Puppets with purpose
Marianne Gingher '74 MFA and Deborah Seabrooke '75 MFA, creators of Jabberbox Puppet Theater, pose with Beej, Fuzzy and Kippers the fish.

Marianne Gingher '74 MFA and Deborah Seabrooke '75 MFA, creators of Jabberbox Puppet Theater, pose with Beej, Fuzzy and Kippers the fish.

Who says grown-ups can't play with puppets?

Marianne Gingher '74 MFA and Deborah Seabrooke '75 MFA make no apologies for their no-holds-barred, adult-only puppet theater, Jabberbox. Jabberbox, now in its third season, helps support a school in Zambia, Africa, by making people laugh.

No kids are allowed, and shows are done in the ladies' homes and other small, cozy venues. Audiences enjoy wine, homemade desserts, and popcorn as part of the ticket cost.

“It's a chance for adults to enjoy cornball humor like we remember,” says Deborah, who teaches at UNCG. “We like doing salon-style theater in friends' living rooms. We like meeting people and knowing people. It's local, local, local. We like to say it's an evening in a box, a Jabberbox.”

Storylines hinge on themes from interracial relationships to the U.S. political scene. It's humor with an edge that often involves a sprinkle of puppet nudity as well.

“One person described our show as a cross between the Marx Brothers and Samuel Beckett,” says Marianne, who teaches in the creative writing program at UNC Chapel Hill.

The idea for Jabberbox was born on a plane ride to Zambia. Marianne's son, Rod, was working there as a Peace Corps volunteer. Marianne and Deborah, who have known each other since they both studied writing under Fred Chappell, decided to visit him.

To kill time on the plane, the women began creating a story about two Greensboro women, Beej and Fuzzy. The characters are “country club Southern matrons who have never traveled before and are visiting a son in the Peace Corps,” Marianne says. “And they have in mind all the stereotypical things about Africa. These women are naïve and privileged, and this trip changes them.”

The idea blossomed into Jabberbox's first show, “African Queens.” In the storyline, Fuzzy becomes more altruistic and falls in love with her safari guide; Beej decides to leave her philandering husband.

Marianne and Deborah followed up “African Queens" with a total departure, “Little Town, Big Stars,” a tongue-in-cheek show that has Sarah Palin picking a running mate in a small town.

This season's script, “Rumpus in Rome,” brings back Fuzzy and Beej. President Obama has appointed Fuzzy ambassador to Italy, and of course Fuzzy calls in Beej to help her.

Marianne and Deborah make the puppets and scenery from scratch, using paper-mache, fabric remnants and paper towel tubes. They write their own scripts, pick the background music and voice the characters.

Twenty percent of ticket proceeds fund scholarships and supplies for the Lumpampa Basic School in Serenje, Zambia. Marianne corresponds with the headmaster, who updates them on happenings at the school.

“These plays are spectacles, and they are challenging, but it's good to be challenged,” Deborah says.

“If we could only write a simple play,” says Marianne.

For more on Jabberbox Puppet Theater, visit jabberboxpuppettheater.com. The regular performance season runs May-June.

 

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Now you're talkin'

Christine Morris — UNCG professor, actress and dialect coach — is an adept mistress of many voices. Below, she discusses what it takes to master the art of the accent.

Tell me a bit about your background in theater and how you became so interested in dialects and accents. When and how did you discover your talent for accents and dialects?

I've always loved listening to voices, the “music” of speaking, and early on I was very aware of different sounds I heard in my own family. One of my grandmothers was from Charleston, South Carolina, and retained her “accent” her whole life, with a wide pitch range and particular pronunciations of words like car (“kyah”), tomato (“tuhMAHduh”) and road (“ROW-uhd”).

The other side of my family was in the rural foothills of North Carolina, and many of them were descended from the early Yorkshire farmers that settled that area. Although they sounded distinctly “Southern,” and more specifically, “North Carolina,” their speech had a different melody, different “drive” and energy. If I were to draw a visual representation of just those two different sounds, my South Carolina grandmother would be lots of swoops and curls; my southern Piedmont relatives would be straighter, harder, more direct. Later, when I was a teenager and got into reading old plays (those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries) I realized that some of the speech constructions of my older rural relatives were just like what I was reading in these old plays, things like “right” for “very”, as in “He's a right nice man.” It also made me better understand what my relatives we saying!

Give me a few examples of performances you have done that were heavily dependent on accents. Blackbeard comes to mind, as does the modern adaptation of Tartuffe you appeared in at Triad Stage.

Oh, “Bloody Blackbeard” — that was fun and had so many different sounds (British Isles dialects including Bristol — what many consider the basis for the “Pirate” accent — and Irish, Cockney, Devon, Bath and Caribbean, to name a few). I made a huge color-coded script for myself for coaching. Because I was in the play as well, I used two scripts, one for coaching, one for acting. Most of us played multiple roles, so it was fun and challenging finding what I call “triggers” (based on a physical placement usually) to shift into the different voices quickly.

More recently, in the trilogy “New Music” at Triad, we used basically an Eastern North Carolina sound, as that is where the plays are set. I coached the whole thing, and was in the third play, playing the older version of a character who was in the first two plays. That was a unique experience, as the other actress and I worked to find a sound between us that was both credible for the dialect and believable as the same woman.

Outside of what we think of any given dialect (or what may be called “accent”), there are many factors that contribute to the dialect someone has. There are geographical and historical accuracy and also personal details including age, education, health, how much someone has traveled, their social class, who they identify with, etc. It is fascinating stuff for a geek like me and thrilling when I'm working with students who begin to realize how much these details may be revealed in the characters they play by the way they speak.

How important is it for an actor to be able to adopt a variety of accents? I'm sure it's a crucial part of the job.

It is. Fortunately, the command to “get rid of your accent” isn't really “in” anymore, but actors have to be able to do a variety of things. I honestly love accents and dialects of all kinds, but I sometimes tell my students we are fooling ourselves — and I wouldn't be doing my job — if we said “so your home sound is fine for everything,” because it's just not so. An actor's JOB is to “shape-shift” and that includes voice and speech.

That said, I also believe that the “home sound” is an important part of who we are, and I want people to be able to shift to it when they need or want to. Linguists call this “code switching” and most humans, thank goodness, are able to do this, not just actors.

It helps to realize we are all speaking with a dialect all the time, whether we admit it or not.

Let's say you are cast in a part that requires you to use a little-known accent. Where do you start? How do you prepare?

Well, one thing the internet has done for us is provide a terrific resource for tracking down recordings, and often one can find things on YouTube which include visual information (what's called “body dialect”) as well. Finding recordings can involve patience and detective work in some cases, if the dialect is truly little-known. For most of the other stuff, there is a lot a material out there now, online and in books with accompanying recordings.

If an actor comes to you for coaching, what tips/exercises would you give him? Is there any one most important piece of advice you would give him?

First, I check to see what the job is, especially the turnaround — that is, how much time is there to prepare?

If it's for an audition, then what I call a “quick and dirty” version — with selected details, enough to give a “flavor” and let the folks in charge know that one is capable and has an “ear” — is often plenty. For a play that is in rehearsal, we usually have some luxury of time, which allows me to do research well in advance and show up at the first rehearsal armed with my full lesson, as well as what I call “cheat sheets,” a kind of detailed map of the sounds of the dialect or accent broken down, along with links for listening or other sound samples. In order for a play's dialect work to be true and non-stereotypical, it ideally should be integrated into the process from the beginning. I've actually turned down coaching jobs that were last-minute things, like a show going out on tour in a week and suddenly the producers decide to bring in a dialect coach!

As far as “tips" — there are several basic components to any dialect or accent:

First off, there's what I call the “music” — where is the sound placed? Where's the basic resonance? What is the pitch range? What is the tempo? The force or loudness?

Second — what specific sounds change, both vowels and consonants? For example, in most of North Carolina, the “long I” in the word “ride” is pronounced in a particular way. This is sometimes spelled like “AH”, but all North Carolina natives know that is not the actual sound. And there is consistency in where that sound occurs that can be applied to other words, like, well, “applied”, and “side”, “glide”, etc. (For this reason, when I'm teaching dialects and for my own use as an actor, the International Phonetic Alphabet is very helpful and more accurate.)

Then, are there particular words that get specific pronunciations that may be different — for example, my Charleston grandmother's way of saying “car” and “tomato”.

Finally, are there changes in syntax? Of course, a good playwright will give this to you, and you need to be alert to it.

Can anybody master another accent or dialect? Do parts have to be recast at times because an actor can't pick up the accent?

I've not yet run across someone who simply could not acquire another accent or dialect but, as in all things, some people are definitely more naturally adept than others. What is surprising, though, is that the number of actors who are pure and reliably accurate mimics is lower that you might think. Most good dialect work is a result of listening, learning the “rules” of a specific dialect, and practice practice practice. It helps to have a coach. When I'm working as an actor in dialect, I like to have an outside ear listen to me at some point in rehearsal. And when I'm coaching a show as well as acting in it (rare, but it does happen sometimes), I don't listen to my fellow actors as a coach when we're in a scene together or even from offstage once the show is at a point in rehearsal that the dialect is integrated.

I have found that actors with musical ability tend to also have ability with dialects and accents, I'd guess because of the musical aspect of dialect work.

 

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Greensboro's musical GEM

When adjunct faculty member Gesa Kordes with her Baroque expertise left UNCG several years ago, some students and former students made a bold decision. They'd start their own Baroque group: Greensboro Early Music. That's GEM, for short.

Their first concert was in the Music Building's Organ Hall. Now they perform three concerts a year, free of charge, at West Market Street United Methodist Church.

Why Baroque? “It's intellectual — and emotional and passionate,” says Allison Willet '08 MM. Allison is GEM's founder, artistic director and violinist.

At UNCG, Dr. John Fadial and Gesa Kordes were key influences for her. Allison speaks of the “golden thread” — how one's technique and style can be traced back in time, one teacher after the next. After playing with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, another musician told her, “I could hear Gesa's influence in your playing."

Most of the GEM members have UNCG ties, including Jim Bates '10 DMA, GEM choral director and vocalist, as well as 17 of the core members. Many other UNCG alumni, students and faculty are guest artists.

Allison is a symphony musician in North Carolina and several nearby states, and she teaches 30 violin students in Greensboro. Other members of GEM play or sing professionally as well, or are key members of church music programs. Some teach or are students.

But they come together every few months to share their love for Baroque music with each other and the music-loving community.

“The general sound of early instruments — the gut strings, the harpsichord, the pure singing tones — is unlike any other sound I've ever encountered,” Allison says of Baroque music. “When I hear the pure intervals, especially strings and voices, the dissonances resolving to a cadence, I really feel that there's no other beauty on earth like it.”

“It's mostly chamber music,” she adds. “Even the solo repertoire has more than just one important voice.” Every part is vital.

GEM may be the best kind of musical collaboration, in more ways than one.

See the GEM performance schedule here.

Enjoy a 2011 performance, with vocalist Clara O'Brien, UNCG Music faculty member.

 

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Instrumental help

Access to a professional-caliber instrument can be a career changing experience for a musician. But for students studying the violin, viola, cello or other string instruments, the high price tag of top notch equipment — equal to about two or three years of tuition — can be an insurmountable obstacle.

A new quartet of string instruments acquired by the UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance will help fill that gap. The school now owns the Greenhouse Quartet, a set of two violins, a cello and a viola commissioned by renowned cellist Bernard Greenhouse, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio. The instruments are loaned to students to give them the experience of playing on a high-caliber instrument if they don't own one themselves.

Imagine giving a child a piece of paper and three crayons and asking her to create a picture, said Marjorie Bagley, a violinist and faculty member in the school. “Then give her a piece of paper and a box of 64 crayons. A whole new world opens up — things you can't create with just three crayons.”

The same happens for a musician when performing on a professional-grade instrument, she explained: “There are many more tones, a better sound quality. It has a quicker physical response … It acts a lot like a high performance vehicle.

“When students go out and compete, they are going to be performing against students who have beautiful instruments,” she added. “We are trying to give our students an edge.”

The school purchased three of the instruments in the Greenhouse Quartet — the viola and two violins — and four accompanying bows. The cello was donated to the school. The purchased instruments were bought below their appraised value, said Dr. Kelly Burke, head of the department of music performance. Greenhouse commissioned the instruments, which were crafted by noted artisan Marten Cornelissen, in 1997 from wood obtained from the same tree.

The addition of the Greenhouse Quartet gives the university another piece of Greenhouse's legacy. The university also houses the cellist's sizable collection of cello music. Greenhouse died in 2011 at the age of 95.

 

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Alumni Authors book image
Alumni authors

  • “Pure,” a young adult novel by Julianna Baggott '94 MFA
  • “Come To Me and Drink,” a collection of poems by Julie Barbour '96, '99 MFA
  • “A Daring Life: A Biography of Eudora Welty,” by Carolyn J. Brown '87 MA, '91 PhD
  • “A Land More Kind Than Home,” a novel by Wiley Cash '01 MA
  • “Peck and Pock,” a graphic poem told in 55 illustrated panels with verse by Kathleen Driskell '91 MFA
  • “Good Reason,” a collection of poems by Jennifer Habel '98 MFA
  • “Shadows on the Gulf: A journey through our last great wetland,” by Rowan Jacobsen '92 MFA
  • “The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation,” by Stephen Martin '09 MALS
  • “For One Who Knows How to Own Land,” a collection of poems by Scott Owens '94 MFA
  • “The Called,” a novel by Warren Rochelle '91 MFA, '97 PhD
  • “Hello Tiny Bird Brain,” a collection of poems by Marcus Slease '03 MFA
  • “This Electric Glow,” a collection of poems by Roxanne Halpine Ward '03 MFA
  • “Cold Spring Rising,” a collection of poems by John York '85 MFA

 

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