by John S. Davies
introduction by Kat Edwards
I knew a girl in high school whose family was Portuguese, and she was a fluent Spanish-from-Spain speaker (as she called it). I, an ignorant youth, had always thought that it was oddly specific. One rigorous, college dialects course later, and I am an enlightened woman.
So, here’s a treat. John S. Davies, Hector Nations in Foxfire, has typed up a little piece so that you too may become a little more educated on the nuances of dialect work.
I love dialect work. I love doing different voices. Not silly voices or strange voices or cartoon voices although I like that fine in my private life (as my wife and sons and grandchildren will attest). I mean different character voices, different dialects and accents.
Aren’t those the same thing? Yes, for all practical (and actorly) purposes. Dialect refers to word choice and syntax; accent refers to the sound of the speech. But–you can’t speak a regional dialect without also pronouncing the words in a regional accent so the distinction is mainly academic.
I think the reason I love playing in different accents (and also why I’m pretty good at it) is that I grew up hearing and learning a bunch of different languages. My father was an American diplomat and by the age of five, I had lived in Germany, France and Afghanistan. I was too young in Germany where I was born but I learned baby French and baby English at the same time in Paris. In Kabul, my brother and I absorbed the local dialect Farsi so well we translated for our parents.
Subsequently, I lived in Moscow, Calcutta and Warsaw. I learned quite a bit of Russian and I heard lots of Hindi and Polish. I also heard natives of those cities speak their accented English. Later I spent two and a half years as an American soldier in Heidelberg, Germany and learned some German. And again, heard a lot of English spoken by non-native speakers. I have only the sparsest recollection of those languages but I think this exposure tuned my ear and my tongue and made me unafraid to try any accent.
So over the course of my career I’ve learned and employed all varieties of British accents (RP, Cockney, Midlands), an Irish accent, a Scottish accent, a Canadian accent and all kinds of American accents—deep South, Texan (of course), Philadelphia, New England, different New York accents…I may be forgetting a few. I long to try Australian but haven’t had the opportunity.
But learning an accent as an actor is more than just pronouncing words differently. Characters have distinct voices and the accent has to fit the character and situation as well as the written dialogue. Some writers try to write the dialect as In Foxfire-“When m’ pa first brought m’ ma up here, he says ‘Sarah, y’re standin’ tip-top a’ Georgia. The Blue Ridge” but ultimately no one can recreate the different vowel sounds that make the accent distinctive. Other writers indicate the accent by, for instance, droppin’ the ‘g’. But whether the playwright tries to help out or not, it’s the actor’s responsibility to learn the accent.
When I was in college in the late ‘70s, the only access we had to spoken accents were on cassette tape. David Alan Stern was a pioneer in the field and his were the first I used (He’s still around, by the way). The tapes were accompanied by booklets because Mr. Stern teaches accents not just by how they sound but also technically—pointing out how the muscles in the mouth work differently for different accents and noting how placement in the mouth created the distinctive sounds of accents.
But what you get with Mr. Stern was a sort of standard accent, a ‘correct’ accent which didn’t go far enough for me. Each character is an individual and thus they all speak differently. Once, I used several of Mr. Stern‘s tapes to create a sort of lower-class English accent that I felt worked for the particular character I was playing.
But as recently as a few years ago, I was still turning to Stern when I had to do Scottish for a play called Good Things by Liz Lochhead at Stage West. I couldn’t get it just by listening to it. The key turned out to be Stern’s advice to lay my tongue on the floor of my mouth. Voila! I started to sound like a Glaswegian…
For me, nothing beats hearing the accent as spoken by natives. Now that we have the Internet, that turns out to be relatively easy. Sure, you can still find dialect coaches like Stern but there are also websites like https://www.dialectsarchive.com/ which takes you to the International Dialects of English Archive. There you can find recordings of native speakers from all over America and the world. For me, researching Foxfire, the recordings were too contemporary. I needed someone very old who had lived in the mountains all his life. So I searched YouTube where I found a marvelous video called This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make featuring Popcorn Sutton, one of the last of the moonshiners. If you watch the video and see the show, you may note the similarities between Popcorn and Hector Nations because, yep, I stole his voice…
Book and Lyrics by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn • Music by Jonathan Holtzman • Directed by Emily Scott Banks
Run Dates: March 14 – April 7, 2019