Everybody loves talking about accents. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, people want to discuss my job in detail.
On meeting someone for the first time, I’m often challenged with, ‘So where do I come from then?’ This means that I’m expected to channel Henry Higgins and place the speaker within a few streets of their birthplace. That’s not always easy, given how immigration, travel and global media have blurred or changed our original sounds. My best answer was to a Bristol waiter, born and raised in South London: I managed to locate him within a small area of Bermondsey. Not so successful was the American ad executive who had a textbook Californian accent (having worked there for many years) but was seriously miffed that I hadn’t sourced his original birthplace in a neighbouring state.
The next level of questioning is usually, ‘Have you worked with anyone famous?’ The media perpetuates a myth that actors are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at accents, with nothing in between, so it’s a rare actor who broadcasts that they’re working with a coach. I’m happy to keep their secrets so I never drop names. Disappointing news to quite a few London cabbies.
The final stage of the discussion is always about accent-fails. ‘Did you hear that god-awful accent that so-and-so did in such-and-such?’ This sort of interest has been enormously helpful when travelling the world recording accents for The Real Accent App series: the plea ‘help stamp out dodgy sounds in the movies’ often convinces a native speaker to record with us. However, it can be rather uncomfortable when I’m asked to unpick the work of particular actors I know. Best to bow out of those discussions.
Yes, believe me, the general public are obsessed with accents.
Accents are drawn from the geographical region in which we live or grew up, the generation of people with whom we relate to the most and the community or class of people with whom we spend the most time. Basically, our accent is the sum of our life experiences and part of who we are as human beings. No wonder people are so obsessed with them.
So if everybody is obsessed with accents then, of course, actors need to be obsessed with them too: not just a series of vowels and consonants to memorise for a rehearsal but as part of a journey through a character’s psyche. Drawing out an accent from character (rather than placing an accent over the top of a character) will give your work depth and detail, plus, help improve the way in which you learn that accent. You’re much more likely to retain a new set of sounds if they’re embedded in a particular personality.
Not only that but you might save me from a few more awkward conversations the next time I take my seat on an aeroplane.
Catherine Weate - Voice/Dialect Coach and Tutor at the Actors Centre