by Sonnjea Blackwell
What about accents in improv? This topic came up in my Level 1 improv class the other night, and I thought, hey! That’s something I haven’t beat to death as a blog topic. Yay!
A student was labeled as being from Germany, but she had no idea how to do a German dialect. She committed through the exercise, threw in a “da” here and there, and it was great. But people asked about that afterwards – was she required to attempt a German accent? Could she be a German native speaking unaccented English? Did it even matter?
Here is my take on accents: An accent does NOT equal a character.
There are many components to creating a character and a vocal choice is certainly one component. So is posture and other physical choices. But the main ingredient to a character is his or her point of view. How does this person see the world, and themselves in it? What motivates their behavior? Are they good or evil?
If I speak with a southern accent but my POV is exactly mine, then I’m just Sonnjea talking funny. However, if I take on the point of view of a woman scorned, who thinks all men are users and after nothing but sex, and these suspicions color all of my actions, from job interviews to getting groceries, then – with or without an accent – I have a character.
Some of my instructors didn’t even allow beginning students to use accents at all, realizing that people often latch onto them as a crutch in the mistaken notion that the accent is, in itself, a character. I don’t go that far; I’m fine with students using accents if they want, but they also have to have a POV to go along with it.
You may have a badass character who sees him/herself as some urban Rambo guy and acts accordingly… that’s great, then you can give him or her a different accent for different scenes to vary things up. But make no mistake – that is still only ONE character. I used to have a go-to character that was a real condescending bitch. Shush, it was a character. Anyway. I can portray her with a southern accent, or like a surfer, or with a hoity-toity British voice – but it’s still all the same bitch character with a different voice.
Changing the voice or posture creates variations on the theme, and it’s always good to have variety. But the only way to create entirely different characters is to give them distinct, unique points of view. Then the accent, if there even is one, is just gravy.
And to answer my students’ questions – by all means, if you’re labeled German, go for the German accent. If it’s terrible, we’ll laugh even more. But if you really can’t do dialects, fine. Speak unaccented English and justify it by saying you were educated here or whatever. No biggie either way, AS LONG AS you’re committed to whichever choice you make.