This is predominantly a stage oriented blog. It's true purpose though is to discuss my acting adventures, and sometimes those do not fall into the standard theatre dynamic. Yesterday I finished up once such example. I would have mentioned it here on the blog sooner, but the whole thing absorbed so little of my time, I thought it would be best to post one single entry about it.
I peruse Craigslist quite a bit. For jobs, and once in a while when I am looking to buy something on the cheap. If you are familiar with the site, you know that there are sections dedicated to "creative" and "talent". It was in one of those two sections, a few months ago, that I found an ad seeking voice over actors.
It was obvious that they were not able to pay big time Union compensation, but not being in a performance union this didn't bother me.. They sought someone to create a spoken word file for a podcast tour of Manhattan they were creating. I was interested, and contacted them. I wasn't needed at the time, and I forgot all about it.
Then about a week ago, this party contacted me, explaining that their initial talent had dropped out of the project. They wanted me after all. I agreed and the script was sent over to me, via e-mail.
It was only about 90 seconds long. A New York man from the late 19th century describing his experiences on the commuter train. Very simple, but a lot of fun. To come up with a usable character, voice, cadence, all based on a small bit of copy, and the little time I had to work with.
I asked the director if he wanted a standard thick New York accent, or no. He told me that the advantage we had was that nobody is sure when the standard New York accent that we know today came into being. It may have been present in the 1880's, but is more likely it was not. So he told me to go with something that suggested it, but not "Archie Bunker".
I had not attempted a New York accent of any class since college. And even then, I didn't end up using it much. So I read the piece out loud to myself over and over for about an hour. And to my surprise, a New York accent formed, almost naturally. One or two words like "Fourth" and "New York" itself served as anchors, as anybody knows how most New Yorkers would say such things. But those words led to an understanding of other words. And each time I would read the piece, I felt more and more familiar with the accent, even though I am no expert on that particular dialect. Yet the all the memories of the movies, shows, and people I have listened to over the years that had such an accent began to coalesce in my performance the more I read the piece out loud to myself. It was quite satisfying, and rather intriguing, to just suddenly know instinctively how a New Yorker would pronounce certain things. What cadences suddenly made sense with the sentences.
Don't get me wrong. A linguist expert, or a native New Yorker would probably be able to tell right away I was an actor. Yet I wasn't trying to faithfully replicate exactly what New York accents are today. I was trying to create a reasonable theatrical suggestion of a New Yorker, and i think I achieved that. More so than I thought I would when I started.
As mentioned, I was aided further by the mists of time which makes modern people unclear as to what exactly New Yorkers of the time period would have sounded like. The result? A passable New York accent that hopefully will entertain unknown people in the future.
The director said he was pleased with the accent I came up with. Called it a "sort of Upper crusty" New Yorker. He would know more than I. I only care that he was pleased with the work that I did. I know that I am.
The whole thing was learning experience for me, and not just in regards to accents, and how to perfect a voice over reading. I learned more about my own potential as an actor. Paying strict attention to the words, syntax, and accents of all kinds of people, especially performers, is something I have always done. Experiences like this prove that it works, and is worth it. I can always learn more, and professional training in certain accents is still something I would love to take part in. But today, my keen attention to linguistic detail shines through, and I am pleased with my efforts.