Saturday, 31 May 2014

Phew! Last two weeks have been crazy.

I live in the English Midlands,  and for the last two weeks have been whizzing up north and down south at a right rate: two London visits and three to Manchester  in the space of nine days. Fun,  though.  One rehearsal,  two readthros, an audition and one get-together with other  actors  and our agents,  and a morning workshop in a Lichfield  school.  The next three weeks look to be just as busy. It's a basic law of acting that you spend weeks with no work and then  the entire year's work falls in the same date slot so you're hoping they won't clash but they frequently do.  Keeps you on your toes.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Catch-up time

A timely word from my agent about keeping up to date on Spotlight left me feeling quite smug, because I'd updated mine only a few weeks ago.

Then a need to link to my CV for a funding application I was making on behalf Shoebox Theatre took me to my personal webpage where I was shocked to discover it was last updated months and months ago. I've put that right now.

I'm off on a break soon, after a pretty exhausting few weeks of work travel and filming. Looking forward to a rest and spending more time with my blog, before beginning on a new project.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Actors and Accents, and a family gathering.

It's been a hectic couple of weeks. Several days filming, two casting interviews in London, the beginning of a new school group/library collaboration project and then the Easter holidays which brought our sons and their offspring to our house for a joyous family get-together. We were in total six adults plus six grandchildren between the ages of two and twenty. As you see, that was quite a crowd.

Photo: Robin Manuell

Actors & Accents

Many posts ago I wrote  how I was told by the actor manager in my first professional/training job after a week of playing a comedy character in a broad  Tyneside accent, that I had only a short time to "get rid of that Geordie accent".  Of course he only had my best interest at heart - and it was part of the training regime, because at that time, 1957, all actors were required to have a neutral voice in RP (received pronunciation) AKA the Queen's English.  Having only one voice is limiting to an actor in any generation, but was particularly so in the 50s, when most of the theatre repertoire consisted of classical plays, or those with a distinctly aristocratic or upper middle class setting. Apart, that is, from those broad comedies for which 'Mummerset' or some funny voice voice from 'oop north' would suffice. J.B.Priestley was an exception in that his plays explored social and moral dilemmas with a working class perspective, but his characters were largely from the upwardly mobile middle classes, where the fathers might talk with a regional accent, but who married into 'class' and sent their sons and daughters to private schools. The social realism of the angry young men of the John Osborne generation had only surfaced in 1956 and it wasn't until 1958 that Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey was staged. Joan Littlewood was experimenting with a socialist voice at the Theatre Workshop in London's Stratford East, but the standard West End and provincial repertory theatre fare spoke with what was a decidedly 'posh' voice. 

Victor Graham, for it was he who tasked me with the transformation, didn't offer any clues as to how I might go about this, but he gave me four weeks in which to accomplish it. Not that I could give all my energies to the job - a small matter of ASM duties and small  roles to play nightly with two matinees, and next week's play to rehearse and lines to learn in the spaces between. But I went to it with enthusiasm in the post-show gap between returning to my room and putting my head on the pillow. Fortunately I was born a night owl, for whom the traditional hours of theatre are a perfect fit - late mornings and late nights.

So where to begin? As an avid follower of  drama on Radio 4 (the Home Service as it was then known) I knew the perfect place. The BBC, of course. How many millions of listeners across the world have perfected their English over its airways? I have met one or two of them over the years: one a young Chinese woman, exiled  to the countryside as a child with academic parents who were required to do farm labouring as part of their political re-education during the cultural revolution, taught herself the language from scratch using her father's clandestine recordings; and I marvelled  at the human spirit's response to adversity, as well as the excellence of her English.

A year previous to my first theatre job and this injunction to change the way I spoke, I had been turned down by the Rose Bruford College of Dramatic Art. I was subsequently  offered a place at The Central School of Speech and Drama, but didn't take it up because I found myself actually working in theatre, which suited me better. The interview panel at Rose Bruford had advised me to see a  therapist to work on what they called a speech defect - my 'weak' r sound. So, back home again, I sought out a speech therapist who laughed when I told her what they had said. "That's not a speech defect. That's your Northumberland accent!" She suggested one or two exercises to help overcome the 'defect'; so it was to finding a 'correct' way of delivering the letter r that was my first listening task. What would I have to change to find the crispness of a clean English r and the rolling sound of the Scottish r.   I found by experimentation that changing the positions of mouth, lips, tongue and throat; and flexing and relaxing the various muscles produced different effects in the voice; and as I listened to the different voices on the wireless, I tried to match these physical movements  to make the sounds I was hearing. With practice and perseverance I found I was actually able to learn new voices. It is what I do today, I'd presented with a new ascent challenge. Using internet radio I seek out a local station in the address I'm interested in, and just listen. Then I write down the characteristics in my own devised symbols - I've never been able to grasp phonetic notation; listen some more, then try to sound it out, but always returning to listening. That way the brain seems to absorb the sounds and the cadences, so that it settles into the memory and becomes part of a repertoire of voices to be recalled later.

That was how I did apparently "get rid of that Geordie accent" within the time limit Victor had set. Was it a decent RP? Who was I to judge? But I now had a new voice, less Tyneside, more 'acceptable' for the formal occasion and 'straight' theatre. And I found I could acquire other accents in the same way that I had apparently 'lost' my Geordie. But, you never really lose your mother tongue, unless taken from other native speakers at an early age and raised in a new tonal environment. When I learnt French and Spanish at school, I didn't forget how to speak English. We have this amazing linguistic ability to store several languages - multilingualists amaze us with their ability to store an impressive number of them.

Non-actors have the idea that we 'put on' accents, but it's more subtle than that. I know my head is full of other voices: some learnt for specific character roles; others picked up during residence in different part of the country. Just as I picked up the language of Swahili from living in Tanzania, so I acquired a Black Country voice from my years in Wolverhampton. I find, when I have a new character to play, each seems to suggest its own voice as I read the script, and an accent that bubbles up from memory.

We talk about regional accents as though each is homogeneous, but each area has a variety of voices within its spread. I would go so far as to say that each individual has her/his own variety of the local tongue. In my family of origin, each of the five of us spoke with a subtly different Tyneside accent.
At influence here was not only the fact that each of us had spent our earliest formative years in a different area of Newcastle/Northumberland, but the observable fact that each generation develops a voice that differs from its parentage.

Some years ago, when I set out to learn a Shropshire accent for a rural, historical role I was auditioning for, I found it was useless listening to the children in and around Shrewsbury - they had a vaguely Midlands voice. I was directed eventually to an older man, a traditional coracle maker living in a cottage by the river Severn and the iron bridge that gives the village of  Ironbridge its name. Eusty Rogers, like his father and grandfather before him, spoke with the rural Shropshire accent of that village. In fact their voices had been recorded by the BBC, and used as learning aids for actors, as I found out when I got the role in "Precious Bane" and was sent a sound tape of Eusty's father to help me learn the accent.

I spent a fascinating afternoon listening to Eusty's tales of the river and the villages around. In his grandfather's time, he told me, each village had its distinctive accent, so that you would know a man's village from the way he spoke, although to an outsider, unless a specialist in dialect, the difference would be too subtle to spot.

The Staffordshire market town where I live has a rich history going back at least to the 9th century kingdom of Mercia, and used to have a very distinct accent. Today you'd be hard put to find anyone under 60 who speaks it. It isn't an accent I can speak, but I recognise it immediately I hear it - the voice of a true Sandyback or Tammy. There have been, from the 1930s to 90s, successive waves of incomers from Birmingham settling in the town, so that the local accent had given way to a hybrid in which Brummie voices predominate. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Second of my two episodes in The Archers

I'm minded after a comment made on social media about my rubbish Geordie accent as Heather Pritchard to blog about dialects and accents and intra-regional differences.  You have to laugh, really, though indignation was my first reaction. Come on, this is my Geordie accent, the one I grew up with, four miles north of the Tyne! But that blog will have to wait till tomorrow. Resting up after an exhausting filming day. Just joking. Half an hour's drive, two and a half hours hanging around and twenty minutes filming. Typical of a film shoot, but somehow I find that more exhausting than doing a workshop with a group of lively teenagers - and they are much more fun! Perhaps that's the secret.

In the meanwhile, here's the second of my two outings with The Archers for those able to access the BBC iPlayer

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Lest We Forget - and my first 'appearance' in The Archers!

The community actors were excellent in the performance at Tamworth Library on Monday evening and received some lovely feedback from the audience. When I have posted the film to YouTube I will include a link in a later blog. First I have to split the film into parts so it can be uploaded.

In the meantime, here is a link to one of the The Archers podcasts in which I play Ruth's Mum, Heather, or, as we Tynesiders would call her, Mam. This link will only work for the next 6 days and might not be available universally: Ruth needs her Mum