Directing the Dialect

Junior Ben Morris had a supporting role in “Crimes of the Heart” and served as the dialect coach for the play set in small-town Mississippi.

Ben Morris, a junior acting major, found his life pursuit by accident.

Morris had plans to spend a day with his friend, but his friend had rehearsal for the school’s play. This scheduling conflict brought Morris to the stage for the first time.

“My friend turned to me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to rehearsal for a play that I am in,'” Morris said.  “I went to rehearsal with him and they had a couple people missing that day, so I filled in for one of the roles in rehearsal. They said ‘You are pretty good, you should try out for the next play.'”

Morris did audition for the next play and got a role.

“After that play I did summer camp at a local theater,” Morris said. “I have been doing it ever since.”

His acting experience led him to audition for the acting major program at Elon. During his senior year of high school, he came to Elon and went through the audition process that includes an informational meeting with the head of the acting department, observing an acting class and the actual audition.

“It’s a really relaxed day and the teachers are really cool and want you to do well,” Morris said. “I get to help out with the auditions sometimes and it’s a lot of fun to get to talk to the new students hoping to come here.”

Morris has a role in the production “Crimes of the Heart” and playing a character called Doc Porter. Doc Porter had a relationship with one of three sisters, Meg Magrath, five years prior to when the play is set. During the play, the three sisters reunite for the first time, and Morris’ character also reunites with Magrath for the first time.

“They are meeting for the first time after five years,” Morris said.  “It is a really fun part.”
Doc Porter is not the only role that Morris has for “Crimes of the Heart.” He is also the assistant dialect coach.

“I took the dialects class last fall, a course for acting majors,” Morris said. “The teacher of the class is the dialect coach for the show. You were supposed to meet up with Richard pretty early on with rehearsal process to learn the dialect. He told me that I basically had the dialect down and offered me the position of being his assistant.”

The dialect for this production is very specific to the town this play is set in Hazlehurst, Miss.
“It’s not your typical southern twang or drawl that you hear in exaggerated cartoons or plays or that kind of thing,” Morris said. “Richard Gang, the dialect coach, listened to YouTube videos from people from Hazlehurst, like news reports. He also listened to YouTube videos of the playwright because she is from Mississippi.”

The dialect has many different changes and regionalisms from different places that mesh together to create one dialect. There are parts of the dialect from North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

There are some aspects of the dialect that Morris said were important for the actors to focus on.

“The most important change is the use of a hard R,” Morris said. “For this play the actors need to have more tension in their tongue when they say that sound. Another one is what we call a pin for pen substitution, when you change the vowel sound. That is a big one that is consistent in dialects throughout the south. Since we are in North Carolina, a lot of people who came here as acting majors have to get them out of the habit of doing this.”

Not all students involved with the production have taken the same voice and speech classes. Music theatre majors are not required to take all of the same voice and speech classes, and some students have not taken the course.

“Everyone in the cast hasn’t had the same voice and speech training as everybody else, so you can’t use the same vocabulary that some of us have learned,” Morris said. “In class we use the international phonetic alphabet, symbols that stand for sounds that can be made with the mouth. Not everyone has had that training so you kind of have to explain it to them in different words.”

Morris listened to speeches during rehearsals and would e-mail notes to the actors afterwards.

“It is kind of hard to explain how they are speaking over an email,” Morris said. “It’s a lot easier to say it, hear them and give instant feedback.”

Morris hopes to continue working with dialects, perhaps even offering voice and speech classes when he graduates on the side while he pursues acting.

“As soon as I got here to Elon freshman year and heard there was a dialects class, I couldn’t wait to take it,” Morris said.

Here is a video that was filmed and edited by The Pendulum’s Online Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Stern.

The original story is posted here.

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