theatre

Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final t’s, there were some dropped h’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid theatre tank engine to be avoided – the choo-choo.

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

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General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

“Would_you come here for a minute?”
“Don’t_you see it?”

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant.  /Y/ here, in reality, is a clipped long /e/ sound.  (Say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.)  As such, it has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of acrobatics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a “U” through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

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Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you” and “don’t you.”  Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But, wait, it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, [sh] and [zh].  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” – my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule)
  • measure and vision used to take the [zy] pronunciation (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but are now reduced to [zh]

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

In especially British and Australian dialects, this yod-coalescence (the proper term for the phenomenon I’ve been describing) has led to peculiar pronunciations of words that incorporate the “liquid /u/.”  (Liquid /u/ is in words like cube and fume – you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/.)  Across the pond and down under, this still applies to “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  While an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Brits might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

Sean Connery does not assume things; he “a-shooms” them.  Now that we’re done making fun of him, he can “re-zhoom” what he was doing.  You get the point.

So, to recap:

[ty-] —–> [ch]
[dy-] —–> [j]
[sy-] —–> [sh]
[zy-] —–> [zh]

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the /dy/ cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno [JOR-noh], not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour [zhoor].

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors laughably hit every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying rather than how they were saying them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the railed passenger vehicle of the playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the thespian multi-carriage machine of transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Of Sterling Worth

“Then raise a cup to Warwickshire, 

where fellowship we find.

And though we traverse wide the world,

our hearts remain behind.”

 

By May of 2015, my mother was growing weary of my unemployed state.  Annoyed, even.  She was living in Oswego at the time and had been strongly urging me to apply to work at the nearby Renaissance festival.  It was a sensible suggestion, as working there would allow me to exercise my community college-acquired basic acting and character techniques, and I would have a place to stay each weekend.  One problem, though.

Thitherto, I had passed my summers participating in “SummerStage” musicals at the Rome Capitol Theatre.  They were great fun and kept me busy in what is otherwise a lazy season of the year for me.  When I’m routinely getting cast in such entertainments, why would I leave my comfort zone and seek employment in a strange place?

In the year 2015, the musicals chosen were The Addams Family and Legally Blonde.  I don’t think I need to say any more.

I looked up the festival’s phone number online and proceeded to call it.  I scheduled a job interview for early June.  After I hung up, I noticed on the website a page outlining the responsibilities of the Bless the Mark Players, the paid troupe of actors of the Sterling Renaissance Festival.

Intrigued, I read everything on the webpage.  I hungrily took in every paragraph – every job detail – whilst attempting to construct a fantasy that auditions had not long come and gone.

Weeks later, back in reality, I somehow was deemed fit to work at Sterling and was hired as a gamer –  Master of the “Pyllow Fyghts,” to be precise.  And the Axe Throw for one weekend.

My  distinctive blue hat earned me the moniker “Master Blue Jay.”

As an employee, my duties were not unlike those of the actors; I was required, through maintaining character and dialect, to uphold the illusion that our patrons were in 1585 Warwick, England.  I even got to, on rare occasions, interact with some of the characters who happened by the Pyllow Fyght arena, which I was forbidden to leave throughout the nine-hour work day, save for on lunch break.  The Queen herself and her court even stopped by a few times and generated crowds for me in an area that otherwise received very little traffic.  I know not whether these characters visited me because they sincerely enjoyed interacting with me – or did so out of pity.  What I do know is that their presence meant the world to me on days marked by such a deprivation of human interaction – which was pretty much every day of the 2015 season for me.

There was something else of which I was certain.  I also knew that everything I witnessed during their visits with me – their quirky characters, their visible foibles and virtues, their unspoken inter-character conflicts, their chemistry, their camaraderie – I wanted those.

From the beginning of June through the middle of August of this year, I had the impossibly-overstated privilege of being a member of the Wyldewood Players for the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s 40th season.

Cast as the lowest of the low (or so I believed), I was on board as one of three “mud beggars.”  (We all learnt in a styles lesson that, because beggars required a licence from the church, they were technically of station higher than those of the ne’er-do-wells such as highwaymen and pirates, who were outside the law.  Not that anybody in his right mind would bow to a person covered head to toe with mud.)

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Pretend it’s chocolate.

So, yeah.  Mud.  I worked in mud.  A lot of it.  We three beggars were responsible for the renowned “mud shows” each weekend.  The whole premise of “Theatre in the Ground” (a clever play on the phrase “theatre in the round”) is that these low-lives have likely heard pieces of well-known stories and perform bastardised retellings of them at the town mud pit (don’t ask me why there is a town mud pit), all the while becoming progressively filthy.  The mud show’s description in the festival programme aptly reads, “Classic tales told by idiots in a mud pit.”

The tales this season were the classic Dante’s Inferno, which has been a mud show staple for years, and the all-new The Prodigal Son, which I and the other two beggars helped our instructor write.  It’s a great feeling to know that I contributed material to one of the festival’s most lauded attractions.  It was an even better feeling whenever audiences laughed at the stuff I added.  Now, truth be told, I didn’t add a tremendous amount to the script, but I did manage to put in a brilliantly terrible pun.

The mud pit itself (which we affectionately called “Cressida”) was a character of its – *ahem* – her own.  She was high maintenance.  She required watering between every faire weekend (sometimes on the weekends) and constantly accrued twigs and rocks and grass and other undesirables and needed them removed, lest we cut ourselves up lunging into her belly-first.  And don’t even get me started on the wildlife that persistently tried to call her their home and sometimes even made guest appearances on our shows.  Who knew that maintaining a hole filled with mud was so much work?

I did not live on site.  I was one of five guys staying in a house in Oswego about fifteen minutes away, while the rest of the cast stayed in lofts on the festival grounds.  Our humble urban abode was swiftly dubbed the “Bearded Bungalow,” an alliterative reference to the fur upon all five of our faces.  (That number became four within a week because the actor playing the mayor’s son was mandated to be clean-shaven.)

The actor who came up with the name also took it upon himself to do some complementary illustrating on a piece of plywood, which rested nicely above our doorway.

It was a trade-off, living at the Bungalow.  We didn’t need to worry about getting eaten alive by flies, gnats and mosquitoes like our wood-locked cohorts did.  Got a surprise bowel movement in the middle of the night?  Bathroom’s just down the hall – couldn’t say

feels-good-man

Feels good, man.

the same for our friends who had to grab a flashlight and walk hundreds of feet to the privies.  All the other basic amenities (i.e., running water, kitchen, washer and dryer) were also readily accessible for us, and living in the city meant that supply stores (mainly Walmart) and restaurants and bars were either within walking distance or a short drive away.  Leaks were virtually nonexistent.

 

There were real downsides, though.  Living off-site meant waking earlier for rehearsals, and the money that we weren’t spending on insect repellent went toward fuel for our cars, which we exhausted more rapidly because we were always

feels-bad-man

Feels bad, man.

commuting.  And while our castmates could easily run to their lofts on break should they need something at rehearsal, the Bungalow Boys had no such luxury.  We were up that proverbial creek without a paddle if we forgot something in Oswego – like our lunches or extra jackets.  And, yes, you read that correctly – jackets.  The second week of rehearsals in June was so windy and cold that we had people in winter coats and others huddled together under blankets.  As for the less provident (like me)?  Sucks to suck.

The worst part about living off-site, however, was that the festival grounds never really felt like home to me.  Having to drive there always meant that I was eventually going to depart that same day.  I had no dwelling, no sleeping place on site.  Everything felt borrowed.  Foreign, even.  The buildings, trees, lanes, critters and sounds of nature there – our playing area known as Warwick – I didn’t get to live among them.  I merely visited them.  This fact made it difficult for me to establish that vital connection between character and space.

The other worst part was the tangible disconnect from the rest of the cast.  The goings-on on site were often irrelevant to me because of my absence.  I think I missed out on a great deal of bonding in the crucial early days of June.  Of course, our living apart wasn’t as consequential the first few weeks because we were, for the most part, either together rehearsing or sleeping.  But come July and more free time, our segregation was more felt.  This was only exacerbated by the fact that there was no Wi-Fi at the Bungalow and spotty or nonexistent cell phone service on festival grounds, severely limiting communication between the two residences.  We five in Oswego truly felt cut off at times.

(To give you an idea of just how out of the loop I was without web access, I would never have known that Pokémon GO had released had I not been told, and I wasn’t aware until I returned to Rome in mid-August that Harambe had become a meme.)

On a side note, there was a silver lining to the lack of Wi-Fi where we lived.  For weeks, I was able to enjoy life without being a slave to social media.  Didn’t need to worry about matters and petty drama back in my hometown.  Didn’t need to worry about other obligations and checking my e-mail all the time.  Life was simpler for a little while.  I went for walks around the beautiful port city that is Oswego.  I toured the maritime district and watched the tranquil descent of the warm sun over the horizon.  And evenings without Internet access forced me to come up with another way to occupy my time till I was ready to sleep; upon the suggestion of one of my castmates, I kept a journal.  I have an entry for every single day from mid-June to mid-August chronicling my experiences, my feelings, my awkward moments, everything.

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We rehearsed all day, six days a week throughout June, resting Saturdays.  A typical day of rehearsal included workshops in character development, imagination, improvisation and language/styles led by various instructors; in the latter half of the month, more focus was brought to street encounters and scripted small group scenarios (e.g., the “Trial and Dunke,” the mud shows, the “Queen’s Duel,” etc.).  We began each day with yoga-inspired physical warmups, followed by vocal warmups, followed by the rehearsal of several period-ish songs from our extensive repertoire, any five of which plus “Auld Lang Syne” we performed at the end of every faire day for the “Final Pub Sing.”

As you might have guessed, the language workshops were my favourite.  It was one of the few times during the rehearsal day when I felt knowledgeable and felt like I had some merit as a member of the cast.  It was liberating to be able to take my sweet time forming my sentences, embellishing every detail with fancy, exciting parlance as the Elizabethans did – and to revere each word as if every mundane utterance were the most important statement to pass through my lips.  It was satisfying to speak with such precision and puissance – to say exactly what I mean and to do so with authority.  In essence, I was finally in an environment where I was encouraged to speak as I write and not the other way round.

My sole disappointment with regard to language is that we were not taught Original Pronunciation (OP), the general accent of the Elizabethans and the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  (I discussed OP a bit in my blog post from April.)  In lieu of a more historically accurate accent, we were taught three distinct dialects: upper class, which was spoken by the Queen and her court and a couple officials in Warwick and bears great similarity to posh modern-day English accents; country, which is spoken by the working/middle class denizens of Warwick and blends elements of Scottish, Irish and Cornish and is the closest we had to OP; and lower class, which was spoken by the poor, uneducated and vagabonds and resembles Cockney speech.

 The rationale for eschewing OP in favour of these three dialects is twofold and understandable: it was 1) to give variety to the speech of characters and to make their stations more apparent and 2) to strike a balance between sounding historically accurate and what the typical American patron believes is a period English accent.  All this being said, however, at least I can say that, despite phonological anachronism, all three dialects employed Elizabethan idiom, that is, vocabulary and phrases and sentence structure that were of the period.  It’s all about making it sound just different enough to be entertaining to the audience without compromising intelligibility.

Improv kicked my arse.  The lessons I was taught at Sterling often contradicted the purposes of acting games from college, and partaking in the improv exercises was an ordeal and far more stressful than it should have been.  I should have been eager and restless to stand up and participate when a new group was requested.  But I wasn’t.  I felt like every action I did and every sentence I bullshitted was wrong and fucking up the scene for everybody else, especially when I was receiving no reactions from those watching.  Which made me doubt what I said or did, which made me lose confidence in myself and made me distrusting of my scene partners, which then made my choices in future improv work reserved and feeble – and thus creating a vicious circle of poor improvising that saw, at best, meagre improvement in two and a half months.

In retrospect, I believe that my biggest block, at least on faire days, was my prioritisation of language over character and creating entertaining interaction with patrons and other characters.  I probably could have sacrificed sentence perfection just to get a few more damn words and ideas out before I lost the interest of those around me.  I’ll shamelessly give myself some credit, however, and say that I tended to excel with small groups and in simply engaging them in casual conversation.  Too bad these encounters went largely unnoticed.

Despite my shortcomings, I did not walk away from Sterling unequipped.  The single, most important thing to do during improv that I can advise is to listen.  Relax and listen to your scene partner – and trust him.  Other things to keep in mind are letting go of preconceived ideas – if your scene partner (or a patron) makes you an unexpected offer, do not cling to your vision of how the scene should play out and just go with it; do not ask questions unless it provides meaningful information (questions dump responsibility on the other person); do not negate information (if your scene partner says you’re married, then you are married!); make strong, specific assumptions (giving yourself a character helps immensely); remember that not everything needs to be funny; and, finally, stop talking about doing a thing and start doing the thing.

just-do-it

I can’t help but feel also that the job would’ve been easier as a seven-year-old.  I’m only half-joking.  One of the fundamentals of interactive theatre is fierce imagination and spontaneous creativity.  When you endow patrons (give them names and occupations like “Robert the Blacksmith” and assign a relationship between them and your own character), it is not unlike assigning special roles to your parents and siblings and friends when you were a young child playing make-believe.  Our wise director did tell us one day at rehearsal that a lot of what we do at Sterling does not require learning, but unlearning.  Unlearning societally-indoctrinated impediments to our imagination gained during the transition to adulthood.  Much of my education this summer was better described as a reversion to more juvenile tendencies such as speaking before thinking (as opposed to thinking before we speak) and not asking for permission.

My character had a troubled upbringing.  Not in his reality, but mine.  Developing the beggar, Peter, was a struggle for me.  I sought to avoid clichés and to bring something a little bit more fascinating to the table.  I ultimately succeeded, but there was a very alarming lack of progress until a few days shy of opening weekend.  Even then, though, I would have to say objectively that Peter, overall, was a weakly designed character within the context of the festival.  There were certainly creative nuances about him, but his richest, most exciting and engrossing aspects I quickly found to be virtually unplayable to an audience.

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Behold Peter, the rockiest mendicant in Warwick.  (Photo credit: Andrew Lesny)

Still, many people, castmates and patrons alike, took a liking to Peter, if only for his superficial and behavioural features.  There was something oddly charming about that quiet, leaf-munching, stick-gathering beggar.  I and my mud-brothers were commended frequently for how well our characters contrasted with and complemented each other.  Each beggar was distinct in speech, posture, gait, demeanour and activity, and yet we worked so well together.  Though I did not achieve everything I wanted with my character, at least I can rest with the satisfaction of knowing that nobody else can ever play Peter exactly the way I did.

I must confess that I’m getting a little choked up, typing all this.  There are so many more things I could talk about, but this post is long enough as it is (approaching three thousand words upon composition of this paragraph).  Yet, in bringing this post to an end, I feel that I’m finally putting my time at Sterling to rest, despite having left over a month ago.  How fitting that I publish this at the beginning of fall – now that the revels of summer have ended and I must from my dream awake.

I wish I could tell you about all the belly-grippingly hilarious moments from rehearsal.  About all our inside jokes.  About the goofiness of social events like Christmas in July.  About how we would all sing along to Lost Boy7 Years and I’m Gonna Be, the songs in our warmups playlist every morning.  About how good it felt to see the joy and delight we brought to our patrons displayed upon their visages after a faire day.  About the admirable loyalty of our die-hard “Rennies” and Family/Friends of Faire as they accompanied us on our adventures every weekend.  About the inexpressible magic of performing and getting drenched alongside my boon companions amidst a deluge on the final weekend.

But even if the length of this post weren’t an issue, I’m not sure that I could sufficiently articulate such ideas.  You would think that an entire summer of practicing heightened speech craftsmanship would render me capable in such an endeavour, but the aforementioned items are things to be experienced, rather than recounted.  My words simply would not do them justice.

I thought arriving the 2nd of June was tough.  I was on edge, making sure I had everything before I hopped in my car, all the while dreading living in a strange place with people I had yet to meet.  Wondering what rehearsals would be like.

Packing up the 15th of August was even tougher.  I couldn’t fold a few shirts without having to sit back down on my bed and breaking down in tears.  I kept my weeping private for the sake of my roommates.  It was a hard afternoon for me.

I miss the routine.  The simplicity.  The certainty that I was going to see my friends at rehearsal the next day.

When I started writing this post, I was sure that I wanted to end it with the festival’s parting phrase, “Merry meet, merry part and merry meet again.”  But that makes it sound like it’s going to be a long time before that happens.  I don’t even know whether I’ll be on cast next year; that’s largely out of my control.

So, thank you all for reading this whale of a post.  Thank-you to those of you who made the trip out to Sterling to support me in what may have been a flash in the pan.  And, to my family in Warwick…

See you tomorrow.

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