Denise Woods is a voice and dialect coach who worked with actors on “The Harder They Fall.” She also has written a book, “The Power of Voice,” with stories from Mahershala Ali, Halle Berry and Soledad O’Brien. Photo provided by Lydia Eady
Denise Woods is a voice and dialect coach who worked with actors on “The Harder They Fall.” She also has written a book, “The Power of Voice,” with stories from Mahershala Ali, Halle Berry and Soledad O’Brien. Photo provided by Lydia Eady

Local Voice and Dialect Coach Denise Woods Has A Way With Words


Chicago native Denise Woods reminisced about growing up and spending Sunday afternoon with her mom and sister. They sit around the table and would imitate the people who were at
church service. They would laugh, talk and they would become the people. It was the start of Woods’ journey to becoming a dialect and voice coach.

Woods’ journey would take her to New York City where she was part of the New York City Opera. That experience developed her ear for music and rhythm. A whole new language of music opened up to her. She was able to listen to people and “do” them right on
the spot.

She attended New York City High School for the Performing Arts and the Juliard School. She also worked in the drama department at Juliard. “It was because I had this incredible ear that
had developed way back at the table on Sunday afternoons with my mom and my sister,” she said.

Woods spent eight years at Juliard and 12 years at the California Institute of the Arts, in the speech department. She became known for her expertise as someone who could speak in different
dialects and accents from different parts of the country. She has worked with Taye Diggs on his Jamaican accent in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and Jeffrey Wright on his Dominican accent in John Singleton’s “Shaft.”

 Woods worked with the actors on Netflix’s “The Harder They Fall” on their dialects. For Idris Elba’s character, there was a compilation of different sounds as he was a nomad. The dialect is meant to reflect not knowing quite where the character is from.

“What I do is I go and find samples of the people, the actual people who sound like they are from this particular region. You identify the region, and you identify the racial and cultural specifics of the region,” she said.

Woods said there are very distinct specificities in how people sound. Once she identifies the region, then she identifies their race, because it influences where their heritage is from. Then, the
education level is considered.

“Say you grew up in Georgia but you went to college in Boston, that’s going to affect the way you speak. Once you move out of your 90-mile radius, you’re going to start sounding like the people
you’re around,” she said.

Woods gathers all of these samples, then she uses the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a symbolic system that has a notation for every sound of speech, not a letter. When Woods hears people speak, she phonetically transcribes what they are saying. A lot of Woods’ clients know the IPA from
their drama school training. She teaches the sound and rhythm, as well as where the voice is placed, in the back of the throat or in the nose. It makes a distinct difference.

Woods always wondered whose standard was being upheld to what was considered good speech. “Good speech is when you can be understood, clearly understood. It doesn’t mean you have to sound like anybody other than yourself,” she said.

Woods likes to transform an actor’s speech, when it is nothing like the character’s speech they are portraying. She starts where they are and moves to where the character is.

Woods wrote the book, “The Power of Voice,” to share her narrative. She started to write it as a one woman show.
She decided to write it as a book, and wanted to invite her friends to share their narratives. All of the stories relate to voice, how triumphs and traumas impacted people’s voice. It is crafted so
people can be inspired and empowered, with how-to tools at the end of every chapter. It is part memoir, part anecdotal, part prescriptive.

Woods is the recipient of the Backstage Magazine’s Backstage Vanguard Award for Exceptional Achievement in Arts and Communications.

“What I like most about what I do is that I appeal to people who feel marginalized or disenfranchised, that can be for a myriad of reasons. It can be simply because they’re shy. I really want
to reach out to young girls and young boys at a very young age and empower them, as well, to be able to stand up for what you believe in, stand up for your truth,” she said.

For more information about Denise Woods, visit www.speakitclearly.com.

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