July 28, 2008
UI theater alumnus Bruce Shapiro is the dialect wizard of Oz
Bruce Shapiro, an alumnus of the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts, has been dubbed "the dialect coach to the stars." And for good reason: He wrote the book, literally, on how Australian actors can sound like Americans in stage, film and TV productions.
A new edition of his 2000 book "Speaking American, the Australian Actors Guide to an American Dialect" with an accompanying CD, is just out from Currency Press, Australia's performing arts publisher.
Shapiro recently finished work on the HBO mini-series "The Pacific," produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks as a sequel to "Band of Brothers." The biggest-budget mini-series ever filmed in Australia, "The Pacific" features American actors in the three lead roles, but fills out the cast with more than 175 Australian actors who must pass for American Marines, nurses and civilians. And he is now at work on "Triangle," a fantasy thriller starring popular Australian actress Melissa George.
They are just the latest of more than 40 cinema and TV productions on which Shapiro has contributed his expertise during the last decade, including movies featuring Jodie Foster, Naomi Watts, Julia Roberts, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, William Hurt, Jamie Foxx, Sarah Michelle Geller, Paris Hilton, Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Gabriel Byrne, William H. Macy and the Carradine brothers.
Shapiro earned his UI Master of Fine Arts degree in directing in 1979, and after teaching at Tufts University in Boston he moved Down Under in 1995 on a fellowship to the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). That placed him near the location of the movie studios that were booming due to favorable exchange rates between the U.S. and Australian dollars, and Australian government tax incentives friendly to the Hollywood presence.
"One of my duties at QUT was to direct an American play and in the process teach the student actors to speak American, because of a burgeoning American film industry that was happening on the Gold Coast, about an hour south of Brisbane," he said. "Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow had recently purchased the Gold Coast studios built by Dino Delaurentis in the early 1990s. At the time of the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, the Australian dollar was worth about 65 U.S. cents, a great deal for tourists and the American film industry."
He briefly moved to Melbourne to lead the acting program at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne -- a job that gained him a permanent residency visa -- but he returned to the Gold Coast in 1997 to complete his book "Reinventing Drama: Acting, Iconicity, Performance," which was published in 1999.
"I also got an agent and started going on auditions," Shapiro said. "The casting director at the Gold Coast studios asked if I'd be interested in doing some dialogue coaching, and I accepted. So since October of 1997 I have been continuously working on films. Over the past 11 years the new Fox Studios opened in Sydney and also the Central City Studios in Melbourne, bringing lots of American films down under. I am constantly on the move between those cities."
In a nationally broadcast interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Shapiro explained some of the challenges that Australian actors face in sounding convincingly American: "There are 12 different sounds that you must shift to, leaving Australian and shifting to American, and those involve nine vowels which are both pure vowels and diphthongs, vowel glides and then three consonant sounds.
"The second major difference is what I call 'intonation' in the book. And this is the rise and fall of the pitch of your voice. Australians have one style of intonation and Americans have a different style of intonation."
Part of the intonation challenge is the difference between the "Australian questioning intonation," in which statements end with a rising pitch, and the "American declarative intonation," in which statements end with a falling pitch.
"When American speakers speak, they start at a certain pitch and then they finish below that mark," he said. "So when we come to a period we go down to finish that sound, and that creates a much deeper sound. Also, because we open our mouths wider, it becomes like a megaphone. It's like just bellowing out the sound. So yes, particularly men, and in an emotional situation where somebody gets angry or bellicose for some reason, they will really lower their pitch and get down to business. I mean business. And it's harder for Australian men to find that sound."
But that's not the end of the challenges. "The Australian dialect is called a spread-lip dialect, and the American dialect is called a drop-jaw dialect, and what that does is it allows the American speaker to use about a cubic centimeter more space in the mouth at the back," Shapiro said. "So we say certain words much farther back than do Australians." His book includes illustrations that show the different lip positions that go with those different sounds.
One additional hurdle that Shapiro sometimes faces with Australian actors is the distinction between accurate dialect and good acting: "There's a trick to it. I mean, you have to realize that this is a technical skill that an actor needs to develop, and it's really not about their acting or the delivery of their lines. It's just a subtle shift in how they use their mouth and how they lilt their voice for intonation to create a different dialect in which they still exude their own persona, their own acting. Their own choices as an actor still come through, so they don't sound like anybody other than themselves, only it's themselves speaking American."
Having conquered Australia, Shapiro now has his sights set on Asia, where he has already worked with actors on the American dialect, including a series of speaking engagements in Taiwan. He is now working on a book tentatively titled "Speaking American English: A Guide to American Pronunciation and Conversation for Speakers of Asian English," again with a CD, following the successful format of his Australian book.
"Being a multi-cultural country, Australia has afforded me the opportunity to work with many Asian English speakers, and in addition to my current activities in Taiwan, I previously worked with the Japanese company Kumon in developing their English Language Video Series for Japan and Korea. I also coached the wonderful Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh (from 'The Joy Luck Club') in 'Tempted' a few years ago, and last year I spent a couple of months in Thailand researching the problems Thai speakers have with English."
You can check out Shapiro's full list of production credits at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0788474/ and visit his publisher's book site at http://www.currency.com.au/product_detail.aspx?productid=378&ReturnUrl=/search.aspx?q=Shapiro
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