Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thoughts on Speech Sounds: Part 1(?)

Okay, so I've been thinking about this speech sounds post for a while now (see here for the preview). I've had quite a few discussions with friends and colleagues about this stuff, and I feel the best way to communicate my thoughts on the whole thing is to share some words and ideas from respected theatre artists and practitioners with whom I have similar aesthetic or pedagogical interests. I could rant and rave for pages with how I feel about the this stuff, but I don't think I've quite reached the diplomatic proficiency to be of use to the conversation. Because honestly, the conventional thoughts on speech sounds in the theatre make me quite angry.

The first thought is from a gentleman named Phil Thompson, who currently serves as the head of acting at the University of California in Irvine (check the stats). He and another gentleman called Eric Armstrong, who is on the theatre faculty at York University in Toronto, Ontario, (once again, the stats) jointly record a podcast called Glossonomia which covers the history, evolution, and usages of speech sounds in the English language. On August 14th while attending the annual conference of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association in Chicago, IL they recorded a live question-and-answer episode. (Check it out here!)

About half-way through the show, someone brought up the topic of "General American Dialect". This was Phil's response.

So, I've been thinking about that topic a lot lately because I'm endeavoring to write an accent book, and I feel that non-Americans need good information about how to do an American accent so they can come over and steal our jobs...So I think that it's a very important topic. It is a topic that's very loaded. I've been, as I've been writing about it, always referring to it as SCGA: "So-Called General American". So that we never forget what the problems are with the idea. That said, it's a very important idea, and I think maybe we've made mention of it in a couple of episodes...

I really, really, really don't want to present to a group of American acting students a model of American speech that is canonical. I'm perfectly happy to teach and Australian student a canonical American accent because it's much easier to understand that as something 'other' that's [an exploration] you're trying so you can get your pilot and move on. Then you can detail from there...If I say to, let's say, an African-American student from Detroit, "I'm going to teach you General American," what I'm really saying is, "Your American isn't general enough or isn't American enough." So I'm really cautious about that. But as long as I explain about that every time then yes, it's something worth teaching.

There is no standard. There's no uniformity. Standard means "the same". But standard is also what you carry into battle. So there are plenty of people holding up "the standard" of accent purity, but I don't think any of them can agree on what those sounds ought to be.

There's no morality in speech [sounds]. Sounds are not 'good', they are good for us...The problem to me is that people get incredibly confused because the teacher is confused about what their agenda is. They think they are simply trying to teach the student what the sounds are, but they're trying to teach propriety, phonology, and phonetics simultaneously and that's just a train wreck.

The other thought is an excerpt from the book The Empty Space by Peter Brook, a book I've been trying to read for about five years now. In it, Mr. Brook attempts to examine the challenges of creating appropriate and engaging theatrical work for a given audience, culture, or current social condition. In it, he writes of four "kinds" of theatre; Deadly, Holy, Rough, and Immediate. As of now, I've only gotten through the Deadly chapter. Nevertheless, he writes a striking passage in this first section that I had to present to this discussion.

During a talk to a group at a university I once tried to illustrate how an audience affects actors by the quality of its attention. I asked for a volunteer. A man came forward, and I gave him a sheet of paper on which was typed a speech from Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz, The Investigation. The section was a description of bodies inside a gas chamber. As the volunteer took the paper and read it over to himself the audience tittered in the way an audience always does when it sees one of its kind on the way to making a fool of himself.

But the volunteer was too struck and too appalled by what he was reading to react with the sheepish grins that are also customary. Something of his seriousness and concentration reached the audience and it fell silent. Then at my request he began to read out loud. The very first words were loaded with their own ghastly sense and the reader's response to them.

Immediately the audience understood. It became on with him, with the speech - the lecture room and the volunteer who had come on to the platform vanished from sight - the naked evidence from Auschwitz was so powerful that it took over completely. Not only did the reader continue to speak in a shocked attentive silence, but his reading, technically speaking, was perfect - it had neither grace nor lack of grace, skill nor lack of skill - it was perfect because the had no attention to spare for self-consciousness, for wondering whether he was using the right intonation. He knew the audience wanted to hear, and he wanted to let them hear: the images found their own level and guided his voice unconsciously to the appropriate volume and pitch.

For me right now, these two ideas cover much of the feelings I have about how an actor's voice and speech are perceived. I would be very grateful to hear or read your responses to any of this.



  1. Very Very interesting. The discussion about what exactly is appropriate speech is something that should be addressed, considered, and challenged.

  2. exactly.

    personally, i don't believe in an "appropriate speech", especially in the theatre. there is only speech that is aesthetically advantageous to the production and the audience who will see it, which is more subjective than many theatre folks believe it to be.