Bridging Cultures by Dialect Coaching

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In my previous blog, I talk about my work in accent reduction, providing a case study. Today I thought I would talk about my current dialect-coaching project.

The play is Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the play. Cruz, a Cuban living in the USA, sets his play in Ybor City, a district of Tampa, Florida in the 1920s. It tells the story of a family engaged in cigar rolling, an industry that immigrants brought with them from Cuba in the 19th century. One fascinating tradition in this industry was the use of a lector, usually a well-dressed, cultivated man, who read to the workers as they crafted their products. While they rolled the cigars by hand in the traditional manner, the lector would read aloud to them — novels, poetry, newspapers, etc. In Anna in the Tropics, the lector reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the passions of the novel ignite the passions of the listeners.

These were the last days of the lector tradition among the cigar rollers of south Florida before mechanization made the factories too noisy for the gentle art of reading and listening.

My work, as dialect coach, is to assist the cast in speaking in the accent we hear from Cuban Americans. My first job was to make sure we had a real Cuban speaking the Spanish names, words, and phrases we find in the play. Professor Michael Barnes, my colleague in Miami, recorded an ex-patriot Cuban actor for this purpose, and I have archived this recording on line to assist all future productions of this famous play. You may read the text file while listening to the recording at the following link:

Other colleagues helped me understand what distinguishes Cuban Spanish from other Spanishes, and thus to design appropriate accents. My sole Spanish-speaking actor in the cast, a Venezuelan, is playing the lector, Juan Julian. My approach was to keep his Spanish accent quite light, while encouraging the sonorous vowels and crisp diction of the professional reader, as you hear me doing. By contrast, the character of Cheche, born in the U.S., an advocate of progress and scornful of what he thinks to be outworn tradition, speaks in a way that reveals his personality and values, as you heard me doing.

I am encouraging Ofelia and Santiago, the husband and wife owners of the factory, to have more flavor of the island in their speech, since their Cuban roots go deeper than their daughters, Marela and Conchita, who speak a lighter version of the accent.

Since we should assume that all the characters in the play speak to each other in Spanish — we just happen to hear them in English — we could have staged the play without accents, just as we do when we produce Chekhov, Moliere, or Brecht in English translation. But this play cried out for the extra atmosphere and color that the Spanish accent provides. My job was to design accents for each character, much as a costume designer does with clothes, appropriate to each character’s personality and background, and that assist in telling the story the director wants to bring out. Just as a costume designer avoids giving actors clothes that upstage them — too obvious or lacking in subtlety — so my job is to give them subtly designed accents that are unobtrusive, while still being believable and clear.

My design included all the signature sounds of Spanish-accented English—sounds you can hear in the following sentence:

Pick your friends carefully but don’t involve them in your happy business.

But as rehearsals have progressed the cast has learned to be creatively selective. Not every “h” word (home, heart, hotel) needs the signature treatment. Not every “y” sound (youthful, useful, universe) needed that feature. Heavy, frequent use of the signature sounds seemed to suit certain characters, but not others, and the varying nature of the scenes called for what we call code-switching: the phenomenon that we all speak in a style appropriate to the moment. At certain moments, for example, Cheche, the American-born character, wants to distance himself from his Cuban roots, while at others he emphasizes his solidarity with his heritage. As you might imagine, his accent shifts in strength accordingly, as you heard demonstrate.

I wanted to honor the culture encoded in the accent, and to avoid any condescension or suggestion of mockery. This requires great care and respect from me and from the cast. After all, our job is to open the audience’s eyes and ears to the rich traditions that the play explores. Theatre and movies, after all, have tremendous power to bridge cultural divides, to humanize those who think and speak differently from us. It’s a privilege, a responsibility, and a joy to be engaged in such work.

If you’re in my neck of the woods in the near future, I hope you’ll come and see our production of Anna in the Tropics.