The Play’s the Thing: The Curse of Theater Accents
To speak or not to speak with an accent? Truly, a theater debate for the ages. Many theater enthusiasts make the argument that actors delivering lines with an accent adds to the authenticity of the play and makes the entire performance more believable, while others are of the opinion that accents (especially if improperly applied) distract from the performance. With auditions of the Broadway version of Cursed Child announced, this very debate has stirred up a hornet’s nest.
No one will argue or deny that the Harry Potter franchise and all of its creative components are classified as a British story. All of the characters are from different parts of the UK, so we imagined reading the characters’ voices in English accents. The audiobooks and movies continued with actors who had English accents. Cursed Child, of course, did the same. However, with the play now storming Broadway, the central debate is if the American actors should speak with a British accent while performing the play.
Now it’s Unpopular Opinion Time!
Accents don’t matter.
As a theater enthusiast, former drama student, and always and forever a thespian, I say that the accent doesn’t matter. It is from my own acting and theater experience that accents are viewed as comical overdramatization of a people or culture. They are overdramatized for only one reason – to make people laugh. Who remembers an accent from a dramatic play or musical? No one! What matters more: the sweeping arc of the second act and stunning visual effects or the forced accents of the actors?
The whole idea of speaking with an accent is to pass as a member of that culture and nation! Indeed, can one speak with a properly authentic foreign accent even if one has been trained in it? No! The best an actor can do is speak in a passable dialect. Believe it or not, there is a difference! An accent is part of a person’s vocal patterns when they reside in a specific region or area, and those vocal patterns can be traced back to that region. A dialect is an artificial facsimile of how a person or persons of that region may speak. No matter what, an actor unfamiliar to that region or place can only imitate an artificial dialect of how a person from that region may speak.
There’s also the curse of performing an “accent” (really, a dialect) improperly. Actors and actresses who never make it to film or Broadway don’t especially have access to a vocal dialect coach who can give them lessons on a specific dialect/accent. One must make do with online videos and movies, where an accent can be, and often is, overacted. A stage actor will further dramatize the dialect to make sure they can be heard. Therefore, it sounds fake to audiences and can be highly distractible, which causes the audience to strain to hear and understand the dialogue, thus disengaging themselves from the play. Once that happens, suspension of disbelief is broken and the audience is no longer in the world of the play. The play is now a failure.
A lot of theater and Harry Potter enthusiasts will say that because the play is British and written for British actors, the actors must perform a British dialect to keep to the authenticity of the play. If that were indeed the case, couldn’t the same argument be applied to the works of Shakespeare? If the argument is right, the only way to have an authentic Shakespeare play would be to have the actors outside of the UK perform a British dialect. Yet most of those directors make the executive/artistic decision to skip the British dialect altogether. In my experience, doing that makes the actors easier to hear and the dialogue easier to follow. Who needs accents to make a play authentic when there’s dramatic stage action to watch and a hero to cheer for?
In my unpopular opinion, it doesn’t matter if the story is told with an American or with a British accent. All that truly matters is that the story is told and that the magic of the wizarding world continues to enthrall us.