Brownout II (2008)
February 22, 2008
Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts’ roundtable, BROWNOUT 2: WHO’S LISTENING? From casting through presentation, the practicalities of working with accents, took place on Friday, February 22, 2008, within the one-day NoPassport Theatre Conference that was held at the Martin E. Segal Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The Alliance was invited to create and lead a discussion that would serve as a follow up the June 2007 Brownout roundtable. The session was conceived by Ephraim Lopez and developed with assistance from Nancy Kim, Abel Lopez and Gita Reddy.
Brownout 2 was conceived to allow for a more narrowly focused conversation surrounding the original Brownout concept—how the predominance of a White/Anglo cultural aesthetic exists as the status quo in arts and entertainment. The more specific craft issue of accents as a discussion allowed for the exploration of when, where, and how deeply Anglo cultural expressions of language, sound and speech impact the creation of work, particularly by artists of color.
The hour-long program included the following panel: Abel Lopez (Moderator/GALA Hispanic Theatre/Director/Alliance Board member/), Antonio Ocampo-Guzman (Northeastern University/Dialect Coach/Voice Teacher/Actor), Jorge Merced (Pregones Theatre/Director/
Actor/Playwright), Gita Reddy (Actor/Director/Casting Director), Shirley Rumierk (Actor) and Nilaja Sun (Actor/Playwright).
The overall topic was: How accents and the perceptions of accents affect the work. The panel was asked to respond from their own individual perspectives, as actor, director, playwright, etc., with respect to their own work in the field. The following five major thematic points were touched upon during discussion.
- The impact of accents/perceptions of accents on the creation of work—How, when, and where accents come into the artistic experience.
- The interpretation of that work—From the individual artist’s creation of “accented work,” but also thoughts on the intent of producers, directors and ultimately, the impact on the audience.
- Opportunities and Restrictions in the creation of work—How has working with accents been of benefit and/or detriment artistically?
- What is Standard? —Is how we as artists speak (verbally or written) already dictated for us by the industry? If so, then what is American? Accent-less?
- Accents as a technical skill that is part of the artists’ toolbox vs. cultural perceptions and expectations. What is the fine line between showing a craft, skill and talent and what’s expected of one because of one’s ethnicity?
As moderator, Abel laid the foundation for the discussion for panelists and audience stating that ultimately, while it is a broad topic, the hope of the program was for each person in the room to understand his or her own personal accountability when it comes to the question; as actor, director, producer, presenter, member of the audience, etc. Everyone left the program with insight as to how the individual panelists navigate the circumstances.
While the conversation spanned a wide range of topics, below are the most common talking points were as follows:
Because it was the premise that began the discussion, accountability was the platform from which all other conversation stemmed. Each of the panelists is an artist who lives his or her own life with a strong sense of self-responsibility. The same can be said about how each begins his or her own artistic process. They advised the following:
- Begin with yourself first.
- Ask yourself deep questions about who you are and what you’re about, so that you are able to be accountable to yourself for your art.
- Be specific about the art you are creating, which includes, communicating and engaging in dialogue as much as possible with decision makers, casting directors, agents, etc.
Further discussion led to questions and comments around some of the following: We have a responsibility to know who we are engaging in the creative process with. Often artists will just take a role or write something for the exposure, or just to get produced/on stage. Then later on, artists tend to have issues surrounding the value of their art for themselves. Questions such as, “What kind of art do I stand for? Who is saying I’m not “Latin enough” for the role? Who is manipulating my idea of who I am as a Latino? Who am I doing this for? Who is the audience? These are very personal questions that lead back to you and who you are first. Playwrights need to be accountable when deciding the voices of their stories, and ask themselves serious questions as, for example, “Why am I leaning towards making this character with an accent and 80 years old, and from Ponce, Puerto Rico?” Write about what you know, the things that matter to you and those things will have your “accent” and in turn, the specificity of the work allows for it to be more universally received. Casting directors should be sensitive to the way an accent is being called for. Context and dialogue is important with the creative team. Assumptions can be dangerous. Actors need to be accountable for their authenticity, particularly since a producer or director may not know what a specific accent really sounds like.
Yes, having the skill is great, but by being true to who you are, you will create your best work. No one should be asked to shed his or her accent. How comfortable am I that if I create an accent it’s not for the sake of comedy at my expense? Sometimes people turn down scripts because the racism can be clouded.
Every panelist commented in some way on the basic artistic premise that the story being told must be as specific as possible. The creation and use of an accent in a play, film, etc. must be connected to the story one is trying to tell. Panelists agreed that it’s specificity that brings up issues of authenticity and accountability. Who is telling the story? Why must the character have an accent? Who is the audience for this character?
Technique vs. Cultural Expectations
For artists of color in particular, questions surrounding when to manipulate one’s speech and sounds (verbally and/or on the page) seem to be a daily ritual. Dialect and speech is very closely connected to an artist’s sense of identity and culture, which also affects the “musicality” of speech. An actor must be heard, understood and respond as well as possible to the circumstances (while maintaining vocal health), which can include shifting one’s natural dialect. Because the skill is connected to the above, some artists have more of a facility to shift their dialect of origin than others; as is the case with other performance skills. It is possible to shift to perform a character, but it is always an approximation. No one person speaks and sounds exactly the same. Given that, the terms “Standard English” and “Standard Spanish” are not natural states of speaking. They are imposed industry and societal constructs of language and speech. There are accents when speaking English and Spanish that vary from country to country. With respect to artists with less facility to shift their dialect of origin, how does one go about creating a bridge to allow the artists to express his or her full potential? While it is possible for someone to shift his dialect of origin, it’s not necessary to tell someone to get rid of his or her accent. The people with less facility to shift the way they speak should have just as many artistic opportunities.
Standard English/Standard Spanish
These terms can reflect a status quo for non-regionalisms in speech that are tied to racism and prejudices. The topics/issues surrounding accents are not confined to speaking English as a second language, but also include the variety of dialects within English and Spanish or any other language.
With whom, when and where do we talk about these issues? Panelists noted the importance of conversation around the personal and artistic questions accents in the work raise, but also pointed out the lack of time and avenues for communication available to them.
Do the producers know, or for that matter, the audiences what that particular accent sounds like? Are they producing this accented character for an audience who will appreciate the authenticity of the accent? Who is the playwright writing for? Who is hiring people to create accented work? What is the actual demand from the public for accented characters and how is that filtering into job opportunities? New York is very specific. While people in some other parts of the country may not be able to tell the difference between a Dominican from the Bronx and one who just immigrated, a largely Latino audience in New York City will. A largely Latino audience appreciated the attention to detail regarding the characterizations in Latinologues.
Often, from a casting perspective, accents are script requirements. Script requirements have become more and more specific. How does this relate to the types of roles available to artists of color? Jobs seem to be in classical work, “thugs” and sexualized beauty. How does one initiate a dialogue with decision makers? How can a casting director have a dialogue with agents, etc.? Actors need to be accountable to the interpretation they bring to the work as well.
It was brought up that English speakers are also being subtitled on screen. Panelists pointed to the growing rate of laziness in our society with respect to listening in general. This has a direct effect on the work. Some people feel strongly that artists should not have to make concessions in order “to educate” or “create dialogue” with audiences and society.
Issues surrounding accents in any language are not just about racism, but also class-ism. An audience member shared that she did a translation of Eduardo Machado’s play, The Cook, from English into Spanish and was told the protagonist, Gladys, the Cook, was speaking too formal for her class. Upon going to Cuba and meeting the real-life inspiration for this character, she discovered Gladys did indeed speak very formally. Often, we judge our characters, as we do people, from the way they speak; which shows us our internal racism and classism.
Recommendations, Conclusions, the “White Aesthetic and Next Steps
Who is making the decisions? Why/How are they manipulating the idea of who people need to be? How do we engage in dialogue with them? These types of conversations need to be taken out to decision makers on a national scale, from regional theatres and Spanish and English television.
How do these issues differ from those of Anglo actors?
The lack of clarity when it comes to issues surrounding accents exists because there is no time to speak about it frankly and candidly. Often we don’t say what we expect and that creates something more that informs the decision around the use, appropriateness, etc. “Navigating the incorporations of accents into the creative process then becomes more about navigating what was never said under unclear circumstances.
Where does your accountability begin? Artists need to begin by asking themselves the hard questions such as, “Who am I doing this for?” Answer these questions for yourself to the degree to where you are comfortable with those answers for yourself. Then go into the audition or meeting with that preparation.
Start from your particular accent, from your particular cultural reference, your unique point of view, rather than trying to fit into some larger societal scheme of who you are.
Having multiple accents in your tool kit can be of great benefit to an actor. Times are changing. Demographics are changing. The language and “sounds” of society are changing. This, in turn, leads to script demands being specific because audiences demand authenticity.