There are 22 globe-trotting characters in Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt. But when the Tony Award-winning Denver Center Theatre Company opens its season with the play this week, only four actors--all men dressed austerely in business suits--will be interpreting the roles. It's the main quirk of Scottish theater director Giles Havergal's unusual treatment of the play, which DCTC director Nagle Jackson brings to life locally beginning Thursday in the Space Theatre.
Granted, it's tough enough to prepare for one role, especially one that's complicated--so how did Tony Church, Robert Westenberg, Jamie Horton and Erik Tieze manage to adapt? Behind every great actor, it seems, there's a great acting coach, and that's where Gary Logan steps in. Voice coach and speech director at the National Theatre Conservatory for several years, Logan is one of the nation's few stage-dialect specialists. Logan's schooling in the rarefied field began with pre-eminent speech expert Edith Skinner at the American Conservatory of Theater in San Francisco; he's been in-house at the NTC since 1986. Part of his success has to do with his willingness to draw directly from the linguistic well.
"Lots of actors go out and buy tapes, but they're not hearing the primary source," Logan says of the performer's constant search for the linguistic grail. "I like to hear people who actually speak a dialect, tape them, and then translate the material for the actor." That involves a certain amount of tweaking before a final product can hit the stage. "Accuracy is not necessarily the goal," Logan adds. "Strict accuracy might not be intelligible to an audience."
Havergal's handling of Travels With My Aunt poses unique problems for a voice coach. "In this play, the actors have to be able to switch on a dime," Logan says. Playwright Greene not only alternates between eras, creating period differences in the language, but he also employs a profusion of international characters, from British eccentric Aunt Augusta to her much younger lover, a Creole-speaking black marketeer from Sierra Leone. And that's not the end of it: All four actors share the role of Augusta's milquetoast nephew, Henry, and one of them, Westenberg, balances an abundance of secondary parts on his professional plate, among them Hakim the Turkish concierge, a German general's wife, an Italian girl and various policemen.
Logan usually begins his quest for the perfect dialect by seeking out someone naturally versed in its cadences, often relying on international student societies or the Bridge International School, a Denver language academy, for sources. Then it's a matter of making his subjects comfortable. "I usually try to ask things about their country," he says. "That connects them emotionally--they'll start to get pictures in their heads of things they're familiar with, and they forget that I care about how they sound."
The Sierra Leonian dialect, a unique type of pidgin English, was extremely difficult to obtain. "I finally resorted to buying some fancy telephone-recording surveillance equipment, and I called the embassy in Washington," Logan says. The voice of Henry, the character everybody has to play, required a different tack. Church, a native Briton, provided the basic inflections, which Logan and the other cast members then reworked to fit Henry's character. "Even Tony made amendments to the way he was sounding," Logan notes.
Logan considers himself lucky to be able to work with such accomplished actors and directors. But not every actor has a natural ear for patois. "There are certain dialects we all have an affinity to, some we don't," Logan says. "And maybe there's something about a certain rhythmical pattern which is just out the window--they can't get a hook on it." Logan has an arsenal of tools, from his firsthand tapes to the International Phonetic Alphabet (a universal pronunciation system), to help actors vocalize their characterizations. He also understands where they're coming from professionally: An actor first, Logan still occasionally performs in DCTC productions. "That's why I was brought out here in the first place--I have some comprehension of actors' concerns," he explains. "I understand, first, that it's important to not look stupid and, second, to be understood by the audience. It takes trust. They accept that I'm there to help them. They like to know there are people there to be on their side."
Directors have different agendas. Some, like Anthony Powell, with whom Logan is working to stage Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, gives the coach carte blanche powers in his area of expertise. Jackson, though, is a more exacting taskmaster, with precise requests. "But what he wants is perfect," Logan says. "He's very specific, but he's also very right."
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Logan has some favorite dialects--he loves a good Donegal Irish brogue, the Jamaican patois and the lilt of the black South African tongue. Still, he admits, his job is an unending journey to uncover new territories, and he has a lot yet to learn. "I don't have to know every dialect any more than Mike Shanahan has to know how to do every roll-out pattern," he says. But he enjoys the quest. "My brain gets tickled when it's teased. I have a lot of fun doing the detective work," he says.
"It's also fun when I'm working one-on-one with the actors and the lightbulbs go off in their heads," he continues. "When they finally lock their mouths around certain sounds, it's just like putting on a costume."
The Denver Center Theatre Company presents Travels With My Aunt, 6:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, and 2 & 8 p.m. Saturday, October 8-November 14, Space Theatre, 14th and Curtis in the Plex, $23-$34, 303-893-4100.