“…It’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard.”

In a recent Guardian article, Edward Klemp, Artistic Director of RADA and actress Imogene Stubbs bemoan excessive mumbling and unintelligibility in theatre and films like the recent “The Great Gatsby.”

These two thespians, along with the article author, cited numerous reasons for this: directors and producers who believe that “mumbling is more truthful,” actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, decreasing opportunities for repertory work, and typecasting:

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

Stubbs goes on to criticize actors who are afraid of sounding “like an old-fashioned actor.” I fundamentally agree with all of these industry factors and I certainly want all of my students or clients to be heard and understood by their audiences. It was the final reason given that prompted a number of reflective questions for me.

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

I am interested in why “teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship to language.” Of course, an “education system” is made up of complex relationships between teachers, students, law, and curriculum, so I am not trying to properly delve into this in a few words in a blog post. Is it possible, though, that this is partly because that as the UK student demographics grow increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, educational “language” is continuing to stay, for the most part, from canons of White males? And is it possible that many students these days may have little motivation for or inspiration from such indigenous cultural experiences written/created by a group that has systematically disempowered them? Some of British drama students I’ve spoken to have alluded to the idea that they don’t feel entitled to play certain characters from specific period plays and/or that if they do, they must be spoken in a ‘standard’ accent. Could another reason for mumbling be that actors are not being sufficiently trained in or feel empowered within their own accent, and are therefore struggling with the articulation of the text in performance?

“I’m a burger.”

Pakistani-born writer Omar Akhtar reflects on how his Pakistani accent has become Americanized from living in the US.

Nothing wrong with an American accent on its own. But for someone like me, who had grown up in Pakistan, there were all sorts of connotations. I was a sellout. I must be ashamed of my own culture and identity. I must think I’m better than everyone else. I’m a burger Back home, there was a special kind of loathing reserved for kids who had American accents. British accents were acceptable since all our post-colonial teachers held it as a gold standard and we still related to that culture. But if you had an American accent, it conjured up the most irrational rage in the people around you.

These are great reminders as to how we make cultural judgments based on how a speaker sounds, particularly if they used to sound like us and don’t anymore. This is a common experience for acting students who go home to see their families after they begin training in a ‘standard’ stage accent such as Received Pronunciation or General American.

Akhtar goes on to question the change in his accent:

I justified it to myself saying that I spoke in an American accent to Americans while maintaining my native accent when speaking to friends or family from home. But isn’t that sort of phony as well?

No, it’s not phony. It’s code-switching and we do this all the time depending on the status of the person we’re speaking with the relationship between us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tone and vocabulary, but it can also shift into accent/dialectical changes as well.
The rest of Akhtar’s article discusses why many of us shift our accents to succeed in things like getting jobs and improving our credibility. It’s well worth a read and is a good reminder that it is the listener who has the power to make judgments about a person based on how they sound, whether they are consciously doing it or not. As Patsy Rodenburg says, “To the ears of others we are what we speak.”