Accent-uate the Negative
The recent flap at Harvard has got me thinking.
You know what I’m talking about? How Harvard President and former Treasury Secretary (you may have several of his signatures in your wallet) Larry Summers basically said recently that girls can’t do math?
Okay, it was a little less absurd than that, and, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he may actually have been trying to make a statement about the actual evidence that suggests that almost all the standards methods of educating are slanted to better suit the way men learn. Whether it is true than men and women learn differently and whether that difference is biological or societal is a debate for another time and, I promise, another place. The point is, Larry blew it and came off sounding sexist.
Also, I once saw him drop an easy pass from a football that Clinton threw him, so what right does he have to talk about real men?
(Seriously, that’s true, Amanda and I saw Clinton speak at Harvard and they gave Bill a game ball from their undefeated season -- he caught it from the QB with ease -- no wonder, Willy has giant hands -- but Larry muffed his reception when WJC tried to pass it on.)
Anyway, this has brought to mind a bit of sexism I have detected in myself.
I think I don’t like it when actresses do accents.
Believe me, I’m not happy about finding this in myself, but it seems to be true. I have a bias against the use of accents in theatre when women do them, but not when men do.
See, a few months ago, I started to write about how I generally don’t like it when actors inject an accent in a role that doesn’t call for it.
Here’s what I started to write then (I think it was part of a larger piece about a production of one of my children’s plays, but I cut it):
...What am I talking about? Well, mostly accents. This is a mistake actors, often talented ones, make all the time. “I know!” they say, “I’ll do an accent.” Look, please, actors, if we want an accent for the role, we’d write one. It’s one thing to see “oh, this character speaks with very proper, ornate grammar. I’ll add a bit of an English accent.” It’s another to say, “I don’t know what to do with this character, I’ll make him sound like Tony Danza.” Now, I have written characters badly in the past, characters with no distinctive voice of their own. So I understand the impulse actors had in giving them accents. But invariably, it winds up taking the character down a different road than the one
And that’s all I wrote. I was probably going to finish that sentence with something like, “ ... the author intended and the result is something that seems jarring, selfish, and not really a cohesive part of the overall work.” Had I gone on, I would have discused a discovery I made when I did ALADDIN for the second time. When I first did it, I didn’t know what to do with the character of the Genie, so I decided to use a Jewish accent. It was okay, I got a laugh or two, but it wasn’t organic to the character -- I also don’t have a look that really goes with the comic Yiddisher dialect, and my Arabian-looking costume didn’t help. Then, when we revived the show, I decided to play it without the accent and instead pitch my voice lower and go for a deep, stentorian approach. This was closer to how the role was written, and, as it turned out, the andful of funny lines (this was not a wacky, Robin Williams-esque genie, though the influence of that film probably drove me towards the accent path) were much funnier when spoken straight.
I realized also that I made a similar mistake when I did CITY OF ANGELS in college. I had a few small parts, among them a barber who has the following exchange:
(After IRVING, a film producer, has read his barber a bit of dialogue from a screenplay.)
BARBER: Is that supposed to be funny?
IRVING: Half and half.
BARBER: Then it’s about right.
Funny exchange (and the character’s only lines). I should have been happy to deliver it. But I felt the need to make the barber a CHARACTER and I decided to play the role with an Italian accent (I first attempted a flamoyantly gay hairdresser voice, but I never felt comfortable with that -- I don’t know if it was latent homophobia (I hope not), or political correctness). The result was, the audience needed a second to adjust to hearing an accent and lost both lines, and the joke.
Yep, I’m a moron.
So, I was gonna write a piece about how actors should never do comedic accents unless the script call for it, about how it’s a lazy stunt that replaces real acting -- instead of finding a way to make the line work (and believe me, this choice is pretty much only made by actors working outside-in, from a “how do I deliver this line” basis), you fall back on a trick you’ve probably done before and you know works. That’s not acting, that’s too-cool-for-schooling it.
Then I realized that there have been performances where actors have done uncalled-for accents in my shows and I’ve been happy with it.
And almost always, the breakdown was that I liked it when actors did it and hated it when actress did.
Let’s do a quick rundown of some examples, excluding the use of quasi-British “proper” accents for, like, Kings and stuff. Let me also say, that almost all of these “transgressions” were committed by actors I like and admire. Most of them gave other performances elsewhere that I thought were great I may even have liked everything they did in the accented role, except for the accent itself.:
WIZARD OF OZ: An actress playing three small parts does a passable German accent for one. It’s okay.
RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ: My Tin Woodman goes English, which is fine, but my Cowardly Lion does too. I ask him not to and he agrees to stop. (he did get the idea from the script, which had the Lion saying “right-o” in a few places ... but that was supposed to be more “actiony regular guy,” like, he called one character “Tip-o.”
SCENES FROM THE EVE: Two actors (one male, one female) decide to play parts with Queens/Brooklyn accents. It enhances the scene and I like it. (This was at Vassar, and, in general we were taught not to do accents, even in, like, British plays ... I hated that at the time, but I see the point now)
PRINCESS AND THE PEA: In a revival, an actor plays a role with a Kennedy-esqe Boston Brahmin accent. It’s okay, though I could have done without.
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK: From a revival -- I ranted about this before. I could handle a Scottish accent on the Giant, but giving a Brooklyn honk to the love interest (I learned later that this choice was imposed on the actress by her director) was a very bad idea. Completely out of place.
EMPEROR: The actor playing the swindler puts on a little bit of a London hipster accent when pretending to be a fashion designer. Excellent choice which I applauded.
(Here’s where the trouble really begins)
PUSS IN BOOTS: During a revival, one actress (one whom I like a lot, though she does this often) plays the (male) villain with an Irish accent -- nonsensical, pointless, and unnecessary. Another plays the queen with a New York ditz accent -- also pretty nonsensical, though I could handle it on a smaller character. The actor playing the King adds some Elmer-Fudd-Esque mispronunciations -- this is okay.
RAPUNZEL: An actor playing the witch as a drag role in a revival does it with a Rosanne Rosannadanna accent. I love it. Alien, funny, energizing.
THREE MUSKETEERS: In the revival, the disastrous choice is made to give the Musketeers French accents. No, no no no no! These characters are SO American, the way they’re written. Just because they say “monsieur,” doesn’t mean they should sound like the taunting knight from Holy Grail. Plus, one other character is SUPPOSED to have a French accent and this makes her seem less interesting. At a talkback, audience members asked the actors about the accents and they said they love them because they made the American slang lines sound funny and weird. GRRAH! (Some other actors used French accents for the King and Queen ... they’re okay)
PIED PIPER: I ranted about this earlier, but I hated hated HATED the German accents one actor and one actress gave the parents in the revival. The characters were written with a particular dialect (American yuppie) and you gave them another one? Completely ruined the point of the character.
INTERVENTION FOR ISAAC: In an early reading, the actress reading Tricia does a sort of Boston accent and the actor reading Pablo does a Latin accent. I ask them to stop most because the lines themselves were getting a little lost in the dialects and this was supposed to be about me hearing the lines. I’m not sure how I would feel about those choices in a regular production. (I had an African American actor reading Pablo and I was worried about offending him, like I was “rounding off to the nearest ethnicity,” really I chose him because he had the right energy for the role. He made some jokes about “blatino,” a term I hadn’t heard before, but I guess it refers to Latin Americans of African decent, as many Cubans and Dominicans are. Still not sure if I offended the actor)
Anyway , okay, so it’s not only women who have bothered me by doing accents where I didn’t want them. But it is many. And, in general, I find myself more likely to wince when I’m watching, say, an improv show, and an actress starts doing an accent, than if it’s an actor doing it.
And I really don’t like this about myself. I think I had good reasons for disliking the accents above. But I really worry that this is a genuine sexism -- like, “why are these damn women trying to be funny? Don’t they know that only men are funny?”
Look, clearly I don’t feel this way about all women. Amy Poehler does great funny accents. Maya Rudolph, too.
But most actresses aren’t as good as those guys. And, of course, most actors can’t do funny accents as well as, say, Peter Sellers.
And maybe I just feel like I’ve seen more bad female accents because I’ve seen more actresses, because there are more women out there who want to act than there are men.
Or maybe actresses feel more pressure to be surprising and funny because of societal stereotypes that women aren’t funny, so they do these forced accents. Maybe I’ve written such bad parts for women that they feel the need to do anything to make them interesting (maybe that’s true in BEANSTALK, but definitely not in PIPER or MUSKETEERS, and the PUSS IN BOOTS part was written for a man).
Regardless, this is a character flaw in myself. But I’m not sure I can do anything about it. I mean, if I don’t like a performance in a play of mine, I can’t force myself to like it.
The solution is to write good, colorful parts for women, write dialogue strong enough to suggest a distinct delivery by itself.
And, reedit MUSKETEERS and PPoH to insist on NO FREAKING FRENCH OR GERMAN ACCENTS!
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Accent-uate the Negative