I see the stage as my chance to be somebody else or a version of myself that I can’t be in the pedestrian world. I like to stay away from being Adam as much as I can, whether it be through a change in my physicality, movement, or just simply my attitude and point of view (a.k.a Smooth Motherf*%ker). But the biggest thing I can do to break away from my everyday self when performing is to change my voice – pitch, tone, and which I’ve come to discover to be most effective for me, an accent or dialect.
Now I’ve noticed that this particular tool isn’t used very often, and understandably so, it can get me in my head at times and can be hard to maintain. But a few fellow improvisors have shared their reasons for avoiding its use that hadn’t crossed my mind: they can only use an accent through one particular character, or how it takes away any significance to what your character has to say since the audience will find anything you say under an accent to sound and be funny.
So, being the Curious George that I am, I thought I’d take a gander into everything that can come with using an accent or dialect on stage – the good, the bad, and the offensive.
Now I’ll be the first to point out that I’ve got very little improv experience under my belt to be giving you guys a worthy opinion on the matter with my thoughts alone (Hell, I’m surprised you’re even reading this). So, I thought I’d do the proper thing and get a respectable opinion on the subject matter by asking a worthy source, Siri. Surprisingly I found very little online about the topic, and was forced to put on some clothes, venture out, and actually talk to people for more details.
Here are some of the recurring thoughts or interesting points people made – on and offline- about accents and dialects, along with my own.
– It adds another level to your character
It can make a character interesting, and adds a new characteristic element to the mix, being especially beneficial if you’re playing a common improv character. (Why can’t there be a cop, drug dealer, or dance teacher with an Indian accent?) It’s also a great way of immediately defining a character, which if you’re ever doing montage or stuck playing multiple characters, can come in quite handy.
– It opens up the world on stage
Just in the same way I would imagine someone might feel when they’re walking around, and out of nowhere they hear someone speak with a Nigerian or Russian accent; that jolt to the everyday, and the everyday spoken English, along with the resurfacing thought of “Oh ya! People from all walks of life live amongst us,” is what I think accents and dialects bring to the stage.
– It’s a challenge
At a certain point performers begin to look for ways to push and challenge themselves, adding new tricks to their belt, and what better challenge than learning and using an accent. Not only does learning and using an accent or dialect require a good amount of time and practice – off and on the stage- but it also pushes the performer to listen twice as hard, avoid getting in their head, and to be okay with failing when first starting off. Trying to maintain continuity to your accent can split your attention between listening to your partner and checking in on your accent, which can at times, especially with a noticeable decay of the accent, can get someone in there head (this is all more from personal experience). Which leads us to…
– It can get you in your head
If you are not confident doing an accent it can cause you to think about it in the scene and take you out of the moment (and moments are key). It’s a catch 22, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You need to practice it on stage to get comfortable with it in that environment, but it can cost you the scene sometimes – which is where improv jams can come in handy in my opinion. (Unless Tom Booker starts yelling “Connect!!!” from the sidelines. I kid. OMG! I just name dropped : )
Now if you’re pimped into an accent or dialect you’re not familiar with then just give it your best. If it’s terrible, no biggie! Just be sure to commit to it like hell and have fun with it. (Once, in the middle of a scene, I had my poor excuse of a German accent turn Jamaican. I simply stuck with it and said that my half Jamaican side was coming out. People laughed, and we moved on.)
– It can get used as an easy laugh
A good, but especially a bad accent, can be used to get some laughs out of the audience at the expense of the scene itself. The performer can go through a scene saying things that have no weight to them but because it’s being said through a goofy accent or dialect, it gets the laughs, but ultimately takes the scene nowhere. It’s a self satisfying move that leaves your scene partners high and dry, and leaves that performer with an undeveloped character that they then try to keep afloat for the remainder of the scene.
– People mistake an accent for equaling a character
People can latch onto an accent or dialect as a crutch with the mistaken idea that the accent alone is a character. This mentality can arrest the development of the character, as well as the performer in the long run, by making them less inclined to put thought into the character’s point of view, history, or even their relationships with others. “The only way to create entirely different characters is to give them distinct, unique points of view. Then the accent, if there even is one, is just gravy.” (Blackwell) (A lot of this para. is from held2gether.com – Blackwell)
If we consider accents and dialects to be tools of our trade, then like an actual tool it can do damage if used incorrectly. I think the biggest thing to consider when learning and using an accent or dialect is that you’re also going to be portraying a group of people. So when donning on an accent, especially one that is of a different ethnicity than your own, try to be aware how you execute things. I’m not here to say who should or shouldn’t do this or that accent, it’s up to you as a performer, but what I’m saying is that you consider the choices you make when developing that particular accented character.
“When playing an ethnic character onstage, play it specifically [and with sincerity]. In the best case scenario play someone you know. If you play a Japanese coworker that you have known for years, chances are there will be an element of truth to the character and it will be real… [ I ]f you have absolutely no reference point for a character and all you know are stereotypes, play the opposite of those stereotypes onstage. Play a Jamaican anti-pot advocate. Play an extremely sober Irishman. Your portrayal will be imperfect [by the standards of that stereotype]. So much the better. At the very least in this case something interesting can emerge from challenging a stereotype onstage.” (blog.matmailandt.com)
And now, I leave you with these last words…Thank God I’m done with college and writing papers. This shit is hard! ( •_•)>⌐■-■ (⌐■_■) v
Written by Adam Mengesha
(Brains I picked)
- Asaf Ronen
- Kenny Madison
- Sarah Marie Curry
- Tom Booker
(Sites I used – like I said, very little online)