Oklahoman Coaches Dialect, Voice For Lyric Theatre’s ‘Billy Elliot’

When Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre decided to stage “Billy Elliot,” artistic director Michael Baron asked Rena Cook to share her expertise. Actors tend to develop a good ear for accents, a necessity when auditioning for a role that requires an authentic-sounding dialect. In the musical theater, think of “Brigadoon” (Scottish), “Cabaret” (German), “Ragtime” (Yiddish) or “The Light in the Piazza” (Italian).

Rena Cook, a former professor of voice and speech at the University of Oklahoma, has long been an invaluable source for actors needing to fine-tune their stage accents.

When Lyric Theatre decided to stage “Billy Elliot,” artistic director Michael Baron asked Cook to share her expertise.

“If you’re going to produce a show that uses accents, it’s important to be honest with the material,” Baron said. “The characters in ‘Billy Elliot’ come from a working-class neighborhood in northern England, so the cast needs to convey an accent from that area.

“Rena is one of the nation’s leading dialect coaches, and we’ve used her for everything from ‘A Christmas Carol’ to ‘Oliver!’ We’re lucky to have someone like her living in this part of the country.

The Lyric production of “Billy Elliot,” which brings the company’s 2015 summer season to a close this week, requires a Geordie accent, one spoken by inhabitants in the area around Newcastle, England.

“When I was working on my master’s degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, one of the areas they stressed was teaching dialects,” Cook said recently. “I learned not only how to hear them but how to describe and talk about the vowel and consonant changes that happen with each dialect.

“The Geordie accent isn’t used as often as Cockney, Irish, Scottish, French or German. To learn it, I spent a great deal of time looking at movies (“The Full Monty”) and listening to online samples of various authentic speakers.

“Then I’d go through the script of the musical, write IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for those sounds above the text and make recordings so that I could share those with the cast. For the out-of-town actors, I’d schedule Skype sessions.”

In addition to learning the peculiarities of the Geordie accent, the cast encountered words that are unfamiliar to most Americans but commonplace to those living in northeastern England. Among these are bairn (child), mank (horrible), nowt (nothing) and telt (told).

“The characters in ‘Billy Elliot’ are people whose language is rooted in their struggles,” Cook said. “It’s a very challenging show that contrasts the delicacy and flight of ballet with the dirt and grit of the miners. The big challenge for actors is to make everything sound believable.”

Cook worked a great deal with the actors playing the two principal characters: Lyn Cramer, who portrays dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, and Brooks Landegger, a 12-year-old New Yorker cast as the title character in Lyric’s production of “Billy Elliot.”

“Brooks is a dancer so he understands that you don’t master a step the first time you try it,” Cook said. “It’s the same with dialects. We’d break things down and then work specifically and deliberately on mastering it.

“A child actor may not be able to make certain sounds so there’s a lot of talk in terms of putting your tongue on the roof of the mouth, rounding the lips or pushing them forward. Clarity is the most important aspect. You have to be consistent so that an audience can understand it.

“With dialects, I teach the process. You have to memorize the rules or your tongue is going to take off and have a mind of its own. Drilling it into your muscle memory is crucial. Then you can stop thinking about it and it becomes part of your performance.”  By Rick Rogers

Lyric Theatre’s ‘Billy Elliot’ soars with one-two punch of grittiness, sensitivity in Oklahoma City By Rick RogersFor The Oklahoman  • Published: August 5, 2015

“Billy Elliot” is a risky proposition for any company to consider, but Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre more than does it justice. Lyric’s production, much like the title character demonstrates in the glorious dream ballet, takes spectacular flight. Don’t miss it.

Tim Rogan offers an equally compelling performance as Billy’s older brother Tony, as does Rachael Barry, who, as Billy’s late mum, exudes a sense of calm that makes her exchanges with Billy so touching.

Landegger rises to the many challenges set before him as Billy, from demonstrating skillful athleticism in the “Angry Dance” to commanding the stage with a palpable sincerity in “The Letter.”

Billy is understandably sheepish when his friend Michael (played by Evan Lennon with equal parts humor and flamboyance) encourages him to forget his inhibitions as they don women’s clothing and launch into the joyous “Expressing Yourself.”

But Landegger is at his finest in “Electricity,” Billy’s explanation about how he feels when he’s dancing. What a joy it is to witness the well-deserved and lengthy ovation that follows.

Lyn Cramer gives an incomparable performance as Mrs. Wilkinson, one that ranges from confrontational scenes with Billy’s dad and brother to the thrilling exuberance that emerges when she and Billy launch into “We Were Born to Boogie.”

As Mrs. Wilkinson barks commands at her young dancers, Cramer summons an air of sarcasm bordering on disdain. But even more powerful is Cramer’s ability to deliver key lines she shares with Landegger with tremendous honesty.

With expert musical direction by David Andrews Rogers, careful dialect training by Rena Cook, a hard-working ensemble and the aforementioned contributions by Wells and Reynolds-Reed, Lyric’s “Billy Elliot,” much like the title character demonstrates in the glorious dream ballet, takes spectacular flight. As it soars, it lifts the spirits of everyone in its wake. Don’t miss it.

— Rick Rogers, for The Oklahoman


Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

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