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Keeping the Accent on Diversity

Ocampoguzman The head of a prominent graduate theatre program wanted me to persuade one of my undergraduate students to accept a generous offer: three years’ tuition and living expenses, training with a great faculty and facilities, an Equity contract with a resident company, and a study-abroad program. “Of course,” the university official said, “there’s the question of his accent, but I’m sure that with enough drilling he can get rid of it.” The student, a lovely young man born in Mexico and raised in the United States, rejected the offer. The issue of his accent wasn’t the only reason, but it was a significant factor.

After decades of discourse about multiculturalism in academia and U.S. theatre, this myth still runs rampant, that actors of Latino heritage need to get rid of their accent to be acceptable performers and to get work. It extends beyond ethnicities and places of origin, as many actors are trained to acquire a more neutral dialect or “Standard American Speech.” Ignoring for the moment that America is a vast and diverse continent and not a country, could there be anything more racist and oppressive? And will the Standard American in the audience please stand up?

The nonsense about getting rid of an accent raises these questions: Who sets and upholds the parameters of such a standard? Who does this accent actually represent? The people in power, that’s who. And we know what ethnicity they represent, even what geographical location. It is high time that theatre communities across this country—actors, teachers, directors, playwrights, producers, critics, and audiences—re-examine this notion of Standard American Speech, debunk the myth of accent reduction, and celebrate the expression of diversity. It is also vital for actors of Latino heritage to avoid this trap, for two reasons: 1) We are becoming a hot property in these diversity-obsessed days; 2) the Latino entertainment industry wants to establish Standard Latino Speech, the only aim of which is to sell more programs in markets throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

No one should tell another person that his or her accent of origin is unacceptable for the theatre. An actor’s voice needs to accomplish three basic goals: to be fully heard throughout the auditorium, to be precisely understood by the audience, and to meet any demand made on the vocal instrument with efficiency and health. As such, an actor must learn how speech sounds are generated and how to shape and shift them to achieve maximum intelligibility and flexibility.

This gives actors the ability to portray different characters of many types and ethnicities and increases their chances of getting cast. On the whole, this process is more easily achieved after the actor’s voice has been freed, strengthened, and developed to its fullest expressive potential, without the imposition of an arbitrary standard.

Given our diverse exposure to English and Spanish, most Latino actors have an incredibly fluid relationship with speech sounds. Whether fully monolingual or fully bilingual, we may still speak English with an accent. Training in speech without a conscientious understanding of these complex relationships may shut down and diminish a very primal part of our cultural and artistic identity. I have met many Latinos who have trained at the best graduate programs and have a very difficult time getting work playing Latino roles, because their speech does not match their physical appearance—the shorthand being, “You look like the maid, but you don’t talk like the maid” (as if every domestic worker spoke the same). The cruel flip side is that other Latinos are only cast in stereotypical roles, where the scope of their vocal training becomes irrelevant.

Thankfully, for the past few years more conversations about the depth and breadth of diversity have been sponsored by groups such as the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, and the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Also, new alternative methods of vocal training have emerged that dovetail with wonderful approaches already in existence, such as Dudley Knight’s Detail Model and Louis Colaianni’s The Joy of Phonetics and Accents. These more creative and inclusive practices teach the actor how to shift and shape speech to construct characters within the demands of specific productions. Rather than homogenizing speech, they give actors a wider spectrum to play with.

There are many places to “get work.” Given the broadening market for Latino actors these days, it is useful if they are trained in creative, nonprescriptive ways that allow them to adapt to the needs of the job at hand, from Shakespeare to telenovelas. It is not only useful; it is essential—not to mention respectful and empowering.               

Antonio Ocampo-Guzman is a designated Linklater teacher, an assistant professor of theatre at Northeastern University in Boston, and a member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association.

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