Sep 24 / Petra Wood

Accents for Actors — a journey into who we are through how we speak... (Part 3)

Kia ora, I’m Petra!

I’m an actor in my final year of training at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School.

My interest in accents began during my time spent living in Australia and Europe listening to many different people speaking English with many different accents. I found this really interesting as accents give us such a unique insight into people’s life, culture and history.

I returned to New Zealand in my late twenties to train as an actor and have seen how important it is to be capable of inhabiting a character’s accent in order to portray them authentically.

Join me as I journey into the world of Accents for Actors — sharing my questions, discoveries, challenges and insights along the way!

Lesson 3:
Energy of an accent

In this masterclass I felt like an exciting treasure chest of information was opening up in that classic sense of the more you learn about a topic, the more you learn how much there is to learn!

Vowels are an expression of emotion

We delved deeper into the world(s) of consonants and vowels and the concept that vowels are an expression of emotion (or energy) and consonants (the architecture) wrap around vowels, controlling or managing them to create meaning.

Jon illustrated the role of consonants using the phrase “Would you like a cup of coffee?” If you try to say this phrase only expressing the vowels it sounds nonsensical: “ou ou i a u o o ee”.... but when you drop the vowels and only say the consonants using a single vowel throughout it has a much greater chance of being decoded, for example: “wid yi lik i cip if ciffi”.

I found I already had an intuitive understanding of this and it made me think about the primal sounds we make when we squeal EEEE with excitement or OOOO when we see something awful and AAAA when we are scared on a rollercoaster. These are all vowels! Yet I had never thought of them in this way.

[Image from 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt']

This led into another interesting discussion around the human evolution of sound and vocalisation — how the way we began vocalising to communicate the world inside and around us was likely not random and how sound can communicate feeling, shape and hold non-intellectual meaning. For example, the Bouba/Kiki research case shows that most people attribute the word Bouba to a blobby shape and Kiki a spiky shape. The more I think about this the more words come to mind like blob, round, hug, kiss... For me, they are all sounds that also communicate the shape, energy or action.

We looked further into the physiology of speech (which is great for me because I’m a complete beginner when it comes to what’s going on inside my mouth and throat during vocalisation!) and I’m starting to get more of a visual map of the tongue, soft and hard palate, larynx and vocal folds etc.

Interestingly, the primary function of the larynx is to control airflow and protect the lungs — which predates our evolution of speech.

My reptilian brain doesn’t know the difference between an imagined or real threat

Jon asked us to pretend to pick up a very heavy object off the floor. As I leant down and proceeded to lift my imaginary boulder I immediately felt a tightening in my throat and chest as my body prepared to fire up my lifting muscles. This is effectively the larynx closing. And the same thing happens when we feel strong emotions. Unfortunately this autonomic body response interferes with our ability to produce sound and can be the reason why we struggle to speak when we have stage fright, or sing in front of a large group of people.

As an actor I’ve often had feedback on my throat and neck area and I’m now starting to understand why in times of stress I’ve found it harder to produce clear, strong vocalisation. My reptilian brain doesn’t know the difference between an imagined or real threat and is prioritising preparing my body to face a dangerous situation over allowing me to create beautiful sound... it all makes sense now!

Learning about these physiological responses is so useful because it allows us to start to identify where and why we are having voice issues and, in turn, find techniques to navigate past them.

Another very helpful tool we explored was an interactive vowel chart overlaid on a diagram of the tongue. This chart maps out where in the mouth different vowel sounds are created, and you can hear the sounds demonstrated when moving your cursor across the diagram. With the visual and vocal cues as an aid I find it much easier to translate and produce the vowel sounds myself.

In voice training, such as accent work or singing, it’s easy to think that being talented in these areas is just something you're born with. However, reframing it in a mechanical sense has been liberating as it makes me feel like with enough knowledge, practice and fine-tuned adjustments any accent will be possible to learn!

Accents for Actors

is one of our flagship online training courses for actors. Discover the secrets and skills to tame your tongue and wrap your mouth around any accent in this 8-week learning journey. 
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