Are You Having Trouble Landing an Accent?

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Photo Source: Ricardo Birnbaum

Erik Singer is a New York–based master teacher of Knight-Thompson Speechwork and a master coach. Trained as an actor, Singer has studied accents and linguistics for years, and now offers workshops and private coaching to actors looking to breathe life into an accent or idiolect.

What was your path to becoming a dialect coach and what interested you about the work?
I had an interest in languages and sounds and accents as a kid. And that laid some groundwork. I trained as an actor in England, came back to the states, then worked as an actor for a number of years. I kept getting cast in roles that required accents; sometimes many of them, things like “Stones in His Pockets” where there’s a lot of [accent] switching. And it was something I loved and was fascinated by—both the technical aspects of getting stuff absolutely accurate, and also the acting challenge of that transformation, and finding a way to let accent settle into the character so it’s fully organic and integrated.

How do you feel accent influences characterization, beyond just denoting a character’s regionality?
When we reach for determinism about an accent, meaning these people are like this, therefore they speak this way, that’s incredibly reductive and dangerous. We know from linguistics that it’s not the case. Sometimes it’s appealing, and it does have its uses in dialect coaching, because there is something graspable and physical there that may activate and enliven your imagination. At the same time, from a storytelling perspective, we all have associations and reactions to individual accents and speech sounds. Accent is identity at a very deep level.

What are some key principles of accent training and prep for actors?
Several elements are really important to work on: pronunciation, posture, prosody, and people. Posture is the characteristic home base for the articulators and the patterns in which they move. That’s the foundation for the sounds. The individual sounds themselves, how they’re distributed, that’s pronunciation. Prosody is the music of speech, it’s the rise and fall, the rhythm and the melody. The fourth P is people—the cultural context and activating the imagination. Of course, actors do this research, but you need to marry that research to the accent; you can’t do an accent well if you can’t imagine yourself as somebody who talks that way. Imagination is key.

What elements of those principles are sometimes overlooked?
There are patterns in prosody [...] just like there are patterns in the pronunciation. There is an underlying system. There are two important things about individual sounds: we have to know what they are, and we have to know where they go. It’s the inventory of sounds, and the distribution. And prosody is really similar, especially when we’re talking about pitch contours and inflections. Every accent and speaker has their own inventory of inflections, and they signify things. Intonation is full of meaning. It’s not linguistic meaning, but it has everything to do with your intention, how you feel about what you’re saying and the person you’re saying it to. It’s what makes a teacher sound like a teacher, a nurse sound like a nurse, a pilot sound like a pilot. There’s a lot of identity in intonation.

READ: Dialect Expert Erik Singer Breaks Down Film’s Good, Bad, and Ugly Accents

What are some go-to resources and training for actors who are trying to improve their accents or general verbal dexterity?
Knight-Thompson Speechwork is the first, second, third, and last thing I would send people to. Dudley Knight, a great friend and mentor who’s no longer with us, has a book called “Speaking With Skill,” which is essentially first-year speech in conservatory training in book form. For actors looking for a conservatory, be very curious about the teachers and the tradition they’re coming from. Find something that resonates with you. Some actors may find linguistics and phonetics abstruse and academic, but there’s gold in them thar hills. It’s a rich body of study, much of which is very applicable to accent work. Getting good voice training is also incredibly important for actors, even if they primarily want to act in films. It’s not just about being heard, it’s about opening up the instrument, which can open up other possibilities.

What should actors consider when picking out a voice program?
I’m biased because I have my own voice training program and I’m a Fitzmaurice Voicework teacher, but I also got an enormous amount of training and use from Patsy Rodenburg and that tradition. There are a lot of great voice teachers out there, but honestly it’s more important to find a teacher and a tradition that resonates with you.

What’s the most important piece of advice you can offer actors?
Work hard. Work smart. Work fun. If you can, work with a pro. Develop your skills. And start now—don’t wait.

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