I have recently been struggling with the notion of 'authenticity' in accent and dialect work. There are certainly those performances where you leave the theatre or cinema convinced that the actor truly embodied the accent in performance. And of course, there are accent performances that leave you scratching your head. So what is that magic pixie dust that makes us truly believe? And how can we harness that for good?
In dialect work, we examine and coach 1.) the sound changes from one accent to another, 2.) the oral posture of the mouth in the accent, and 3.) the rhythm, musicality, and intonation of the accent in speech. These are widely accepted as being the three pillars of accent and dialect work, and allows dialect coaches, linguists, and performers to break down an accent into something teachable.
Yet an actor can be fairly adept in all three areas, but still not sound 'authentic' in performance.
Now, I do realize the problematics in employing the term 'authentic', as it is something rather undefinable. For example, I define myself as an 'authentic' American, yet my experience of being American may be quite different from an American friend born and raised in different circumstances. Yet this fact doesn't make each of our experiences of being American any less 'authentic'. The same may be said of accents, as one person's idea of an 'authentic' Irish sound will not necessarily match with another's idea of 'authenticity' of that accent. Indeed, accents from the same place can vary wildly depending on age, gender, education, race, class, and lived experience. Our perception also varies.
But I suppose in using 'authenticity', I am trying to describe a state when the actor is fully inhabiting the accent in a way that makes the audience believe, or essentially the magic that happens when accent fits into a performance like a glove.
So what I am working through is: How can we begin to coach 'authenticity' in accents beyond the realm of sound changes, oral posture, and prosody (musicality, intonation, etc.). Furthermore, ... should we? Should this dilemma of 'authenticity' even concern the coach? Or is it something we leave for the actor to deal with?
....I am not sure I have all the answers yet.
For me, an accent is ultimately one small cog in the greater machinery that is the voice. 'Accent' then is simply the shaping and manipulating of the pure voice sounded underneath. I have found that when the accent ceases to sound 'authentic', the voice and the accent are at odds. And it's true -- when we change or modify our accent, we often feel less like ourselves, as something about our vocal identity shifts. Voice being our outer expression of our inner identity. So when pursuing accent work, I highly recommend bringing the work back to the voice at all times, layering and re-layering voice practice and dialect work, until the voice is able to serve the dialect and the dialect, in turn, serves the voice.
My favourite exercises stem from the work of Cicely Berry, Barbara Houseman, and Patsy Rodenburg, among others. Using the great tradition of voice coaching within the context of dialect coaching only helps to serve the dialect work. When we focus back on the body, breath, and resonance of the voice, we allow the voice to breath and live 'authentically' through the technicalities inherent in speech work. It is then that technique and truth can connect, bringing about inspiring performances.
Fellow coaches, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.