Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and a lot of Eliza Jane Schneider’s characters have exactly that sort of freedom. The fact that Ms. Schneider can give these characters dramatic expression elevates their status by celebrating both what they say and how they say it.
Ms. Schneider makes a living as a voice artist (including several of the “South Park” characters) and dialect coach, in addition to some on-screen television acting. But, this project, which started as a thesis aimed at collecting and describing regional variations on American speech, turned into that most fabulous of American literary genres – the road trip.
Gaining entrée to people’s lives by conspicuously crisscrossing the United States in a beat up ambulance sounds romantic, and maybe it was. Looking for dialects, Ms. Schneider was likely to encounter people who might be described as “salt of the earth,” and I imagine that those folks were not likely to be scared off by someone driving an out-of-service ambulance.
But, what seems like the mission of a dispassionate scientist – locating people with interesting dialects, chatting with them enough so that they become comfortable and you are pretty sure you’re getting their ordinary speech, and then making sure you have it recorded properly – inevitably became something larger. Embedded within the small talk, especially when speaking with someone you just met, will be clues to who that person is and what sort of life that person leads. Once Ms. Schneider started to figure out this dynamic, I imagine that she also started to see the dramatic possibilities of portraying her participants.
It wasn’t just about getting to show off a bunch of dialects – it was about giving voice to people who often aren’t well-heard.
You could go through the show that results trying to figure out if Ms. Schneider gets the dialects right. After all, the example we have of this sort of work is Professor Henry Higgins, of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Shaw gave Professor Higgins such a fine ear for how people of different classes spoke that he could pinpoint small variations that came from particular neighborhoods. In fact, when in London last month, I found myself strolling through the neighborhood of Lisson Grove and pricking up my ears, as Higgins references that neighborhood in identifying origins of a particular accent.
But, that’s not really what Freedom of Speech, as Ms. Schneider’s piece is titled, is about. It’s about identifying with the lives of the people who gave her the time of day – and often more. It’s paying tribute to them by portraying not only their dialects but their lives.
And, on this point, Ms. Schneider couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator than Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, a director who is strong on helping actors capture the guts of the people they are portraying. It is impossible to create dimensional characters for the 34 different individuals that Ms. Schneider puts on stage in 90 intermissionless minutes, but to the credit of both actor and director each one is distinct, and many are memorable. [php snippet=1]Jennifer Brawn Gittings gives Ms. Schneider a functional set that suggests the ambulance she drives but also provides space for the several pairs of shoes she wears (and, a space to discard costume pieces as they are no longer needed). Sherrice Kelly’s projections help to locate the different parts of the country that Ms. Schneider visited.
Freedom of Speech gives San Diego audiences an opportunity to enjoy a solo performance by a well-known television actress, as well as a glimpse into the American character. It runs weekends through August 11, though it does take the weekend of July 27 off so that Ms. Schneider can fulfill a previous commitment. Coincidentally, another show that uses voices to create a large set of characters, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, performs on that weekend. Full disclosure: I am directing that production.