It’s been 20 years since I graduated from Drama school and, whilst I’ve long since hung up my acting clogs, I still remember that feeling of fear ahead of every audition. The fear that came with being presented with a character breakdown that read 'Errol, twenty-five years old from Jamaica' or 'Samuel, the son of a farmer from Ghana.’
I dreaded my agent’s call, asking if I was able to do a Caribbean or African based accent, to which I would respond, in a wobbly voice, ‘yeah sure, yeah...I can do that, I'll just watch something…’ Don't forget this was in the days before YouTube and digital accent archives, so, it meant scouring libraries across London for videos and accent cassettes.
Although I survived those early days on bluff (and can laugh at certain accents outcomes) the resounding feeling I remember was shame. Shame that as a black person I could not do every ‘blackccent’. Shame that my lived experience as a transracially-adopted black man from Dorset was a world away from the expectations of casting professionals and directors.
My work ethos now, as a voice coach, is a direct result of having to regain and reclaim my own sense of identity and expressive agency.
For the past four years, I have been running accent and voice workshops under the umbrella term 'Diaspora accents for actors’ alongside dialect coach Hazel Holder. The term Diaspora relates to accents of, but not limited to those of the African Diaspora. The workshops have attracted largely, BAME actors, who want gain a secure foothold in the accents that are pertinent to their casting opportunities. So far, we have explored: African American varieties, Nigerian, Ugandan, South African, Jamaican, Trinidadian and South Asian.
The inspiration for the work came through my interaction with students at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the summer of 2016, in which the students expressed how thrilling it was to be in a safe space with a BAME accent coach teaching and learning these accents in a collaborative way.
After my interaction that summer I had a conversation with Hazel, who was already working successfully in a similar field of accent learning, about offering these Diaspora accents together in the form of workshops and 121 coaching sessions, to which, I am delighted to say, she agreed.
As we embarked on running the sessions, I soon learnt that my personal feelings of shame and ensuing doubt as young actor, as described in the opening of this article, were common in others too. For example; in a workshop group numbering 20 actors, learning Yoruba; 9 of the actors might express abject fear of learning it, 5 ‘some’ comfort in doing so, and 6 ‘might’ have a really strong handle on it, due to exposure, or their Nigerian heritage.
Although the scenario and figures are fictional, they give you some impression of the apparent disparity present within the room, ahead of actually learning the accents themselves. Because of this disparity, it seemed crucial to share how we all felt about learning the accents, particularly for the less confident actors. My view was that the process of sharing would offer participants the agency essential for taking risks in uncharted accent learning territory, encouraging them to brake-away from unconscious and extraneous barriers to learning.
These shares, like the ancient ritual of ‘smudging’ (the Native American tradition of cleansing the room of negative energy by wafting sage smoke around a space), led to a more inclusive dynamic within our rooms and lay the ground-work for lively, animated, and celebratory exchanges between group participants, and us as coaches. There has certainly been plenty of laughter and joy while learning the Diaspora accents!
As Hazel and I took the work to various learning environments, the workshops evolved into a place of both accent learning and self-expression for actors, in which we could collectively share our perspectives, experiences and attitudes towards the Diaspora accents themselves. As Hazel herself puts it ‘the workshops became a place of radical openness’, a space in which actors can feel safe enough to share, participate, flounder, discover, and enquire together, without apology or censorship.
My hope now is that the work I do together with other actors from BAME backgrounds helps them avoid similar experiences to my own. As with everything, I want to see more diversity in voice training, teaching, casting, and writing, so that the performance work we see is an honest representation of the past present and future permutations of the Diasporas, promoting authenticity in the voices that tell our stories.
On reflection, if I were to say one thing to the younger, perhaps confused, or disheartened version of myself, it would be this: ‘the reality of our lived experience, whatever colour we are, is unique to us and we can’t immediately know how to represent someone simply because of a shared skin tone, and so there is absolutely nothing to feel shame about!'