CURTAINS UP ON CAREERS...
Steven J. Satta is a dialogue coach whose credits Everyman Theatre include Under the Skin and You Can't Take it With You. Recent credits in the DC area include work at Maryland Ensemble Theater, Olney Theatre, Center Stage, Single Carrot Theatre, Iron Crow Theatre, and Baltimore Playwright’s Festival. He is a full faculty member at Towson University’s Department of Theatre Arts, where he helped design and implement the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting. Steve holds a BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and an MFA in Acting from York University in Toronto, Canada. He sat down recently with the Everyman Education Staff to talk about his experiences in the field and his process for the upcoming production of M. Butterfly.
INTERVIEW WITH STEVE SATTA, DIALECT COACH
Everyman Education: Where are you from originally and when did you first develop an interest in theatre?
Steve Satta: I was born and raised in New York City – The Bronx, specifically. Both of my parents loved the arts, particularly literature and theater, and took all of us (my brother and sister and I) to plays as often as possible. The play that really hooked me was a college production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which my brother played Sebastian. That remains one of my favorite plays of all time.
EE: When and why did you decide to pursue theatre professionally? How has your background shaped your career path?
SS: I performed in plays all throughout high school, but didn't decide to pursue it as a career until I attended the National High School Institute for Theatre Arts at Northwestern University the summer before my senior year. That was the first time I actually took theatre classes, and it really opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of theater and its importance in and impact on humanity.
"We all adjust the ways that we speak depending on the situations we find ourselves in, and I'm there to help the actors discover how their characters speak—and why."
EE: Define a dialect coach's responsibilities or the scope of your work in relation to bringing a story to life onstage.
SS: My responsibilities include training the actors to speak in the dialects or accents of their characters, but can branch out from that considerably depending on the project. How a character speaks gives a lot of information to the audience, such as where they are from and their social status or level of education. But, it can also tell us a lot about who they are as people, how they want the world to see them, and what they aspire to. We all adjust the ways that we speak depending on the situations we find ourselves in, and I'm there to help the actors discover how their characters speak—and why.
Some plays, such as M. Butterfly, require the dialect coach to think about style, as well. Everyone who speaks with the main character in the play would speak in French, but when the two Chinese women are alone speaking together, they would probably speak in Chinese. But, of course, the entire play is in English! In this case, how should it be communicated to the audience that a character is switching languages? Is it even necessary? These are fun puzzles to work out in conjunction with the director and the actors.
EE: How do you find work as a vocal/dialect coach? What other types of work outside of theatre do you do?
SS: There is no way to “audition” to be a dialect coach. It is one of those things that depends on the reputation and relationships that have been developed within the artistic community. I first worked in this capacity at Everyman because one of my colleagues at Towson University [Everyman Theatre Resident Set Designer Daniel Ettinger] had an established relationship with Everyman. When they needed a dialect coach, he recommended me. Like all artists, a dialect coach builds relationships in the community, and most work comes from becoming “known” and maintaining a solid reputation.
Outside of professional theatre work, I am on faculty at Towson University, where I teach voice for the actor, speech, dialects, and acting. I am very lucky. My other passion in life is education and I found a way to bring the two together.
EE: What skills are necessary to being in your line of work?
SS: Critical thinking is vital. I need to be able to read a play and make lots of connections that aren't written in the script. The socio-political period in which a play was written, the personal history of the playwright, the trends in theatre at the time—details like these all impact how a play gets on its feet. The dialect coach needs to be able to synthesize all of these things in order to really understand not only how to tell the story to an audience, but what the story is that’s being told.
On a more technical note, as a dialect coach, I need to know a lot about the way human beings produce and shape sound. I have to know about the voice itself and how it functions. I have to know about how we use our tongue and teeth and throat to make different speech sounds. I also have to know the International Phonetic Alphabet so that I can notate accurately how a character sounds and the way they would say specific words and phrases.
EE: How do you connect to M. Butterfly? Can you illuminate how certain vocal choices are significant to this piece? How might physicality impact or lend the voice in this piece?
SS: I remember seeing the original Broadway production with John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, and it was an incredible experience for me as an artist and as a person. I was in college at the time and still figuring out who I was, what kind of artist I wanted to be, and what my values were. The way this play addresses a huge number of social issues simultaneously and elegantly—and with humor—is astounding. It really opened my eyes to the power of the art form. Additionally, the issues being addressed about gender and sexuality were very pertinent to me at the time.
The big vocal challenge is, of course, the main character, Song Liling. How does an actor with male physiognomy (men and women tend to have distinct differences in the shape and size of their vocal apparatuses) work to create the illusion they are female? So many gender cues come through the voice.
In terms of speech and dialect, again, the style of the play is a fun challenge. Characters are speaking different languages at different times, but the entire script is written in English. And, while it is inspired by a true story, the play is not realistic. So the question begins with, “do we need to find a way to communicate to an audience the different languages that would realistically be spoken?” before we address how to do that.
EE: What challenges does this piece present for you? Any fun facts or insider tidbits you can share that you want to draw our patrons' attention to?
SS: We spent a lot of time discussing the pronunciation of “Peking.” Vinny was really interested in finding a way to communicate the difference between a Westerner's relationship to China versus a native Chinese person's relationship to it. How would Gallimard's pronunciation be different than Song's?
I discovered in my research that the name of the city was officially changed to “Beijing” in 1949. “Peking” was actually not an accurate transliteration of the Chinese name—it was what Westerners had incorrectly heard. So, in 1966 (when the play takes place), the West was already saying Beijing. The playwright, David Henry Hwang, kept “Peking” (along with the term “Oriental”) in his script in order to highlight how the Western characters may live in China, but not really understand the Chinese culture. So, realistically, Song would say “Beijing”—but that is not how the script is written.
Our decision (at the time of this interview—perhaps it could change before opening night) is that Gallimard will pronounce it “PEA-KING,” with equal emphasis on both syllables, but Song will pronounce it “pay-KING,” which uses the real vowel sound in the first syllable and emphasizes the second syllable—much closer to how one would pronounce “Beijing.” This makes Song's pronunciation sound more authentic and Gallimard's sound more culturally ignorant or insensitive, while still working within the parameters set by the playwright.
EE: What is the Dialect Coach's relationship to the Director? What other relationships are critical to your work?
SS: The dialect coach must be in dialogue with the director and must collaborate in the way I’ve described. Vinny is a terrific collaborator and has a great deal of respect for the integrity of the other artists on a project. Ultimately, however, everything is the director's choice. I have been on projects where a director insisted on a dialect that was not accurate to the time and place of the play, and I could not persuade them otherwise, so I taught the actors to speak that dialect accurately and well—even though I disagreed with the choice.
EE: What piece of work are you most proud of? What is a play you would love to work on?
SS: From a dialect coaching perspective, the project I am most proud of remains the first play I ever coached: Translations, by Brian Friel, which we produced at Towson. I had to teach two different British dialects, a very specific version of an Irish accent, as well as the proper pronunciations of passages in Gaelic, ancient Greek, and Latin. That took a lot of research and planning. The actors really did their “homework,” and the production sounded terrific.
Honestly, I have always loved M. Butterfly and have wanted to work on it. It is a hard show to cast, so it is not done frequently. I feel very lucky that Everyman is producing it so that Baltimore audiences (especially my students!) get to see it, and even luckier to have been invited to contribute.
EE: What advice might you give someone interested in pursuing vocal coaching professionally?
SS: Go to college and get the training you need. Remember that your reputation is everything: build positive relationships with everyone you meet, even if you may disagree with them.
M. Butterfly is on stage September 6 - October 8, 2017.