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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Funny Accents

There is a very precise part of me that just cringed when I wrote that title. "Ahem. They are not 'funny accents', they are 'regional speech patterns'."

I laugh at that part of myself (I'm not sure, but he may be wearing a smoking jacket, holding a pipe...even though he doesn't smoke...and watching Masterpiece Theatre) because he takes himself WAY too seriously.  He's right in the sense that speaking in accents, if we're going to do it well, takes a lot of practice and attention to detail.  The reason he's so prickly is because so often that's not what actors do when they attempt them.

I love dialect work.  I find it challenging, rewarding, and...oddly enough...thrilling.  I say "oddly" because this kind of training can be really tedious.  It involves a lot of precision work in an area that we normally don't pay any attention to, unless we're brushing our teeth.  Our mouths.

Unless we have some sort of dental obsession, we don't normally spend that much time thinking about what goes on inside our mouths except for when things go wrong: a canker sore, a cavity, a bitten tongue...something like that.  We definitely don't think about what's going on in there while we're talking.  Of course not--there's too much else going on. 

When we start dialect training, normally the first step is to learn the "standard" accent for the country we live in.  Standard American for the US, Received Pronunciation for the UK, and so on.  It establishes a "base" sound for us, so that our own regional sounds don't get in the way.

But there is an essential arrogance to that stance.  There is no "standard" sound in any country.  It doesn't exist.  Everyone has a slightly different sound, with certain regions demonstrating certain patterns.  Those patterns are something we can learn.

I still think it's a good idea to learn those "standard" dialects, but let's always remember that they are dialects, not the "proper" way to speak.  There is nothing wrong with the way you speak right now.  It is part of who you are, as distinctive as a fingerprint.  One small caveat--you can't change your fingerprint.  You can change the way you speak.

Learning those "standard" accents allows us greater flexibility.  I grew up in Texas and had a strong dialect.  That dialect, if I had allowed it to remain my speech pattern, would have limited me as an actor. 

Think of Matthew McConaughey or Kevin Costner.  Both good actors.  Both limited by their accents.  Would you buy either one if they were playing Hamlet or MacBeth?  One sounds like a Southern good-ol'-boy and the other like a Midwestern farmer.  I love both those sounds.  Doesn't really work with Shakespeare, though.

Dialect training opens up our possibilities as actors.  That's one of my litmus tests for any kind of training.  Does it give us more choices as actors, or fewer?  If any kind of training makes us rigid and seeks to cut off our options, it's probably not good training.

If you are wanting to work on your dialects, your diction, or your voice I enthusiastically encourage you to do it.  Start now!  The sooner, the better.  Our speech patterns do nothing but solidify as we get older.  If you are older and want to do this, don't despair.  It's never too late.

One thing to look for in dialect training is someone that teaches using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).  It's a very specific way of approaching dialect work, and after seeing different methods, in my opinion, it's the best.

This is training that I offer.  As always, I'm more interested that you get the training than I am that you train with me.  If you would like to study this with me, you're in luck.  No matter where you are in the world, we can work together.  I offer online classes and private sessions using webcams, so even if you live in Kathmandu, there's no excuse!  If you would like to check it out, leave me a comment below or email me at actingwithoutthedrama (at) gmail (dot) com.

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