Theatre prof helps A-list actors with their ‘Trawna’ accent

"I help the actor wear the costume of the accent," says Eric Armstrong, a 47-year-old dialect designer, wrote the National Post April 18, in a Q&A feature with the theatre professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Having coached Michelle Williams on her "Toronto" accent for an upcoming film, Armstrong also just finished work on Canadian Stage’s production of The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union. Armstrong spoke to Melissa Leong about getting tongue-tied.

Q: No matter what accent I do, it sounds like I’m impersonating a valley girl. There must be some natural talent involved.

A: I get a lot of students here at York [University] where I teach actors who have a quote-unquote natural talent. A lot of that is that they do it a lot. They’re people who like to make funny voices and do impersonations. It doesn’t hurt that someone is musical, or has a linguistic background. Those kinds of things help to tune someone’s ear but it’s not magic or genetics. People learn it.

Q: What is the greatest accent challenge for actors?

A: Many people find Welsh very difficult. Many people are tone deaf to the melodic aspect of spoken English. The percentage of Chinese speakers who have perfect pitch is much higher than the percentage of people who don’t speak a tone language, because their ear is attuned to tone as a way of conveying meaning.

Q: What’s your favourite accent to do?

A: I like doing accents that are subtle, like a North American Canadian accent. That takes a fine sense of skill.

Q: Are these things you taught to Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz?

A: I was working with them on sounding like they’re from Toronto. Working with A-listers is a delight. The reason why they’re A-listers is because they’re really talented. So, it’s surprisingly easy.

‘It felt like the sky had collapsed,’ says friend who found webcam victim

The York University student found dead in her home after a struggle with an intruder was being stalked by a rejected suitor, wrote the Toronto Star April 19, citing comments by a friend of the woman.

The friend’s claims were posted and circulated on popular Toronto-based Chinese-language online chat rooms. The friend also said he was interviewed for 12 hours at 31 Division and that he gave police a statement.

The friend, who has not been identified, was at the scene when the landlord opened the door to Qian Liu‘s room and found her dead. “The suspect once shared the same house with Liu,” the friend wrote online. “The suspect was chasing after her, but she refused, then he started stalking her by texting her all the time,” the man wrote.

Investigators say they have no information that the 23-year-old native of Beijing was being stalked.

Pictures circulating in the Chinese chat rooms over the weekend identifying Liu were taken down on Monday.

The “witness” in China saw some of what was going on. He frantically tried to summon help, but it was late and people were asleep.

It wasn’t until 8:30am, Saturday, that friends, including the one who posted in the chat room, got the distressed e-mail message. By the time the landlord was notified, it wasn’t until 10:30am that her body was discovered. “The landlord opened the door; it felt like the sky had collapsed,” the friend, who was at the scene when the door was opened, wrote in the chat room. “My legs were shivering. I also collapsed.”

Liu was studying at the York University English Language Institute on a student visa.

Police continue to wait for a coroner’s report and toxicology tests to determine the cause of Liu’s death because there was no obvious sign of trauma or sexual assault. Police, however, are not working on the theory that the victim had been given a lethal injection, despite other published reports.

Another picture of Liu with a Caucasian man has also been circulating on the Internet. Police have interviewed the man in that picture and are in the process of verifying his story. Police say they have no grounds to hold him.

In a statement, Mamdouh Shoukri, president of York University, called the death “a terrible tragedy”. “Our entire community mourns the loss of a promising young student.”

  • Police could confirm Qian Liu’s name, but not her image; their best clue in learning what happened to her may be in the webcam footage transmitted to a friend in China, who says he watched a struggle unfold inLiu’s apartment shortly before she died, wrote the National Post April 18.

“We’re keeping an open mind to the investigation,” Police Constable Tony Vella said, noting results of toxicology tests are expected in the coming days. Whether police can recover any images from Liu’s final web chat would depend on the software used, experts say. In the meantime, her cellphone has been taken for forensic analysis.

Liu, also known as Necole, was in Toronto from Beijing on a student visa and lived minutes from York University, where she was studying at the school’s English Language Institute.

Her death has rattled neighbours, puzzled police and prompted the landlord of her Aldwinckle Heights home – located just east of the city’s troubled Jane-Finch corridor – to issue a warning to tenants.

“Always lock the door…do not give the house key to your friend. If you did, take the key back,” landlord Jiamin Zhou wrote in a mass e-mail to tenants.

A young man who lived with Liu, speaking in Mandarin and broken English, said the victim had a boyfriend in China and had also caught the interest of another man in Toronto.

Police could not confirm whether there was any connection between Liu and the man described by the online witness. The man was white, between 20 and 30 years old, six feet tall and 175 to 200 pounds. He had a muscular build, medium-length brown hair and was wearing a blue crew-neck T-shirt, police said.

“It’s unclear if she knew him or not,” Const. Vella said.

Police cars and media vans continued to stake out Liu’s multi-unit, red-brick housing complex on Aldwinckle Heights Monday. Curious passersby snapped photographs, while neighbours expressed concern about their own safety.

“I feel there should be a lot more police around,” said Ahsan Ali, a second-year York student who lives in the house directly adjacent to Liu’s. The police presence over the past couple of days has been reassuring, added neighbour Nahid Lalji.

York President Mamdouh Shoukri issued an online message to students, asking anyone with information to contact police, and notifying students about available counselling services. “Qian’s death is a terrible tragedy and our entire community mourns the loss of a promising young student,” Shoukri said. “Our deepest condolences and heartfelt sympathy go out to her family, friends and classmates.”

  • Radio and television stations around the world also reported the story.

Information is becoming easier to steal, says York expert

A memory stick containing the records of 4,500 kids has gone missing from a speech and hearing clinic at [the University of Western Ontario], a thumb-sized example of how ever-smaller digital technology is heightening security risks, wrote the QMI Agency April 19.

Included among the records on the tiny storage device are 11 years worth of names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, doctor information, school and child-care information. Also on the stick are 142 OHIP numbers.

"Once you put information on a little key, you can lose it – it’s easier to store (information), it’s easier to lose it and it’s easier to steal it," said Richard Irving, a York University professor of operations management [Schulich School of Business], who specializes in health-systems management.

He said the risk of losing information is growing as information-holding devices become smaller and more convenient. "We’ve got huge, huge amounts of risk," he said. "Think about issues where somebody finds somebody else’s USB or Smartphone left behind at Starbuck’s. There is potential for all kinds of compromise.

"The tablet computers, the smaller, lighter they get – the more convenient they are, the increased risk that data will be compromised because you carry them around, you bring them more places."

In his data management class, Irving tells students to keep tight control of sensitive information. "If you have a USB key with a lot of sensitive data on it, you have one of two options – encrypt the thing or store it securely."

York grad runs for NDP in Parkdale-High Park

Sarah Newton [BA ’09] has graduated from York University and has also received her associate’s degree of arts & science in Victoria, BC, wrote April 18, in a profile of the federal election candidates in Toronto’s High Park-Parkdale riding.

An avid conscious-living advocate, she is in training to be a doctor of traditional medicine. When she thinks of her blessings, she counts as one being born in Canada, a sovereign nation. To Sarah, this means using her voice to foster peace, eradicate injustice and offer friendship.

Change the world in three hours

It only takes three hours to change the world, wrote Inside Toronto April 18.

That’s what the ChangetheWorld Ontario Youth Challenge is asking from high school students. The initiative is for the students to donate three hours of their time to volunteer work between the three-week period of April 10 and May 1.

The hours will count towards the students’ community service requirements that they need in order graduate and receive a high school diploma. "I’ve been volunteering for five years. It is fun," said youth advisory member, Danny Fee.

Fee, who grew up in Scarborough, joined the team after being acknowledged for his volunteering, earning an Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers.

The York University kinesiology student was part of the project last year as well.

Fee said the main objectives are to get students involved in contributing to their communities. He said there are many positives that can come from volunteer work. Students can get a sense of satisfaction from helping others, meet great people and establish network connections and the experience can provide solid leadership and teamwork skills.

Course teaches a different way to approach agriculture

Georgian College at Owen Sound will offer a new course in alternative agriculture as part of its 2011 spring semester, wrote Ontario Farmer April 19.

The first course, Alternative Production Methods-Livestock, has already been completed and was well attended. The second course, Alternative Production Methods-Crops, will run weekly on Wednesday nights from April 20 to July 20, 2011. Kristine Hammel [BES Spec. Hons. ’04], a producer from Allenford, will be teaching the course.

Hammel is looking forward to teaching the upcoming crops course. Born and raised on a dairy farm near Listowel, Hammel has an extensive background in agriculture. She received a bachelor of environmental studies from York University and a Master of Science in Organic Food Chain Management from the University Hohenheim in Germany.

Speaking the language of success

Amanda Collucci, president and CEO of Clean4Me Inc., was named the Best Start Up business for 2011 by the Association of Canadian Chinese Entrepreneurs, wrote Metro April 18.

She was fired from her first job – on the first day she reported to work. Her employers told the new immigrant from Hong Kong that her English language skills weren’t strong enough.

It was only a brief setback for the determined young woman. Today, the successful married mother of two is running her own business, calling the shots and inspiring others to follow her lead.

After studying economics at York University, Amanda went on to land a job at IBM in client relations. “I talked to a lot of business owners and really got inspired,” she said.

Months of research followed. She came up with a business plan and decided to start her own cleaning company. Her mother was incredulous. “Are you nuts? You’re leaving your six-figure job at IBM to clean toilets?”

Now four years later, the award-winning entrepreneur has 20 employees at Clean4Me and is looking into franchising her successful operation.

“Let go of your fears, doubts and disbeliefs. Be courageous, embrace change and start believing in your dreams,” she said.

Amanda Collucci did and now she’s her own boss. Her mom is proud.

On air

  • Tanya Gulliver, a PhD candidate in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, spoke about her book on last year’s oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Asleep at the Well, on the anniversary of the disaster, on CTV’s “Canada AM” April 18.