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The Jester Interview: Maggie Surovell

In 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 circumstances are.

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.




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