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How Many Ways Can You Say “Foster Johns”?

Perhaps more ways than Foster Johns himself can imagine, despite being a voice and dialect coach for performers and a speech and communications consultant for professionals. Presently, he is teaching a Ugandan dialect to the cast of Park Square Theatre’s Cardboard Piano, a play set in Northern Uganda.

A sudden coaching substitute without prior experience in Ugandan dialect, Foster had less than a week before rehearsals to get a solid handle on the accent. His first step was to do research, which included finding any audio resources to hear actual dialogue. Such resources are now readily available online through primary resources provided by voice practitioners as well as popular media such YouTube. 

“I didn’t find a lot for a Ugandan dialect,” said Foster, “but Signe (the director of Cardboard Piano) recommended a fairly recent movie that’s set in Uganda, Queen of Katwe, that has an accurate representation of the dialect spoken in English.”

Foster also had the extraordinary luck of encountering a Ugandan woman at his day job just two days before his coaching work would begin with the cast.

“I heard her accent as she was talking to a co-worker and asked her where she was from,” Foster recalled. “When she said Uganda, I nearly fell out of my chair.”

The woman was willing to answer some of Foster’s questions. He was also able to check with her on correct pronunciations whenever necessary.

When he coaches actors, Foster concentrates on teaching them what is called “the signature sounds of a dialogue.” These may be three or four sounds that an actor can hone and perfect in order to sound authentic. Just focusing on a manageable number of key sounds prevents making the dialect too overwhelming or daunting to learn.

“These signature sounds also sometimes aid in shaping the remaining sounds and help set the vocal posture,” explained Foster. These may just naturally form around the signature sounds as one speaks the dialogue.

As a dialect coach, Foster also considers how much the actors are responsible to do. How does learning the dialect balance out with all the other things that they must learn to create the characters and the world of the play? In short, how he can best serve the actors and their performances doesn’t necessarily call for complete mastery, according to Foster, “but more so ownership.”

Foster Johns (center) coaching Michael Jemison (left) and Ansa Akyea (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In Cardboard Piano, Foster mainly coaches the three actors–Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Ansa Akyea–who play the native Ugandans. But he also does some work with Adelin Phelps who plays Chris, the American pastor’s daughter, to consider how she would pronounce particular words.

“Adelin has a brief line in Ugandan, but both she and Kiara say ‘Amen’ at one point,” Foster said. “I have Adelin say ‘Ay-men’ while Kiara says ‘Ah-men’ due to her Ugandan dialect.” Doing something that subtle helps tell the story in terms of place while also revealing something about the characters.

Only seven years into this profession, Foster has worked with international, national and local organizations, which include Park Square Theatre, Minnesota Jewish Theater, Theatre Latte Da and many more. In January alone, he is coaching for shows at Park Square, Illusion Theater, SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development and Apple Valley High School.

Foster actually began as and continues to be a performer who accidentally fell into this other line of work, which is now his main focus. Here’s how it happened:

“I was always adept at doing funny voices and imitating accents. I can hear a person speak for a couple of minutes then mimic it. A friend of mine was involved in a show and asked me to help someone sound like Judy Garland and another person sound Danish. I didn’t know where to start but thought it might be fun, so I said sure.

I’d always been fascinated with how people speak. Our voices are like a vocal scrapbook of our lives. Our speech reflects where we come from, what we’ve been through, who we’ve been with . . . . from doing that first ‘Judy Garland and Danish fella’ show, I simply got fascinated with helping actors work on this very specific element of their characters.”

Foster’s earlier years of the trial-and-error method of teaching sometimes proved frustrating, as he at times would inwardly wonder about a student: “I can do it, so why can’t you?” His passion for his work and desire to do it better led him to acquire a MFA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He spent his first year of studies in London, gloriously surrounded by a variety of international accents and voices. His program required that he teach during the second year, and Foster did so at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

In training through a graduate program, Foster learned more about pedagogy and how different people learn. In turn, he learned how to approach different learning styles, whether kinesthetic, aural, visual, etc. Terrific mentors also shared their knowledge, most importantly the need to account for the actor’s process; as Foster describes it, “meeting the needs of the actor instead of imposing a process that one as the coach has deemed to be ‘the way to do it’.”

After learning in London and teaching in Cincinnati, Foster had a very strong desire to return and work in the Twin Cities. In his words, “Ever since first coming here in 2009, I’ve fallen in love with the kind of theatre work we do here and the array of talent that makes that work possible.”

“I used to think that my skill in imitating speech was just entertaining,” Foster reflected. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see how it would be in any way useful. Now I find it a great joy to bring it to others and be able to help them. I do like acting, but I love voice and dialect coaching. It keeps me curious.”

Amen to that!


Information on Foster Johns’ services here

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

Ting Ting Cheng, Blog Author, Park Square Theatre
Ting Ting Cheng

Ting Ting Cheng joined Park Square Theatre's Front of House staff in 2014. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Los Angeles, she became a Minnesotan after graduating from Carleton College with a B.A. in English Literature. She loves live theatre and has a passion for writing.


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