Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Arthur Miller: Brooklyn
"Seeing Red" (2008)

Stage performance requires a real-time transformation into a believably different person than who you are. And this can be an exciting transformation, for performer as well as audience member. Make-up when skillfully applied, impeccably accurate costuming, a swagger or carefully crafted physical disability can happily deceive the audience member into believing that are in a different time, or place, a sharing a moment with someone unique, someone other, and this kind of artistry is what live theater is all about.

The accent, however, the sounds of the words, can make everything just a show. I really, really hate listening to a fake accent. And I am stressed about delivering one. When I have it right, it becomes a part of me, and my character, and I believe myself. When I am making hash of it, even I don't buy it and I feel sorry for the audience that has to listen to it.

There's a twangy kind of tough-guy "tawk" that I slide into when I have no formal guidance. I got away with it in college, playing Dopey in Balm and Gilead, and I spent so much time delving into the world of that character that the cadences of Wilson's heroin-addled punk that my own voice sang back to me and I was all right with that. It helped that I was also permitted to smoke real cigarettes onstage. Weren't those the days.

Porlock: Romania
"On the Dark Side of Twilight" (2010)

Every other year, I am called upon to use an accent in the Great Lakes outreach tour. Four years ago I was playing Arthur Miller, performing an edited transcript from his HUAC testimony, and I knew the "New Yawk" crap was not going to fly. And so I visited my old friend, professor Chuck Richie at Kent State. Just because a voice is woiking class, does not mean it has to be in the nose. Miller spoke from the chest, he was a muscular guy.

Two years ago we met to discuss a proper accent for the vampire Porlock (On the Dark Side of Twilight.) In this story, the young Englishman Aubrey Porlock, transformed into a vampire, is stranded in the "wilds" of eastern Europe and settles in Romania for ninety years. We decided to go with an "acquired" Romanian accent, taking special care not to go the Bela Lugosi route. No "v's" turned into "w's" like Pavel Chekov.

Yesterday, we began work on a Belgian accent. Poirot is often confused for French, so we may assume he is from the region closest to France and not, say, Holland. Exploring the International Dialects of English Archive we discovered that while most of the substitutions are like those of French, the Belgians accents we listened to do not have the lilt or "sing-songy" inflections of a French speaker.

Next up: Mustache Maintenance.


  1. Great to hear your thoughts regarding the need for having a process for finding the appropriate accent for your character. The stereotype can be helpful to start with, but then you need to make it your own and tailor it to what you're doing with the character. I like to think of it as moving from a bunch of idiolects (the way an individual speaks) examined for their shared elements to create the overarching sense of the dialect or accent - and then it's the actor's job to turn it back into an idiolect. Thanks for your take on the process.