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For Kelly Hess ’08 (Prospect Park, N.J.), it’s all in the way you say it. This year, she conducted independent study research on accents and dialects, enabling her to improve her stage performance.

A psychology major, Hess also is working toward a minor in theater. She learned the proper vocal and oral techniques to sound like someone from Queens, N.Y., Ireland, and East New England.

“I chose Queens specifically for my role in [College Theater’s production of] House of Blue Leaves as Bunny Flingus for better characterization,” Hess explains. “I chose the second because I love the work of Irish dramatists like Samuel Beckett and Conor McPherson, and would love to be prepared for one of their works. Down East New England I thought would show itself to be useful since many famous plays use that accent, like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.”

Learning another dialect involves the use of different vocal patterns, ways of moving the mouth, and vernacular. Hess researched and prepared a written report of each region she studied to better understand its population. She then practiced the dialects and accents and performed a two-minute monologue using each.

Michael O’Neill, associate professor of English and director of theater, advised Hess’ project. He gave her access to the theater program’s library of cassettes and CDs that help students learn different ways of speaking. In addition to House of Blue Leaves, Hess has appeared in College Theater’s The Rivals.

“It is important to note that this was not simply research,” says O’Neill. “Kelly actually learned to make the proper sounds so that she could convincingly speak in the three accents she chose to study.”

Hess believes her independent study research has made her a better actor.

“I decided to do this, not only because it’s great for an actor to be able to mimic a few accents, but also for the work of actually being able to manipulate the muscles in my mouth,” she explains. “A lot of control is needed to be able to use an accent believably – core concentration, the ability to focus on one region of the throat and other parts of the mouth, etc. Also, anything to make a character more convincing for an audience is worth working on.”

The research also helped her with character development.

“Most recently I was cast as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals and finding her voice, which ended up being a focal point for the character, seemed to come easier to me than before,” she says. “I now had the skills to better shift to a more soprano-pitched British accent. I hope in the future to better tweak these skills.”

After graduation, Hess plans to conduct psychology research while obtaining an Actor’s Union card, and then pursue a graduate degree in child psychology.

“I would not say that [the independent study] inspired me to lean towards a new career, but rather reinforced my dreams of working in the field of dramatics,” she says. “I feel someone who can find something to spend many hours working on, and think of it as fun instead of a chore, has found her niche. I am so happy that I found these opportunities at such a young age and here at Lafayette where I have so many resources and mentors like Michael O’Neill.”

O’Neill believes Hess is a dedicated and responsible student. He says that she is the ideal candidate to pursue an independent study because she works very well on her own, but the program is small enough to allow O’Neill to give her personal attention and feedback whenever she needs it.

Hess is a member of Arts Society and volunteers with the Art for the Young at Heart program through the Landis Community Outreach Center.

Independent studies are among several major programs that have made Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. The College sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year; 21 students were accepted to present their research at last year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News