Top dialect coach, Don Wadsworth, reflects and inflects

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In City Theatre's current production of "The 39 Steps," four actors play 150 (!) roles.

That calls for cast members to assume a multitude of accents and voices in quick succession. And that, in turn, calls for Don Wadsworth, one of a select group of acting teachers in the country with special expertise in dialect coaching.

A professor of voice and speech at Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Wadsworth is the go-to guy for actors appearing on Pittsburgh stages and shooting films in the region. If a Brit or Aussie needs to wipe out his accent, develop a Southern drawl or some Brooklynese, or an American has to find her inner cockney or Australian twang, Mr. Wadsworth is a phone call away -- not just here but across the country.

For the new movie "Unstoppable," set to open next month, the directors flew him to Los Angeles to coach California-born Chris Pines to play a working-class Midwesterner. The coach also worked with Matt Bohmer, a former student, on his TV series "White Collar."

Tracy Brigden, artistic director of City Theatre, described Mr. Wadsworth as "a world-class master of his craft" and a vital part of many productions.

In "The 39 Steps," she said, "Don has coached the actors in multiple dialects including Scottish, German, Cockney and standard British. We could not have done the production without him. He is wildly knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the work he does but, more important, he always puts the dialect work into the context of character, situation and overall tone and style of the play."

Mr. Wadsworth currently is working on "A New York Heartbeat," an independent film shooting here but set in 1957 Brooklyn. It's about teenagers who get in trouble with the law and the Mafia. He's also rehearsing his own modern version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with students at CMU, where he's taught for 20 years.

On a recent Monday morning, he put a dozen third-year students through their paces, practicing the high English required by the plays of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw.

"You've got the 'ask' words down," he said, referring to long-A words such as ahsk, cahn't and ghahstly. "Now you need more irony. This is a battle of wits, and you always want to win. You're being insulting, teaching him a lesson."

Dialect, he reminds his students, is more than pronunciation. It's cadence, phrasing, inflection, pitch, speed. A Brooklyn dialect, for example, might be Italian, Irish or Jewish, depending on some or all of those factors.

"Some dialects are funny," he said. "What's on the page may not be funny until the dialect opens the door of comedy. It gives license to be more broad, funny, clever. But you try to make it real, not just large and loopy. I tell my students, 'Don't let the dialect drive the car.' "

Mr. Wadsworth, a native of Plum, lives on the North Side with his wife, Jill Wadsworth, an acting teacher for Donna Belajac Casting and for high school students in a CMU summer program.

They have two children in their 30s.

"It's a lot of fun to help actors create a whole character based on the way they speak," he said. "It's giving them a great clue on how to create a great performance.

"People don't necessarily know you've done it, but at the end of the day you feel you've helped create something. It's very satisfying."

It must be, because two former acting teachers at CMU are now dialogue coaches for some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Liz Himmelstein works with Nicole Kidman, and Tim Monich works with Brad Pitt, among others.

Most actors like having a dialect coach, Mr. Wadsworth said.

"The director has to be concerned with every aspect of the film. We're there just for the actors. They like that."

But not always.

"Some stars don't want to learn a dialect," he said. "They want to be who they are."

That happened during filming of the 1994 film "The Cemetery Club," shot in Pittsburgh, Mr. Wadsworth said. Hired to teach the actors a Jewish inflection, he coached Olympia Dukakis and Diane Ladd, but Danny Aiello was not interested.

Later, when he saw the rest of them working together, Mr. Wadsworth said, "He approached me and said, 'Well, if I did do it, what would I be doing?' Eventually he went for it."

An actor himself, Mr. Wadsworth trained under one of the great acting teachers. Edith Skinner, at the American Conservatory Theater, founded at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 1965. He was a student apprentice there before attending Point Park.

Ms. Skinner, who died in 1980, developed what's known as American Theater Standard speech and literally wrote the book on dialogue: "Speak With Distinction," first published in 1942.

"It was pure luck that I got her as a teacher," Mr. Wadsworth said. "In her time she was very active in this world [of dialect coaching]. Only a handful of teachers did it. She thought I had a good ear and was very encouraging. When directors saw her on my resume, they just assumed I could do it, too."

At the American Conservatory Theater, he said, "I got to watch so much great acting, with people like Rene Auberjonois and Richard Dysart in 'King Lear' and 'Tartuffe.' That helped a lot, too."

He finished his degree at Point Park and taught there for 10 years while appearing in roles at the City Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater and The Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival.

He got into coaching when Marc Masterson, then-director of the City Theatre, asked him to help another actor with his dialect. Soon he was doing it on a more regular basis.

"I thought it was such a cool idea, really fun and almost as creative as acting," Mr. Wadsworth said.

Theaters kept calling. That led to his first feature film, "Dominick and Eugene," the 1988 movie set on the South Side. Mr. Wadsworth showed Tom Hulce how to thicken his speech to play his brain-damaged character, and he worked with Ray Liotta to neutralize his natural New Jersey accent.

But it wasn't until he was asked to coach a Spanish accent that he realized he could do just about any dialect, given the right resources.

"There were a few tapes you could buy, and I looked for movies or TV shows with actors who speak that way naturally," he said.

Mr. Wadsworth would listen to the speaker and make notes using a phonetic alphabet.

Once, when coaching a Kentucky dialect for a play in Louisville, he realized the audience would know if he got it wrong.

"I called the Chamber of Commerce and asked for someone to tell me about caving, which was a popular pastime. I just kept asking questions and kept him on the line as long as I could."

It's easier to find resources today.

"There is so much on the Internet," he said. "You can go on YouTube and find people who own the New Jersey dialect or any other one.

"It's nearly a mathematical formula. You begin to realize there's a musicality. Every dialect has an inflection and a signature. Cockney is very choppy and staccato. High English is long-winded. Once you realize that, it helps you plot out the dialogue."

Among those he's coached recently:

• Actors Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, respectively Australian and British, who had to sound like American brothers in "Warrior," which filmed in Pittsburgh last year.

• Kodi Smit-McPhee, another Australian, playing the young American son of Viggo Mortensen in "The Road," shot in Western Pennsylvania.

• The British actor Julian Morris for his role as an all-American college boy in the horror film "Sorority Row."

You can see Mr. Wadsworth's name in the film credits, but only if you're patient, he said.

"Dialect coaches always come way at the end."

Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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