One thing to remember when doing an American accent is that though Standard American does vary from region to region, Americans do not study or learn this dialect as school children or from our parents. We learn English mechanics from those around us and from teachers who have their own accents. Elocution is not taught in American schools and rarely does an elementary teacher learn Standard American English. Subsequently, most Americans don’t actually speak with the accent that is considered the standard. It is the very best tool to have as a foundation for all accented English. I encourage that all actors learn SAE. Yet, truthfully, it’s not the way most of us actually talk. Watch a cross section of videos on YouTube and notice how much we run words together and eliminate or shift consonants and affect vowel sounds when we speak, no matter what part of the county we hail from. So, if a director or casting director asks you for a ‘normal’ or general American accent, (sometimes even mistakenly described as Standard,) they usually want you to sound like an American truck driver or accountant or stay at home mom or therapist, etc. as they talk in typical conversation. Using SAE in these auditions might not be the best tactic. Don’t make the mistake of thinking those making casting decisions will hear SAE and think of it as the neutral voice that you can mold for the character. The character’s voice should go with you to the audition.
Invisible vegetables: Twist your tongue – it works!
Those old tongue twisters you played with in school really do help you articulate more clearly. Just type in ‘tongue twisters’ online and you can find a cavelcade of fun exercises that will help you enunciate (SO IMPORTANT) more clearly. The key isn’t to be fast when you are working on these for articulation. The key is to pronounce every sound clearly. So, slow down and have fun. Memorize a few or copy them and take them with you to auditions to warm up with. Proof that copy writers don’t read what they write aloud, I had an audition today that had the phrase ‘invisble vegetables’. Say that five times fast! It helped me to practice a tongue twister I knew that focused on the consonants ‘b’ and ‘v’. You can even make up your own twisters for the specific sounds that trip you up. They are fun and effective and FREE.
Your ears can deceive you!
Even those with the best ‘ears’ for accents should have some sort of visual aide for accuracy. Make sure you learn the sounds then mark your script so as you learn you have a visual picture of the sounds. You don’t need to use a formal system, but just something that will help you visualize the sounds in your own noggin. If you have ever listened to your own voice recorded you know that how we hear ourselved is not the way others hear us. With dialects, it’s easy to miss things if we simply listen and try to mimic. To ensure consistency and accuracy, learn rules and find a way to document them. Then mark your script. Your ears are only one of the tools needed for dialect mastery. As with any aspect of acting, use as many tools as you can!
Start as early as possible
Ideally, dialect work should begin early in the process of rehearsal or character discovery. Dialect gives the voice the background characteristics and structure, then the individual factors like family influences, social context, physiology and psychological make up factor in to create the specific voice of the character. When you add a dialect after all of the other things are ‘set’, the accent usually sounds like an afterthought, not an integral part of the character’s speech. A good coach can help you in the early development of the character by asking the best questions, then offering options, that will help you discover what makes the voice of the character unique.