PTLC2005 Dudley Knight, IPA for Actors in the USA 1 New Techniques in IPA Training for Actors in the United States Dudley Knight, University of California, Irvine A Very Brief History The International Phonetic Alphabet has been an integral part of speech and accent training of actors in the United States for most of the twentieth century. Use of the IPA, as distinct from other phonetic transcription systems or diacritic notation, became common in American speech texts shortly after World War I. The textbooks that appeared in the nineteen-twenties were not directed primarily at performers, but rather at a more general audience who studied diction as a part of a general educational curriculum in primary and secondary schools. The center of this activity was in the New York City public school system, where many of the speech teachers studied phonetic transcription with William Tilly, who in earlier years had taught Daniel Jones in his Institute near Berlin. Tilly had joined the faculty of Columbia University’s extension program in 1918, focusing his teaching on the training of other teachers and on the remediation of the foreign accents of the immigrant populations of New York. His pedagogy combined a use of narrow phonetic transcription with a highly prescriptive modeling of what he mandated as the proper speech sounds in English. Crucial to his approach, and to the efforts of his followers, was a strong belief in the inherent euphony of certain vowel and consonant sounds and the utility of the “World English” speech pattern as a vehicle for upward social mobility. Indeed, one of Tilly’s pupils, Marguerite DeWitt, titled the subject “Euphonetics” in her book EuphonEnglish in America (1926). Tilly’s preferred speech pattern was essentially the RP of the late nineteenth century. The American teachers who worked with him had already developed a pattern, largely based on American elocutionary training, that was a slight variant, allowing for prevailing American pronunciation choices and opting for [a] rather than [ɑ] in the pat/path distinction. Tilly’s principle contribution to the mission of these teachers was to provide— with narrow IPA transcription—a methodology that imparted a supposedly scientific basis to the highly prescriptive speech pattern they were already teaching. However, to most American ears, the “Good American Speech” pattern still sounded like an English accent. While it attained some considerable use amongst wealthy New Yorkers in the period between the world wars, it was generally rejected by most American speakers. Except in the theatre. Based largely on the work of two of Tilly’s star pupils, Margaret Prendergast McLean and Edith Warman Skinner, the Good American Speech pattern became the dominant pattern for speech training in the American theatre. It was an easy fit. Since the nineteenth century, American actors had customarily affected—with varying degrees of accuracy—an English accent when performing the classical repertoire, especially Shakespeare. It remained an unquestioned assumption in the American theatre until well into the nineteen-sixties that all Shakespeare should be performed in RP, or something very close to it such as Good American Speech, which was also the title of the book written by Margaret Prendergast McLean in 1928. Skinner’s book, Speak With Distinction, using McLean’s book as a template, became the dominant text for theatre PTLC2005 Dudley Knight, IPA for Actors in the USA 2 speech instruction in the United States, and it remains so today in a revised edition by Lilene Mansell and Timothy Monich (1990). A New Approach The Good American Speech regimen, though it produces some changes in actors’ speech use that undeniably are beneficial, is a vestige of a bygone era in American theatre practice, but it is an anachronism that still dominates professional theatre speech training programs in the United States. As just one example of the resistance to change evidenced by McLean/Skinner teachers, the IPA symbols are still being rendered in unconnected cursive script, a transcription form that has not been used widely by phoneticians since the beginning of the twentieth century. The IPA symbols taught to students are limited strictly to those phonemes that represent the preferred speech sounds of “good American speech”, and allophonic variants of these phonemes are not introduced at all, not to mention the many other symbols that represent the sounds of the world’s languages. Despite this, students usually emerge from this training with the notion that they have “learned the IPA”. Phonetic instruction, therefore, exists solely as a vehicle to inculcate the preferred speech pattern and to wean the student actors permanently away from what are designated as the substandard patterns of their own regional dialects. Because McLean/Skinner speech training takes, as its only pedagogical model, a specifically focused drill in this prescriptive accent pattern, the accent can take up to two years of weekly classes for students to acquire. But the theatrical market for this approach may be waning. It is no longer considered necessary—by most American regional theatres—that actors in classical plays speak uniformly in a conventionalized class-based accent, spoken in no region of the United States and devised by speech teachers nearly a hundred years ago. A growing numbers of major training programs are—however belatedly—starting to consider new options. At the University of California, Irvine, for the past twenty years within our professional M.F.A. acting program, I have been exploring new possibilities for speech and accent training that can serve more realistically the needs of professional actors today. It seems to me that the primary focus of theatre voice and speech training should be to equip the actor to find and express the unique voice of the character the actor is playing. This unique vocal and articulatory creation cannot be forced into a single mold of “good speech”, nor indeed can it be imposed on an actor by anyone prior to the act of creating the role itself. It is, by its nature, created by the actor alone as it becomes, in effect, the idiolect of the character. It is obvious to me that the training focus cannot be on the acquisition of a single pattern of speech, or even the rote mastery of a limited set of accents, but rather must be on the acquisition of a complex set of articulation skills based on the student’s awareness of subtle changes in articulator shaping and the sounds that result. The actor needs to be freed from dependency on her or his own habits of articulation without losing the ability to come back easily to the original regional or social accent if the need arises, whether in life or in art. In this training process the IPA becomes a crucial tool for enabling the student to acquire this infinitely variable skills set by focusing on the descriptive—as opposed to prescriptive—awareness of discrete speech actions. At UCI, we do not commence our work by teaching the IPA symbols. Students go through several weeks of study and exploration of vocal anatomy and physiology, including their direct observation through video-endoscopy of their own vocal actions in a diagnostic protocol of speaking and singing tasks. The second phase of the work PTLC2005 Dudley Knight, IPA for Actors in the USA 3 focuses on isolation of muscle action in the muscles that alter the shape of the vocal tract. Students explore vocalizing freely, ingressively as well as egressively, as they explore these gradations of muscular action, with no restrictions on the sorts of articulator actions they attempt or the sounds that result, many of which are undeniably and deliciously bizarre. Students play with these sound actions as isolated sounds and also in connected phonation, producing a free-form nonsense language that I term “Outlandish.” What the students perhaps do not realize, as they engage in this seemingly unstructured exploration, is that they are starting to free themselves from the muscle memory that pulls them habitually back into their own accents. They are also becoming aware of the tremendous variety of human vocal sound possibilities and, more importantly, they are learning to exist comfortably within a world of vocal sound that is not limited to a small set of phonemes. They are, in other words, starting to free themselves from phonetic interference. Students are now invited to add a little more self-analysis to their exploration. They start to distinguish areas of the vocal tract that make a greater contribution to vocal quality and those that make a greater contribution to the shaping of vowel sounds, which I prefer, at this stage, to term “phthongs”, both because it is a term free of the limiting phonemic implications of “vowels” (and also because it is amusing to say). They start to differentiate between obstruents that are inefficient physical actions to produce in connected speech and those that can allow for fluent action into and out of other sounds. They start to be aware of which actions produce clearly differentiated sounds and which do not. So some of the most beloved sounds need to be retired to the admittedly utilitarian world of cartoon character voices and rude noises, and those that remain have at least the potential to become part of the world of language. At this point the work begins to focus on consonant production. Students conduct an initial self-exploration of possible degrees and forms of voiced or unvoiced obstruent action and then explore the possible placements for those actions, always mindful of the necessity that the resultant sounds be perceptually differentiated. It is only now that the IPA pulmonic consonant chart is introduced. But it is devoid of symbols. The “empty consonant chart” is an innovation of my UCI colleague, Professor Philip Thompson. Within the “empty consonant chart”, all that we are considering are the possible combinations of actions and placements that might fill many—though not all—of the cells in the table. The focus is totally on the physical, not the notational, but the students rapidly master the sensory recipe for each sound (unvoiced/voiced, action, placement). Inevitably the students find that they can produce a fair number of consonant sounds that do not happen to be utilized in any of the world’s languages (that we know of). But they are all within the linguistic realm of possibility. We then add to this repertoire the non-pulmonic consonant actions, not limited to placements as found in existing languages but defined, of course, by physiology. Using this full array of consonant resources, and with their completely free shaping of the infinite gradations of “phthongs”, the students are now able to combine them into a connected speech form that I call “Omnish”, since it can take the speaker through all the sounds used in language—and then some. Omnish is extremely useful for actors and, I would submit, for other speakers as well. On the simplest level, it is an exceptionally good articulation warmup, since it is far more PTLC2005 Dudley Knight, IPA for Actors in the USA 4 muscular than connected speech in any individual language. If actors do no more than learn the skills of Omnish, they usually carry this more active and detailed articulation into the speaking of English. Secondly, speaking Omnish continues to pull the students away from a reliance on the familiar and the habitual in language use and invites them to enjoy the enactment of language sounds that are vastly different from their own. Thirdly, as students try to speak Omnish fluently, it becomes an excellent diagnostic tool to pinpoint areas of residual muscle tension within the vocal tract. In my experience, by this point in their training students are positively eager to learn the phonetic symbols for as many of the sounds that they have produced as are contained in language. The process is about to move from an expansion into ever-increasing linguistic possibilities, inward into an analysis of the defining physicality of individual languages, accents, and idiolects. To do this, the students need to notate what the sound actions are. The preparation in perceptual and articulation skills that has gone before means that students generally learn all the IPA symbols and diacritics within two or three weeks, and another week of two of training in transcription of connected speech gives them the ability to perform accurate narrow phonetic transcription of conversational recordings of their colleagues in class. The Detail Model All of the speech work during the first academic year (30 weeks) at UCI is wholly descriptive, not prescriptive. At the start of the second year, students embark on a short but intensive study of a variable model for American Speech that I term the Detail Model. It is based on the commonly accepted precept in language study that an appropriate—but not excessive—increase in the amount of linguistic detail (e.g. full articulation of consonant clusters) in connected speech will make the speaker intelligible to a wider group of listeners across a variety of regional or social accents. The amount of detail that one might incorporate into one’s speech on stage is subject to a constant (indeed, moment-to-moment) process of revision dependent on the perceptual abilities of the listeners, the acoustics of the theatre space, the idiolect of the character, the vocal commitment of the character as defined within the play’s action at any given moment, the vocal health of the actor at that given performance, etcetera. All of these variables combine and recombine from moment to moment, and the requirement for linguistic detail will constantly change. The only constant “standard” is that the actor be generally intelligible to the audience at all times. So the Detail Model is, like the work that has come before, a set of skills that is in the control of the speaker. Quite obviously, it is far different in concept and pedagogy from a fixed, inflexible pattern of “good speech.” But I submit that it is of far more utility to a professional actor who may need to work in an outdoor theatre in a classical drama one month and on a television set playing contemporary naturalism the next. Defining Accents Finally, students carry their skills of self-analysis into the process of selecting those defining structures of muscular tension and relaxation that shape the variety of sound actions in Omnish into the physical “posture” of a specific accent. Because the students already know, and can control, the variables that comprise an accent posture, they are able to employ linguistic findings in characteristic accent sounds to help them define accent posture. And because they have a working knowledge of the entire IPA, they are able to use the wealth of research in dialectology to acquire new accents that they may not have studied directly during their period of training. PTLC2005 Dudley Knight, IPA for Actors in the USA 5 References DeWitt, Marguerite (1926) EuphonEnglish in America. New York: E. P. Dutton. Skinner, Edith Warman (1990) Speak With Distinction. Lilene Mansell & Timothy Monich. eds. New York: Applause Theatre Books.