Accent Reduction: Forward

by Robert Easton

“Why would I want to change the way I speak?” Many people ask themselves that question and then answer it in different ways. Many actors have realized that in order to get a wider range of roles, they have to become more versatile. The ability to play characters with different dialects believably can (as has often happened with people I’ve coached) lead to Oscars, Emmy’s, BAFTA Awards, Screen Actor’s Guild Awards or wins at the Cannes Film Festival. Actors who have a regional dialect or foreign accent may find themselves very limited. After they have learned the sound system of the de facto media standard (which has no identifiable regionalities) they improve their castability and start getting roles they couldn’t have gotten before.

The benefits of speech modification are by no means limited to performers. Within the space of a few weeks, two prominent attorneys came for help. One was from the rural south and spoke in a very slow manner. Because he was extremely bright, he had perceived that California juries had re-acted negatively to him. He said “Ah graduated from law school Magna Cum Laude. Ah’m A-fah Beta Kappa, but minny California folks thenk Ah’m some kahna dumb rayid-neck.” After he had learned to speed up his inner metronome and pronounce his words in the California manner, he began to win more and more jury cases. The other attorney was at the other end of the spectrum –a brash Brooklynite who spoke extremely rapidly. He felt that California juries reacted negatively to him because they resented his intelligence. He didn’t realize that he came off as being abrasive and intolerant. When he learned to slow down his inner metronome (I told him “Don’t try to talk as fast as you think”) mellow his tone, and pronounce his words in the California manner, he too began to win more jury cases. They both had to learn that what had always felt “natural” to them about their former speech habits did not necessarily sound natural to those raised in a different speech community.

Many young actors don’t realize that either. Particularly if they have had pseudo-Stanislavski type teaching. If their teacher has repeatedly told them “every part you play is you. You have to talk like you talk. Otherwise you’ll come across as phony,” this will cripple their ability to be believable as characters brought up at a different place or in a different socio-economic class. From lengthy conversations in 1972 with former students of Stanislavski living in the retired actors home in what was then called Leningrad (now back to St. Petersburg) I was able to verify my contention that Stanislavski never told his students that every character they played had to talk exactly the way the actor talked. As an actor himself, Stanislavski had played a wide variety of characters with different speech habits – young, old; rich, poor; educated, uneducated; pleasant, unpleasant, etc. He also had observed and reproduced many regional Russian accents and foreign dialects. In answer to my questions, his students confirmed that Stanislavski had delighted in casting them against “type” and had encouraged them to create a wide repertoire of speech styles. He showed them how to make these characters sound natural. One cardinal tenet of Stanislavski’s teaching, usually ignored by pseudo-Stanislavski teachers was the “MAGIC IF.” If you had been born in such and such a place at such and such a time in such and such a social class, how would you naturally use your voice to express your thoughts and feelings.  The “MAGIC IF” unlocks the imagination. Combining this with acute observation enables actors to create characters, which, while totally different from them, are totally believable to others. In my experience with helping actors, I have found the “MAGIC IF” helps them to break free of the narrow confines of narcissism so often encouraged by pseudo-Stanislavski teachers.

“Finding Your Voices” together with the recordings in Eliza Jane's Dialect Database will help you to make the quantum linguistic leap from “It’s really me” to “It’s really the character.” Then there’s practically no limit to the ways you can choose to sound.

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