you get the hang of it, you can stop over-exaggerating.

Regional accents and dialects are a bit trickier. It's hard to fool a native speaker, and you definitely don't want to be insulting. Again, it's important to discover where the accent lives in your mouth. It helps to listen to others speak the accent, and then choose a few characteristic sounds that really make it recognizable. It helps to annotate your script incorporating those sounds, so that as you read and memorize it you can trigger the right sounds when you speak. For example, use a symbol that makes sense to you when a word needs a flat "a" sound, or an "ee" sound when you have a short "i" like "it", as many accents use.

The more you practice these elements, the more natural the accent will sound. Try and see if you can (privately) identify a person's origins based on their accent. Identify your own, and try and understand the elements of it. The best way to master an accent, in short, is to break it down to it's smallest parts and understand how they work together.

I found a few things very helpful recently, and I would like to share them! First, the accent database at the International Dialects of English Archive! It's amazing! People from all over the world, of all ages and races, speaking in their own accent, reading a bit of copy and then very naturally talking about their lives and the way they speak! It's amazing. Oh look, here's another one from the good folks at GMU! Another helpful source is this video from a voice actor that really breaks accents down. He has tons of them, and is pretty good at showing you how to pick them apart.

And here's a video of me doing a German accent! This one was really challenging, because many German people try to mask their accent when they speak English, so I had to play a German accent trying not to be German. Very meta. I had a lot of help, but you can judge how successful I was. PS, this was like, 6 years ago or so. I'm a better actor now.