March 18, 2013

Eric Armstrong: Dialect Coaching on “Arigato, Tokyo”

Eric Armstrong Eric Armstrong

Buddies in Bad Times‘ Artistic Director, Brendan Healey, contacted me last spring to check my availability for a show he was working on, Daniel MacIvor’s new play, Arigato, Tokyo. I had worked with Brendan on Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Buddies in the Fall of 2010, and was delighted with the opportunity to work with him and his team on this new show. The play would be workshopped for a week in the summer of 2012, when I would do the bulk of my work with the actors, and then, during rehearsals in February/March of 2013, I would get to help “polish” the finished product. On top of this very beneficial rehearsal plan—good for me and the actors because we got to lay the ground work for the accents required well before the show goes into rehearsal—was the added bonus of the accents I would be coaching: Japanese! As a middle-aged white guy, I get called on to coach anglo-centric, European accents a lot of the time. This was going to be a challenge that I’d been looking forward to for some time.

Having students coming from the diverse population of Canada, and especially Toronto, I had, of course, worked with Asian students who needed to learn a range of accents. One of the great tragedies of traditional voice training is that Asian accents in general have not been one of the “standard” accents actors or voice coaches typically learn in grad school. So, in collaboration with a number of Asian students, I had made a point of working on a Japanese accent before in order to better equip them for the market they were entering.

David Storch and Michael Dufays in Arigato, Tokyo David Storch and Michael Dufays in Arigato, Tokyo
Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

Analyzing an accent quickly is something that I’ve had to get good at over the past ten years of coaching for film and television in Toronto. I frequently get called to provide accent resources for a film or TV show with only a few days warning, and sometimes as little as a couple of hours. I gather audio samples of native speakers, listen very carefully to the sound of their speech, and break the various component parts of the accent down into an outline for the actors to reference. I then record an accent lesson where I carefully walk the listener through the various components of the accent. Next, I provide a hand-out and this audio file to the actors, along with a list of links to audio samples of native speakers I’ve found on the internet, or that I’ve recorded and uploaded myself. This forms the “package” that the actors get; back in the old days, they would get a paper hand-out and a CD, but today they get a link via email to a website featuring these materials. You can see the site I built for Arigato, Tokyo for yourself, if you’d like.  I send this out to the actors about a month before the summer workshop. Of course, the great benefit is that they then show up to the workshop quite well prepared, ready to do the detail work on the accent, not the gross motor skills of merely familiarizing themselves with the accent.

Arigato Tokyo Tyson James in Arigato, Tokyo
Photo: Jeremy Minmagh

During the week-long summer workshop, we began with a reading of the play, and questions. I asked a lot of questions, and managed to provoke some really interesting responses from Brendan. Though he auditioned just about every Japanese and Asian actor in Toronto, he cast the play with bi-racial actors, none of whom are Japanese. His reasons for this are complex and fit the world of the play perfectly: it is a memory play of a “mainstream,” caucasian Canadian author who is visiting Tokyo, on a book tour. The characters we meet in the play are what he remembers of them, and his memory is not necessarily clear. The actors had all played characters with asian accents before, but never had a coach to work with them; they were excited for the opportunity to have some support. Over the course of the week, we met one-on-one repeatedly in order to go through the script line-by-line, and, at times, word-by-word. One of the characters has a very strong accent, one a very mild accent, and one is somewhere in between, and shifts depending on the context! This is where the “design” component of my job really comes into play. I’m not merely teaching a set form to the actors; I’m tweaking the choices, in consultation with the actors, to reinforce their image of the characters. Accents modulate, subtly, in response to the given circumstances of the scene: are they more emotional? more in control?   Luckily for me, the sections of the play that are actually in Japanese were covered by a Japanese language expert.

One benefit of this research and workshop opportunity is that it made me an “expert” on something that other voice teachers really wanted to learn about. Last summer’s conference of the Voice And Speech Trainers Association (VASTA), held in Washington DC, allowed me an opportunity to team up with a group of Accent coaches from around the world and present a panel on Asian accents. While I covered Japanese, my colleagues presented introductions to Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Vietnamese. We prepared resources to share with the conference attendees, and we made them available on a website on Asian Accents that we then shared around the community.

By the time rehearsals began in February, the actors had internalized the accent, and so my work with them focused more on making subtle adjustments. At this point we tweaked choices to make sure that the play’s text was intelligible. Is the accent too strong here? In this emotional moment, the accent seems to be disappearing. The rhythm of the accent (very even) seems to be de-emphasizing key syllables of the most important words in the scene, leaving the listener confused. By consulting with the actors, I guided them to make more specific choices that reinforced their vision of their characters, while supporting the director’s vision of the play and the playwright’s intent. A delightful puzzle for me!

Come opening night, there’s nothing left for me to do other than sit back and enjoy the show. It’s an honour to work with such talented actors, director and playwright, and a pleasure to work on skills that will help my York students in the future.


Arigato, Tokyo plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, MARCH 16 – APRIL 14, 2013. 

Review: ★★★★