Accent on Voice

Accents are often the first thing on the minds of young actors, and there’s no doubt being able to speak with different accents is a useful skill.  This article  came to me from my dear friend and colleague, Amy Stoller, one of New York’s top accent coaches. The author shares his experience of discovering that his Pakistani accent had modified itself quite unbeknownst to him, as he lived for years in the States, and how he realises now how much cultural, social and even political baggage  – if not downright prejudice – is attached to the way people pronounce their words.

Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.
Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.

My own experience confirms this, albeit in a pretty mild way, compared to the challenges faced by people from different language groups and different ethnic groups from the mainstream.  While living in Scotland I found I had to modify my accent if I wanted to be understood clearly, and immediately.  Without that rolling Scots ‘r’ in the middle of words (like the word “words”), the local populace found it hard to tune in to what I was trying to communicate. It didn’t take a lot of effort, just a tilt of the tongue in the general direction of an ‘r’ was sufficient for general comprehension. But of course, if you move your tongue to a different position in a word, the surrounding sounds cannot help but be affected as well.

And so it was, that I returned to Australia some years ago to find myself accused of being Scottish.  No Scot would ever have thought so!  I’ve modified myself back to regular Aussie, but still people often assume I am from the UK.  Why should that be?

My own theory is that because I speak clearly, and because my voice has a pretty good range of colours and inflections, I sound somehow “posh”.  This is in spite of the fact that many upper class English folk mumble, speak on a narrow range, and certainly speak much more quickly than I do.  But, as Omar Akhtar says in his article, “Basically, if you sound non-native, you’re screwed.”

Actors need to be able to “do accents” so that they can play a very wide range of roles. Here in Australia, it’s important for a jobbing actor to have a great General American accent, because the paid work lies in the film and tv productions being filmed here by US companies.

What I want to emphasize here is that if you don’t have a good grounding in basic voice work, if you don’t have a well placed, well supported, well-varied, open and flexible voice to begin with, it will be harder for you to create those unaccustomed sounds of different accents with ease. And if you can’t do it with ease, it will always sound ‘tacked on’.

Voice and speech are inseparable. But they are not the same thing. Voice carries the speech, it fills the speech, it gives the words and phrases of speech body, life and soul.  Work on your voice first, and the speech work will fall into place.  Of course, you have to work on the speech part – nothing good comes from nothing!

Do you have an accent?  Is it the same as those around you, or different?  What is your experience of being judged by your accent?  Share your story in the comments below.