Some people live for their work, and some live through their work, but rarer are those who truly embody their work. Meet Anne Whitaker, voice coach to the stars, as well as dialogue and dialect teacher and beacon to neophytes in need of vocal guidance. Her specialty? In a word: Language. However, given her versatility within this complex field, we’ll discover below that one deceptively simple word leads into paths stretching in myriad directions.
Given her background, Ms. Whitaker is ideally suited to traverse these paths. An Orange County lass who grew up essentially beneath the fireworks of Disneyland, she surely reaped the benefits of proximity to the “Magic Kingdom,” yet quickly expanded her horizons, earning a double B.A. in both Theatre and in Linguistics in 2016 at the University of California, San Diego. Her love of theatre drew her to New York for three years, where she performed onstage and helped friends with accent work, and then to England, where, amidst much extracurricular work and private training, in 2021 she earned her MFA with Distinction in Voice Studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Today she makes London her home, and while the old saw (attributed to Bernard Shaw) of the U.K. and the U.S. being “two countries separated by a common language” still applies to some aspects of media and real life, Ms. Whitaker seems ideally placed for her career, and for fostering a greater understanding among anyone who communicates verbally.
Earlier this year, Hollywood jumped the pond and came to her, as she was summoned to the production of Back in Action, a new Netflix movie starring Jamie Foxx, featuring the return of global celebrity (and erstwhile retiree) Cameron Diaz — both of whom Ms. Whitaker was called upon to assist with language and accent on location. I recently interviewed Ms. Whitaker, hereafter Anne, and, as forthcoming as her NDA allowed her to be regarding the forthcoming feature, she spoke of her experience on the movie, and of her life and work in theatre, and much more.
“I’ve been working as a voice and accent coach in London for a few years now,” Anne explains, “and they had a last-minute need on that set for a particular accent — I was brought on to help with those days of filming, because of my background in language, in accent, that was considered by the director vitally useful on set. I had one-to-one sessions with both Cameron and Jamie to finesse those lines.
“Working with Cameron Diaz and Jamie Foxx was a joy! It was during a cold snap in the U.K., which made things a bit challenging outdoors. I was brought onto the show because of my expertise and ability to ensure both pronunciation of words and dialects was captured — not easy when speaking a brand-new language never studied by either actor — as well as to make it meaningful and authentic, so that an audience is able to understand what they are saying, so they could act the scene, which was such a joy for myself, because I come also from a performance background.”
Anne’s knack for accents draws raves from participants in workshops she leads (see her website, linked below), as well as top performers, with whom she’s clearly simpatico. Renowned singer and musical-theatre performer Sally Ann Triplett had this to say about her experience with Anne, as voice coach on the successful recent 80th-anniversary West End production of Oklahoma!:
“I worked with Anne when I went into Oklahoma!, and found her to be personable and wonderful at her job. Finding a new accent can be challenging when there are so many other things to think about, but Anne made it easy and relaxed and was always on hand to ask for guidance. My ‘Aunt Eller’ started to find her feet after my sessions with Miss Whitaker.”
-Sally Ann Triplett
Indeed, as an American in England, Anne is uniquely positioned to bring authenticity to Oklahoma!, as she’s also coached leading man Sam Palladio, as well as incoming cast members, to find and sustain true voices for the production, rounding out the 2023 West End revival at Wyndham’s Theatre.
“It’s been such a pleasure,” Anne enthuses. “Oklahoma! was a childhood favorite in my house growing up. I was in Oklahoma! in high school. And then I actually got to see the original version of the production when I was living in New York. And now I’ve been working on it on the West End. What’s really interesting is, so many actors in the U.K. have an awareness of American accents, they have an awareness of American media. And so when they come into a show, like Oklahoma!, they go, ‘Okay, American accent: I’ve got an idea of what that is.’ But it’s so much harder to actually perform in that accent — to make it feel like your own, and to find the character through the voice, when you have to change your accent pattern.
“And so that’s been my role: to take on those new cast members, and really help them find their characters through the accent, because accent is a story. Oklahoma! is a story about the history of Oklahoma!, and the territories in the United States before they became states. That story is told through the sounds of America, which is really, really cool. And so helping actors to connect, in particular, the musicality of American accents has been a big part of my focus.”
Anne’s focus is now turning to the musical Matilda, another childhood favorite, for which she’s coaching the actors for the show running at London’s Cambridge Theatre until May, 2024. While it’s clear that she’s living her childhood dreams, one would be remiss not to note her work that preceded this context. I ask her about the role her study of Linguistics plays in her career.
“My background in Linguistics is from UC San Diego,” Anne reveals, “which is a fabulous Linguistics program. We really cover all the bases. We cover phonetics, which is super, super important to accent work, because you need to be able to listen to the sound and identify exactly what that is. Phonetics gives you the opportunity to find a particular symbol for each sound in human language. You sift through those sounds and try to find the sound changes that are most relevant for the actors at hand. Once we’ve done that work, that detailed listening, then we can distill that for the actor.
“We listen to our actors and try to figure out which sounds of the accents they may already have or be very close to, and then how can we target the ones that are farther away from their own accent. So we use those phonetic detailed transcriptions in our own work to sort that out. Linguistics is all about finding the patterns of language, and I think that is key to understanding how an accent works. Accents can seem like a monolithic thing, and you don’t know how to approach it. But with my Linguistics background, I know that all language has a pattern. And so accents have a pattern as well. And that’s made it really easy for me to be able to approach an accent and try to find those patterns. It becomes like a wonderful puzzle. Each accent has got its own puzzle, and you’re finding those pieces. And as you’re helping the actor put that puzzle together, you can help them find those missing puzzle pieces that they didn’t have before.”
While the technical aspects of Anne’s work proliferate the more one explores them — she’s currently being certified as a Knight Thompson Speechwork practitioner; her pedagogies include Linklater, Feldenkrais, and Alexander Technique; and I have beheld one of her rousing U.K.-based webinars concerning the intricacies of prosody (very generally: intonation) — the salient take-away is that she is highly adept at applying her complex studies and degrees to practical applications within theatre and media, i.e. facilitating others’ success within these fields with the magnitude of her own investment: both as a performer who has shared the stage, and as a pillar of strength backstage. Her attentiveness and manner evince an ideal balance of confidence and competence. When I ask her about imbuing an accent with authenticity, she’s quick to leap to the next level: emphasizing the physical and social aspects of performance, as well as the secret ingredient: listening.
In addition to the dizzying array of productions she’s assisting — 17 plays in the past couple of years, plus working as a voice and text coach for the Durham Shakespeare Festival — Anne is a go-to vocal specialist, leading workshops and masterclasses for both students of the arts and professionals alike. Her reputation reflects her approach and expertise.
“I think the practice of leading and finessing work with young actors helps you so much when you’re working on a professional production,” Anne notes. “When we’re learning something, we often go through stages of being aware of being bad at something, and then being aware of when we’re being good at something. And where we want the actor to get to is to be unconsciously really good at something. We don’t want to have them thinking about the accent while they’re performing. We want them to be able to perform the accent without thinking about it. So they can focus on the text and the other actors, we want them to have that really, really effortless performance.”
Et voilà: the considerable effort behind apparent effortlessness. While Ms. Whitaker’s work focuses primarily on performance, the education and experience she continues to cultivate add to a universal understanding of how we all, both similarly and uniquely, communicate.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.