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Keep the Accent? Tune Time

Dear Jackie:

I am a British actress embarking on my acting career in NYC. I have 12 years' experience in the UK but feel I am starting anew here. I am still learning a Standard American accent and feel that this may hamper my employability as an actress.

Should I use my British accent at auditions, or would it be best to assume an American one? I have heard conflicting advice about this. I feel my British accent makes me more unique.

Melissa H.

New York, NY

Dear Melissa:

Your dialect makes you unique, that's true, but it also limits you. The problem is that not all productions or roles allow for a British accent. Case in point: A year ago I was working on casting a production set in the mythical Old West. We were going for the real spaghetti-western sort of thing, with cowboy hats and campfire music. One of the actors who came in had a British accent. He was adorable, very talented, and made the text work. We called him back and asked him to try it with a Western dialect, which he had assured us he could do. Unfortunately he couldn't. I wanted to use this actor, I really did, but his inability to speak in a way that fit the world we were creating made that impossible.

As an actor, you want to be able to inhabit the role you are playing. And because you are in New York and not London, chances are that a lot of the roles you will be up for will require some form of American accent. A play set in the Bronx, a soap opera set in Boston, a film set in Orange County—you want to be able to handle all three Roles in each of those productions would call for distinctly different dialects.

I call your attention to this as you said you were working on a Standard American accent. That's a good place to start, to be sure, but you must do more than that. Standard American is fine for Shakespeare, the classics, and select other forms, but, to most Americans, someone speaking Standard American will not sound American at all. It is a purified, clean form of the American sound, and it sounds that way. And while Standard American may serve you in many theatrical productions, you will not find much call for it in film or television. It, too, has limits.

Just as in England, America is bursting with accents, and you should master at least the most common of them. It may seem like a lot of work now, but take it one step at a time. Once you get Standard American out of the way, you can begin adjusting it as the need arises. Ideally you will want to secure a talented speech coach, but at the very least you can purchase well-made dialect tapes to get you through. If you are auditioning often, take the opportunity to delve into a new accent whenever one presents itself. Soon you will have dabbled in regions from the East Coast to the West.

That said, Standard American will at least get you past the first hurdle. Once you have that down, you can ask the auditors for their preferences. If a British dialect will work, they will likely let you read with one. Of course this means you will have to prepare the copy with both accents to avoid getting thrown by a change.

It's a case-by-case situation. When you can, research the production and the role, and figure out how best to prepare based on that information. If you are up for Laura in The Glass Menagerie or Roberta in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, you, like most other actors, will have some prep work to do. It will be impressive indeed when you can walk into an audition and introduce yourself with your British accent and then swing with ease into another dialect—American or otherwise—when you begin to act. Think of Cate Blanchett and her ability to sound like she's from anywhere on the planet. That's the high point.

On the plus side, you are poised like almost no other New Yorker to be able to nail auditions calling for a British dialect. Remember that actor I mentioned who couldn't do the Western accent? The end of the story is that we were able to use him in another production, where his accent was a good fit for the part. A happy ending, yes. But if he had had just a little more speech flexibility, we could have used him in both.

Dear Jackie:

I am a recent transplant from NYC. I have extensive theatre experience in musical and nonmusical theatre. I recently attended two EPAs [Equity Principal Auditions] for musicals, which were run by the same casting director. When I arrived at both auditions I was alarmed that the casting director wanted to hear only 16 bars of the songs I had prepared. I found this very frustrating, because I had planned songs that were very similar to the characters I was auditioning for.

My understanding is that a principal audition gives the actor a chance to demonstrate character and your acting skills along with your voice. At chorus auditions, they request 16 bars and sometimes even just eight bars to demonstrate your voice. My feeling is, if this casting director just wanted to hear your voice, why waste the time it takes to do an EPA? Why not just run a chorus call? Equity has a great new program that allows one to sign up for an appointment a week in advance. And for this audition I took time out of my schedule to go and sign up. I feel that I didn't sign up just to do 16 bars; I signed up to audition for a principal role. I feel that my audition suffered because I had to have the headset on while doing one song that I had worked on, but didn't prepare as a 16-bar piece.

Any suggestions on how I should approach this situation? Should Equity say something to the casting director and explain the difference between an EPA and a chorus audition?


North Hollywood, CA

Dear Chris:

You are correct. A CD at an Equity Principal Audition call is not supposed to limit an actor's audition song to a particular number of bars. I can imagine how frustrating it is to prepare according to the guidelines, only to be told the rules have changed minutes before you go in.

Keep in mind, however, that casting has control over how long your audition is. AEA Principal Audition Procedures states, "The length of each performer's audition will be at the discretion of the casting personnel, with a minimum of one minute given to each performer." See the rules at principal.html. Usually the audition goes on a little longer than that, but after a minute, the casters have the right to stop you, mid-song, if they've heard enough. It's possible that this CD doesn't like stopping people partway through a song and therefore asserts this 16-bar limitation from the start to avoid his own discomfort. But no matter the reasons, there should be time allotted for a more traditional length audition piece.

The audition appointment constraints are constructed to give the actor and the casting personnel sufficient time for each audition. As you can imagine, there is a bit of a tug of war between the sides, with actors wanting more time to show their range and casting wanting a chance to see more people. Usually the auditioner is at least given a chance to do a short song of about 32 bars. Sometimes, when an actor is stopped a minute into his or her song, it is because casting wants to hear something else. Maybe they love the actor's ballad and want to hear something up-tempo. Sometimes an actor is stopped because casting has already decided to call him or her back and doesn't need to hear any more. And other times actors are stopped simply because they are not right for a role, and the auditors want to move on.

Of course taking advantage of other people's time can happen on both sides of the casting desk. Sometimes an actor goes in and sings numerous extremely similar verses of one song. For all the effort, he or she doesn't show any more range or improve as the piece goes on but just takes up more and more time. You want to be sure your audition merits its length.

As for the specific CD in question here, a source at AEA told me he was aware of this situation and that the CD had been spoken to. His casting notices now read, "The actor has up to three minutes for the audition, with a minimum of one minute." If you experience another instance of shortened audition time allotments, with this CD or another, you should absolutely contact Equity. It will do its best to keep auditors on track.

Remember that, even in the best of cases, an audition is often ripe with the unexpected: You prepare a monologue, and they want sides; you prepare sides, and they want different sides; the director informs you upon arrival that the character you have been preparing is now to be played as a blind Frenchman who speaks only in limericks, and so on. Part of your work as a performer is to get comfortable making quick adjustments and alterations as the need arises. You mentioned having to wear the headset and being thrown by the request for a shorter slice of your piece. That's understandable, but use your frustration as ammunition to get your songs that much more prepared. If you know your pieces forward and backward, expect change, and keep your sense of humor; your audition won't suffer due to requests such as this one. That's not to say you shouldn't try to rectify a situation such as the one you encountered. I just want to remind you to arm yourself for such contingencies, as they will, inevitably, arise.

The source at AEA had a great observation about auditions that I would like to share. "The audition process is a bizarre, unnatural job interview," he said. "We give away a sample of our work. Dentists don't fill part of your tooth to see if you like their work. So everyone on each side of the process needs to be aware of [its] delicateness and importance."

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