From historical figures like President Lyndon B. Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Queen Elizabeth II to mythological characters like Hades, for many actors, the voice comes first.
From timbre, to cadence, to speed, no two characters sound exactly alike. Still, the challenge increases when a character originates from a specific part of the world. Authenticity reigns supreme, and audiences will be able to hear inconsistencies and fakery a mile away.
“Accent is acting,” says Dawn-Elin Fraser, a dialect coach who’s worked on Broadway shows such as Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Slave Play, The Great Society, and Waitress. “To be working on dialect is to be working on how you, as an actor, use all of the tools at your disposal to develop nuance and specificity in character.”
While many actors learn accents and dialects in conjunction with a particular role, Fraser and fellow dialect coach Joel Goldes (Come From Away Broadway, tours, and international productions) both recommend adding dialects to your toolbox as a general practice. “In the same way that learning dance combinations or songs that aren’t for a specific role makes you more ready when you need to dive in, learning accents outside of a specific role helps to build muscle memory and to sharpen the ear so that you have a better instrument with which to hear the subtleties of dialect,” says Fraser.
“Learning an accent before you need it in an audition will make you much more comfortable when accent auditions come up, and allow you to focus on your intentions in the scenes. Confidence plays a huge part of performing an accent, and the more you use it, the more confident you’ll be with it,” Goldes adds.
Technically, accents and dialects are two different things (though dialect coaches teach both). Accent is about pronunciation (often indicative of “a particular nation, location, or social class,” says Goldes) and dialect is about syntax, vocabulary, and morphology (“like how some Bostonians refer to a drinking fountain as a ‘bubbler’—or ‘bubblah,’" says Goldes), but the terms tend to be used interchangeably. (So we will, too.)
Both Fraser and Goldes say a standard British accent can be the most useful, as it’s foundational to all British Isles dialects (English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish), or an American Southern accent. Both are common in plays and musicals and can be good starter dialects because examples are widely available in media for ear training.
“It’s always best to listen to primary sources, or samples of people who grew up speaking that accent, rather than listening to secondary sources, like actors who’ve learned it for a film,” Goldes recommends. “You can also listen for inconsistencies, so you can learn what not to do.”
Goldes also advises actors hone in on feedback from agents and casting directors. “It’s often useful to learn accents that match your look, so think of feedback you’ve gotten on your headshot about what nationality or region you look like you could come from, then put those accents at the top of your list,” he says. “Learning those accents before you need them will give you a huge leg up on other actors.”
But Fraser has also noticed the rise to prominence of dialects from the African diaspora “which is exciting to me as a coach and as a theatre-lover.” She is working to train more coaches in these dialects, as well.
No matter the region, no matter the sound, “the first objective in performing any accent should be clarity,” says Goldes. “If an accent is unintelligible, it’s not serving the material and the production, and its strength should be diminished.”
Here, Fraser and Goldes offer more hands-on tips to begin practicing at home:
- Start by listening to native speakers (audio and video). Begin by seeing if you can copy the shape of the mouth and the muscles in the face (oral posture).
- Before you add language, attempt to capture the cadence, rhythm, and melody of the dialect.
- If you know IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), writing down the sound changes while making the sounds is extremely helpful. If you don’t, you can write down the sound changes in any way that makes sense to you.
- “Try staying in the accent and having brief conversations with people who don’t know you (in the grocery store or by phoning a business), to see if you can maintain it. You’ll get better at using the accent, and, as importantly, you’ll get less shy about doing it in front of people. When you get into the audition room, you can focus on your performance and not the dialect.
- Listen to a phrase at a time from a native speaker and try to imitate exactly what you hear, not what you think they hear.
- Listen closely for those sounds that differ from your own accent, and try to imitate those sound differences. It can be tempting to try to change every sound or word in an accent, but by listening purely, one can hear that while there is a predictable system of sound changes, many sounds don’t change at all.
- Immersing yourself in the culture of the accent is hugely helpful: listening to movies, TV shows, audio books, podcasts, and social media in the accent as well as hanging out in neighborhoods where the accent is used are all huge aids.
- Work from a text that can be marked up, like a printed or digital copy with note-taking software. Using any symbols that make sense to you, mark the sound differences on the lines. This way, you’ll see where a change happens.
- Reading text out loud, slowly at first, helps the tongue (and brain) become accustomed to the new sounds and combinations. As these get more comfortable, the speed can gradually increase toward a more fluent sound, and then you can try talking off the top of your head in the new dialect (slowly, at first).
IDEA (International Dialect of English Archive)
A database featuring recordings of native speakers. Goldes actually serves as an editor of the archive. “It compiles primary accent sources from more than 120 countries, as well as hybrid accents and oral histories, and is an excellent place to hear a huge variety of accents,” he says.
VASTA (Voice and Speech Trainers Association)
The organization offers a library of resources on all of the topics of voice and speech.
A catalog of comprehensive sound change sheets, audio and video files for purchase.
This site offers workshops with certified teachers as well as articles on topics connected to phonetics, speech, and accents.
Private Lessons With Fraser
Fraser is the Head of Voice and Speech for the New Studio on Broadway/NYU, but also offers one-on-one coaching. “Usually clients come to me with particular accents or skill sets in mind. If not, we start with a consultation about what they’re hoping to get out of the work,” she says. “Some students want to learn how to transcribe their text into phonetics; some want to be better at listening to resources and identifying sounds; some want to work on a specific monologue; some want a combination of several of those things!” More information here.
Private Lessons With Goldes
Goldes has been coaching remotely for more than 20 years with clients all over the world via Zoom, either one-on-one or in small groups. He offers audition coaching and long-term sessions, if someone needs to master an accent for daily use or needs to master multiple accents. From moving through the Vowel Chart to reviewing specific material to recording files of their lines, Goldes caters his services to individual needs. Still, he follows a common grounding principle. “Our brains tend to want to do the hearing for us, through the filter of the sounds of our native tongue,” says Goldes. “I teach my clients how to form the unfamiliar sounds, which re-trains their brains to hear sounds they haven’t used before. They’re then much better equipped to hear the new sounds when they say them, and then to imitate native speakers." For a limited time, Goldes is offering discounted rates to clients who mention Playbill! Visit TheDialectCoach.com.