October 25, 2023

There’s an unusual line in Max Hartshorne’s review of Silverthorne Theater’s The Cake:

“Kudos to Lindsay Forauer, the show’s dialect coach, for helping Aspenlieder to get the Piedmont accent down perfectly,” he writes. 

What’s unusual about that is that shout-outs for dialect coaches are rare, according Professor of Voice and Acting Elisa Gonzales. She is mentoring Forauer, a theater and linguistics double major, as she takes her first steps toward a voice and dialect coaching career. “For Lindsay's work to get acknowledged in that way speaks volumes about the level of care and thought and intention that she brought to that show.”

It was an auspicious professional debut for Forauer, who is now collaborating with Gonzales on the Department of Theater’s production of The Hatmaker’s Wife, which requires its actors to speak in Polish accents.

Forauer, a junior, started at UMass as a linguistics major, but she’s always loved theater as well as dialects and accents. “When I added the Theater Major, I was talking to (Undergraduate Program Director) Amy Altadonna about that, and she was like, ‘Oh, I know exactly the person I hook you up with.’ I got Elisa as my advisor, and it's been like the perfect pairing since,” she said.

In addition to teaching in the department, Gonzales does voice and dialect coaching for department and professional productions. She is also a certified teacher of both Knight-Thompson Speechwork and Fitzmaurice Voicework. She was excited to take on Forauer as a mentee.

“How (Forauer) has designed her experience here at UMass, being a double major in linguistics and in theater, is the perfect combination for the making of a future dialect coach,” she said, adding praise of Forauer’s dedication to the work. “She was just so excited and eager to learn everything about dialect coaching.”

UMass Theater’s broad-based approach means Forauer has an understanding of elements of theater from performance to design; adding in the technical understanding of linguistics is somewhat rare and makes for tremendously valuable pairing of skills. Forauer is now also training in Knight-Thompson Speechwork and pursued intensive training in England this summer. 

Both women are fans of the “holistic” approach of Knight-Thompson Speechwork, which considers a person’s background and cultural context in addition to things like the physical mechanics of pronunciation and the musicality of a particular way of speaking, according to Forauer. Historically, speech and voice work was focused on getting everyone to adopt a “standard” way of speaking, but increasingly, Gonzales explained, the work has become about recognizing that we all have unique backgrounds that influence our speech.

The work can be divided into roughly two elements: The first is research, where the coach seeks out audio files and other resources to understand the specifics of how vowels and consonants are shaped, and the second is working with actors to help them apply that information to their performances. 

“I like to think of us as linguistic dramaturgs,” Gonzales said. “We have to research the world of the play: How do these people exist in the world, what is the cultural context, what's the native language? If it's a foreign language accent, what specific city or place are they in? What's their class? What's their education? We are digging into all of that so it informs how we're design-ing the dialect.”

Gonzales and Forauer first worked together as coach and assistant on last year’s UMass Theater production of Orlando, which required, among other things, a period Russian accent. 

Forauer remembered doing research on cultural context for Orlando as a moment that confirmed for her that dialect coaching was the right direction for her. “I was like, ‘This is all of my interests in one thing!’” she recalled: the historical research, digging into how people live, the linguistic deep dive into pronunciation, and teaching people. “Every component of it was so interesting. And I've always loved teaching people. I love getting to see other people get excited about the thing that I'm already excited about.”

After their work on Orlando, Forauer shadowed Gonzales for another Silverthorne Theater production, Intimate Apparel, where Gonzales was the dialect coach. Then over the summer, Forauer took on The Cake as her first solo professional gig. 

Now, they’re doing The Hatmaker's Wife as co-coaches, divvying up the research and tag-teaming the coaching as actors begin to work on their parts. 

“The dialect design was a true collaboration between both of us. For example, I researched the pronunciation of the vowels. Lindsay was looking at the oral posture of the accent, and she was looking at what the consonants look like in the accent,” Gonzales said.

In this play, the characters are Polish immigrants, Forauer said, which means “there's a certain level of assimilation to American English that they would have. But it's important to get the Polish basis first, so that they know where they're coming from.”

From there, she explained, she and Gonzales are helping them figure out, “OK, you could crank up the volume on that, or you can back off a little bit off of this sound to make it sound more adjusted.”

Part of the trick of coaching is to find the balance between giving actors the technical skill to adopt certain sounds, and, as Gonzales puts it, “how to integrate the accent work so it becomes an embodied part of the storytelling and the actor’s character work.”

“Everyone puts it into their mouth differently, and everyone puts it into the text differently,” Forauer said.