Wednesday, June 27, 2012

American Accent

Flatiron Building, New York City, 2011.
I was browsing YouTube looking for a tutorial video on how to improve my American accent. A decent video, that is.
Yep, for myself.
My background is very European and my accent very British. Although my American pronunciation has greatly improved lately, most Americans can still detect my British accent. In fact, they almost always have no doubt about it and go straight to the question, "What part of England are you from?" before they even know my name. The next question being, "Why the hell should you want an American accent over your British accent?".
I usually point out, "Standard American". Then, with the poshest accent I can make, continue, "Unless they want to cast me as John McLane in Die Hard speaking like Prince William of Wales".

This is the first of a series of videos by actress and accent virtuoso Amy Walker.
She provides clear and detailed explanations on how to speak in a nice and believable American accent, jazzing the whole thing up with cute acting gigs. And, most important of all, she won't just provide you with the pronunciation of single sounds or words in isolation, but she will give you a broader insight over the typical American intonation, rhythm, and vibe, which is what we actually need more than anything else.

What can I say? I have a passion for accents myself. I like to try new things out and getting a flawless American accent is a challenge I committed myself to.
Without the intention to offend, I believe lots of native Americans would also benefit from such linguistic insights. I was at Staples' early this morning and I overheard the storekeeper (clearly a young American) say "signAture" with the stress on the a (which became a long a) in the second syllable from the left. I found it rather funny.

Mastering more than an accent requires a very strict discipline and the ability to shift from one personality to another. It is not just phonetics, it is also a cultural factor: you must convince yourself you're American to speak with an American accent. Amy Walker suggested to dress like a typical American in a typical American context: jeans, shirt tucked in your pants, jacket. As stereotypical as it sounds, it might work!

What accent would you choose to speak in which is not your native accent?


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Secret Chamber

Belltower - Berlin, 2003 (Slide)
Secrets make our lives valuable.

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung wrote in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

We all must have a small personal secret. It's our connection with the hidden, introverted side of ourselves, the one we turn to when our soul curls up and relies on its own warmth.
A secret makes us feel good. That's it. It makes us feel protected, hidden because it is protected and hidden. We are our secret and nobody else is aware of it.
A secret is a projection of ourselves; we identify with it, we create a connection with it. We are it.

A secret is the little pebble from your hometown creek that you always carry with you, in your pocket, touching it whenever you need to reconnect with your deeper self.
It is the mantra you recite on the subway train, making sure nobody can hear you or see your lips moving.
It is the faces you pull when you're alone in the elevator and the doors finally close; but when they reopen, the cutest cherub in the floor is back: serious, determined, reliable. We're damn professionals here!
It is the diary you fill in at the end of each day, or whenever you have something personal to write in it.

A tiny, personal secret helps us balance our social life and the personal, more intimate side of ourselves.
We often travel and try to have experiences of all sorts and kinds; we sometimes forget, instead, that major sources of inspiration can be found inside of ourselves, in that secret chamber that contains, after all, worlds of mysteries and wonders!

Do you have a secret?
What is it?


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Technical Perfection

2007- Antonio Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, Louvre, Paris
All the greatest and most ingenious artists were perfectionists.

Their quest for technical perfection would often be strongly criticized by their detractors and their art would take longer to reach global recognition as higher artistic craft.
The criticism often comes from the assumption that the artist is more concerned with formal virtuosity, while giving content little or no importance. Their works are then termed sterile, unemotional, artificial, void.

I am for perfection.
I admire whoever aims at it. The history of the arts and science has taught us that those who have aimed at perfection were the ones who reached up to the highest peaks of excellence. Yet, the value of their masterpieces was only acknowledged decades - if not centuries - later!
I often like to recall the urban legend according to which Paganini, probably the highest violin virtuoso in the history of music, was once violently criticized during a performance because of his search for technical complexity. In answer to that, he stripped his violin bare of all its chords except one, to then complete the concert on one chord only.
I don't know the percentage of truth in this anecdote, and I'm pretty sure it's never been officially confirmed. Yet, it makes a point: those who criticize a search for perfection are just envious of an ability they don't have - and will never have. The best way to spite them is to continue, unperturbed, on our path. Gain talent, and they'll chew their intestines off of it!

There's nothing wrong with a sane obsession for the minutest details, as long as the acting is not unemotional, the writing sterile, the music uninspiring, and the playing bleak.
Technical precision allows us to convey a meaning exactly the way we want to. We need an alembic for contents, or we'll just have a heap of meaningless material.  

I'd rather aim at perfection and miserably fail than produce mediocrity.

Are you a perfectionist?
What is perfection to you?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Wassily Kandinsky - Circles in a Circle, 1923
Every action we perform in real life has an objective. The same should apply to fiction.

When working on a character, it is of extreme importance to ask yourself, "Why am I saying this? Why am I behaving this way?". Your answer should include the causes for a certain action or line; even more importantly, though, it should include its scope, or purpose. It's the latter that allows your character to keep going, projected towards a final goal.

After establishing who the character you're playing is and doing all the necessary work to build the character, there comes building the scene. It is essential for each scene to ask yourself, "What is my objective?", "What am I trying to get here?".
This, together with understanding what you are doing with the other characters in a specific scene, will not only set the tone, but give you a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you should carry it out.
It is a good rule for your objective to never be a physical one, for example: "My objective for this scene is to slap this person"; if you want to slap somebody, all you need to do is slap them, it's as simple as that. Your objective should be an emotional, abstract one, like, "I want to humiliate this person"; a physical action - like a slap - is simply a way to pull off that objective but never an objective per se.

Also, I don't think an actor should be concerned with consistency.
Of course, if a character is shot in the knee at the beginning of a play, then he's supposed to limp to different degrees for the entire duration of the story. But this is nothing about consistency; this is continuity, another important but different concept.
Emotional consistency is just nonexistent in real life; why should we be limited by it when working on a character? Michael Shurtleff, one of the most famous Broadway casting directors in America, termed consistency as "the death of good acting".

You will soon realize that the script or the play are, for each single character, brought forth by superobjectives. At the same time, scripts and plays are divided into smaller units of objectives according to the number of scenes in them. At a deeper analysis, a scene can also have more than one objective.
Naturally, this is only one of the many aspects an actor should focus on. 

If I were a writer, I would use a similar method for my novel writing.
Would that be a mistake?