Monday, July 30, 2007

Choosing your voice

Nicole Simon recently commented on stereotypes and the kerfulle they generated. I have a slightly different take and its all due to Jack.
First off, Jack is a friend of mine from Cork City. He's a builder. Now what picture does that generate in your mind? I've just told you what he does and where he lives, so some sort of stereotype is probably forming in your mind... and he is one of the reasons why I don't believe in that a stereotype can ever be true.
When I tell you that I first met him when we were performing in an opera together and that we bumped in to each other at "Thailand : What's Love got to do with it" and that thanks to him I ended up chatting with the play's writer and cast afterwards, I ask you; has your image of him changed? And the conversation about the play the group had is sort of the foundation of this post.

It's easier to approach any stereotype from fiction, after all, as Kermit said, "It's not easy being green". And when it comes to a play, I've been on all three sides, audience, performer and director. All visual and audio media rely to some part on established stereotypes, be it using them or forcing a re-evaluation of them. To put is simply, sometimes they are necessary as a replacement to character set-up.
For example in all television adverts, Dads are useless in a kitchen, women know nothing about cars, no one knows what a tracker mortgage is and all absorbent products work wonderfully with blue liquids. Why? Well apart from the fact that there are only 12 types of advertising, there is only 30 seconds to make a memorable pitch. As anyone seeking a venture capitalist will tell you that 30 seconds is a very short time to get attention and make your point.
In fact, given the amount of time you have to make your point, you may have to rely, in part, on an established stereotype.
In short attention span order...
1) picture including print advertising,
2) audio / radio advertising,
3) televisual media advertising,
4) newspaper article,
5) one act play,
6) magazine article or profile,
7) full length play,
7) non-serial television programme,
8) movie
9) serialised television programme with recurring casts
10) books and series of books.

Yes, its not exhaustive and there is overlap. The issue which triggered Nicole Simon's post was that of a site name and logo. In theory that counts as part of the advertising end of the scale. However a company logo and persona lasts much longer than 30 seconds. If Mister Wong was a background character in an advert, he might not have been noticed let alone triggered a response. But combine a non-complementary stereotype and make it the logo... then its worse. No English man would object to the Jeeves image projected by AskJeeves.com (that was). Imagine the Irish stereotype which would be generated? (Probably something like a drunken Podge?) Is Tony Soprano a genuine reflection of an Italian American stereotype or is he objectionable? At first sight ... maybe. However time allows depth that a company logo does not have.

But time in a one act play is not a luxury.
Mairtín de Cógáin in "Thailand..." plays Declan, an Irish tourist, well, visiting the sex tourism of Thailand. (The play was a fund-raiser for an anti sex trafficking charity and took place in the Unitarian Church... an odd juxtaposition). I'm not going to give you a review of the play (wonderful) or the acting ability (brilliant) but of the character created.
Declan wears a Hawaiian style shirt and shorts... telling the story dressed as a tourist in still over there. Declan had a Cork inner city (maybe slightly North side) accent.
The director in me agrees with the costume choice, but ask Jack asked... what would your reaction be if Declan was wearing a business suit? Or a tracksuit and cap? That simple costume change will change that audiences assumptions of Declan and his background. And switching the accent to Montenotte or Mayfield would cause a change in the character in the audience's eye.

And the question is... Why?

Declan is played as an innocent. He even argues that by using these prostitutes, he is actually helping the economy destroyed by the tsunami in 2004. And Declan's more or less believed. Using the clothing as example, would you believe him as an innocent in this case wearing a tracksuit? And what about a business suit?
Now ask yourself... why?

An advantage Jack has over me is that on short term jobs he ends up everywhere and meets everyone. He has met the most ignorant, clueless but educated people, and he has met the most informed, politically aware but unschooled people. The stereotypes are inaccurate, but the assumptions remain to keep the stereotype alive.

In the case of the play, talking to Brian Desmond, the founder of "Be Your Own Banana" Theatre Company he pointed out that there is about 40 minutes of unused script from early drafts of the play. And that they tried out different voices, from high to low and everything in-between. Some "voices" just stopped it; killed the humour dead.
Why?
Well you just couldn't imagine the owner of that voice saying that.

So in podcasts and other media, ask yourself... did they choose that voice? And Why?

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