In The Invisible Hand, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar masterfully distills the geopolitics of religious extremism to a series of events occurring in a small room, rapidly widening in scope from Pakistani potato futures to international high-frequency trading to suicide bombings and American drone strikes. Populating that room are four characters who speak in distinct dialects that instantly communicate the play’s global reach.
Marianna de Fazio, the production’s dialect coach, was tasked with formulating the linguistic components of this seamless cultural collage. She’s also done dialect work on the Intiman’s Angels in America, Book-It’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Arcadia at Seattle Public Theatre, and many others. Her current project is The Bunner Sisters, which runs at Theatre off Jackson September 19 through October 4.
I asked de Fazio a few questions about her work on The Invisible Hand.
This play features four actors talking in four different dialects. What are they?
Bashir is from Hounslow, a London suburb, so cockney or working-class London. (The film Bend it Like Beckham takes place there.) Dar and the Imam are speaking general Pakistani dialects, but they have different education levels. We thought a lot about how they might have learned English. Dar is written to be halting, and we thought he might have learned a lot from Nick [the American hostage]. The Imam is educated though probably did not attend a British university.
What’s your process for tackling a play like this? What does the work look like in day-to-day rehearsals?
Dialect coaches, like any designer, must honor the text we are given. Careful reading of the script and conversations with the director to determine the sounds we want is first. Then it’s my job to break down the dialect into swallow-able parts for the actor to learn.
Typically, I prepare a sheet and record myself going through the sound changes and any special pronunciations in the script. I provide links to or suggestions of sound samples of natives speaking the dialect, which could be films, documentary or audio recordings. All of this gets sent to the actors ideally a month in advance so they can prep the material before rehearsals begin. Then we set up a series of one-on-one coaching sessions, and eventually the coach will watch rehearsals and preview performances and give notes.
Truly embodying a dialect is a skill that goes far beyond mimicry, and like any teacher, my job is to find whatever track works with each actor to best get the sound that the director and I need.
My experience with The Invisible Hand was unique because my husband [Agastya Kohli] was the language coach. He had the text translated from English to Punjabi (a dialect that his parents speak), then taught it to the actors in a similar way. I was essentially living with a primary resource!
Your work seems impossibly difficult for someone like me who can barely utter three words in a bad British accent. Did you have a natural aptitude for dialect? What is the career path to becoming a dialect coach for major theatrical productions?
I would say I have an ear for dialects, but not beyond any normal aptitude. I have long had a love of languages and other cultures. I have a BA in Theatre and German Studies from St. Louis University. Directly after college I moved to Austria on a Teaching Fulbright where I stayed for 5 years speaking German and fully immersed in that culture before moving to Seattle to attend the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program.
One year we had a class on dialects, and learning how to learn a dialect was so valuable, coupled with my experience teaching drama and English as a second language. Meeting my Indian husband after graduate school was an introduction to yet another culture, one that paved the path directly to ACT’s production of The Invisible Hand.
As a native Southerner, I’m constantly cringing at all the bad Southern dialects being thrown about on TV these days. The worst sound like a mix between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. (Walking Dead and True Blood are the biggest culprits). Are there any bad accents on TV/movies that drive you nuts these days? Does your expertise make it hard to enjoy certain performances?
Certainly, hearing a sub-par dialect can be like hearing an out-of-tune note in a symphony and can really take you out of the experience. I try to remember that no two people speak exactly alike, and though the audience may be familiar with one “standard,” there’s always room for personality and character traits on stage, just as in life. There are so many factors that go into any production, so I try to have compassion if an effort was made.
Ideally you have a director who views the dialect as an important piece of the puzzle, a stage manager or AD who schedules the time needed to really learn the dialect, a cast that either have an aptitude for accents already or who are willing to put in the time needed to delve into the work, not to mention the money and foresight to be able to hire a coach.
Since you specifically mentioned cartoons, I feel I must address that, since it does come up in what I do. Most cartoons are based on stereotypes which hit on something that is true. That’s why we laugh. Using a cartoon as reference for pronunciation or dialect was something I cringed at for a long time. However, if a cartoon character is an association an actor has for a certain sound, it’s simply another way ‘in’ as a coach.
I find that most actors are already sensitive to potentially offending by doing a parody of the language. I find myself encouraging them to lean into the dialect, to be a bit more extreme in their sounds, and to trust that I will have them back off if it’s becoming a caricature. In this way, I feel I also act as a sort of cultural liaison. We begin with authenticity, keeping in mind that a dialect so authentic that it’s neither recognizable nor understandable isn’t necessarily serving the script or the story.
What’s the hardest dialect for a native English speaker to master?
That totally depends on the person and their familiarity with said dialect, plus their ability to hear and construct the sounds, the inflections and the melody necessary to recreate the dialect.
What’s your favorite dialect?
I would say I’m an Anglophile, and the diversity of dialects in the United Kingdom fascinates me. I worked as an Exhibit Coordinator for Pacific Science Center’s Harry Potter: The Exhibition, and spoke in dialect while at work for the entire 6 months of the exhibit. It was the best way to really live in the sounds and improvise and react in dialect. It solidified my love of British English!
The Invisible Hand runs through September 28 at ACT Theatre. Buy tickets here.