"Stones in His Pockets," a play about an American film company invading a community in rural Ireland, has more than a dozen characters, but only two actors. That means a lot of quick switches between genders, ages and, above all, accents.
For its production of this work by Irish playwright Marie Jones, Center Stage started with a pair of versatile performers — Clinton Brandhagen, an Everyman Theatre resident member; and New York-based Todd Lawson. Then the company brought in a dialect expert to help those disparate voices ring true.
That expert is Leigh Wilson Smiley, director of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She's also founder of the Visual Accent and Dialect Archive, an online resource with hundreds of videos featuring people from around the world speaking English-language texts (the ultimate goal is a library of 30,000 samples).
"Film actors typically know a year in advance that they will be doing a role, so they have time to practice before getting onto the set," Smiley says. "Stage actors tend to go from play to play to play, so they often don't have enough time to work on dialects. I was very lucky that the two guys in this show are so facile."
They have to be.
At the center of "Stones in His Pockets," a comedy with a tragic undercurrent, are two locals hired as extras for the American movie. The play concerns their experiences with cast and crew, as well as a dark incident involving another local lad who wants to get in on the action.
Through it all, the two actors onstage have to keep everyone and everything in the story distinctive, including nuances of accents from County Kerry in southwest Ireland and County Mayo up north.
"There are a few differences between them," Smiley says. "The sound is more closed in the north, more open in the south, I would say. There's the word 'cow, for example. Cows are a big theme in this play — they represent life and loss. Someone from the north will pronounce it more like 'kyes.'"
Smiley spent about 10 hours coaching Brandhagen and Lawson for the play, which was a hit at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and went on to enjoy successful runs in London and on Broadway.
"Each accent is different depending on the character's age and sex, and depending on how the character feels, which can affect the breath and the tone," Smiley says. "An accent tells you so much about a person's character and heart. There is no such thing as a bad accent."
When it comes to the Irish folks in the play, there is one overriding vocal issue.
"I've been emphasizing the lilt and rhythm of how the Irish speak, that way of singing it almost," Smiley says. "The lilt is in their sense of humor and their music. Keeping the lilt has been the biggest challenge. When you lose it, you lose the character of the people and the land and what keeps them alive."
Adds Lawson: "There are no strict rules; the same person can speak differently at different times. Going from an American accent to Irish to American to different Irish is harder than you think."
That's not all. There is the matter of gesture and how that can affect the voice.
"We worked on physical tics for the characters," Brandhagen says. "Leigh got us thinking differently about movement, ways to keep the characters real and let the story tell itself, so it's not just two guys with accents."
The actors cut a few of those accents late in the rehearsal process, at the suggestion of company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, to make it easier on the audience.
"I once did a production," Smiley says, "where the accents were so pure people asked me if the actors were speaking in Gaelic."'Stones in His Pockets' runs through Feb. 23.