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The Big Mistake Actors Make with Accents

Alyssa Ciccarello voice speech new york ny 01As a voice and speech teacher I am often asked to help actors whose work calls for a particular accent, and a common assumption is that the accent work is separate from their bodies and from their acting. Actors are often led to believe that they can train their human instrument in pieces, as a bodybuilder might separate out individual muscle groups at the gym. But an actor is not divisible into parts; especially if the desired result is an actor completely alive and responsive to her creative impulses. Accent is made up of not only the pronunciation of the words but also the character’s specific cultural background, personal upbringing, worldview, physical gestures and gesticulations, and a multitude of vocal dynamics that are more musical than textual. Training the voice to be nuanced enough to pick up on all of that input is a long process, but the very purpose of this training is so that your voice can be a faithful servant to your intention, working spontaneously and accurately.

Drilling pronunciation to achieve a certain accent may produce temporary results, but they are temporary and superficial. You will be stuck in one mode of thinking in order to speak clearly, so all the audience will hear is the pronunciation of the lines and not the meaning behind them. Your speech will sound dry and rehearsed but, when what gives words life is the function that they perform. Words, as actors use them, are meant to change people. Bubbling to our lips in a translation of our thoughts and feelings. If your major focus is the formal accuracy of the accent, then instead of listening to the story you’re telling an audience will be distracted by your accent.

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By insisting on and constantly reinforcing the connection between the impulse to speak and the precise articulation of that impulse, you lay a railroad track on which the train of your creative thoughts can run. It is possible to possess the ability to speak words that only you can give voice to, creating a completely new character out of the raw material of the text and your own voice, not a stereotype. The breath is the conduit of any human utterance, and the whole body is its resonating chamber; each accent will breathe differently, resound differently through you. It is both obligation and privilege to be exacting with accent work, but only insofar as it gives you an airtight vessel in which to plunge to the depths of the character’s world.

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