With a host of young British actors getting ready to perform five brand-new American plays in Old Vic New Voices’ Exchange, we spoke to accent and dialect coach to the stars, Jill McCullough, as she led a workshop on talking the American way…
The first thing you [should] do is start watching American shows with quite neutral accents, like ER or Brothers and Sisters.
Americans stress more words, they drive to the end of the line and they use much less pitch range. They also drop the pitch at the end of lines.
Their tongues are flatter. Concentrate on the movement of the sides of the tongue rather than the tip. In general, the back of the tongue is held higher in the mouth, which will make it feel slightly more nasal. You have to open the sounds more, particularly the vowels.
Americans tend to stress the personal pronoun, so “you are very annoying,” whereas an English person will say, “you are very annoying.” They also tend to stress the first part of words like cigarette, frustrate, newspaper and translate.
It’s as much about the rhythm as it is the words. Punctuation is important. I am obsessed with text, as all actors should be.
[The Exchange actors] are working on a new script. Someone has poured their heart and soul into that script and, as an actor, you have to honour it. If you’re going to [create] a really convincing character then you have to spend hours breaking down a text and getting all the nuances and the inflections in what your character does. That’s when you bring together the accent and the acting.
For different accents you’ll have different phrases to lead you in. When an actor has a script, you pick words out of that text and use them to unlock the whole accent.
It’s terrifying to try this stuff out loud. If someone criticises your voice, it’s not like your hair or shoes, which you can change. It’s inside. Which means that so much of it is about confidence. But the only way you’ll learn is by trying it out loud and then correcting it.
You hear accents in a different way, according to where you’re from. I’ve worked with people who find doing a posh accent actually makes them want to vomit.
In focus: Some practice sentences for your American accent
1. The task was the last that the past master would grasp in his harmful arm.
2. The stern learner heard from a bird how to burn turf in Burma and Turkey.
3. A bored walker swore talking about corn was a chore, in the store outside.
4. She was seen to be evil in the mean street where the bees feed in schemes.
5. Tunes are used in the new moves where astute movers croon with blue boots.
6. Little Bill should sit in the middle of the pretty tin bins.
7. The hell-bent hen was speckled and freshly sent from the 10th regiment.
8. The sad man was perhaps happier than angry Alice in Manchester.
9. You could look at the cookbook while putting pullets in the nook.
10. It’s hot in Holland when hoping closer to the proper god.
11. Come and cuddle under the sun, said lovely Mother Hubbard.
12. Actors and authors have a special set of other problems at RADA in London.
13. The way Tracy stated her mate was praying was painful.
14. Why do we fight every time we try and pry for the prize in Ireland.
15. The boy was spoiled when he made a choice about the oily coin.
16. How can you go around mountains when all about you are sounding proud.
17. Don’t go home alone moaned the older soldier when he stole potions.
18. It’s weird feared the really weary cleaner near here.
19. There there, said the fairy who was wearing square flares.
20. Stuart was fluent in pure gruel, but he wasn’t poor.
The Virginia Theatre
This passage contains all the sounds in American English.
It is usually rather easy to reach the Virginia Theatre.
Board car number 56 somewhere along Churchill Street and ride to the Highway. Transfer there to the Mississippi bus. When you arrive at Judge Avenue, begin walking towards the business zone.
You will pass a gift shop displaying things which often look so clever that you will wish yourself young again. Such things as book and toys and, behind the counter, a playroom with an elegant red rug and smooth, shining mirrors. Beyond this shop are the National Bank and the Globe garage. Turn south at the next corner. The theatre is to your left.
For more information and to book tickets for the US UK Exchange, visit the OVNV page.
Image: Hollywood sign by shdowchsr, available under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.