MMC Faculty Member and Alumnus Collaborate on Published Research Study

November 20, 2018
  • Professor Melissa Tonning-Kollwitz
Melissa Tonning-Kollwitz, MFA, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at MMC, and alumnus Joe Hetterly ’15, Guest Lecturer, Theatre and Performance at SUNY Purchase, collaborated for over a year on a project investigating the standard dialects that are taught in collegiate actor-training programs and that are coached professionally.

Their study, entitled The Current Use of Standard Dialects in Speech Practice and Pedagogy: A Mixed Method Study Examining the VASTA Community in the United States, was published in the Voice and Speech Trainer’s Association’s (VASTA) The Voice & Speech Review in September 2018.

In theatre training, there are two “standard dialects” taught and coached in America: General American (GenAm), which is also known as Neutral American or Non-Regional American, and Standard Stage Dialect (SSD), also known as Standard American, Transatlantic, or Mid-Atlantic Dialect.  

After attending several Knight Thompson Speechwork workshops, Tonning Kollwitz and Hetterly began to notice the lack of formal quantitative research on these dialects. To address this gap in data, the pair conducted expert interviews with prominent linguists, nationally-known actors, and voice professionals, and collected a wide variety of survey data from self-identified speech/dialect coaches, teachers in actor-training programs, and other experts. Additional MMC faculty members also contributed to the project: Sue Behrens, Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, served as an expert linguist in interviews, and Sarah Weinberger-Litman, Associate Professor of Psychology, provided crucial assistance in analyzing the data using SPSS.

Results indicated that there has been a shift in the understanding of “standard” when it comes to the dialects taught in educational programs and professional settings. Many teachers and coaches are not relying on standard dialects at all for coaching productions and may instead be working individually with each actor in a production, rather than coaching for one single dialect for the entire cast of a classical production.

Additionally, the results of the study have deeper pedagogical implications for actor speech training, including the need for self-reflexivity as practitioners and the use of alternative approaches to teaching standard dialects. In the next phase of research, with the help of contacts at Theatre Communications Group (TCG), Tonning-Kollwitz and Hetterly will interview casting directors, directors, and agents to learn what kinds of productions hire coaches and when there is no dialect specified in a script, if a standard dialect is utilized.