The Jester Interview:
November, performer Maggie Surovell had the biggest showcase yet for her
one-woman show, ďWarning Signs,Ē in a three-night weekend run at the
Cherry Lane Theatre in New Yorkís West Village. The show mines her
growing up and coming of age, as well as her family, for material
presented with creative exaggeration. Surovell holds a masterís in
acting, and specializes in teaching dialects and voice coaching, which
played a part in developing ďWarning Signs.Ē She plans to perform the
show again later this year.
Jester: How many different dialects do you know and what is the
process of teaching someone a dialect like?
Maggie Surovell: I donít know how many I know. Probably overall
Iíve taught maybe 20 different dialects, maybe more. I can do any
dialect in the world. The way to learn it is very specific [no matter
what dialect]. Thereís a clear process to learning a dialect and itís
the same process applies to every single dialect. Even if you invented
your own new dialect, you would automatically have the same process
because it involves resonance, the shape of the jaw or mouth, the range
of movement the jaw makes, and also what sounds on what consonants are
within that dialect. Itís methodical. You build it.
J: Is it a lot harder to get right than you might guess if you just
amateurishly put on an accent or voice?
MS: If someone has a really good ear and is really confident, it will
sound really good because the most important part of getting a dialect
is having the intention of the act -- the actorís intention and what
theyíre trying to communicate with the story. Thatís actually more
important than nailing things down in a way because thatís more
believable because then youíre not stuck.
Iím not saying if youíre bad at dialects and really good at committing
to the intention, thatís a good thing. If you are good at dialects
naturally, it could be easy. But at the same time, to get things really
precise -- if you want to get a great sense, and some are harder than
others, so if you think youíre good Ö there might be certain roles
youíre really good at, and characters you might connect with easily, and
some that you canít. If you donít train as an actor, your range of
ability to understand the character will be limited. You have more an
ability to ask yourself how youíre going to approach the character and
youíll have the techniques, like figuring out the action or what the
J: Once you have the capability you can put it around any dialect?
MS: Exactly. Itís a tool. The tool makes it easier to be more specific
and more creative and you can even be unlimited.
J: How does having the different dialects allow you personally to
stretch what youíre able to perform?
MS: For me, I connect with the voice as an actor. At the same time, the
voice and physicality are very connected. If I feel myself vocally
trying to do something, I want to make sure that my body is also engaged
in that. If my voice is punching, I should physically be punching. If
Iím trying to hold back a punch, then my body should be restrained. I
think about those kind of things.
J: How did you develop your solo show?
MS: I started it in grad school as part of a class and it was the most
hectic time of my life. I was teaching 2 classes and in 5 classes, and
doing 3 scenes for the class, and that semester I was in 2 mainstage
shows at night, one of which toured from Atlanta. It was so much to
juggle; it was so insane.
It was supposed to be a half-hour piece but I only got 10 minutes
together. A lot of the scenes I did then are gone now, but a big ones
was the scene of the mother freaking out [at finding her as a young
girl] shaving [her] armpits. That was there in the original, that has
never changed. Itís one that seems to work so I havenít really tried to
do anything to it.
But after that 10 minute piece I didnít perform it for a year and worked
on writing more of it on and off, in 2004 and 2005. First it was 10
minutes, then about 25 minutes the second time I performed it. I had to
do it for an art gallery and the theme was race, and I looked at race as
Judaism. Race -- African-American and white -- has been something in my
life that I show in the show, with the African-American Santa Claus, and
always having crushes on my black guy friends, and always being asked if
Iím part black because of my hair. I realized itís so much more in my
life than I thought. Thatís how some of those scenes got into it. But I
forgot about them as part of my life until I was told they were great.
Itís still a work in progress.