“Diane’s really the only one whose entire work life is dialect coaches,” adds Monich, a former Juilliard instructor who was one of Kamp’s clients for a decade. (Monich left Big Timber Management after 1995’s The Scarlet Letter to represent himself, although he and Kamp remain close friends.) Screen actors as far back as Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind have worked with voice coaches, but Kamp’s singular focus on the industry has helped dialect experts become a familiar part of the extended “creative family” on film sets. “When I go on a movie these days, I’m no longer the first dialect coach people have met,” Meyer explains during a break on the set of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, all of whom have had to learn the proper English spoken in Wonderland. “Now instead of saying, ‘What do you do?’ people say, ‘Oh, you’re the dialect coach.’ That’s the effect of Big Timber Management.”
Surprisingly, dialect coaches—who instruct actors in the basics of pronunciation, cadence and tempo—are directly descended from George Bernard Shaw’s inspiration for the persnickety professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion: Henry Sweet, a 19th-century linguist. Sweet’s Australian student William Tilly went on to teach phonetics at Columbia University after World War I, and Tilly’s pupil Edith Skinner in turn taught Monich, who trained Meyer and several of Kamp’s other clients. But dialect coaching began to emerge as a bona fide field only after Meryl Streep’s 1982 Oscar-winning performance in Sophie’s Choice, in which she established her reputation as the master of accents. (Streep herself didn’t work with a dialect coach, although she had voice training at Yale University.) Around the same time, the rise of global mass communication made far-flung accents more familiar to audiences, who came to expect pitch-perfect results—and not generic, let alone comically clichéd, versions—from any actor playing a character in a place-specific film, something Monich calls “the CNN effect.” Before, Lyons notes, “there was a lot of room for error. There wasn’t an insistence on technical perfection.”
“You had this convergence of needs,” explains Meyer, whose more unusual recent assignments included instructing actors in the pronunciation of a made-up language for the second Pirates of the Caribbean. “The best actors wanted dialect coaching, and so did those who wanted to be the best.”
Kamp’s expertise is vital for her clients because, unlike many of the technical workers on a movie, dialect coaches are free agents with no union protection. Big Timber Management has therefore become a mini guild unto itself. In addition, Monich explains, Kamp has become the doyenne of dialect for producers and directors seeking guidance on whom to call to make a film sound authentic.