Saying the characters in "Billy Elliot the Musical" have British accents is like saying cats and dogs all have animal accents.
Most of the characters in that production, playing through Dec. 31 at Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre, hail from Easington in the County Durham and sport Geordie accents that are different from a London accent, a Cockney accent, or something a bit more Irish or Scottish, says Sammi Grant, 27, a former Buffalo Grove resident who makes her living as a dialect coach.
"He was saying 'yer,' and it's more like 'yuh,'" Grant says of the way one actor was pronouncing the word "you're." She sounds out the difference between "taught us" and "tot us."
"Some people, all they need is to hear it," she says. Others need an email with the pronunciation spelled out.
"I also describe how I move my mouth," says Grant, a 2008 graduate of Stevenson High School who is focused on teaching actors to sound precisely the way their characters should. "I try to provide it as many ways as possible."
Grant has quite a following. One of her videos on YouTube has been watched more than 1.3 million times.
"I was kind of star-struck by Sammi," says Adam Fane, 27, a 2008 graduate of West Aurora High School who plays Tony, the older brother of Billy Elliot. His character has a bit of a temper and he often raises his voice.
"My main issue was pitch and how that affected the accent," Fane says.
"It's kind of that more closed sound, even when you're yelling," Grant says, as Fane shouts out a line to Grant's nodding admiration. "Everyone is fantastic. I'm very proud of this show."
Grant used to get her adoration on stage, instead of behind the scenes. She was a theater kid in high school, appearing in productions such as "Anything Goes," and landing a lead role in the Tennessee Williams play "Candles to the Sun." Grant got her bachelor's degree in fine arts in acting in 2012 from Illinois Wesleyan, where she starred in a one-woman South African play called "The Syringa Tree" that required her to play 21 different characters.
"I taught myself five South African accents for that," Grant says. "Part of what gives me an affinity for dialect is because I'm legally blind. I'm tuned in. But I don't like 'heightened hearing,' because it's not like I have a superpower." She just does her research.
Grant was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 7 and was legally blind by 10. Her right eye sees nothing. Her left eye can read the print on an envelope thanks to a machine that greatly magnifies the image, but her vision is getting worse. She loves her JAWS (Job Access With Speech) screen reader, which she refers to as "him."
Parents Jan and Dennis, her older brother, Eric, 29, and her younger sister, Lindsey, 14, always have supported her, Grant says. In elementary school, she had an aide. As she got older, her "vision teacher," Monica Harding, would meet with her once a day to make sure she had what she needed to do the classwork or memorize scripts.
"It never really crossed my mind in high school if my characters were blind or not," Grant says. But as her career progressed, Grant says her roles became less interesting and more limited.
"I officially stopped acting 2½ years ago," she says, explaining that her new career is more fun and more lucrative. "I was getting so much more work and quality work as a dialect coach."
While an actor can only perform in one show at a time, Grant can do four shows at once. This summer, she made up an accent for fictional characters in "Peter and the Starcatcher" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. She coaches some actors one on one, does some voice-over work, and offers private coaching for individuals who want to change the way they sound.
"I do work with nonactors to do accent modifications," she says. Her speaking voice is the quintessential, bland, easy-to-understand Midwestern accent.
"If you hear me talk to my mom on the phone, you hear me say, 'Mahm,'" she says in her best nasally, Chicago accent. Her ancestors were Eastern European, Russian and Ukrainian, and she studied Spanish in high school and learned Hebrew for her bat mitzvah. Able to perfect accents from around the globe, Grant admits to having a favorite, of sorts.
"I have my Siri on the Canadian," Grant says, "because they just seem nicer."