The Importance of an Accent
This is a story which was told to me whilst sitting in Holding on the set of the TV show VEEP by one of the other extras and I wanted him to share it with you. It’s a pretty amazing story he tells, all about the British and American accents….
In February 2010, I was teaching English at a community college on the east coast of the US. One day I received an email that was forwarded to me from my supervisor. The email originated from the Director of Theatrical Arts at the college. The email read, “Auditions for The Importance of Being Earnest scheduled for February 4th and 5th. Please bring your best British accents.”
I thought to myself “this is for me!” I drove to the audition on the night of Feb. 4 only to find that it had been canceled due to snow. I couldn’t go the following night because I was teaching. The day after the auditions were completed, I called the director and left a voice mail message for her using my British accent, explaining how I was unable to make it to the audition. I offered to assist her with the play.
The director emailed me the next day. She explained that all of the parts had been cast. She asked if I would be interested in working as a vocal coach for the actors in the play. I wrote back and let her know that I would in fact, be interested.
The following night, I drove to the first rehearsal. It was being held in a large classroom at the college. The director met me at the door. Over her shoulder, I could see that the room was full of people that turned out to be actors, technicians, and backstage crew members. She said, “Are you Kevin?” I said, “Yes, I am.” She immediately turned around and said, “Attention everyone! I would like to introduce you to a Real British Person.” I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. Do I tell her that I’m not British, that the accent was faked or do I play along? I didn’t want to make her look bad in front of everyone, so I played the part.
I sat through the 2 ½ hour read-though/rehearsal and took copious notes. After the read through, the director said, “all of the principal actors go to the back of the room with Kevin, the rest of you come with me.”
Using my notes, I critiqued each one of the principal actors on their British pronunciation. After a couple of rehearsals, I received an email from the director. In the email, she explained that the actor playing Dr. Chasuble was in the hospital. He had pneumonia and congestive heart failure. She said, “you’ve been to the rehearsals and you’re familiar with the script. Would you be willing to step in and play the part of Dr. Chasuble?” I told her that I would be happy to and that I would do my best.
We rehearsed for six weeks and then did seven performances. I continued to perform with my British accent on and off stage. After the final performance we had a cast party at the director’s house. At one point during the party, I asked the director if I could say a few words to the cast and crew and she said, “yes”.
I started out by complimenting everyone on a job well done. Next, I thanked everyone for their support of me as a latecomer to the cast. Then, I told everyone that I had been working on my American accent. I told them that I taught English at the college and that I needed to teach the class with an American accent in order to teach colloquial expressions correctly. I then said that for the reminder of the party, I would only speak with an American accent. I told them that it was now their turn to critique me. Of course they all loved this idea.
After my little speech, I found myself in the kitchen talking with a group of actors and a few members of the backstage crew. One of the crew members said to me, “Okay, let’s hear your American accent.” What do you want me to say?” I asked. He said, “The Pledge of Allegiance.” I thought to myself, I’ve been saying this since I was a kid in elementary school. So I put my right hand over my heart and began to recite the pledge as I always have…
“I Pledge Allegiance to the flag of The United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“How was that?” I asked with a confident smile. One of the guys said, “Not bad, but I could still hear a little of your British accent.”
“What?” I thought to myself. I wanted to tell them so badly that I was American, but didn’t, and still haven’t.
Today, four years later, I still hear from some of the actors thanking me for helping them with their British accents.