A busy month, planning and coaching sessions for actors across the country, as well as being the accent coach for Play With Fire’s play, Sans Merci by Johnna Adams, performed at the Hope Mill Theatre.
At the time of writing this blog, they have a week to go and have unanimously achieved rave reviews – ahh so proud! –
Here’s just one: http://www.thereviewshub.com/sans-merci-hope-mill-theatre-manchester/
I’d like to write a little about my process of working on-set with actors, gaining their trust and communicating effectively.
It’s important to know how an accent coach should operate, by being flexible to the needs of the production, and to know what’s to be expected on both sides of the collaborative fence.
As an actor myself, I think I can safely say I understand why a cast might be a little wary of an accent coach.
Think about it:
You’ve got two weeks to go, you’re still working out actions and objectives for your character, navigating emotional punctuated moments whilst trying to get to grips with the gritty logic of the text.
Then an accent coach walks in to listen to your delivery!
It’s not easy being an actor.
We are attempting to do a lot of stuff in a short amount of time.
Not just that, but we HAVE TO DO IT BRILLIANTLY.
So, knowing that, what’s the first priority for me, with my accent coach hat on, as I meet new actors?
1) Gaining Trust:
The first priority is to question the actors on their characters, separating fact from conjecture.
This I find to be the most comforting thing to begin with. From a position of knowledge, we can swiftly build up an accurate understanding of who they’re going to play.
So I ask the simple questions first: What’s their name? How old are they? Where do they live? How long have they lived there for? Have they lived elsewhere and if so, for how long?
What’s their education like? What kind of job do they have? Are they rich, poor or in-between?
It’s only when I speak to actors in this way that two things happen:
They feel more relaxed in telling me what they know
I hear their native accent for the first time and start mentally taking notes for accent shifts
You have to care, on any collaboration or people can't put their faith in you.
That's why it's useful to talk simply about all the things we need to talk about - simply, earnestly, and yes, passionately. Trust is important to earn, and you have to earn it quickly to move a production up to a high standard.
A word on being relaxed. I don’t mean scented candles and a glass of prosecco relaxed (!), I mean they are relaxed enough to work without feeling tension for being ‘judged’ on their performance or accent at this stage. At least, it’s a good place to attempt to start from.
I’m also relaxed because the actors (as you’d expect) are knowledgeable by now and have put significant work into their characters. I wouldn’t be relaxed if they shrugged their shoulders at the simplest of questions!
Then we get to the meat of it!
With any accent, I usually go through the basic characteristics to look out for – these being General American and Chicago for this play, we started with aspects like yod-dropping (when the y sound is removed from words like duke and new).
I also talked about how r’s are always pronounced at the end of words (rhotic) for GA.
I then went through the various ‘t’ pronunciations – mid-word t-glottalization, ‘Flap T’ etc.
It takes practice for the actor to spot the patterns in the text - where a 't' might be glottalized or 'flapped' etc, but this cast are quick up on the uptake and make notes for themselves as I give them.
It's not easy to break away from the habits and preconceived ideas of 'how it's done' at the rehearsal stage.
That's normal, and in the case of accent authenticity, I'm keen on making the actors play around with the stresses they put on certain syllables and words - so long as it's grounded in a logical action in the text.
There are moments of laughter in the room - my favourite time when work doesn't feel like work! The action is moving, the actor is growing in confidence and I see this group act like a team. It's marvellous when it clicks!
2) Communicating effectively:
Providing a knowledge base for the actors also allows them to see the text through another technical ‘filter’.
With the basics covered, I’m keen on hearing them do the delivery, and repeat the vowel and diphthongs as required.GA is simpler to learn compared to some of the dialects of New York, for example, where consonants shift or get dropped completely.
I also take queries about specific words they’re unsure of pronouncing in the text.
It’s useful for me to know the context too – knowing WHY the character is saying such a word is essential for clarity. If I don’t understand the need for saying it, I doubt the audience can either, in which case the authenticity of the delivery becomes moot to the purpose it’s intended.
It doesn’t matter how accurate your accent is in the performance - if you don’t know what the character is saying and why they’re saying it, it’s pointless!
That's a golden rule there and I hate rules :)
I watch a whole run in the afternoon and make notes as I go along for each actor.
I’ll get them to repeat individual words afterwards and then focus on rhythm changes.
Thankfully, the actors have a solid understanding of the rhythm of GA, which frees me up to listen to the vowels and diphthongs first.
It also gives me a chance to understand the play in full, and where each character’s voice fits with the story arc.
This is where actor and accent coach get to the heart of the matter.
I’m keen to defer to any director and their vision – my job is not to direct the actor but to assist with accent authenticity.
That said, I also tell the actor to go through some things with their director, particularly if there is a vocal aspect that needs working on that might be interfering with performance.
Identifying patterns of speech that are either lost in the performance or unnecessarily made manifest due to emotional ejection, for example, need to be discussed and played with.
Producing a play is a stressful business so keeping it light and providing positive compliments really helps the process!
When people work hard in life, very few actually get complimented for their efforts.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen how positive encouragement VISIBLY relaxes people and makes them smile.
And you know what?
When people smile at work, and feel good about the work they put in, they are much more open to new ideas and suggestions. Try it, believe me, it's magical!
And of course, the end goal is put on some damn fine theatre, which Play With Fire have achieved in spades.
It’s been great to work with this talented cast and crew, and I really hope their show gets a transfer as they deserve it!