Elizabeth Smith is currently facing down her nemesis: playwright Caryl Churchill.
Don't misunderstand. She doesn't dislike the English playwright. But Elizabeth Smith is a dialect coach — one of the more sought- after in New York theatre — and few plays employ more dialects that the class- and politics-oriented works of Churchill. Smith is currently working on Manhattan Theatre Club's new revival of Churchill's Top Girls and she knows she has her work cut out for her.
"I expect that will take a great deal of time," said the English-born Smith, who speaks as clearly and crisply as you'd expect, "because there are so many different accents, and because each actress plays more than one role." The drama includes characters who hail from Suffolk and Edinburgh, and Smith and director James Macdonald have determined that other characters will speak with Estuary and North Country accents.
As you might ascertain, Smith specializes in the tongues of the British Isles. She said she couldn't teach an American accent "to save my life. When people call me to do American accents, I have to confess, with a certain amount of shame, that I can't do them. And I always recommend someone else." That's all right, though. There are enough British dialects to keep her plenty busy. Prior to her current work on Top Girls, she spent some time in North London. That's where the action in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming takes place. Director Daniel Sullivan, who has employed Smith many times, drafted her to work on the current Broadway revival, which features a cast of both British and American actors. Smith said she spent most of her time working with the Yankee actors Michael McKean, Gareth Saxe and Raul Esparza.
"Most British actors have a repertoire of accents that they can assume," she explained. "So really the only people I worked with were the Americans. Michael was very good indeed. I hardly had to give him any help. He's got a very good ear. He's a little older, a little more experienced. My main work was with Raul and Gareth."
She went through the text several times with Raul, who plays the pimp Lenny in Pinter's play of ambiguous, ominous family menace. She gave him a dialect CD to listen to, and instructed him in what he could draw on from his English friends. "We came up with something that wasn't going to get in his way. That was very important, because he has long monologues that are crucial to the play. And if he's thinking about the dialect, that wouldn't work. It had to be something that he felt very secure with."
Smith said she tried to avoid giving actors specific line readings. However, "Occasionally, questions of rhythm come up. There are questions of syllabic stress. Then I do. I say, 'This is not a line reading. This is the way a Brit would say it.'" Most of her job is done on specific rehearsal days when she is asked to come in. She also is on hand for run-throughs and dress rehearsals.
Smith has been a dialect coach for 30 years. She said that she "fell into" her profession after years of attending drama school and teaching drama in London. In 1974, she won her first Broadway job as dialect coach for The National Health at the Circle in the Square Theatre. She has since worked on dozens of shows, including such noted productions of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the Elizabeth Taylor production of Private Lives, the musicals Me and My Girl and The Who's Tommy and the Tom Stoppard plays The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia and Rock 'n' Roll.
Smith said the most difficult show she ever worked on was The Skriker — by her old friend, Caryl Churchill. A further candidate for toughest assignment is another Churchill play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. "She has a lot of different characters and they're all acutely observed and finely drawn," she said of the dramatist. Smith compares the task of retaining a dialect while actors all around you are speaking different dialects to being in a choir and keeping on key while the people on either side of you are singing completely different notes. "I don't think people appreciate how difficult it is for performers to achieve this."
Among the most particular challenges of her line of work lies in working with Irish actors, said Smith. Getting an Irishman to speak like anything other than an Irishman can be a test. "An Irish accent is very deeply ingrained," she said. "It's the melody of it. It's hard to put something else over it. And I'm not sure there isn't a strong emotional element. They don't want to give that up and I don't blame them."
And then there is Geordie. This is a dialect spoken in northeast England, around Newcastle, and Smith said it is the hardest English dialect to master. It includes vocabulary words seen nowhere else in the country ("canny" means "pleasant" or "very"; a toilet is a "nettielbog"). "It's a mish-mash of several things. It's close to Yorkshire. It's close to the Lowlands. It's northeast of England, a little bit isolated. You don't find many Geordie speakers in New York. It's a little more elusive." One of the few plays Smith has encountered that has featured the Geordie dialect is An Experiment With an Air Pump by Shelagh Stephenson.
So far Caryl Churchill hasn't written a play set in Newcastle. When she does, though, Smith will be ready.