When a review of one of Matt Harding's plays appears, it's better for him if he's not mentioned at all.
Harding, 25, is a voice, speech, and dialect coach, and he's most successful when his efforts are imperceptible to the audience. The best compliment he received for his work on the Court Theatre's production of The Invention of Love earlier this season was from two British women who said they had scoured the program to see whether the cast were transplants from the United Kingdom.
"The dialect should never be what the play is about," says Harding. "It's more important in any aspect of the theater that we be in a different world."
Recently Harding has been working in the world of prewar England, helping the cast of the Court's upcoming production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever speak "Oxford speech" or "received pronunciation." "R.P.," Harding says, "is a manufactured class dialect" from the counties surrounding London.
Harding is originally from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he says he heard a lot of "hick and hillbilly." He was a born mimic. When he was young he prided himself on his imitations of the voices he heard in television commercials. As a theater student at Wright State University in Dayton he became known as the "accent guy," and in his third year a professor encouraged him to pursue voice work. After graduating in 1998, Harding took courses at the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Working toward an advanced certificate in voice studies, Harding studied with David Carey, a former Royal Shakespeare Company voice coach.
He moved to Chicago in 1999 to attend Northwestern University, and graduated last year with a master's degree in theater after writing what he calls "a really geeky treatise on phonetics." Shortly thereafter he began working with Court artistic director Charles Newell; he also continues to work with Northwestern's theater department and last year was the dialect coach for Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of Angels in America. Once Hay Fever closes, Harding is signed up to work as a voice coach for the Court's summer repertory shows.
He's also an actor (as well as an AmeriCorps tutor at Wells High School) but says he's had odd roles in Chicago. "They cast me as thugs and henchmen a lot," he says. "I'm a language guy and I play these big dumb guys who can't speak." To illustrate his vocal facility he begins speaking with an Irish brogue, then quickly slips into Brooklynese, offers a bit of Macbeth done in Russian, and mixes hip-hop lingo with an upper-crust English accent.
The voice is controlled by a series of muscles and once you master them you can learn to speak in a certain dialect, he says. Using the international phonetic alphabet and outlining the rules for how the sounds change with each dialect, Harding can help actors speak anything from cockney to Cajun. He's not teaching accents--accents are the result of mistakes people make trying to pronounce words in a foreign language--but the skills of grammar, word choice, and pronunciation that make up an entire dialect.
"I do believe that with my methodology I could pick up anything," he says, although he concedes he doesn't know as many languages and dialects as he'd like. "There are thousands of dialects in the world and if you ask me to do Swahili I'll look at you funny."
In the meantime, Harding is happy enough with all the tongues he hears on the streets of Chicago. "If you listen it's a wonderful pastiche of language," he says.
Hay Fever opens Saturday, February 3, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Call 773-753-4472.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.