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The Importance of Being Observant

As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, Britain and the United States are two nations divided by a common language. Where sound is placed in the mouth, pronunciation, social class/geographical region, inflection-these factors come into play when considering dialects. Thus American actors must work hard to convince us they are Bridget Jones (as played by Ren?e Zellweger) or Cecily (whom Reese Witherspoon portrays in the current film The Importance of Being Earnest), while their British-born colleagues work equally hard when cast as Americans (Kenneth Branagh, Bob Hoskins, and Tracey Ullman are particularly successful examples).

Mouthing Off

British-born actor/director/dialect coach Clive Chafer believes that the most important element, when actors go trans-Atlantic, is placement-that is, from which part of the mouth sound emanates.

Contrary to what many believe-that we laid-back Americans, especially Californians, produce sound from way back in our throats, and the British produce it from the forward part of the mouth-Chafer declared that he and his homies use more of their mouths, front and back: "The long a sound, as in water, and the short o sound as in dog and hot-those are actually produced by us farther back in the mouth than in the general American accent," said Chafer, now a Bay Area resident. "But the crisper consonants are very frontal. So Americans have to develop this verbal athleticism to get from front to back more quickly. And I have to stop doing that [when playing Americans] and make my sounds in a more central place in the mouth, that big room in the middle of the mouth."

Several American-born coaches, though, described the differences in placement simply as front vs. back. According to Bay Area actor/teacher John McMullen, Brits make a little megaphone with their lips. "Put your fingers on either side of your cheeks and talk," he said. "For Americans, that's generally where the vibration is."

Los Angeles' Bob Corff, former actor and now dialect coach to the stars, noted that English babies' lips are pouty from learning to talk with forward placement. "Our lips are flat to our teeth because American placement is way back," he said. Corff works with actors on getting their lips forward.

British-born (from the Midlands), Berkeley-based actor Wanda McCaddon gets a sore throat more easily when doing an American accent because she's talking through the back of the throat instead of opening up the mouth and talking in the chamber between tongue and roof. "Americans close down the roof of the mouth," she said.

The Rain in Spain

If placement is of prime importance, pronunciation-particularly of vowels and consonants-is certainly a close runner-up. Our English colleagues, for the most part, pronounce their medial t's as t; we, however, say sevendy for seventy. Corff noted that the English blow out their consonants, as in let-tuh and gett. "Ours roll backward and down the back of our throat."

Similarly we lazy-lips don't shape vowels as precisely as they do. Bay Area actor/teacher/dialect coach Lynne Soffer said Amercans pronounce vowels with mouths open and lips relaxed. Think of words like cookbook, or sail-how tight and precise the British are, how languid we are.

On the other hand, when speaking generic American/Californian, we don't drop our r's before consonants and at the ends of words as Brits generally do (although Brits tend to stick the final r onto the next word if it begins with a vowel).

Important vowel differences show up in the ah sound, as in our assk vs. their aahsk, and in the u sound, in which our dook-dook-dook-dook of Earl is the Englishperson's liquid dyuke.

And there are many words that are simply pronounced differently. That's where Daniel Jones' Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary and Kenyon and Knott's Pronouncing Dictionary of American English are useful. For example, the British pronounce alternate, alTERnate, and our skedule is their shedule, our garAGE their GARage.

Class Struggle

Social class is an important aspect of any British theatrical character, and that determines whether to speak the Queen's English, Cockney, South London, etc.

British accents derive from education/class and geography, explained Chafer. He is from a middle-class "home county" family (the home counties form a full circle around London) and therefore has a "neutral" accent. However, he recently met someone who, despite that he'd grown up near the Scottish border, spoke more refined English than Chafer-because he was from landed gentry.

In America our traditional dialect variations are mainly regionally based-Noo Yawk, Suth'n, Baahston, etc.-but ethnically influenced, too, of course. Soffer observed that even in our supposedly classless society, we have speech prejudice. "If I had a heavy Brooklyn accent, or spoke Valley Girl, you'd take me less seriously," she said. "Cockney, Brooklyn, heavy Texas-we assume lack of refinement." The point is, actors, whether British or American, should not make superficial assumptions about characters' accents. For example, noted Soffer, in the U.K., ignorant, uneducated people can also speak beautiful Standard British. Conversely, while Americans are used to hearing presidents with Southern accents, British prime ministers won't sound Liverpudlian even if they're from Liverpool.

By the way, English actors find it easiest to adopt a cowboy cadence, because they grew up on Westerns, or else a Jimmy Carter-type Dixie drawl (all those familiar dropped r's), and Americans gravitate toward Cockney. It's all a matter of certain similarities plus glaring, therefore easily recognizable, differences.

Music Lesson

The words and syllables an actor chooses to emphasize create a musical pitch. Generic, laid-back American speech tends to drone; British speech has more variety. Brits sound sort of like a cell phone (or, as they say, mobile) that's breaking up: "I'd love to do it, but I cahn't." McMullen said Americans have a four- or five-note range, whereas the English use whole octaves.

Similarly, Americans stress more syllables within a word. "We're hap-py," said Soffer. "They're simply hap-py. They put their energy into one syllable only. We talk in acting about operative words; the British find operative syllables. It's almost like we Americans want to get full value for our money. The British need only one stress to make a point. They tend to be expressive in a different fashion than we do."

There's also the issue of inflection. "We tend to inflect up at the end of a question [or, if you're a teenager, at the end of a statement]; they inflect up earlier, then down at the end," said Soffer. Would you like a cup of tea, period. Wanna cuppa coffee, question mark?

Corff noted another subtle distinction: "We lean on the thing itself, they lean on the description of the thing." That is, we say, "It's a big tree" (or: "It's a big tree"). They say, "It's a big tree," or "She's a pretty girl."

However, British actors playing American character can end up sounding like John Wayne if they overcompensate by overstressing all syllables.

Easy Does It

If Brits run the risk of sounding like John Wayne, Americans can seem Eliza Doolittle-ish if they don't master that tricky o sound. The English have a tripthong, said McMullen; oh sounds like ah-oh-ou-but light and breezy, not a caterwaul.

Similarly, Soffer warned Americans against over-elevating the basic RP (Received Pronunciation) learned in dialect class-it might work for Lady Bracknell, but Brits don't usually go that far with it for most characters, not even royalty. Don't over-pronounce or over-enunciate, she cautioned; skip through the language lightly. Don't give full value to every word in a line.

Soffer also teaches British actors learning American to lean on syllables, but not over-lean, which is their wont. They especially tend to overcompensate by making their r's too harrrd.

Good Accent, Good Acting

Finally, nailing the accent is inseparable from basic acting values. When learning an American accent for Utah Shakespeare Festival's A Midsummer Night's Dream (he was the only Brit in the cast), Chafer found that the rhythm of the lines changed, so he had to find a way to do it without losing his own actorly sense of the text.

"Stanislavski's magic 'if,' when applied properly, is about who you are when you're born in somebody else's birth bed," explained Soffer, who aspires to teach not just sound changes but also how to transform. "What if you were born in Emma Thompson's birth bed-went to her school, had her parents? You'd still be you-but you would sound British. It's not about some fake, imposed thing, but about finding a way to transform when you're living a different life." After all, she pointed out, Brits don't walk around trying to sound British. They're busy playing their actions to achieve their objectives, just as in acting.

So, get away from the script, she advised. Otherwise your subconscious won't believe you have a Brit (or an American, as the case may be) within. Use the dialect to talk to your pets, your kids. See if you can pass at Walgreen's. That way you'll find out who you are when you live in a person who sounds different, but just ever so slightly. BSW

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