From drawl to brogue, Janet Rodgers makes sure Richmond's actors speak in character.
The show is in rehearsal. A female actor is playing a man. She is concerned that her voice is too high. What's more, the character is from Yugoslavia. Words, lines, pitch, and then a difficult dialect, all must be mastered before the show goes on. Directors know that a poorly replicated dialect, like the sound of nails on a blackboard, can make an audience cringe. To whom do directors and actors turn for help?
Enter stage right: Janet Rodgers, the professional voice and speech trainer who has coached untold numbers of actors in more than 80 Richmond productions.
Two directors of current shows are breathing a sigh of relief now that Rodgers has wrapped up her voice work with their cast members. Director Bruce Miller, who has worked with Rodgers on more than 20 productions, called her in for consultation before opening "Little Foxes" at Barksdale Theatre. "Janet is Virginia's foremost expert in vocal coaching and dialects," Miller says. For "Little Foxes," Rodgers made sure the speech patterns of the actors playing a family from Alabama were accurate.
If Rodgers doesn't have a tape of a particular dialect, she goes directly to the source. In this case, she picked up the phone and dialed the Mobile Chamber of Commerce. The woman who answered the phone unwittingly gave Rodgers exactly what she needed: a perfect Mobile dialect. When Rodgers asked the woman how folks in Mobile pronounced the word "aunt," the woman replied, "ant." Rodgers wanted to be certain and asked if anyone at all in Mobile might pronounce it "awnt." The woman answered in her soft Southern drawl, "Well, some might pro-nounce it 'awnt,' but it wouldn't be po-litically co-rrect to say who."
Rodgers takes great pleasure in imitating that response. She's got it down pat. Her words flow as smooth as honey and this is what she shared with the "Little Foxes" cast. Director Miller was pleased. "Janet was able to find that particular socioeconomic niche," he says, "which makes a play so realistic."
Rodgers served as a coach on the production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," now running at Firehouse Theatre. Actor Jill Bari Steinberg says Rodgers gave her the tools to make the masculine and Slavic role of Yitsik less formidable.
During their sessions together, Rodgers spoke solely in the appropriate Yugoslavian accent. She brought tapes, notebooks, copies from the dialogue book and even maps. "Her enthusiasm was catching." Steinberg says. "By the end of the first evening we were talking in character." After the initial session, Rodgers returned for rehearsals to take notes on her client's progress and to work on problems of pitch.
Rodgers came by her profession almost out of necessity. As a theater arts and speech major at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she auditioned for the role of Mayme Mixter, a bawdy show girl from New York. Rodgers remembers attempting her best Brooklyn dialect. When she started doing research and found "absolutely nothing" on dialects, she headed straight for New York and with tape recorder in hand, began interviewing people on the street. She won the part. She also went on to earn her master's degree in theater from Brandeis University.
In 1987, she joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University where she is associate professor of theatre. She has conducted vocal workshops in England, Switzerland and Romania. Rogers recently served a two-year term as president of the national Voice and Speech Trainers Association. In addition, as an equity actress, she has performed in more than 35 productions and directed more than 20 plays. Directors and actors around the world who admire Rodgers' work, will soon have easy access to her expertise. "The Complete Voice and Speech Workout," her book and CD, will be released next spring by Applause Books.
A real-life Professor Higgins, Professor Rodgers finds all aspects of her work in theater rewarding. When she finishes her work behind the scenes as a vocal coach, Rodgers loves seeing the whole production. "When the intellect, the emotions, the body and spirit all come together to move an audience," she says, "that is what I find really thrilling about my work in theater."
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