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BACKSTAGE

Backstage: Dialect Coach BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange Knows How to Talk the Talk

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

If actors at several Washington and Baltimore area theaters need to sound English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh and from a particular social class -- or if they need to sound as though they just flew in from Prague or Poughkeepsie -- chances are they'll work with BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange.

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Remember those Long Island society accents in "Grey Gardens" at Studio? That's her work.

The busy dialect coach credits her childhood as a military brat. She and her siblings had a game. "Whoever could learn to speak the dialect of where we had moved within three weeks won the game. So you didn't get beat up. It was very practical," she says. "It's just that I turned out to be terribly good at it."

In a professional acting class in New York, recalls Leeseberg-Lange, "I kept correcting everybody's accents." She began helping actors lose their regional dialects. "I started eliminating accents and people said, well, can you acquire them? And I said, of course, I was trained for this."

She loved being a professor in the theater department at Valparaiso University in Indiana for eight years. Then, in 1991, her husband, Tom, a liturgical musician, got a job at First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City. Leeseberg-Lange quickly landed a teaching job at University of Maryland Baltimore County and a gig at Rep Stage in Columbia. She hasn't stopped since, now teaching at Howard Community College and honing lilts and twangs all over -- lately for Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" at Studio.

Whether helping actors sound as though they're from a particular part of Dublin (Studio's "The Seafarer") or from reaches of the American West (Rep Stage's "A Lie of the Mind"), Leeseberg-Lange tries to keep it simple: "Most actors can make two or three sound changes. If you can change an 'r,' or if you can change a plosive [hard consonants such as 'd' or 'b'] . . . if you can teach them to make changes in those, you can get the beginning," she explains.

"Plus one good vowel change. And what that is depends on the accent," Leeseberg-Lange says. Central to American accents, she says, are "the changes between 'ah' as in 'father' and 'aw' as in 'taught.' . . . I always like to ask an actor to say 'on' and 'off,' because you can pretty much guess what part of the country they come from by the way they say them." (For example, "ahn" and "ahf" tend to be Chicago and the Midwest.)

In the end, says Leeseberg-Lange, an ebullient 65-year-old: "It's not about the accent -- it's about the characters. It's about the play. It's about the language the playwright put in their mouth and how they use that to tell the story. And that's much more delicious, as far as I'm concerned."

Currier's Swiss Timing

Leeseberg-Lange's vigor must be catching, because Terrence Currier, who learned to hoof and sing from his vaudevillian dad, is 74 but says, "I feel 34."

Currier spent 20-plus years as a sly character actor in Arena Stage's resident company before it was disbanded in the mid-1990s. After a 1994-95 stint in the Broadway revival of "Damn Yankees," he returned to Arena as a freelancer, most recently in "Born Yesterday." Around town, he played the singing, dancing reprobate Alfred P. Doolittle in Signature's 2006 "My Fair Lady" and the aged servant Adam in Folger's 2007 "As You Like It."

But the work slowed a bit in the last couple of years -- much to his wife's delight, he notes -- so Currier, who in the 1960s ran a children's theater at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, dug out a few scripts he'd written for it and took them to Imagination Stage in Bethesda.

The company's Janet Stanford surprised Currier by asking whether he would consider acting there. "I stammered and stuttered a bit. I hadn't thought of doing children's theater" as a performer, he recalls. But he checked the place out with his actor friends, then said yes.

Now he's acting and singing as Heidi's crusty grandpa Alp in a new musical based on Johanna Spyri's beloved novel (music and lyrics by Joan Cushing, book by Martha King De Silva). It runs through May 17. "I'm having a fine time. And I don't have to work at night," says the actor, who doesn't consider an early-evening Saturday show "night."

Early in the "Heidi" run, Currier says, he would use a quiet moment in the show when he was supposedly gazing at the stars to scan the audience. They looked "like a hologram that was moving. Nothing was still . . . not making noise, but . . . these little bodies of energy had to move." They're attentive, though, he adds, and they "haven't had two martinis and dinner before they sit down. . . . These kids don't sleep."

Currier's working on a solo piece about his long life in the theater, titled "I Stumble On."

Follow Spots

-- The Folger Shakespeare Library will celebrate Shakespeare's 445th birthday with a free open house Sunday from noon till 4 p.m. with myriad activities for kids and adults, plus cake! Visit http://www.folger.edu.

-- Rorschach Theatre's "Myth-Appropriation" project will present six new short plays based on urban legends Saturday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's rehearsal hall. Shows are at 6, 8 and 11 p.m. Visit http://www.rorschachtheatre.com.


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