Monday, 31 May 2010

Learn to speak RP

The Words of Wisdom this week are Learn to speak RP. RP (Received Pronunciation), sometimes known as Standard English, is the version of the English language taught as correct by language teachers. It is, by and large, the speech of educated people in the South East of England. There can be no doubt that, whatever dialect or accent you have grown up speaking, your casting opportunities as an actor will be greatly increased if you can also speak RP.

Now your dialect or accent is an important part of your identity and I am not in favour of people changing the way they speak with their family and friends. Old fashioned elocution teachers would say things like 'He has a dreadful Birmingham accent, we must knock that out of him.' Well, I think that's pretty rude. What's wrong with speaking with the tones of the place you come from? But in the workplace something closer to RP may be required, to prevent the speaker from being disadvantaged, so, as a public speaking coach I try to teach 'Professional English,' close enough to RP for any accent not to be a distraction.

So how did RP become dominant over every other version of British English, so highly favoured and such an important class indicator? This makes for quite an interesting story. It starts with the growth of two things in the nineteenth century, the railway system and the great public schools. The public schools, Eton, Harrow, Winchester and so on, had mostly been founded in earlier centuries, educating boys on a local scale. When the railways came, the schools started to attract pupils from further afield and grew rapidly in size and number. They became the places where the sons of the aristocracy, the gentry and the professions sent their sons to board and be educated. Now people from different parts of the country had mixed before in the armed forces and at the universities, but they were older and their accents more fixed. At the schools boys started at about the age of thirteen and, being from different parts of the country, started speaking amongst themselves in a style which was not that of any one area, but a sort of average of all of them, with the South East predominant because that was where the capital was. RP was born. Now of course, when these boys grew up, they tended to become important people, in the highest ranks of society, with all the top jobs, and the way they spoke was the indication of how they'd been educated, so everyone else who wanted to get on in life had a strong incentive to learn to sound the same. RP became regarded as the best sort of English.

Coming up to date, it's interesting that, generation by generation, accents have become less marked. This is surely because of the mass media: we all grow up hearing the same voices on television, so a further averaging is taking place and we tend to speak more and more alike. In some ways that's a good thing but it also means that we have lost a lot of local colour. The exceptions to the general rule are interesting too: when people want to emphasise their cultural identity they invariably choose to speak very differently from the general run.

Learn to speak RP.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Working in a call centre is not the end of the road

The Words of Wisdom this week are working in a call centre is not the end of the road. A lot of resting actors get work in call centres. The connection is obvious. Actors have, or are supposed to have, good attractive voices and they should be fluent and able to handle a script. The work is quite easy to get, because most call centres have a rapid turnover of staff, the hours may be flexible and it's often possible to get time off for auditions or acting work.

Nevertheless, call centre work is often referred to as the actor's graveyard, as if anyone taking it up has surrendered any hope of making it in the business or ever acting again. Admittedly, the work is repetitive and not particularly well paid and it can be stressful, particularly if there are call targets to be met. But you shouldn't look down on it or hate it. Every useful task has to be done by someone and it's not good to look down on other people because of what job they do or to resent what you do because you believe you have a higher calling. Judge people by their personal qualities rather than their occupation. It's a privilege to work in the arts, which so many people want to do and no-one has a right to it.

Sometimes call centre work is receiving enquiries, as on a helpdesk. Here your person to person skills are at a premium and this is an opportunity to hone them. Sometimes you have to make the calls: cold calling people in their own homes is particularly tough, and requires great resilience. Business to business calling demands that you master some new knowledge and that provides opportunities to learn about a new industry or occupation - something actors should always be receptive to. You never know when it might come in useful.

Think positively: if you have an onerous task make sure you succeed at it: remember that success is a habit that is a good idea to get into. Take every opportunity for some character study: how do people react to you and what pushes the right button with which person? Learn how to keep a repetitive performance fresh (an important skill for actors) and, whilst remaining within the remit you have been set, experiment with your voice and accent. Sometimes you might create a whole new persona for one particular campaign.

In short, use the situation to your own advantage. Working in a call centre is not the end of the road.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Think about eating and drinking

Some decades ago a lot of people used to smoke in films and plays. Smoking was glamorous and it was essential for an actor to inhale and blow out smoke in an appropriate way. Now fewer people smoke and it's definitely not glamorous so if smoking appears at all it's to tell us that the smoker is a nervous, shifty or addicted character.

Smoking seems, to some extent, to have been replaced by eating and drinking. These are vital daily activities so it is perhaps surprising that we do not see more of them, but sooner or later most actors will have to eat or drink on stage. I have written a couple of such scenes myself and they do present the actor with some problems. So the Words of Wisdom are Think about eating and drinking.

When you are acting your mouth tends to go dry, so take very small mouthfuls so that you won't find yourself with a lump of food which you can't swallow going round and round in your mouth. Similarly with drink: if you gulp too much it may make you cough.. Incidentally, don't ever drink alcohol before a performance: it will throw you right off. There was a time when such figures as Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed were heroic drinkers, but it didn't do them much good in the end. But how people eat and drink is fascinating and very indicative of their personality and relationship with others. So this is something to make a study of. When you go out to eat, do some people-watching.

Never try miming drinking from an empty cup. It's just about impossible to get it right because the distribution of weight is wrong. If it's a hot drink don't substitute a cold one. Hot water poured from a kettle or teapot sounds different from cold. Apple juice looks like wine, and so on. Think about eating and drinking.