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Dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zager helps Milwaukee Rep actors find their voice

Dialects. Singing. Even a simple shout. 

Those are just a few of the things Jill Walmsley Zager works wit as the Milwaukee Rep’s dialect coach. For the past five seasons, she’s been an invaluable asset to the Rep, ensuring the company doesn’t just perform well, but also sounds good.

Zager’s role goes further than that of the average dialect coach. At most theaters, contractors are hired on an hourly basis, brought in for a single production to meet with actors and teach them the fundamentals of an accent or dialect. 

Zager does that too. Most of her help is delivered in individual hourlong sessions. She instructs actors in the proper pronunciations of words, and also in how to shout or sing without causing undue vocal strain and how to improve vocal clarity so audiences can understand clearly what they’re saying.

“If (actors) are in the moment, the last thing they want to be doing is thinking about something technically. So if I load in that kind of technical work early on in the process, they can just be acting,” Zager says. Sometimes helping actors requires her to focus on their physicality, helping them stand or sit properly, breathe efficiently or move with stronger muscles during stage combat. Physical action can affect vocal quality.

But Zager also is involved heavily in the rehearsal process, which she says is a step above what the average contractor can expect. She helps actors and directors think about a production’s vocal elements consistently, rather than in separate workshops.

“I get a lot of autonomy,” Zager says. “Although I’m not a company member at this point, I feel like my position is respected throughout the organization … as opposed to someone who’s just jobbed in to make sure the R’s are where they should be.”

The most surprising thing about Zager’s position at the Rep is that it didn’t exist before artistic director Mark Clements’ arrival in 2010. Prior to that time, voice work was mostly handled by the resident acting company, whose members would teach each other and visiting actors particular dialects as needed. Occasionally, dialect coaches were called in.

When Clements arrived, he decided to place renewed emphasis on that latter option, taking the onus of the work off the actors and always letting a specialist handle it — something Zager suspects is reflective of the British director’s training.

“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but the Brits that I know are very voice and speech conscious. That’s just part of their approach to the work,” she says.

Clements’ first show at the Rep was Cabaret, so he needed a dialect coach from the start. By coincidence, Zager had recently moved to Milwaukee from Chicago, because her husband (fellow theater artist James Zager) had accepted a position as head of the theater department at Carroll University. 

Zager had the right background to impress Clements. She began her career as an actor and opera singer, working for about 25 years for companies all over the country. During that time, she, like the former resident company actors of the Rep, often had to teach herself dialects and foreign language pronunciations. Over time, she discovered that she had a facility with languages. 

So when she decided to go to grad school in the early ’00s, Zager set her sights on vocal training rather than performance. She ultimately earned a spot at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London — considered the best program for voice and speech in the world — part of a now-defunct exchange program with Northwestern University. As the only American there, she trained with British colleagues and instructors before returning to the States in 2003 and splitting her time between coaching companies in Chicago and working on the faculty at University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.

During her first six months in Milwaukee, Zager didn’t attract much interest in her services. But Clements’ interest was piqued after he looked over her resume and he selected her as dialect coach for Cabaret. “He didn’t really know me, but he certainly knew the Royal Central School. And the rest is history,” she says.

Since Cabaret, Zager has done more than 30 shows with the Rep. She originally split her time with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, but after three years she committed to working almost exclusively at the Rep, except for an occasional show in Milwaukee or Chicago. In January, for example, she worked on the Marriott Theatre’s acclaimed production of Spring Awakening in Lincolnshire, Illinois. 

Earlier this year, she worked on The Mousetrap, A Christmas Carol and The Devil’s Music, and is wrapping up the season with two complex shows: The Invisible Hand, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan, and American Song, a world premiere under development at the Rep about a father whose son is involved in a school shooting.

Both plays are extremely different from one another, but that’s fine with Zager. She says one of the most exciting aspects of her job is each show is so different from the last, and each challenges her in a different way.

It’s easy to understand why The Invisible Hand would need a dialect coach: Three of its four characters are non-American and the play’s text is accented and occasionally not in English. To tackle a scene that’s written in English in the script but must be spoken in a language used in Pakistan, Zager contacted experts in Chicago about the Punjabi and Urdu languages. She also consulted with Akhtar, director Lucie Tiberghien and the actors. Ultimately, they all decided that the language would be a colloquial form of Urdu, which is Pakistan’s official language, both because it better fit the backgrounds of the characters and one of the actors spoke a little Urdu and could assist in the translation.

Each of the play’s three non-American characters has a different background, and Zager worked with them to make their accents sound different as well. A well-educated imam speaks with an almost-British accent that suggests a childhood in Pakistan but an education at Oxford. One of the militants doesn’t speak much English at all, so his lines in English are delivered in a disjointed fashion that’s not always grammatical. The other militant was raised partly in London and possesses a Cockney-style speech pattern.

Such a high degree of differentiation begs the question of why the Rep needs to get so specific. That’s a question Zager says she and the rest of the creative team ask every time she steps into a rehearsal hall. They must ask both “What do we gain by having it?” and “What do we lose by not having it?,” she explains. “I think if those questions aren’t asked, then it becomes an effect, and it pulls the audience out of what’s the point of this story.”

In The Invisible Hand, the “gain” is a greater emphasis on Akhtar’s themes: the negatives of capitalism and imperialism in Pakistan and around the world.

Zager always takes care to ensure the dialects she presents come from a place of respect. In plays like The Invisible Hand, an overwrought or stereotypical accent would come across as caricature, undermining the play’s message and possibly offending patrons.

Many of the productions Zager works on with the Rep don’t require such extensive dialect work. American Song is the perfect example. Zager says it’s likely they won’t ask actor James DeVita to take up an accent other than his own.

But there’s still more than enough work for her, director Clements and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith to collaborate on: making sure the right words are chosen, helping DeVita deliver them in a way everyone on the team approves of, working with him to ensure his voice stays strong throughout the 80-minute one-man show.

In a very real sense, because American Song is a world premiere, Zager’s work as dialect coach will help shape the final work.

“(American Song) is uncharted territory in some ways,” Zager says. “It’s always exciting to be part of a new script.”

Zager says she’s excited to see how audiences respond to both plays, but she’s not anticipating conversations about her work on them.

“My work should be like smoke,” she says. “It shouldn’t be something you can put your hands on.”

ON STAGE 

The Invisible Hand opens at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio Feb. 26 and runs through April 3. Tickets start at $20.

American Song opens at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse March 15 and runs through April 10. Tickets start at $25.

For more information or to order tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit
milwaukeerep.com.

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