There are 84 characters in the Broadway musical “Come From Away” played by just twelve actors and those characters speak in approximately 12-14 accents ranging from the very particular Newfoundland accent to Ugandan, Egyptian, British, Texan, New York and more. “Come From Away” tells the extraordinary true story of the 6,700 travelers who were diverted to a large airport in the small community of Gander, Newfoundland island after the 9/11 attacks – and the local people who welcomed them.
Navigating those myriad accents has been the purview of dialect coach, Joel Goldes, who has been with the show since the first production at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015. After receiving his bachelor and MFA from UC Irvine, where Goldes honed his voice work with Dudley Knight and began his fascination with dialects, he worked for PCPA (Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts) as an actor and teacher of voice and speech. He and then girlfriend, now wife, Vivian, moved to New York where he continued to act but eventually found his way to directing, all the while coaching dialects. After leaving acting behind, he focused on directing and producing for an Off Broadway company called The Miranda Company, but soon realized he didn’t enjoy being in charge of the whole picture. “I found that the dialect coaching let me keep my hand in but allowed me to be in charge of a smaller part of a production,” he says.
Starting a family brought them back to Los Angeles after ten years in New York and soon La Jolla Playhouse came calling with an offer to do some dialect coaching. He had written to his friend and colleague, Francie Brown, who was a well established dialect coach at that point and he says, “she very kindly laid it all out for me in terms of getting started and advised me to do a lot of theatre, develop your teaching materials and put yourself out there. And so that’s what I did.” His reputation grew over the years working with actors like Julia Ormond among others, privately and on sets and working off and on for theatres like La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson.
In 2015 he got the call to work on a new musical called “Come From Away” at La Jolla Playhouse which turned into a long and beautiful collaboration on this show which has taken him to Broadway, the West End in London, D.C., Toronto, Australia and on a North American Tour. “With 84 roles in the show,” says Goldes, “sometimes the accent is the only thing that lets you know one of the 12 actors is playing a different part, so the accents are critical and the creators realized that the accents needed to be different enough that the audience understands when an actor has changed characters, but not so strong that the audience gets pulled out and maybe doesn’t understand – so we have to walk this delicate line.”
Many things evolved through the tryouts in different cities such as the idea of having the characters from Newfoundland keep their Gander accents when they sing. “It turned out to be a very helpful device to clue the audience in as to who they are when they’re singing.” Goldes still marvels at the way it felt when they got to Broadway, “having lived in New York of course I’d seen a lot of theatre and coached some small productions but never dreamed after moving back to California that I would get to coach a Broadway show – that was astonishing. And then because the show was so successful in Toronto, they decided to do a “sit down” company there (currently closed with a plan to return next year) and Goldes visits each of these shows several times a year. “Every layer of this says to me again how fortunate I am to be working with a creative staff and producers who so highly value the level of the dialects in the show,” he says. “To be able to teach a new company of twelve actors plus five to eight standbys who each cover 4-5 roles – then it starts to be more clear why it’s valuable to have consistency with a coach. And to (director) Christopher Ashley’s credit, there’s never a sense of a subsequent company imitating the Broadway cast – it’s always unique, so things always change a little bit.” Goldes has worked with this current tour cast since they began pre-pandemic and has picked back up with them now.
When Goldes first began working on the Newfoundland accent back in 2015, he says it was very difficult to find any recordings of real Newfoundlanders speaking. In fact, he says that within Newfoundland there are a vast array of regional accents but in order to not confuse the audience, they ended up landing on one. He initially found some clips on YouTube of locals speaking and began to build from there with the help of original cast member, Petrina Bromley, who is from St. Johns. “She was extremely helpful with a lot of little details and nuances,” says Goldes, “it was great to have her ear to keep me honest and we ended up with a moderate version of the Newfoundland accent.” But since then he says it’s been interesting to see how easy it is to access the Newfoundland accent now. “Many of the real people who became characters in the show have been interviewed through the years so now there’s all this material online! But also, initially, I did have access to the original recorded interviews so it was all a part of creating what you now see on stage,” explains Goldes.
Something he had never experienced before was maintaining the accents over an on-going, long run. “With this show I’m tasked with not only maintaining the accents in the show; making sure that in the months between my visits the actors don’t get into habits that make them sound like they’re from somewhere else, or strengthen or weaken their accents” he explains, “but also for all of the replacements and stand-bys. I’d like to applaud the efforts of all the stand-bys in all the companies around the world because they’re doing four or five tracks (remember each actor may be playing seven different characters and a standby is learning the tracks of 4-5 different actors!) and with the pandemic, we’ve had people come back to the show after not being with it for years and come back in and do a role with very little rehearsal.” He marvels, “their normal job is to know two roles extremely well and then have two or three other roles that they can go on for. The standbys use their brains in a way the rest of us just don’t”
Goldes usually tries to surprise the actors and not let them know what show he’ll be watching, but he tells us sometimes they spot him and then word travels fast among the cast! “I want to see what they’re doing day to day and then if I catch things, I give them those little reminders,” he says. “I really like my job and feel so fortunate to have found this niche. What I get to bring to it is not just the dialect – there’s so much that’s bound up in “acting”- and I try to be very respectful of not giving people acting direction – but there’s so much that goes to character that comes from how someone speaks.” He says it’s the actors he’s worked with who have really brought that to his attention. “So just to help an actor look more deeply at what they’re doing is great and to work with these great actors and somebody like Viola (Davis, who he recently coached Showtime’s “The First Lady”), on set and to have them trust me in such a way is deeply satisfying.”
When I ask Goldes what it is about this show that touches people so, he pauses and says reflectively, “as Americans, the stereotype is that we’re all looking out for ourselves – and we hope that in a dire situation, we’ll act nobly and take care of the people around us. So I think one of the beautiful parts of the show is that it demonstrates how these Canadians in a small town behaved when there was a catastrophe and they… it was a given, they just stepped up and did what they needed to do. And from all reports, it was everybody in all the towns surrounding Gander. People just lent a hand. They didn’t have to be asked – people just showed up. I think it’s that.” He goes on to say, “the show has a very different resonance now that we’ve all been through this pandemic that we’re still dealing with, but I kept thinking once we shut down in March 2020, ‘boy this show is just perfect for these times as you started to hear more about people trying to help each other out and behaving kindly to strangers.’ So it just hits the zeitgeist in an amazing way. Another part that resonates more strongly for me is the love story between Nick and Diane, these two strangers who met on a plane and ended up falling in love – here’s the thing, nothing has been changed about the direction of the show but it’s one of those pieces of art that, because it’s so beautifully integrated, it resonates differently depending on what’s going on in the world and in any given audience member’s particular world – so that love story stands out in a new way.”
The result is nothing short of astounding. As you watch the show and afterwards, you have the distinct impression that there must be at least 30 or more actors on stage – each shift in character is so precise, so perfectly placed in region that it’s impossible to wrap your head around the idea that you haven’t just met dozens of individuals. It’s a beautiful, stunning show with a staggering pace that leaves you asking, “how did they do that?”
“That’s from a great deal of very hands on development,” says Goldes. “From the choreographer and director, the associate director who maintains the show and the musical director – it’s all very carefully choreographed and what you see now is the evolution of two years work. And even before the La Jolla production, the show was in workshops for some years as well, so there is a great deal of careful attention to making it the best it can possibly be. Of course it’s thrilling to be part of that whole experience and to work with people at the top of their game and see how it’s all put together.”
It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre that I hope everyone will see. What the world needs now is more reminders like this of who we’re meant to be.
“Come From Away” is at the Ahmanson through June 12, 2022. Ticket Prices: $40 – $150 available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. (Use code GROUNDED and save this week) The show will also make a stop at Segerstrom Center June 21 – 26 in Costa Mesa.