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Monday, August 12, 2013

Should Community Theater Worry About Accents?: When and When Not To Attempt Different Dialects in Your Production

My Cast for "The Importance of Being Earnest"--- I made them do British Accents
Greetings fellow theater lovers and drama geeks!  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I would like to welcome you to Theater is a Sport, the only blog I know of that maintains beyond a shadow of a doubt that Theater is, in fact, a sport.

Right now, I am in a play at the beautiful Lakewood Theater in Madison, ME, called "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club" by Jeffrey Hatcher.  Recently, an issue has presented itself that I have encountered several times before in community and school theatre:

should we do the accents or not?

This is an important question, but the answer isn't always clear. 

In this play, I am playing duel roles, one is of a German man called Mr. George, the other, Inspector Micklewhite, a Scotland Yard British fellow. 

I have had experience with accents.  When I was in college, I was in a play called "The Baltimore Waltz" by Paula Vogel, in which I had to slip in and out of several different European dialects. 

I will say up front that I love accents.  I love working on them, learning them--- they can do wonders to add to the realism, the musicality, the rhythm and color of a production.  In a perfect world, I would say that every community theatre, when doing a play that requires accents, should attempt them.

The Key Word here is ATTEMPT.

When  I was in middle school, a film called "Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves" came out to much fanfare and great success.  Blockbuster that it proved to be, there was not one review of the film that failed to mention that Kevin Costner, in the role of Robin Hood, did not use an English accent.  Surprising, perhaps, but, by all accounts, he attempted, and couldn't get the accent quite right.  I personally think the filmmaker made the right choice to have him just drop it, because a poor or inconsistent accent is troublesome and distracting. 

Others are brilliant at accents, of course.  Peter Sellers, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, to name but a few. 

Some thoughts:


1. When it is absolutely necessary for the play.  In the picture above (as it says in the caption) is of a lovely cast of people for a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, that I directed at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcrft, ME.  I made my cast learn English accents because I felt is was vital for the humor, rhythm and Wilde-ness of the play.  I was, and am, convinced that the humor in that show does not land the same way in plain old American dialect.  People are free to disagree, but as director, it was my call.  I am happy to report that I had a very hard-working cast who rose to the challenge with the help of a lovely dialect cd (more on those later)

2.  When you have a cast that is very facile with accents.  In that case, why not?

3.  If other characters make note of a character's accent.

4.  When it serves an educational purpose.  This last school year, I made a group of my students learn the English accent for a play they were in because it added to the play, but also because I felt it would be an opportunity for them to learn just how specific accents can be.  And, at the school level, EDUCATION should come first (especially in high school).


1.  If one of your actors cannot hold a convincing or consistent accent, let it go.

2.  If the accent is so bad that it is distracting, let it go.

3.  If the actors are only focusing on their accents and not their characters, let it go.
(Note:  *  For me, accents can be a key into finding a character, but, for others, they're head is so wrapped up in the accent, that they lose sight of everything else.  This is not advisable.  Character is more important.  Looking and listening is more important.)

4.  If the accent is making the actor almost impossible to understand, let it go.

These are just a few guidelines I've picked up over the years. 

It should be noted that an accent is what we would call a "given circumstance" of sorts, and, it is a lovely thing to achieve if possible.  However, it is important to remember that an accent ADDS to a play and character, and is not THE PLAY or CHARACTER.  In fact, in a sense, an accent, particularly at the community theatre level, is a garnish--- can be tasty, but with a real chance of being overdone.  Be cautious.  Sometimes, just adding a flavor of an accent can work and not jumping into the deep end.  For example, maybe instead of a thick English accent, an actor can just clip their words some to give the feeling of being upper crust. 

If you do choose to pursue accents, and there's never harm in trying, I have always had a great deal of success with David Alan Stern, who has a wonderful series of different dialect cds.  I know there are plenty of others out there, but he's a lot of fun, and he breaks it down simply, with many call and repeat exercises.  Google the man's name, and you'll find a bunch of stuff about him.

All right.  That's enough for today.  I have to go listen to my German dialect CD and see if I can get this thing down by opening night!

Until next time, please remember--- theater is a sport!

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People in the photo:  Front:  Raelene and Robert Keniston
Back:  Tracy Michaud Stutzman, Teresa Myers, Sandra Beaulieu, Frank Applebee, Chelle Atwatter, Lucas Boffin, and Mathias Ringle.

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