In an effort to expand my vocal repertoire, I’m taking a four-week seminar on accents and dialects.
One might suppose that this aspect of voice acting would come easily to me, given that (a) I’ve lived on three continents, as well as in both Hawaii and the polyglot Bay Area, and (b) I have friends who speak with a variety of accents — Mexican Spanish, Australian, East Indian, and so on — and thus am frequently exposed to different approaches to spoken English.
Well, if that’s what one supposed, one would have another supposition coming.
The focus for the first workshop session was the British accent. In fact, as I discovered — or perhaps already knew, but had never given it much thought — there are a number of British accents: Received Pronunciation, as is familiar to anyone who’s listened to programming from the BBC; Cockney; Estuary, which combines elements of both of the preceding; Manchester; Liverpool; Yorkshire (if you’ve ever seen The Full Monty, it’s that Sheffield one); plus national derivations such as Scottish and Welsh. I’m sure there are several others as well.
Already, the task was tougher than I’d figured.
As instructed, I prepared for the class by watching a couple of films from the Harry Potter series, and attempting to mimic the accent of one of the characters. I chose Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley as my model, both because Grint’s accent is distinctive to my American ear, and because Ron is sufficiently prominent in the films that I had ample material to listen to. And, although young Rupert’s vocal characteristics differ somewhat from my own, his timbre is similar enough that I didn’t have to manufacture a texture or tone to copy his accent.
When I arrived at class and began reviewing the copy for the first exercise, I immediately identified a shortcoming in my preparation. I’d done a fair amount of listen-and-repeat with Ron’s dialogue from two of the Potter films. I had not, however, considered as much as I should have how to apply Rupert/Ron’s speech pattern to words and phrases that didn’t occur in the film scripts. My greatest challenge, then, became trying to think of how to use that accent to pronounce words I’d never heard Ron Weasley pronounce.
My success was, at best, mediocre.
The next two exercises produced better results. Freed from the requirement to copy a specific individual’s accent, I was able to give more attention to the problem of acting effectively while maintaining a (more generic) British dialect. By the time we got to the third batch of copy — sides from a video game featuring English-accented characters — I felt that I was back in my element. The actor in me could take over, and just allow the accent to flow from the character I created and the acting choices associated with that character.
Ultimately, acting with an accent or dialect is not so different from speaking a foreign language. To become facile with the speech, you have to learn to think in that voice. Which is why my foreign language skills stink… and why I’m taking a course on accents and dialects.
Next week, the American South. We’ll see how I do with that… y’all.