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January 18, 2006


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Hm. What about those tapes for headphones? Don't they work?

Abe Goldfarb

Speaking as a complete snob, if you can't do the accent, don't do the play. It's butchery, and Tony Kushner solved the problem brilliantly with his invented peasant dialect in Hydrotaphia. I don't know, it just strikes me as stupid that a basic technical requirement pertaining to the establishment of milieu could be so hacked to bits by so many careless actors and directors. To be plain: hit the books, listen to tapes, watch movies, and if you can't do it, well, shit, I don't juggle, so I'm not crossing my fingers for that Cirque du Soleil audition. I'm not letting the Brits off the hook; their Yank impressions are frequently diabolical. Orlando Bloom, I may have loved you once, but you sounded like you were trying to sell me soap in Elizabethtown.

George Hunka

I'm not sure that you're entirely right that British accents are absolutely necessary to the appreciation of Pinter's work. A bad accent can easily draw attention away from the words and the silences: it's a balancing act, I suppose. Certainly Shaw and Wilde (who had a thing or two to say about class and slang in their day) are beginning to be done in American accents, with little lost. (And, for what it's worth, I even saw a translation into Czech of Shaw's "Pygmalion"--not the happiest of productions, probably, but the Prague audience seemed to find it amusing enough.)

I think the question of actor training in the States has something to do with it--British actors, at any rate, appear to devote far more time to vocal technique and elocution than their American counterparts, who are more prone to psychoanalyze their characters than to fit their bodies and voices into them; the Brits come at them externally rather than internally.

The best American accent by a British actor these days can be found in the TV show "House," in which Hugh Laurie grumbles and mutters his way through the show fairly (if not entirely) convincingly.


Hey George, ABe, Matt

1) Not all PInter. These two plays, I feel...

2) Hugh Laurie is the man. So is Tony Kushner... Hydriotaphia! ONE DAY I SHALL DIRECT THEE!

3)I agree with everyone... except please, people. avoid the tapes by David Alan Stern! Hire a dialect coach instead!


oh and ps... you'd be surprised how many british actors are on american television, completely unnoticed.

DOminick West and Idris Elba on The Wire, both brits (whose american accents are shockingly good)... the guy who plays Captain Lee Adama on Battlestar Galactica is also British... there''re loads... just hard to hear it, sometimes...


Isaac, I have a friend in the show, and they worked with a dialect coach -- Steven (or is it Stephen?) something -- Daly? -- the redhaired, energetic, Irish-born guy who is an undisputed accent meister. He rivals Henry Higgins in his depoth and breadth of knowledge and is a great teacher.

Anyway, surely you realize that "Americans really struggle with accents and dialects" is such a huge statement that it must necessarily not be true. Is there some struggling in C/TR? If you say so... but conflating a drunk guy at a bar with professional (and in some cases trained) actors is surely a dangerous step in asserting the veracity of your theory.

Part of the problem is that theaters are too cheap to hire dialect coaches for more than one or two stop-ins. Over the course of a run, I think, actors tend to wobble and veer a bit in their accents much as they do in any other aspect of their performances. Not everyone, and not always.

Sometimes actors are hired because they look perfect, or seem perfect in most other ways and the assumption is "we can work on the accent".

I do think Abe Goldfarb, above, is being stentorian and over the top with this "if you can't do the accent don't do the play" attitude.

I think actors too often assume they can, and are, doing accents correctly after being coached. No actor I know tries to an accent badly -- ack, who would? -- It's hard enough to get hired in the first place! -- and if they're not getting the feedback, whose fault is that?

It can be hard to hear oneself slipping. Somebody -- maybe the stage manager, who usually is responsible for a show's maintenance during a run -- is usually in charge of giving performance notes, like "This is going too slow" or whatever -- should be and presumably is watching the accents of the actors.

Also, Pinter's regional English, IMHO, is not one that is often heard on our shores (as opposed to Cockney or upper-crust speech).

Actors frequently do warmups for voice and for stage combat (*AEA* requires a preshow reheasral for most stage combat). I have never heard of an "accent captain" on a show in the way that for example, dance captains are hired. Again, an expenditure on which many theaters skimp.

Accents, like most things, can be learned. To you who are not actors, I would simply say that sometimes, integrating accents with actual acting can be quite challenging. They tend to slip during emotionally charged moments. To the non-actors out there, try talking in a foreign accent all day and keep it going and 100% accurate while you get in a fight with a loved one or have a street spat. That'll give you an idea of the challenge.

And it's a fallacy that American acting schools devote less time to voice and speech. All the big conservatory programs devote an excruciating amount of time to voice and speech. Yale Juilliard NYU Carnegie Mellon UCSD all have it.... what programs don't? Has every British actor who can convincingly play "American" gone to conservatory? I'm guessing no...

FWIW I saw C/TR on opening, and thought some people had perfect accents, some were even a little too workmanlike, and some were faintly American-tinted. But I didn't think any of them were way off-base or discordant.


Battlestar Galactica Rocks.

The dude that plays Sayid the Iraqi on LOST is Scottish I think.

We are outclassed.


Hugh Laurie's accent on "House" is amazing, although I find it has a tendency to sound midwestern to my ears.

I also don't think the problem is strictly limited to the british accent. I've seen a couple of plays at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre that are supposed to be based in the south, and wow.


Hugh Laurie's accent on "House" is amazing, although I find it has a tendency to sound midwestern to my ears.

I also don't think the problem is strictly limited to the british accent. I've seen a couple of plays at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre that are supposed to be based in the south, and wow.


A huge missed opportunity for a Rapid Response Team tie-in on this one....

Abe Goldfarb

I don't know. Col makes some good points, but I don't really buy the "close enough for jazz" shit. Yes, it's very difficult to do an accent. Yes, there should be more support systems in place. But really, for instance, I'd rather have had Bill Paterson playing J.M. Barry than Johnny Depp, whose studied Scots took over every other part of his performance (and I adore Johnny Depp; his strangled Mockney as Jack Sparrow is fabulous). It is distracting, and it's not just levelled at Americans. I don't know a single Brit who can do an entirely convincing Welsh accent without sounding like they're offering me another serving of lamb vindaloo. But, and I am sad to tar my countrymen with this brush, Americans simply DO have trouble with accents. Part of this is due to the American cadence being comparatively flat with most countries (HK Cantonese is another tongue that has decidedly limited pitch variation). Well, whatever, I still say that if you can't learn to do it right (and there are some people who simply can't), don't do it. Tom Wilkinson's pretty ridiculous goombah schtick in Batman Begins wouldn't be tolerated from an American actor. So why should we tolerate syllable-mangling inconsistancy from an American that we wouldn't from a Brit? I'm a touchy-feely dude, but I think the "I'm okay, you're okay" buck stops when a performance is thrown off-kilter by such a thing.


I equate it with singing. Some people have great pitch, but if they don't, they won't learn a song without some major work. Bad accents completely take me out of the world of a show, so just find actors that can actually do the accent required. The theatre world is overflowing with willing actors. I am sure that there are enough talented ones that can also manage a decent accent.


I equate it with singing. Some people have great pitch, but if they don't, they won't learn a song without some major work. Bad accents completely take me out of the world of a show, so just find actors that can actually do the accent required. The theatre world is overflowing with willing actors. I am sure that there are enough talented ones that can also manage a decent accent.


There's a lot to chew on here, even if some of it is pretty gristly -- Jesus!.

The points I raise are not to justify any actor's doing a bad job, but to understand why it happens, and keep the conversation attuned to the world we live in. I am not seeking to rationalize mediocrity of execution, but rather, to raise a perspective other than "don't bother if you can't do it right". I see that as an unrealistic stentorianism that is out of line with the way creative people work on things. Do I want to "tolerate" accent mangling? Not particualrly, but nor do I share the "Get them away!" mentality. Hey, if an accent is terrible, it's terrible. Do I understand why it happens, though? Yes. My views are close enough for jazz, maybe -- but they are NOT shit, friends, nor are they "I'm OK-you're OK".

I reiterate: that American actors struggle with accents is a too-general assertion.
I don't know about this Cantonese and flat-pitch stuff, for I am no linguist, but I will mention that what is called Standard American Speech in sounds quite Midwestern, if not Toronto-ish.

Who was Tom Wilkinson in Batman Begins, BTW? I don't remember him being in that movie. Speaking of British actors who are very good at American accents, English Linus Roache (who played Batman's dad) and Irish Cillian Murphy (the Scarecrow) both did a fine job IMHO. Linus Roache was in THE FORGOTTEN too and sounded very much like a nice man from Omaha. He was great, though the movie was terrible.

The part of this argument I find sort of funny is that apparently the onus is on the actor to "remove" him or herself from parts or opportunities where, looking into the future, (s)he might not execute an accent perfectly. Also, we don't know what actors actually DO do this, i.e. say "I can't pull this off, let's forget it". All you see are the bad examples on screen and onstage.

I prefer to be pro-the opportunity to be proven right, rather than say "Oh, actors should know themselves well enough to never take risks that might not pay off". A lot of great performances would never get born if people thought that way.

There is a kind of fake idea that British actors are more technically proficient, and American actors are more emotionally deep. Either way you look, you can find so many exceptions.

Now that I think about it, too, this conversation is also perhaps misguidedly using examples from both theater and film acting. On films the dialect coach tends to be there for the entire shoot, because they have money, and they can always fix stuff in post. In theater, for better or for worse, the actor is out there in front of people, nonstop, and no backing up, 8 shows a week.

A few more points for your consideration.


I would say definitely get a dialect coach.
There are a lot of conservatory graduates who have extensive voice and speech training who are happy to help for no or little money in order to build their resume in that area. Because eventually they can make good money if they gain a good reputation.

I often do French dialect coaching for free to build my resume.
Put an add in your local tv/writing etc craigs list or your local theatre community website.


Abe Goldfarb

To clarify: I do not believe that one should remove one's self from future work. I believe that the onus is on the actor to learn and execute an important technical aspect of a performance with basic competence. I'm not anti-risk, I'm pro-accuracy. I'm also an actor of the very old-fashioned belief that if a performance is a risk that doesn't pay off, it's not a very good performance. We're serving the play and the audience. If they're short-changed, why are we there? To see if we could do it? Save it for the workshops. And Tom Wilkinson was Falconi the mobster in Batman Begins, and while he was certainly funny, he sure wasn't Italian-American.


Abe, I must say I'm very surprised to hear that you're an actor -- although, really, who else would care so much about an issue like this besides an actor? (Well, Isaac, for one.)

Q: If, say, you got cast in a play by Alan Bennett at Lincoln Center, and you thought you were doing great, and you worked with a coach, and the coach was happy -- again, what you would consider "basic competence", and you asked your cast members, your director, your dialect coach, friends who were coming to the show -- and they all said they thought you were doing great -- and you keep doing the show, and then the review (or for that matter, a blog entry, or a post on All That Chat) comes out criticizing your accent work -- what then? According to your principles, should you quit the show? Well, you might say, "Oh, but that'd never happen to me, I AM good at accents, I would never get to that place, etc." but isn't it *possible*? It might not happen to you, but what if people thought, "Oh, well, the accent work is fine, that's as good as it's going to get, and we really like his performance in general". I mean, I just don't think that one's personal rigor cancels out one's vulnerability, or vice versa.

I don't believe that I see the actors' life or work as starkly as you do. The world is overflowing with willing, talented, and able actors, Melon, I fully agree. But they're not always the ones who get hired. And maybe that's what this is about, at the end of the day: the injustice of "bad work" nevertheless being work that somebody undeserving is getting.

Abe Goldfarb

Oi vey. Okay, I'm the one Isaac refers to in his article, the British-trained actor. And what all this really comes down to is that America, in opposition to Britain, has a theatre culture where telling someone to do a better job of something is a political proposition. This is, of course, ridiculous. And we can debate what "better" means until the cows come home, but ultimately that's getting into levels of ambiguity that an audience never has to worry about, and that stymie an actor before he or she gets on stage. If your crew all say you're doing a great accent, and a bunch of people totally unrelated to the production say your accent is crap, well, I know who I'd believe. And no, Col, I wouldn't quit the show or be so arrogant as to presume it wouldn't happen to me. I'd WORK ON IT UNTIL I GOT IT CLOSER TO CORRECT. There are no grey areas here. You're either doing it right or you aren't. And if your performance is so strong that the accent doesn't matter, then kudos. Outstanding. But goddamnit, I do get frustrated with the inability of most New York theatre people to take a hard line with actors. We need it. We should be given a hard time. Because the more excuses and rationalisations are made, the less exalted a craft and profession it will be. It is currently the only field I know of where competence is a negotiable issue. I'm serious. The nee plus ultra endpoint of not worrying all too much about little performance details is the commonly asserted and totally repugnant, "Well, ANYONE can be an actor, really." No, they can't. I hold a stark view of my art because I take it seriously. Which is, of course, to risk enormous ridicule. But I do theatre as much as a performer as an audience member. And I care a lot.

Abe Goldfarb

And what the devil is vulnerability without personal rigor in performance? Or vice versa? They are nothing. Dead ends.


Rigor and vulnerability are intertwined, not mutually exclusive; I raise them as points along a continuum. And I was talking about the position of the actor in the public eye, not in performance. I hear what you're saying though.

And I agree with you 100% -- "anyone" can most certainly NOT be an actor. (It is fascinating to me, though, how laypeople/civilians can tell what is a good performance or an excellent performance in a way that is different from an "enhh" performance or a bad one, simply because we are all human beings, and human beings have excellent behavioral BS detectors built into our neurology, as opposed to looking at art or music or dance, which often laypeople believe requires a little more scaffolding to talk about the work in detail.

You raise a salient point about criticism-in-NYC-theater-as-political-proposition. It's true, and it's terrible. I don't think the actors are the only people who are treated with kid gloves, though. Far from it. Sarah Schulman says that theater in NYC is "pathological" because our economic interdependence competitiveness relies on likability-maintaining lies, and one paper ultimately decides all our fates anyway, so why not let people sink or swim. I recently did a play myself (I'm an actor too) which I believe suffered somewhat from that precise fear of saying "This is bad" or "This isn't working". I won't get into it here, because of that same fear.

But I don't think that caring a lot means you are subjecting yourself to ridicule. It's great to care so much. I certainly hope you don't think I have been ridiculing your views. I respect your passion, and I've enjoyed our conversation.

By the way, on an unrelated note, I saw an invited dress of Adam Rapp's play RED LIGHT WINTER at Barrow Street Theater (where BUG was) last night -- and it is really great. The acting is wonderful. TTI: there is an accent issue you will find delightful.

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