Accent on Acting | Play, breathe, stretch,
for Sarah Shippobotham of the Actor Training
Program, acting is a very physical business.
Shippobotham with students Jason Armbruster, Ariana Broumas, and
BY MARY DICKSON
Playing tag may seem an odd activity for training actors, but its
part of a much bigger plan. Im 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 its 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 ATPs list of alumni includes Tony-winning artist Keene Curtis
BA47 MS51; Klea Blackhurst BFA84, who made her New York
debut off Broadway at Circle-in-the Square; Julie Boyd BFA79, who
worked extensively on Broadway after graduating from the Yale School of
Drama; Michelle ONeill BFA89, who has acted on Broadway and
in theaters around the country; and Jason Patrick Bowcutt BFA94,
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 Childrens
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 MFA84,
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.
Its very intense, Shippobotham says of the demanding
undergraduate program. Its 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 Companys 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 Im being active to my partner,
she says. Its 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. Thats
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
havent 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 Shippobothams 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. Ive 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 itthe 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. Its about trying to wrap your mouth around language in a natural,
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 Im 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
Shippobothams 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. Its
a curse, she says. Shes 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. Its a challenging
job, she says. I might have a days notice to coach the
Chicago accent. Shes 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
dont 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
The programs 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 ATPs
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
Photos by Linda Marion