I’m forever banging on about accents when I’m reviewing productions, particularly American-set musicals where English performers often feel they can get away with a generic Noo York, one voice-does-all, dialect. I often wonder what genuine Americans make of it all.
Here American-born but UK based accent and dialect coach Rebecca Gausnell voices her opinion on how to get it right, and explains the work that goes on to come up with the perfect voices for stage actors.
Accents and dialects can be a slippery slope in the world of theatre. Rarely mentioned if performed well, accents seem to be the first thing utterly thrashed if not up to critics’ and audiences’ standards.
The expectation for high quality accent work in the theatre is growing, and producers and directors are now looking for actors on stage to perform accents to the same standards of accents presented in film and television.
And while film and television productions often employ dialect coaches throughout the shoot, the demands of the theatre do not make this feasibly possible.
So let’s take a look at the requirements of modern theatre producers and directors for accent performances in theatre today.
Directors and producers see the accent as integral to the story, and to the director’s artistic vision.
The director and the dialect coach begin work by identifying sample speakers who accurately reflect the vocal quality and accent of the characters in the story.
This is the most important piece of preparation, as it is imperative to accurately represent not only a character’s lived experience through the accent, but also the director’s artistic vision.
Once the perfect samples are found, an accent can be broken down into its cultural, context, oral, posture, music/rhythm/intonation patterns and the various sound changes. This detail is paramount to authentic accent work.
In the rehearsal room, modern directors require that the actors be incorporating the accent into their performance in an embodied way.
Rote phonetics and speech memorization is now a thing of the past. So while the actors and the accent coach still drill vowels, consonants, and intonation patterns, there is an added task to connect the accent with the character’s voice, movement, body, and breath.
But ultimately, the acting comes first.
Although accents can be incredibly fun to perform, modern producers and directors cannot afford to see a good performance sacrificed to an accent stealing the show.
Intelligibility on stage and proper vocal work are more important than the accent. It may make sense to do a lighter version of an accent, or forgo an accent completely if it is getting in the way of the actor’s ability to give a performance.
An accent should complement the story, not pull focus.
Above all, employable actors should be independent and vocally flexible.
It’s no secret that money is scare in the theatre. And with short rehearsal processes becoming the norm, dialect coaches may only be present for a handful of hours before opening night.
It is up to the actors to take the initiative and directors expect actors to do their own homework when it comes to accent work.
It then becomes imperative that an actor recognize their own learning style – be that learning an accent through listening, mimicking, phonetically, physically or through imagery.
Ultimately, an employable stage actor will have full artistic command over their voice, and be able to slip into a new accent as they do a new character.