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UNG professor brings 'Selma' experience to classroom

Elisa Carlson directs student actors during practice for the upcoming Gainesville Theatre Alliance production of "Antigone."

Elisa Carlson, associate professor of theater at the University of North Georgia (UNG), was excited to be hired for the film "Selma," but heartbroken to learn her students were unfamiliar with the city's historical significance.

"That helped me realize how important it was for this story to be told again and in a dramatic way that would grab people emotionally," she said. "Everybody making the film felt a great sense of responsibility because we were telling a really important part of history and everyone came into that with a great deal of respect."

The film, which has garnered 27 awards and 71 nominations, depicts the events in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for voting rights for blacks, including a violent clash between protesters and law enforcement later dubbed "Bloody Sunday."

As on-set dialect coach for the 40-plus actors with speaking parts, Carlson spent 12-hour days listening intently during filming and coaching actors between takes.

"I definitely feel that doing this kind of work means that what I'm teaching students in the classroom is practical, not just a theoretical knowledge of what they need to know to be successful as artists," she said.

The outside experiences of their professors and the working professionals the university brings in provide unique opportunities for UNG students, said Jim Hammond, head of the university's Department of Theater.

"Not only does Elisa's professional theatre and film work sharpen her coaching skills, but the contacts she provides for our students are vital to their transition into the profession after graduation," he said.

During Selma, Carlson worked with the lead actors to "nudge" their pronunciations and rhythms to capture the spirit of the historic figures they portrayed, not imitate them exactly.

"These aren't just dialects, these are iconic voices. People remember the sound of these voices," she said.

Director Ava DuVernay was a stickler for authenticity in every aspect, Carlson said.

"We had to listen to a lot of historic recordings because we've actually shifted a lot in how we sound in 50 years," she said. "It's not an exterior thing – put on a costume and suddenly you're in 1960s Selma. You can't just put on a dialect, you have to really live in it believably and helping actors to do that is really fun and really exciting."

Elisa Carlson, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
UNG's Elisa Carlson, center, poses for a picture with Oprah
Winfrey and David Oyelowo. Carlson served as on-set
dialect coach on the movie "Selma," which features actors
Winfrey and Oyelowo.

David Oyelowo, the British actor nominated for multiple awards for his portrayal of King, stayed in character throughout the shoot, Carlson said.

"He was quite extraordinary," she said. "I've worked with a lot of good actors, but it's rare that you work with a great actor. It's very good for me because it ups my game and as a teacher I find it really essential to get into situations where the excellence of the work is very high and see if I can contribute."

With many stage credits under her belt, Carlson also did some acting during "Selma," though strictly off-camera. Depictions of reporters and others reacting to Bloody Sunday violence were filmed as Carlson did a dramatic reading of the script's descriptions of the violence. She also read King's lines for Tom Wilkinson, the British actor who played President Johnson, during the filming of a pivotal scene when President Johnson talks with King by telephone.

Carlson has been a dialect and text coach in more than 100 major productions, most recently lending her expertise of Dinka for the movie "The Good Lie" starring Reese Witherspoon. She currently is directing the Gainesville Theatre Alliance's production of Antigone, which starts Feb. 13 in the Ed Cabell Theatre on UNG's Gainesville Campus.

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