Theater-School Director Brings Just the Right Accents to Her New Job

Gene Carl Feldman

Leigh Wilson Smiley created an online accent and dialect archive.
May 06, 2013

Leigh Wilson Smiley, the new director of University of Maryland's theater school, is from New York—you can hear it in her "r" and in her "a," she says. "I'm from Noo Yawk," she says, adopting a rough-around-the-edges Brooklyn tone.

Before she was named director of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies in January, Ms. Smiley was its associate director and the first head of its master-of-fine-arts program in performance. She joined the University of Maryland's faculty in 2003, after teaching actors at several other institutions.

Ms. Smiley, who is 53, is known for her work on voice and dialects, particularly the Visual Accent and Dialect Archive she created in 2011.

The archive, known as VADA, is the first online audio and visual resource for dialects and accents. The crowdsourced site collects video samples of people from all over the world reading from a prepared script or talking spontaneously in English.

Ms. Smiley undertook the project, with the assistance of a grant from the university's Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, because of her concern that actors need to be more authentic and specific in their accents. "It's no longer all right to have a general Southern accent or a general French accent," she says. In Maryland alone, for instance, she has counted at least 20 different accents.

The visual component of the archive is valuable, she says, because "seeing that a person moves their lips in a certain way or doesn't use their tongue in a certain way helps us determine how to create that sound."

One of her colleagues at the university, Ashley Smith, an assistant professor of theater, began using the site in his speech-and-dialect course last year to help his students master assigned accents.

"It can be challenging for voice and speech teachers to teach something invisible," he says. "VADA helps those visual learners get something they wouldn't otherwise get so quickly and easily."

When Ms. Smiley used to do research for plays that featured several accents, she says, she would spend hours studying YouTube videos, listening to the radio, and looking for other authentic sources in the regions and towns represented.

"I always wished that I had one place where I could not only collect different examples of an accent, but a place where I could see the speakers themselves," she says. "VADA has the potential to be the largest and most comprehensive storehouse for dialects and accents in the world."

Among the 400 videos on the site are ones from English speakers raised in Malaysia, Nigeria, Peru, and other countries, as well as many parts of the United States, but she would like the number of samples to climb into the thousands. Videos can be donated via YouTube.

Ms. Smiley, along with a team of assistants, also collects videos in the field. She once interviewed a man from Philadelphia about his heritage while standing outside a meat market and, in a bar in Philadelphia, a woman from the Bronx about her tattoo depicting her Russian Jewish grandmother.

"It's great when I get someone really excited and talking about themselves because their dialect or accent just comes out," she says.