Accent on Acting | Play, breathe, stretch, pucker —
for Sarah Shippobotham of the Actor Training
Program, acting is a very physical business.

Shippobotham with students Jason Armbruster, Ariana Broumas, and Lloyd Mulvey


Playing tag may seem an odd activity for training actors, but it’s part of a much bigger plan. “I’m trying to open people up, to encourage them to get out of their heads, to get rid of inhibitions, and to risk failure,” says Sarah Shippobotham, who directs the University Actor Training Program (ATP).

“Games always have a point, even if it’s not obvious.”

Some games force students to focus. Others foster spontaneity, a crucial component of actor training. Then there are the games that build a sense of ensemble or encourage actors to use their entire bodies, lest they be only talking heads.

Game playing is just one of the many techniques employed by the ATP to turn out professional actors who have gone on to win Tonys, star in popular sitcoms, and do graduate work at some of the most prestigious drama schools in the country.

The ATP’s list of alumni includes Tony-winning artist Keene Curtis BA’47 MS’51; Klea Blackhurst BFA’84, who made her New York debut off Broadway at Circle-in-the Square; Julie Boyd BFA’79, who worked extensively on Broadway after graduating from the Yale School of Drama; Michelle O’Neill BFA’89, who has acted on Broadway and in theaters around the country; and Jason Patrick Bowcutt BFA’94, who was a company member at The Shakespeare Theatre, where he was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award and a Drama Desk Award. Among recent graduates, Jeremy Rishe, who dazzled audiences in the Babcock Theater production of Cabaret, will be attending New York University. Marjorie Lopez Tibbs auditioned at the Old Vic in Bristol, England, where Daniel Day-Lewis trained, and was accepted at Juilliard. Sarah Jones was just accepted at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and Jason Armbruster has garnered a one-year internship with the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis.

Recent graduate Armbruster with Shippobotham

Shippobotham, who came to the University in 1998 to teach voice, dialect, text, and acting, has headed the program for the past year, following Jay Raphael, interim head Sandra Shotwell, and Kenneth Washington MFA’84, who founded the program. Like them, she brings a wealth of experience, talent, and skill to the four-year program, which offers conservatory-style training in a liberal arts setting. The craft-based curriculum is designed to prepare students for careers in classical and contemporary theatre. “It’s very intense,” Shippobotham says of the demanding undergraduate program. “It’s really for people who are 90 percent certain they want to be actors.”

Only 20 students are admitted following auditions each year. To maintain its diverse student body, the ATP joined with other universities for a unified audition tour to recruit in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

The program offers intensive courses in voice, speech, movement, singing, and acting. Invaluable performance opportunities come through regular stage productions in the Lab and Babcock Theatres, as well as the outdoor Classical Greek Theatre Festival. Students also can audition for acting internships with Pioneer Theatre Company during their senior year.

Games and improvisation come into play during the first year. Says Shippobotham, “We believe strongly in actors who are open to their impulses, to playing with their partners, taking risks, and believing in the process.”

Shippobotham, who is one of four theatre department faculty members with the ATP, is well versed in what it takes to be an actor. Her credits include the title role in Queen Christina at the Babcock Theatre and, most recently, the role of Katherine in Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of Seeing the Elephant. Early rehearsals included playing games to create a sense of ensemble. “It all relates back to playing the scene. My philosophy when I act is that I’m being active to my partner,” she says. “It’s all about me trying to affect them. If the scene is about scaring my partner, it has to be real, so I have to try to scare them. I have to pursue what I need from them wholeheartedly. That’s the only way I can achieve a reaction. At its best, acting cannot be self-indulgent.”

The second year of the program focuses on scene work, affording students opportunities to respond to and elicit reactions from their fellow actors. During the third year, students explore classics from Shakespeare to Molière. The senior year essentially becomes an acting studio, in which students choose scenes that challenge them to explore facets of themselves they haven’t yet explored. “You can see their progress,” says Shippobotham. “They leave with a working process that serves them well. We believe in turning out well-rounded actors who can think and analyze and whose creative talents are fed by knowledge of the larger world in which the theater exists.”

The eclectic ATP also includes two years of singing training, two and a half years of movement training, a year of voice, and a year of speech, a focus which leads to one term of Shippobotham’s specialty: dialect.

A native of Cardiff, Wales, Shippobotham trained as an actor at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. She worked professionally in Great Britain for 14 years before receiving a postgraduate diploma in voice studies from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where she did dialect training, which turned out to be her forte. “I’ve always been able to do different dialects,” she says, gingerly switching from one accent to another. “I was always a good mimic. As a child, I never spoke in my own voice.”

How do you teach an accent? First Shippobotham learns it herself. “I try to know as much about it as possible and then I distill it. You have to immerse yourself in it—the vocabulary, the rhythm, the music of it. Does it end up or down? Is it a whine?” She distinguishes between accents and dialect. “An accent is the sound you make, a dialect the words and phrases you use.”

During the junior year, students learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, which gives them a solid technical base for dialect. “You learn a long ‘a’ versus a short ‘a,’” explains Meg Spencer, who graduates from the ATP at the end of the summer term.

“Sarah is so much about how people really speak. She tells us to sing a song in a particular accent or have conversations real people would have. It’s about trying to wrap your mouth around language in a natural, lifelike way.”

Shippobotham is serious about immersion. During rehearsals of Oh What a Lovely War, which she directed last year at the Babcock Theatre, she had her cast speak in an English accent on and off the set. “I made them talk it all the time,” she says. “I encouraged them to go home and speak it. When I’m working with an accent, I have conversations in my head in that accent. If I can go into a shop and convincingly ask for something, then I can get onto the job of acting.”

Spencer talks about the time she and some other student actors tried out Shippobotham’s technique for themselves. “Sarah told us to go somewhere, hang out all night, and try to convince everyone we were from somewhere else. Three of us went to a martini bar. I decided to be Scottish, someone else was Australian, and one was proper British.” The three women were so convincing that they were hit on by several men attracted to their accents.

Shippobotham is so aware of how people speak that when she listens to them, her mouth starts moving to form words the way they do. “It’s a curse,” she says. She’s made an international reputation for herself with that “curse.” She coaches dialect/voice not only at the University but also for professional theaters, including Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, and the prestigious Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake outside Toronto. “It’s a challenging job,” she says. “I might have a day’s notice to coach the Chicago accent.” She’s proficient in general American, standard English, Russian, Cuban, German, Austrian, Yiddish, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Australian, as well as the dialects of North Carolina, Brooklyn, New York, Texas, Bristol, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Galway, Glasgow, Birmingham, London, and Dublin. The differences can be subtle, but a mastery of those subtleties is what makes her coaching so prized.

Whether accented or peppered with dialect, she views the voice as an essential element of acting. “Acting is an aural art as much as a visual art,” she explains. Getting actors to “realize their own voice” is part of the task. “We tend to take on an awful lot of baggage and exhibit it in our bodies,” she says. “For example, if you are tall, you hunch over. If you hunch over, it affects your breathing. We don’t breathe as effectively as we could in allowing the sound to come out of us.”

The ATP also includes instruction in makeup, dance, the Alexander Technique, theater history, design, technical production, stage management, career preparation, and auditioning. Through formal class work, visits from visiting theater professionals, and participation in actual productions with a variety of directors, students learn to act and perform in a variety of styles.

The program’s thorough training has garnered it a national reputation for producing graduates of talent and imagination. Jac Bessell of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London is frequently quoted in department publications. “Actor Training Program students at the University of Utah produce outstanding work, while demonstrating a mature understanding of process as well as product,” Bessell says. “The ATP’s conservatory-style training gives the students’ work a depth and perspective that many professionals would envy. Personally, I have found working with these bright, motivated and well-rounded individuals to be among the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

—Mary Dickson is creative director at KUED-Channel 7 and last wrote about the Film Studies Division for Continuum (Winter 2000-01).

Photos by Linda Marion