A Chat with Billy Elliot Dialect Coach Vanessa Dinning

 In Season

Hometown: (Where in England you’re from)

My hometown is Durham, in County Durham in the North East of England, about an hour or so south of the Scottish border. I grew up in a very small village called Lanchester a few miles outside of the city, and very, very close to the village of Easington Colliery where Billy Elliot is set. I moved to London for University and for postgraduate theatre training and lived there for 14 years before moving to San Diego.

Favorite: Geordie word/colloquialism:
“Canny” is a fabulous Geordie word. It can mean so many different things.  If something is “canny good” that means it’s quite good.  Or if you say, “He’s a canny one, he is.” That means he is sly and manipulative but can also mean that he’s clever.  Or you can say, “She’s a canny lass” which means she is a really lovely girl, or she’s a really pretty girl…  I could go on. Depending on context it can mean so many things.  It’s miraculous to me that it doesn’t appear in the Billy Elliot script at all.
Here are some of the favorites though:
Oxters = Armpits
Mank = Smelly, Mouldy, “Off”
Nettie = toilet/restroom
What is Geordie?
A Geordie is a name given to someone from the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  The dialect and accents of Newcastle are known as Geordie.  They say that genuine Cockneys are the people born within the sound of Bow Bells (the bells of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow in east London).  For Geordies, they say they’re born within the smell of the Tyne, the river that the city is Newcastle is built upon! For Billy Elliot, we’re not actually doing a Geordie accent, but a west Durham accent. Durham city is about 15 miles south of Newcastle, but the accents are quite different. Durham has a much calmer and earthier quality, it is much easier to understand – so kinder for our San Diego audiences –  than true Geordie, and also accurate in terms of the specific geographic location of the setting of the show.  It’s also 100% my native accent.  My family all still live in that area and talk just like the characters in Billy Elliot.
How long have you been working as a dialect coach?
I’ve been working in theatre for over 20 years as an actor, a director, a voice teacher and dialect coach.  I was very, very lucky to receive an incredible vocational training at drama school in London and learn from lauded industry professionals.  I moved to San Diego 10 years ago. It’s such a joy to work with actors in San Diego who I’ve always found to be extremely diligent, hardworking and eager to learn.  It’s very satisfying!
What’s the hardest or the most challenging aspect to teaching actors dialects?

The challenges are different depending on the requirements of a particular play or musical.  Sometimes the accent is particularly tricky and nuanced.  Other times  I’d say the biggest challenge is time.  I am contacted frequently by people who say, “I’ll book you for an hour,” and think they’ll master an English accent or an Australian or German or Italian accent in that time.  To give a comparison, would you expect to be able to pick up a violin for the first time and just because you’ve heard someone else do it, be able to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in an hour?  It takes time, effort, patience and hours and hours of laborious work to truly embody a dialect so that you not only sound like but can act with it freely, like a native.

I’m so grateful to SDMT for bringing me into the process at auditions. It has been such a gift to have the “luxury” of time to work with all the actors, Neil (director) and Don (musical director) in Billy Elliot. We’ve been able to go into more detail about how the Durham accent behaves, the influences, how it works socially and culturally, and to help the actors find ways to use elements of the accent to bring the characters and scenes to life more vividly. Billy Elliot has in some ways been my easiest job – because I know the accent so so well – and on the other hand, it been one of my hardest jobs… because I hear every little note, rhythm or vowel, that isn’t quite perfect. I’m so impressed by how fantastically the SDMT company has mastered the accent.  In rehearsal, I’d record excerpts and send them to my sister and her family for the official seal of approval.  If the locals are convinced, then we’ve done our job!
What do you love most about teaching dialects to actors?
I love that for every production I work on, even when I’ve worked on a play before (I’ve worked on My Fair Lady a LOT), it is always a new experience because every actor is different.  What is easy for some is difficult for others and so every day throws up new challenges and that means I have to be very creative. I also love getting to work on the non-British accents.  The Brit accents are more common and much easier to teach generally for me, but it is fun when I have to work hard to master the elements of an accent that is new to me, so that I can figure out ways to teach it. The best moment for me is when I’m watching a run and I actually forget to listen because the actors “own” the dialect and they’re telling the story and drawing me in, and so my ear isn’t being jarred.  That’s always a magical moment.
Tell us about your family connection to the 1984 Miner’s Strike in Durham.

I was a little girl in Durham during the Miners’ Strike but can still remember is quite vividly. It was all everyone talked about for the longest time.  My dad’s family were miners, although at the time of the strike, my dad was no longer working for the mines. Many of my friend’s fathers, grandfathers and uncles were on strike and picketed.  My dad’s brother, my Uncle Ray, was the Assistant Chief Constable for Durham Constabulary during the Miners’ Strike and was responsible for all Police operations in the Force – many of which were brought in from other parts of the country, mostly the south – at that time.  This really was a huge responsibility. As a child, it didn’t even register with me just how integral a role my Uncle Ray played during the Strike.  When he learned I was working on the show, he was brilliantly helpful and set me 100s of photographs and told me about some of his experience.

Police in Easington during the 1984 Miner’s strike

For me, I was just like one of the little girls in the ballet class.  My Mrs. Wilkinson was called Mrs. Fergusson and we had weekly classes in the local community center, just like in the show.  It’s just what we did.  Being part of Billy Elliot is like stepping back in time. It has brought up so many memories.

Vanessa Dinning in ballet class at Lanchester Community Center in Durham in the early 80s.

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