If you have ever performed as a thespian, you know pronunciation, projection and timing are crucial. Microphones are rarely used in stage plays, so if you have a strong clear voice it helps the audience understand the dialogue, especially those with weak hearing. After performing in more than 70 plays, I’ve never claimed to have mastered the king’s English, but I did learn to project.
With a home-spun country accent exposing my Pennsylvania Dutch roots, I’ve often heard these words, especially during auditions. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
They were also common questions hurled my way after first crossing the state line. They usually followed the first few words of a conversation. Upon hearing me speak, they knew, but no doubt wanted assurance.
Forty years ago, when I first broke into community theater, that same question was asked by the director. During my first audition, I overheard a conversation between the casting and play directors. “He has a good strong voice,” she said. “It booms, and that helps in this 1500 seat theater.”
“Yeah, but that folksy accent?” the director queried. “The venue for ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’ is Okinawa. It’s in Japan.”
“Hmm! Good point,” she responded, “but he’s from Pennsylvania and I’ve never known those people to speak proper English. Even the king wouldn’t recognize it. We could use him as the Mayor of Tobiki,” she suggested. “He’d have all his lines in Japanese. And by using the Luchuan dialect it would mask his Pennsylvania Dutch accent.”
It took me three weeks to memorize one line. “Ka rodee manee chee go cheezo wa do so,” which, if spoken correctly, translates to, “Here are two fine chopsticks, handmade by our finest. Enjoy your food in good health.”
How I delivered that line, I can’t recall since it’s been so long ago. On opening night, though, almost half the house was of Japanese heritage. Whatever I said in the Luchuan dialect got a great laugh. I’ve often wondered if they laughed because of good timing or because the Mayor of Tobiki’s Luchuan dialect was delivered with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent.
After curtain call the director congratulated me for pulling it off. He wrongly assumed this would be my first, last and only performance. Little did he know I was hit by the bug. Since then I’ve been cast in plays for more than 25 years throughout Northeast Ohio’s community theater circuit; being nominated for acting awards eight different times and receiving three.
Today, through much hard work, my accent is barely detectable (my wife, Peggy, just broke into uncontrollable laughter). That is until I return to the land of my roots and spend a week or two visiting family and friends. Within a few hours I’m back to my old habits. Upon returning, it takes a few weeks for me to once again learn to properly speak the king’s English.
I still see other directors whom I’ve managed to mystify over the years. “I had you on stage three times, Weaver,” one once told me. “I listened real hard to hear a Bronx accent you promised me for this Neil Simon play. All I detected were unidentifiable remnants of something foreign. What was it?”
When I told him, he responded, “Ah! So that’s what it was. Well Weaver, you might want to remember that the word is damn, not dam, and it’s water that flows over a dam, not wooder!”
I no longer speak as if I have a foreign accent (the wife’s still howling with laughter). Nor do I sound as if I just fell off a turnip truck (now she’s rolling on the floor). Peggy just wouldn’t allow it. I now sound as if I know what I’m saying ... I think. After all, she’s worked hard training me.
I suppose that helps when you marry a gal whose college major was audio-speech therapy.
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