A Thought on Accents

We did some work on accents over the weekend, and if you’ve ever read the script for Oklahoma!, you’ll understand why this is a hot issue for this show. A good portion of the script is written phonetically – forcing the actor to literally sound out the words to get the desired effect.  Think womern instead of woman or women; cain’t instead of can’t; heared instead of heard – many of us still miss this one even after having had it pointed out.

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Being forced to twist one’s mouth around strange sounding versions of words we are familiar with makes it easy to slip into a drawl and start chewing up the dialogue something awful. At least that’s my take on what happens when an actor, while reading his or her lines, becomes more enveloped by their own deepening accent the more they read. I’ve heard this done even moreso with folks trying to put on an English accent – especially a London cockney – and everyone ended up sounding like they’re the same character from a Dickens novel.

The thing is, an accent is meant to serve the audience, not the actor. The whole point of talking with a particular accent is to take the audience further into the world of the character. A put-upon accent is really just a distraction, and if an actor persists with it – or worse, tries to be funny with how they are talking – he or she is doing so on behalf of themselves, not the character. As a previous director would insist, in these cases an actor is simply “commenting” on their character as opposed to portraying their character.

In my mind, less is more when it comes to accents, and at the very least, consistency is key.

I have heard people talk about authenticity where it comes to this stuff, but in my mind, especially with live theatre in front of a rather tight demographic – the perception of the audience is even more important. Why speak in a thick Scottish accent when much of that dialogue will be missed by those who don’t understand it?

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to feedback from the work on the weekend, and, eventually, from our audiences.

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Joel

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