Valerie Kingston has been a professional actress for more than 30 years. She has taught acting classes as well as accent reduction classes in New York City for more than 20 years. She has been in more than 150 commercials; television shows such as The Blacklist, Law and Order SVU, and daytime dramas; two films; and Off Broadway shows. As an acting teacher, she has met many international acting students. She knew that their accents would hold them back, so she decided to go to school to learn how to become an ESL and accent reduction teacher.
Valerie, along with her friend and business partner Marci Macaluso, opened a business together in 2013 to help international business people as well as actors. It is called Clear-Conversation. They have worked with college students to prepare them for job interviews, people already in the business world who need to be better understood, and of course many actors over the years. They have an office in New York City and they also Skype and FaceTime with students from other countries. Learn more about their work on their website.
Brent: Valerie, you’re in the interesting field of accent reduction. What makes it important?
Valerie: If you have an accent and you're trying to become better understood at your job—or trying to get rid of most of your accent because you are an actor—accent reduction is probably not one of the classes you thought you'd have to sign up for. You may have gone to college to get a degree to be able to get a job. As an actor, you pay money for acting classes, headshots, gym memberships, make-up, hair up-keep, clothes for your professional job, auditions, etc. Accent reduction is not on the top of anyone's list. But, these days most everyone in the acting business needs to get rid of a dialect or an accent. I wouldn't want any actor to give up on acting before he or she has tried to work on his or her American accent first. Most of the actors I work with know how important it is.
Brent: Having looked at testimonials on your website, I know that you work with actors born outside the United States who need to sound “generically American” for theater roles. Who else can benefit from accent reduction training?
Valerie: Last year I worked with about twenty NYU graduate students to help them get ready for their job interviews. Right now, I'm working with people at an architecture firm on their accents. They know they need to be better understood so that their clients know what they’re saying!
Brent: Right, it’s not just what people say, but what others hear that matters. A heavy accent can be an impediment to success, regardless of how brilliant the words are.
Valerie: Exactly! Memorization of certain American sounds in many words is a big thing, and I'd love to learn more about how to help all of my students retain what they have learned.
Brent: I think we can help each other. Give me an example.
Valerie: As an accent reduction teacher, I give my students sound practice to do each week. How pronounced their accents are determines how many American sounds they need to learn.
Brent: So you can’t overload them with too much at one time. How do you dose out your training?
Valerie: Each week, students can learn two new American sounds. I give them words and sentences with those particular American sounds we are working on, to begin getting familiar with the new sound. When they get used to that new sound, they need to start using it in every day conversations. This means they need to try and remember where that particular sound goes. A few of my students don't do as much of their sound practice homework as I wish they would.
Brent: Well, chalk that up to the law of least effort; most of us get lazy without a goal that jolts us into action.
Valerie: Even for the ones who work very hard at it, there are certain sounds that seem more difficult for those students to remember.
Brent: For example?
Valerie: For example, the word "not." The /o/ sound requires a big drop of the jaw that sounds like "ah." Time and time again, a lot of my students do not remember to drop their jaw for that sound in words like “not,” “got,” “slot,” etc. I wish there was a way for them to remember many of their newly learned American sounds, but for one reason or another they just don't remember.
Brent: Do you ask them to associate the sound with a physical action, or a powerful visual? For the “ah” sound, perhaps they should imagine being in a doctor’s office and having to open their mouths while the doctor inserts a tongue depressor. Or maybe there is a similar sound in their own language that they can relate this new sound to. Remind students to pronounce the sound out loud when they see it in in public, like a “clock” or on signs that say “stop” or “shop.”
Valerie: That’s a great idea. I don’t know if my business people will talk out loud in public, but my actors are more free spirited. They probably won’t hesitate to try it. I have literally made charts with lists of words with that particular sound that they keep having trouble with. This must get boring to them after a while. I keep trying to come up with new ways of helping my students. We have also reviewed words over and over that the student keeps forgetting. I also record many of my students during some of their sessions. This helps them to hear the mistakes they keep making with certain words.
Brent: Recording oneself and listening to it is extremely beneficial, if not humbling.
Valerie: Yes. Some of my students cannot get rid of some of their accent because they cannot remember where the American sounds I taught them go into the words we have reviewed over and over again. This is a big obstacle because they get frustrated learning an American accent and quit my sessions before they've really begun.
Brent: I think a strong visual, along with deeper physical engagement, might help. Give them a colorful piece of yarn and have them tangle it into a big knot while they practice saying the word “knot.” Then they’ll have multiple associations with the sound.
Valerie: Another good idea, Brent.
Brent: What about memorization?
Valerie: As an actress and an acting teacher, we must memorize lines even for auditions. It used to be that we only had to memorize our scripts if we got the part, but these days acting is more competitive than ever. Actors need to memorize their scripts before they get to the audition.
Brent: Right, having your lines down cold definitely makes you stand apart from the competition.
Valerie: And as actors we always want to stand apart. If actors do not have their scripts memorized before they go into auditions it becomes a big obstacle because it can be all consuming. My actors forget all the work they did for the character and they sabotage themselves because they are afraid they won't remember the lines in the script. Words can sometimes be an actor's enemy. No matter how hard you work on your character, forgetting your lines is a big deal in this business. My students are always asking me how do I go about trying to memorize my lines?
Brent: And what do you tell them?
Valerie: Any actor who has taken acting classes knows that listening is a big part of acting. But just because we may be listening to the other person's lines doesn't mean we will remember our next line! Sometimes what the other character is saying will help us to remember parts of our dialogue. With that always in mind, I also tell my students that I make my husband go over and over the lines with me before an audition. Some of my students live alone so the next best thing is to record the other characters lines leaving pauses in between so they can practice their lines. I've also told actors to write down their lines because some of them are better at writing them over and over again, not just recording and trying to say their lines out loud.
Brent: Excellent! These are all approaches that make an actor use different parts of the body and brain to internalize the material. I assume you use association as well?
Valerie: Once in a while, when I am trying to memorize a script, I will come across a word or a bunch of words together that I just cannot remember. I try to associate those words to something else in my life therefore it's kind of like a word association.
Brent: Exactly. I encourage your students to find strategies in the many other interviews on this blog. Collectively, they cover character-driven memorization; visualization and association; regaining composure when your mind has gone blank; improvisation; reinforcement through reading, writing, speaking, and listening; and much more. Some good starting places are the interviews with Bree Elrod, Kelley Curran, Glenn Alterman, Michael Rhodes, Audrey Rapoport, John Benjamin, Hickey, Rocco dal Vera, Nate Miller, and Carole Schweid. These actors have been very generous in sharing their knowledge.
Valerie: Yes, I’ve already read some of them. I need to learn as quickly as possible how to help my students!
Brent: Thank you so much for sharing your time and wisdom, Valerie. I wish you continued success in teaching your students how to be more aware of their speech and secure the acting jobs, and business deals, that they seek.
Valerie: Thank you, Brent. The work you do is so interesting and helpful.
Learn more about Valerie’s work on accent reduction on her website.