Quotidian Theatre Company leans toward presenting works by playwrights whose “way with the words” is little short of brilliant. Not uncommonly, those plays give actors the chance to try on characters that speak in accents different from their own. In the past, I’ve grappled with a Texas drawl for Horton Foote’s The Carpetbagger’s Children and with the intricacies of a County Donegal Irish accent for Dancing at Lughnasa. Now, my task is a British accent (the one known as “received pronunciation”) for Lettice and Lovage, QTC’s production opening on April 17th at the Writer’s Center.
Playing a character who speaks with an accent adds complexity to the work an actor always does to figure out how his or her character sounds. With many accents, you use your lips, tongue, and teeth differently than you usually do to make various sounds. I’d had some experience with that back in high school, learning French. (Of course, when you’re a teenager, you’re already so self-conscious that the last thing you want to do is screw up your face and thrust your lips out to form the words properly.) Received British doesn’t provide quite as much exercise for your lips and mouth as, say, the “u” in the French word “rue,” but it has its challenges. For instance, as my character Lotte Schoen, I say “all” with my lips quite a bit further forward than they are when I say it as myself. And the consonants—particularly the sharp ones, such as “t” and “d” and “b”—have to be very clear. Then there’s the speed! We have quite a few words to say in Peter Shaffer’s lovely play, and Hamlet’s injunction that they flow “trippingly on the tongue” certainly applies.
I frankly found this all rather daunting. Lotte, in the play, has been to the best schools and is a very proper stiff-upper-lip kind of person; I desperately wanted her to have the right kind of voice, with a (reasonably accurate) accent! After dithering anxiously for a bit, I decided to call in an expert—the ever-gracious Pauline Griller-Mitchell, a card-carrying Brit and stalwart of the British Players. One afternoon in my living room, she very kindly worked through several general principles with me, coaching me on specific pronunciations and giving me tips which, during rehearsals, I’m constantly trying to put into practice. (As authors do in their acknowledgments, though, I wish to state firmly that any mistakes you may eventually hear are wholly my own!)
At one point, my struggles with the accent put me in mind of the saying that seems to be everywhere these days: Keep calm, and carry on. It was originally the wording on a poster designed to raise the British people’s morale; the government produced thousands of copies in the run-up to World War II, but it was never actually used and was later forgotten. (A copy only recently came to light in 2000.) I decided to adopt it as a kind of mantra, muttering it (in a British accent, of course) when I became discouraged. Calm would, indeed, return, and I could move forward in getting ready to play Lotte.
Now, with the lines pretty much learned and the accent pretty much under control, I find the calm starting to give way to excitement. We still have a ways to go, of course—director and cast, designers and crew—as we adjust the pacing here, tinker with a moment there, and integrate the technical features that will bring Lettice’s and Lotte’s world to vivid life. But the end is in sight. Soon, we’ll have the joy of bringing Peter Shaffer’s wonderful words to our audiences—with (some of us fervently hope) the accent and cadences he heard in his head.