— "Come Play Wiz Me" from "Anyone Can Whistle" by Stephen Sondheim
I'm reaching way back for this one. Questions have been piling up. The following had been lost for so long it was beginning to resemble the acting career of Mackenzie Phillips. A reader—long ago, when Susan Boyle was "the it girl"—inquired:
"Paul, how important is it to use an accent at auditions?"
A vague, but important inquiry. So let's get specific here on a solution. There are several audition scenarios for which I can foresee the utilization or avoidance of an accent.
Auditioning for a Specific Role
You've been given sides. The breakdown for the role reads that the character is French. What do you do about an accent?
First there is a question you must ask of yourself and/or the person who has provided you the material:
"Is an accent required for the audition?"
Why ask this?
1. The auditors may want you to be more focused on the storytelling in the scene than your ability at linguistic legitimacy. An accent may be secondary. Stage and screen projects with budgets for a dialect coach will have someone to properly discipline your dialect dexterity.
2. If every role in the project is of the same accented heritage the director may have opted to have all actors perform the piece without the regional dialect associated to the characters.
3. The accent, for the auditors, may be just as important as the storytelling. If so, make sure you ask the person presenting you the audition for dialect specificity. Lost on that? If you're told to do an English accent what kind would you present? Cockney? RP? Central London? Welsh? Midlands? Know before you go what derivation of pronunciation you are to show.
A General Audition
There are times when you'll have auditions in your career for which there is no project of employ: academic entry, talent reps, paid auditions, getting-to-know-you as an actor, and similar. You may have chosen a piece (monologue or scene) that can be associated with a dialect. You'd be wise to focus on the storytelling than to bring an accent into the audition.
Because you're being viewed in a general audition for your ability to bring character and throughlines to life. You're not there to show how well you can mimic sounds. Leave that, for the moment, to parrots and talking heads on cable news.
If you choose in a general audition to forgo a dialect, let the person(s) viewing you know that you have made a conscious decision to focus on storytelling and not selling a sound.
When requested to provide an accent at the audition, make sure that you're presenting one that is either learned from a credible dialect coach, or at least from one of the many available dialect CDs. The worst thing an actor can do is present a self-taught, foreign-to-them dialect acquired without training.
The most bastardized of regional tongues are the Queen's English and American Southern. My colleagues and I have heard one-too-many substandard "Southern accents." And what you may think is Southern (inadvertently sounding like a drunken Texan) doesn't pass for southwestern Virginia Appalachia or coastal South Carolina. A one-size fits-all Southern accent does not work. This advisory holds true for all regional dialects of French, English, Spanish, whatever origin of tongue.
Whenever you audition for a role in which an accent is associated always ask, "Is an accent required for the audition?" If you don't ask, they won't tell.
Arm yourself with knowledge of accents (type and usage) before going in front of auditors. That's the best way to apply accents at auditions.
Paul Russell's career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. He is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.