Speak a Little Differently

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Why do many actors find that some accents come naturally, others don't? For example, I've always found a southern Irish brogue easy, an upper-class British twit ("received pronunciation" or RP) hard, Cockney easy, a deep Southern drawl hard, traditional New York/Jewish/Eastern European easy.

In his recent book, The Intent to Live, New York–based director and acting coach Larry Moss writes about "blood memory," a concept Stella Adler espoused. Adler believed that each of us retains a blood memory of our ancestors, which helps us connect more easily to certain cultural character types than to others. Maybe that blood memory also makes it easier to nail certain accents and dialects.

On the simplest level, it's obvious why I'm naturally comfortable with the Bronx and Brooklyn dialects of my parents and the slightly Yiddish-inflected accent of my grandfather (and the characters of Neil Simon)—and why Moss, whose grandparents came from England, Odessa, and the Deep South, has an affinity for characters rooted in those places and also an ability to reproduce those particular accents more quickly than others.

But I also think there's the possibility of sensing a kinship whose origins are unknown to you (unless you're Shirley MacLaine). As Moss explains, you can find yourself so attracted to the emotional dynamic of a character who speaks in an accent far removed from your own blood memory that you "resonate" with their behavior and even the accent itself. To extrapolate, I think it's possible to have such an affinity for an entire cultural group—or for the characters created by a particular playwright—that their way of speaking, including their accent, feels natural.

"Whether one believes in reincarnation or not, I do think we have some unaccountable resonance with some cultures and others not," agrees University of Kansas theatre and film professor, voiceover actor, and dialect coach Paul Meier. He grew up in London surrounded by many accents and dialects and mimicked them all as a kid. "It's easy to get a little mystical about what's responsible for an accent," he says.

For example, he points out that his students often have difficulty with the accent of Northern Ireland, as in Brian Friel's plays—"There's a diphthong in it they can't relate to"—but find southern Irish more accessible. "Is it because of the enormous immigration into the United States of the southern Irish, who were hardest hit in those times of the potato famine?," Meier wonders. "Maybe some of the DNA fed into the American bloodstream."

He himself finds an Indian accent easy. "As a Brit, we have this centuries-long connection with India," he observes. "But never having been to India, I do wonder why I resonate so easily with that culture and the mindset."

Los Angeles–based actor Jeanie Hackett says she can "feel" the "Blanche DuBois Southern thing" with her eyes closed. Could it be because she loves Tennessee Williams' characters so much? Her first Equity job was in Vieux Carré; she played Stella on Broadway; she met Williams himself. "I so felt this is what I loved and wanted to do that I probably cultivated [the accent]," she muses. Hackett's mother is Italian-American; her father's ancestry was Western European; she speaks a little Greek because her first husband was Greek. But that Southern accent is just there.

If a mysterious blood—or virtual blood—memory helps us with some accents, how do we deal with others that feel downright foreign? New York–based actor Sam Younis, of Lebanese extraction, gets cast in roles of various ethnicities requiring various accents; I saw him play a scholarly Indian (in Tanya Shaffer's Baby Taj at Northern California's TheatreWorks) with a very convincing north Indian accent. But he said it was hard to learn. He grew up hearing his parents speak Arabic and he speaks some Arabic himself, so the Middle Eastern accent comes automatically. He is also comfortable with a Spanish accent. But for Baby Taj he tended to get stuck trying to pronounce the words correctly and finessing the musicality of the intonation without sounding like Apu on The Simpsons. "It's tricky because of the lack of musicality in [English]," he says, adding, "It's great to ride on dialect, but you've got to make sure you're rooted in acting choices, not caricaturing." Younis was very concerned about doing the best that he could "as a service to the people whose culture I'm representing."

Hackett had problems learning a Turkish accent for Pera Palas, a Theatre @ Boston Court and Antaeus Company co-production in Los Angeles. Her character was a tough cookie, but she found that the Turkish accent, which sits farther back in the mouth than the more familiar British accent, feels soft. "It was difficult to bridge the gap," she says. "How do I make her tough using this soft accent?"

Some actors have tin ears, which means they have to work harder than others. And some accents are hard for Americans in general. In addition to the Northern Irish dialect, Meier cites the Cockney ("all those glottal stops") and Boston dialects as difficult. Nike Doukas, a Los Angeles–based actor and teacher, corroborates that. Although she's from New England herself, she says the Boston dialect is the most notoriously difficult of the American dialects, along with that of Louisiana. She herself is fluent with a British RP dialect, Cockney, and some other British variants. (The traditional Noel Cowardesque British accent, also used for Shaw's upper-class characters, is hardly spoken in Britain anymore; Londoners have adopted a hybrid form generally referred to as Estuary, and apparently over the years even the Queen's prim pronunciation has been devolving.) North Country, says Doukas, was harder to learn because it breaks so many of the rules ingrained in your head. She finds the Greek accent easy: "Just listen to Arianna Huffington."

Other accents are generally easy for Americans—sometimes too easy, lending themselves to caricature. "Almost every Yankee actor can do some form of Southern," says Meier. "But they often do them insultingly." He adds, "We have no reservations about lampooning [East] Indians—they're not an oppressed minority in this country. It's much different in England, where you have to show more political sensitivity." Here, he points out, it's non-PC for whites and gentiles to do black and Jewish accents, respectively. "It all has to do with oppressed or recently oppressed minorities and our cultural relationship with the group [we're portraying]." Indeed, as Younis discovered, learning an accent that's often parodied requires special care. He made a point of being completely open to critical feedback from his Indian-American castmates.

But "plays are not about dialect," Meier notes. "Actors must aim to sublimate the accent. I tell my students if you're complimented on your accent, you probably did it wrong."

Other tips for working on accents, with or without a dialect coach:

Take on the accent from the start. "Accent is not a cosmetic that can be smeared on the surface," says Meier. "It's organic to the character."

Learn from real speakers, not other actors. (Meier's website, the International Dialects of English Archive at www.ku.edu/~idea, offers audio clips of hundreds of real people reading a diagnostic text that includes all the sounds in English.)

Younis practiced by making phone calls with an Indian accent rather than just concentrating on the script. He also cautions, "Make sure you're in the scene, going after the intentions, not just relying on accent to convey character."

Doukas tells her students to drill at home—circle every sound change, but don't memorize your lines until you memorize the sound changes. Otherwise you'll get stuck on incorrect pronunciations. She also says that once you get into the rehearsal hall, don't think about it. That means you have to do more homework than normal.

The good news is that, tin ear and blood memory aside, with hard work you can become reasonably adept at any accent. Doukas swears she's never met anyone who couldn't at least improve. It's just that for some accents, you may have to work a lot harder than for others. <