A pianist, singer, actor, director, producer, coach and animateur, Dianna Nixon has worked for Melbourne International Festival, Bell Shakespeare Company, Victoria State Opera, Melbourne Symphony, Orchestra Victoria, Melbourne Fringe Festival, Castlemaine State Festival, Opera Queensland and on TV, film, festivals and corporate work.
Dianna toured Australia and NZ with various musicals, held an Artistic Directorship in regional Queensland, produced 6 regional events for Queensland Biennial Festival of Music and directed large community events in Mackay, Maryborough, Canberra, Rockhampton, Brisbane and Darwin.
Dianna directed two Czech melodramas for The Wicked Voice and participates in the Hive program at The Street Theatre. Dianna was in the 2009 ACT Artists-in-Schools Program, has directed many youth music theatre shows, and was chorus coach for Carmen (Melbourne Opera) at Canberra Theatre.
Produced by her company, Wild Voices Music Theatre, Dianna directed/performed in The Girls (at The Street and in The Famous Spiegeltent), directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Under Milk Wood. Last year, Dianna was language dramaturg on The Homefront, and made 3 short musical films, including a Song, which recently premiered at Canberra Short Film festival, winning a Best Score award. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2012 for her work with The Developing Voice.
Dianna Nixon talks to The Street ahead of The Chain Bridge season.
How did you start working as an accent and dialect coach?
Alongside my performance and creative producer work, I have worked as repetiteur and music/vocal coach for over 35 years, on a vast array of repertoire and in a variety of languages, idioms and genres. I have had to develop a way of breaking down the sounds and understanding them anatomically, physiologically, phonetically as I am not a polyglot. So I’ve developed a process that helps me, and the students or cast members with whom I’m working, to tackle these textual challenges. I am passionate about clarity, vocal health, variety, sustainability, and the authenticity that results from specific and detailed vocal preparation.
What kind of accents and dialects do you coach?
In my studio I have worked on musical repertoire in Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and more. When coaching actors and singers, I have worked on a variety of characters who speak English with European or Latin American backgrounds. I am currently coaching someone to modify his Brighton (UK) accent in certain work situations, without losing his accent altogether. Last year I worked on a period piece that required improvisation in a range of Australian idioms. This meant learning the idioms and characteristics of a particular period, then developing a palette that ranged from RP (Received Pronunciation) to Strine and variants in between.
Is most of your work for theatre and film, or is there a call for this in other industries?
I mainly work in theatre, as live performance is my greatest interest, and also an area of need as regards support for healthy vocal practice. I do dabble in film. For a short film I wrote and produced last year, I invented a language for the principal character. She used this language when singing the song that was central to the story. There are highly specialised coaches who work in the wider Australian film industry to coach languages and accents. Some of my work has a personal development focus, rather than performance. Coaching can assist people with speech difficulties, confidence issues, with public speaking, and with developing more confidence at work. I work closely with voice health specialists to ensure my students are caring for their instruments appropriately. I also work as a music coach. I am a pianist and love working on vocal repertoire to unlock the secrets of the text and within the musical information. My greatest passion is combining the exploration of these two aspects. The marriage of words and music provides an immense intellectual and artistic challenge if one is prepared to delve as deeply as possible into bringing both elements fully to life.
How much time does it take an actor to learn a dialect?
Professional actors are usually very quick at picking up an accent as in their toolkit they will likely have an excellent ear and the ability to mimic. The challenge with live theatre, though, is for there to be consistency across the season of performances, and across the company. Achieving this consistency, which may include coaching the company as a team so that certain principles are put in place for the duration of the production, can take some time to put solidly in place. The actor needs time to integrate this dialect or accent as they learn about the character and their mannerisms and given circumstances. The way they use the body and face as the character will play a large part in determining the way that character sounds, so must be integrated as part of their process, rather than imposed.
Finally, what kind of advice do you have for a performer who needs to speak in an accent that is not their own?
Any vocal challenge can be mastered if one allows sufficient time to do the preparatory work. I would always recommend having a strong technical basis for all your voice work (spoken or sung), maintaining this by having a vocal coach you trust, who is continually learning and developing their own skills. The process will involve starting from a baseline of thorough anatomical and physiological awareness, along with a good understanding of phonetics, then having a thorough approach to exploring all aspects of the language and of musical information. This takes time and can’t be rushed, but knowledge is power, and practice will lead to mastery. And remember, working with the voice is holistic and cross-disciplinary, encompassing: speech and singing, music and text, voice and movement, context and interpretation, pedagogy and performance, instrument and repertoire, history and languages, phonetics and grammar, idioms and accents, character and process…………and much more besides. A great subject to devote ones life to.
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