Me and My Accents

I have had a long love of character voices and accents. As a young boy, I discovered comedy radio shows such as The Goon Show where the actors would put on exaggerated voices to great comic effect. I tried to replicate these characters and in a way, they become the closest thing I had to invisible friends.

As I found my love for theatre and acting, the transition to picking up accents was relatively easy, and for the sake of Community Theatre, I wasn’t expected to be spot on. The fact that I could do most of the mainstream accents (English, American, Australian… particularly English) was rather useful in getting parts.

I would be able to listen to accents, and in most cases I would pick it up quickly. I think this was because of my years of Goon Show impersonations. There were always a few which challenged me. For example, when trying Irish, I would often drift into Scottish, and some of the regional English accent would all become generic Cockney.

Naturally, I had an accent which was somewhere between Common English and Australian, which explains why so many of my school friends thought I WAS English…

How is it done?

It was only a few years back that I realised that even though I could do a number of accents, I couldn’t really tell you the mechanics behind them. I was asked to help a very Australian lady develop an American Accent for a stage play. Everyone else was doing good American, so having one “okka” Aussie was rather striking.

I struggled at first trying to get this actress to use a similar accent to the rest of the cast. Her natural accent was just too strong, and my skill in explaining was to simple. I did manage to get her to put on a reasonable New Yorker accent, and we went with that.

But I was motivated to learn about how accents were done, by people who could instruct. As I wasn’t in a place to be able to afford classes, I instead researched books and videos online. I found a lot of common themes , but found much of it was minimally helpful, and felt as vague or rough as my own attempts at teaching had been. Most of it was tailored for the American actor doing international accents.

Some of the most useful texts came with audio CD’s that broke down the process to repeating various phrases, talking about diphthongs, consonants, vowels, when to drop certain letters, and so forth. I didn’t feel any of this helped.

Then I found Bruce G Shapiro’s Speaking American – The Australian’s Guide to and American Dialect.

This book does more than provide vague exercises and phrases to recite, it has a significant focus on mouth shape, muscular control… Now this may have something that other texts also covered, but I found this clarified a few things that others didn’t. It helped me become more aware of how my mouth, tongue, throat and nose all worked together.

With this increased awareness I was able to experiment a lot more than I had and work out the problems I had with other accents in the past. All this lead to me acknowledging a couple of key principles in doing accents.

Two Basic Elements

While there is no doubt a lot that separate one accent from another, and there are subtle variations even within one type of accent, most accents can be quickly reached by the manipulation of two aspects of your voice.

The Point of Resonance

When I say the Point of Resonance (PoR), I am referring to the position in your head that vibrates most when you speak. Most people I talk with are initially unaware of their own PoR, so I get them to put on a nasally voice, which we all can do. Regardless of what your voice is naturally, except maybe naturally nasally voiced people, once you do this, you should be able to feel the difference. In some people, this will tickle their sinuses, and maybe even make them sneeze.

The blue circle represents the American’s point of resonance and the red is the Britain’s point of resonance.

In order to achieve a nasally voice, you are changing the part of you that the sound of your voice resonates, or your Point of Resonance. This helps even with the general accents such as Received Pronunciation (standard English), General American, and General Australian.

These three accents actually make for an interesting progression with American often being higher and slightly more nasally than English, which in turn is higher than Australian which is moving to the back of the throat. The broader the Australian accent, the further back and down the PoR goes.

American has a lot in common (regards PoR) with Irish and Indian, which are both similarly edging towards nasally, whereas Australian, Scottish and Russian are lower and back in the mouth.

Of course, just a shift in the PoR does not make a complete accent.

Lips and Jaw

The way in which the mouth moves becomes the second key element in a basic accent. It’s a blend of the Lips and Jaw (LaJ). You can either move these features a lot when sounding your words, or you can move them very little. The direction you move will also have an impact on the sound of your words.

Mouth

This was a discovery for me which explained why Aussies often thought I was English rather than Australian, and yet when in England, they all knew I was Australian. While I had the shallow PoR similar to most Aussies, when speaking, I didn’t use my lips as much as others. A side effect of this was that my enunciation sounded more exact, yet the throatiness was enough for natural English speakers to pick me out as Australian.

Using again the three core accents, American accents typically use more vertical movements, larger jaw movements for the vowels with narrow lips. Australians will use less jaw and wider lip movements. Then English uses minimal lip or jaw movements, which echo’s the “stiff-upper-lip” image.

So when we look at American vs Irish, we see that Irish typically is somewhere between minimal movement to wide movements, which contrasts with the American vertical movement. This is similar when comparing Australian with Scottish, or Russian. Scottish is closer to the English minimal movements, and Russian may use even less movement than English.

That’s not all

Once I had worked through these two basic principles, I was able to work with all the other aspects of accents, such as emphasis, use of tongue for rolling sounds, soft and strong consonants. It was much easier to address the finer of details of accents with a solid base, and it is much easier to pick-up some of the more interesting accents.

More important, by subtly playing with the two key aspects of PoR and LaJ, I have been able to play with accents to create the shades of grey you find everyday. Such as an Irish accent with a subtle Australian influence, an English Scotsman, American Indian, and more.

I have tried applying these simple basic principles on others, seeing how they take it. So far, it has been a successful solution.

Accents are not simple, but with a strong base, they can be easier.

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All in a rush

The universe has interesting ways of teaching you things, and I have learned that there are only two constants in the world;

  1. the only thing I have control over are my choices, and
  2. I will never stop learning.

UniverseA lifetime in the making, I am finally looking at living a life that I had once dreamed, and dreamed regularly. I leave behind a stable job, that had become the longest single period of occupancy in my life, in order to pursue my longest running passion, as a career. A lot had to happen before this choice was made, and one of those was finding the confidence.

I look back over my life, and the hindsight is sometimes painful and features little “Why didn’t I…?” questions here and there. If only I had… Why did I… It seems to be a part of the human condition to find things to regret, or maybe we are expected to find things to regret. Sometimes I get the two confused. Some of the most influential people in my early life were wary of my interests in the arts, and I chose to listen to them. I believed in them, and wanted to please them. What child wouldn’t. Regardless of how old I was, or how naive I may have been, I chose to listen to these people. The truth is, even though I listened, I never really heard them.

I may have outwardly demonstrated that I was doing the things that, in hindsight, were expected of me; study a science, get a good job, focus on the money you could earn, etc. Inside I hadn’t heard, didn’t agree, and continued to dare to dream. Quietly, even to myself, I started making plans that would take decades to bare fruit.

Standing where I am today, I look back and that part of me that can be selfish, emotional, and complains a lot when things don’t always work, starts picking those points in my life where I had opportunity but didn’t take it. As my wife has said to me, I didn’t make the choice because I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t in the mind-set needed to either see, or make the best of, the opportunity that was (or was not) there.

CakeThe metaphor of taking a cake out of the oven before it is ready comes to mind. A sure way to ruin an opportunity is to go in half-baked. I do regret not being able to make those choices. I also see that there was a reason they weren’t taken. Humbling.

So here I am, facing the very dream-come-true reality of today. I am scared, excited, anxious, eager, daunted and encouraged. I feel one fifth my age, and the world even looks different.

And what have I learnt? A few things;

  • Dreams do come true,
  • You’re never too old,
  • Persistence does work, just don’t rush,
  • Never give up,
  • And always listen to your heart.

The truth about shyness

transformI was at a presentation just recently, talking with a fellow actor about the change that occurs when you are “on-camera”, or “on-stage”. Something I, and I think most actors, can relate to. There is a strange transformation that takes place the moment you either walk on stage, or the director screams “ACTION!” It is a little magical and very hard to explain. Ask different people, and you will get different ideas. The real person becomes hidden behind a character who is often more confident, more gregarious, more… everything really. Then when “Cut!’ is called, or you walk off-stage, the real you oozes back in.

What has this to do with shyness? Well, I find most actors I know claim to be extremely shy people. I was once, and to a lesser degree, still am, but that is just me. I always thought that you had to have a lot of self-confidence to be an actor. The truth appears to be quite the opposite; you have to be seeking confidence to be an actor. Some of the most inspirational actors I have had the pleasure to meet, and work with, have had some of the most extraordinary experiences with shyness. The stable actor, and there are a few I know, would appear to be the exception to the rule. I am rather simplifying the matter of course, as there are varying degrees of traumatised actor here. It seems that I am always having actors telling me how shy they are when not in the lime-light.

This is a rather interesting position. A professional actor is not only a working professional, they also need to be their own representative, salesman, or marketing officer, however you want to look at it, so being shy and awkward in social engagements can be a disservice to their career. So the trick is to overcome this shyness somehow and take that first step; engage. I’m not too sure that I am actually capable of being able to give advice to anyone here, as I find this more confrontational than taking the limelight as a Master of Ceremonies for a quiz night. In a way, in order to engage with people socially, I often need to employ similar techniques as I would in acting, without actually acting anyone else but me.

Well, we all do in reality. Act. We have personae we present when in different environments; our work face, the one for our parents, and the reversion we experience when we go to our High School Reunions. Most of us at least. Apparently I have had the honour of meeting the one person I will meet in my life who has but one face for all occasions. I wish him the best of luck. For the rest of us, we are in a way all actors, and that is the key here. We all act, but we are still ourselves.

shySo I find that I don’t overcome my shyness. That is a part of who I am, best not fight it. It is actually an emotional reaction to a possibly uncomfortable situation, and the uncertainty of being able to handle it. It is in this way simple information, letting me know that I need to prepare my confident self for action. Through little simple tricks; they way I hold my arms, hold my head and position my body, along with little key thoughts and phrases – I then engage with people. I simply make them aware that I am there. Now some may find this hard to believe, but I don’t like talking about myself directly. Once I get going telling an anecdotal tale about something I have been involved in, then I run the risk of running on a bit. I’m not actually talking about myself as such. I am coming at myself from an acute angle. Even so, I have my tolerance limit before the insecurities start to over power me.

I have been told that an important part of marketing yourself is to engage with others by listening to them, which is great for the shy person. Talking about yourself, even tangentially, can get very boorish for those listening to you, and you can actually lose people. It actually gets really uncomfortable when you become aware of how much “self” talk you are doing. Getting people talking about themselves, or projects they are involved in, is another important part of networking, and has two key benefits; first, you’re not talking about yourself all the time and second, you might actually learn something if you actually listen. I do all the time.

These days, I get a lot of people saying that I present a very confident type of personality, quite a contrast to the past, and the reality. It’s all an act. Simple tricks and techniques that make me appear confident, and then I get people to talk about themselves. There are the occasions where you meet the person more than willing to talk to you about themselves, and often diverge down various side topics. A good exit strategy is also a good thing. That I am still working on.

 

Learning Lines

In a private conversation, I was recently asked an interesting question; what is the best way to learn your lines?

Cary-Grant-DogIt is not something I really think much about these days. After many years of plays and filming, I have sort of had a technique evolve organically. I took bits and pieces from all over the place. Some worked, some didn’t, until I finally found I was learning my lines without much effort. Yet I can recall times where I asked the very same question of others.

So now that I have a technique, what is it, and can others use it?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe there is a definitive way to learn your lines. People learn differently. Our brains work in different ways. My wife can recall people’s names, dates, factual details about this and that, and when she rattles of a series of genealogical connections in her or someone else’s family tree, I get lost at the first branch.

I, on the other hand, can tell within a few seconds if I have seen a movie or TV show before. The visual clues stick out to me like neon lights, and the emotional intensity of the scene strikes familiar chords in me. Within the first minute, I will not only be able to recall that I have already seen the show, I usually am able to recall the basic story and outcomes also.

Learning lines is a personal thing, and developing a technique is a personal journey. You need to work out how your mind works, and then how you can use that knowledge to improve your memory recall. An approach used by one may not necessarily work for another.

Some of the typical approaches I have seen used include;

  • Rote Memorisation – Simply committing the lines to memory through constant repetition.
  • Playback – Recording your lines, and sometimes those of the other characters, and playing them back to yourself over and over.
  • Re-writing the script – I have seen some actors completely rewrite their lines to help with their recall.
  • Understand the meaning – Some of the most common bits of advice is to understand the meaning of the story; the characters purpose and goals.
  • Physical Recall – Associated certain movements with certain lines and create a choreography for the script. Your physical location within a scene can stimulate recall.
  • And more…

I have used, and to some degree still do use, these techniques, and I struggled to get beyond the learning of the lines to the next phase, bringing the character to life. In a previous post, I discuss being able to bring a character to life. I have found getting lines locked in can often restrict characterisation, and this is because I have become so focussed on the lines, I forget the character. Thing about real life people, we don’t have scripts. We don’t know what is going to be said next. It is in that sense of the uncertain where life exists.

To take a photographic example, how often have you seen a photo where people have been asked to pose and the smiles appear to be stiff, uncertain and fake? I am sure nearly everyone knows exactly what I am talking about. In these instances, the subjects have been allowed to smile for too long. A smile that is being posed is only genuine for a second, maybe less. Then it becomes a chore to maintain. The expression drains from the face and eyes, which is where a real smile rests. Learning lines mechanically is like holding on to the smile for too long. It goes flat.

A trick used by models and some photographers is to keep the subject(s) moving, or to have them relaxed before the shot and then having them pose on call. I wanted to bring the same level of spontaneity to my acting and the techniques I had learnt simply were not giving me that.

HowToStopActingThen I found a book. Not just any book, and not a book about acting. It was a book about not acting. This book changed my ideas about acting completely. Within, it described a process, or approach, to learning lines that no-one had every told me before. Essentially, one combined the development of character with the learning of the line. Using an approach Harold calls “Taking it off the page” an actor slowly goes through a script, phrase by phrase (not line by line) and reacts to it. Read a phrase and use whatever emotion you feel upon reading to the look up and speak the phrase.

This approach is different for a few reasons;

  • It is about reactions, not portrayal. Other techniques involve you having your character preformed almost entirely and you, the actor, are then to drive the emotion. Here the actor is actually reacting to the line and reflecting that back into their performance. Even the lack of a feeling or reaction is a valid choice.
  • It is “in-the-moment.” It’s a buzz phrase to be “in-the-moment” and the question has always been how. By breaking the script in to moment sized chunks, you are developing an understanding of the moments in the play.
  • It blends the lines with the character. I takes away the feeling that I need to remember my lines. By integrating the character and the lines, when you get into character, the lines seem to flow naturally, which means more room to focus on the relationships, and situations.

Learning Lines is actually quite an unnatural process. Life is basically ad-lib, so to organise and pre-plan every little detail is something only humans do, with our high cognitive abilities. We seek order in disorder, yet find entertainment in the unexpected. Plays that have been done many times before are often ridiculed for replaying a previously successful performance, and not bringing something new. Keeping a script alive and unexpected is a difficult challenge, and one that all actors must face.

For me at least, learning lines is not the problem. Learning to live those lines is the true goal of any actor. To live the lines as much as I live my life.