Accents or No Accents

Liz Chirico

Are accents important and integral to productions? I say yes.

I recently attended a production of “Titanic” where the vocals were good, the acting good, but the accents required were barely there (if at all) and when they were present, most executed it poorly. In a show like "Titanic", accents are non-negotiable. The show is based on a true incident which most of the audience already knows. In this particular production, the director made a point of calling out that the actors were all portraying real people, not merely characters. Several of the character’s country of origin is also pointed out through dialogue leaving no doubt that Barrett (the stoker off the Baltic) is from the Midlands, it’s literally in his song. (This actor was one who attempted and pulled off the accent.) But for the majority of the rest of the cast, where were the accents? The Midlands, the reserve pronunciation, the Irish brogue? A few actors attempted and carried it off- most of the time. The rest either didn’t even try, or didn’t care. And what’s worse is the director let it slide. The lack of accents and the poorly executed accents took me completely out of the show.

Sunny Gay, Casey Sacco and Mallory Newbrough in Titanic. (Photo by Jim Hall)

Sunny Gay, Casey Sacco and Mallory Newbrough in Titanic. (Photo by Jim Hall)

I have portrayed characters where an accent is required. For Elvira in “Blithe Spirit”, I studied Reserve Pronunciation reading articles, watching videos to ensure that if my accent wasn’t perfect it was at minimum passable. And my accent never dropped. It’s as much a part of the lines I memorized as the words I was saying. For the role of Martha in “The Secret Garden”, I studied the Yorkshire accent again reading articles and watching videos- the internet is a marvelous place. I also had the good fortune to speak with a woman who grew up in that area who provided incite I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. Things like knowing in Yorkshire it’s common to replace the “th” sound in words with a simple “t” sound. Again the accent became as much a part of my character and the blocking I learned.

I’m not saying it’s easy to learn an accent. It takes a great deal of time to study, to practice, to perfect. But in roles where the character is obviously from an area, whether British or from the southern part of the US, it’s imperative to use the correct accent. Otherwise, the author wouldn’t have specified where the character came from. Sometimes accents are used to highlight one character is out of place, class differences, etc. You would never have an Eliza Doolittle without her Cockney slang, so why is it appropriate for Kate McGowan to speak without an Irish Brogue?

In the case of Titanic, it serves to highlight and reinforce class differences present in England at the time and carried over to the ship. Plus the characters are real people. From various locations in England, Ireland and yes America. Therefore, everyone shouldn’t sound the same because they literally didn’t in real life.

I’m not blaming the actors in situations like this, not entirely. It’s up to the director to include accent requirements as part of the audition process. I know, it’s already difficult to find someone who the right vocal chops but accent skills isn’t something that can completely be ignored. The director and production company also needs to provide guidance to the actors so they can learn their appropriate accent during the rehearsal process. It’s not always possible to have a person from the area or a dialect coach but Google is always there. Find good source material and charge your actor with learning it.

The little details are what separates the good productions from the lackluster ones. I’ve written pieces about how competitive it is for community theaters to thrive in an area of Netflix, home theaters, and the general oversaturation of community theaters. Perfect the little details and you’ll attract better actors, and better production teams resulting in better productions and more paying audience members.