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The Spotlight Podcast

How do you nail an accent with limited time to prepare?

This is the podcast to answer your accent qualms, featuring Josh Mathieson, a voice and accent coach and director who is the Head of Voice and Co-Vice Principal at theMTA, a voice teacher at the Independent Centre for Actor Training (ICAT) and a Voice and Acting Tutor at The Centre PAC.

Josh talks to us about what accents are most tricky to master, how to approach breaking down a new accent, audition etiquette, how younger performers can prepare for accent work and auditions, and the number one accent concern we hear from our actors: mastering Received Pronunciation (RP)!

24 minute listen.

All episodes of the Spotlight Podcast.

Episode Transcript

Christina Carè: Hello, and welcome to this episode of The Spotlight Podcast. Today, I’m talking to Josh Mathieson about how to audition with an accent. Josh trained at Central, he’s the head of voice and co vice-principal at the Musical Theatre Academy. And he’s also a voice teacher at the Independent Centre for Actor Training. He’s voice coached and directed lots of theatre productions, so he’s a perfect person to answer this question.

Josh Mathieson: That’s very kind of you.

Christina Carè: Welcome Josh.

Josh Mathieson: Thank you very much.

Christina Carè: I want to start by asking you how you came to work in voice specifically, was there something that attracted you to that field?

Josh Mathieson: Sure. So I finished my undergraduate degree in drama and creative writing and ended up kind of filtering my way into devised theatre performance. I ran my own company for a while and did a lot of creating my own work. Which ended up purely by happenstance, being for children and families. So I ended up working a lot with that as an audience that I was making my work for and a lot of education tours and working in sort of the Fringe circuit. And by its nature I suppose, children’s theatre allows you to be a lot more expressive and gives so much opportunity for character work. So I found myself really enjoying the multi rolling element of my work, really enjoying finding new characters, finding new voices for those characters.

And I’d always had an interest and an aptitude in accent work. And so then I was working on an acting job a number of years ago and just got talking to the voice coach who was on that production. Fascinated by what she did, fascinated by how she came to do what she did, where she trained to do that. And I ended up kind of shadowing her on a number of projects leading up to my training at Royal Central, which was a wonderful course, the MA Voice Studies course there. And that kind of jettisoned me into the industry and I’ve been very lucky to have been working quite consistently, ever since I graduated.

And so I find myself splitting my time equally between accent and dialect work, whether it be kind of one-to-one with actors, training actors, sometimes corporately as well. And then practical voice and sort of the other side of voice work. So that’s really me in a nutshell.

Christina Carè: Oh, fabulous. Thank you. I want to start by kind of going right in there and asking you, do you think that there are some accents that are more difficult for someone to nail than others?

Josh Mathieson: Yes. Though I wouldn’t say there are difficult accents and easy accents, it all depends on where you’re starting from. So with accent work, it’s always worth thinking, “Okay. What am I? Can I understand my own accent, my own voice? And what I have to do to travel to the target accent that I’m working toward.” So it’s not a case that I could list, what are the difficult accents. I could tell you what some people have found more struggle with but I think it’s where you’re starting versus where you’ve got to get to. And how muscularly different that target accent is from your own. And that’s what tends to make it more difficult, I think.

Christina Carè: I’ve heard it said that it’s actually more difficult to nail an accent that’s sort of similar to your own, but a bit different, than it is something really far away.

Josh Mathieson: Yes.

Christina Carè: Do you think that’s true?

Josh Mathieson: I think there is a truth in that, and when you’re looking at muscular differences which are subtle but are important in the interest of authenticity. Unless you have the awareness and the precision of your listening skills to be able to go, “Okay, there is a tiny little difference between that and that.” Yes, it can be difficult if you’re looking at those accents, which don’t sit too far away. Ones perhaps that you’ve been surrounded by growing up, but are not your own. And so you’re like, “Well, I don’t hear the difference between me and that accent.” So sometimes that can be just as much of an issue as if something’s very, very different. And you’re using sounds that you’ve never made before in your life.

Christina Carè: Right. Of course.

Josh Mathieson: Two different challenges, but yes. Absolutely.

Christina Carè: Absolutely. So I want to ask you then, you were kind enough to actually lead a workshop with us just recently, which was for younger performers. But sort of the key skills that were being imparted in that were about preparing for an audition. When you’ve only got 24 hours to prepare and you’ve got to do something in a completely different accent to your own, where the heck do people start?

Josh Mathieson: I know, right? So that’s what my accent workshop that I did recently was kind of based around, it was based around a toolkit and seeing what tools have you got in your arsenal to be able to have a good go at an accent which is new to you. With little or no time at all. So that’s what that workshop was based around, but really it was giving people a number of different options as an entry point. And when you’ve got very little time and you’re working towards the sounds that you’ve never made before. Putting them together in the context of an accent that you’ve never had to vocalise and to embody. You just need to be able to find something, a way in.

And I think some of the participants in that workshop sort of took reassurance in the fact that actually for me, as an accent coach and often from a casting director’s point of view, they want to hear that you have given it a go. And they want to hear moreover, that you are coachable. They want to hear that if they gave you a note in the room, you can implement that note and then carry that forward. Not necessarily that it’s going to be a completely polished product as it were.

Christina Carè: Right. Well, that’s a relief.

Josh Mathieson: Yeah, absolutely. And of course, then time can be allowed beyond that point to refine that accent and to make it better. But we’re aware that sometimes if you’ve got that casting call the day before and you’ve never had to sound Scottish before, that’s going to be a challenge. But if you can give it a good whirl, then that’s reassuring from my point of view, as listening to the actor. So, yeah.

Christina Carè: So, what’s sort of the first thing that person should do when they’ve actually got the lines that they’ve got to prepare? Say that maybe they have a sort of more soft Southern English accent of some description, then yes, they’ve got to go Scottish. Where do they start breaking that down?

Josh Mathieson: That’s an easy one to answer and that’s listening. Listening is always the first thing you need to do, but it’s about how you activate that. And I believe that listening is a tool, it’s not just something that you can let passively wash over you. I’m not just going to be listening to a bunch of Scottish voices that I know. It’s about how I can make that a very proactive process of listening.

So it’s, first of all, where do I go to listen? And unfortunately, one of the downsides of the worldwide web, I suppose, is that there’s just a plethora of stuff out there. So you’re like, “Okay, I need to sound Scottish by tomorrow.” The first thing that most people are going to want to do is just type into Google, “How to do a Scottish accent.” That’s great in one sense, but what you end up throwing up is a bunch of people who have a decent enough camera. Who have made a little video saying, “This is how you do a Scottish accent.” Not necessarily a native Scottish speaker at all. And I suppose it’s very hard to know how authentic that is. It’s very hard to know the credentials of that person who you’re talking to. You don’t have the necessary verification of the person who you’re learning from. So going with a ‘How to..’ video, whilst there are some brilliant ones out there. If you don’t know what you’re looking for-

Christina Carè: Bit risky.

Josh Mathieson: You can end up, yeah, with a bit of a red herring and ended up learning sounds that aren’t quite accurate. So by that token, it’s always worth going for a native speaker and thinking about where you can go for that.

If you’re going for a native speaker in a more conversational context, you’re going to get a sense of that accent holistically, rather than maybe just from an actor who’s doing a monologue in their Scottish accent where it’s going to be filtered through a performative lens perhaps.

So thinking about finding local news items that you can search for on YouTube, or what have you. Or digital radio is a fantastic thing because we can be sitting here in London and tune into Glasgow FM or whatever it might be right from here. Because we’ve got that option because most radio stations are digital. So then we can listen to that local phone-in about that local issue and you get that conversational sense of that particular accent. So it’s knowing where to go in the first instance and then what you’re listening for when you do.

And I think for me, I always work with four broad categories in terms of access points for an accent. That being the vowel sounds that you can hear, the consonant sounds that you can hear, the musicality of the accent in a broad sense, and also the placement of how that kind of feels in your mouth, looks in your mouth. That sort of stuff. And I find that different accents will err towards one of those categories over another. Some accents, the first thing you hear is the vowels are very pronounced. The vowels are very accentuated versus my own accent, for example. Or what I’m hearing is a very clipped consonant quality. What I’m hearing is that they’re clearly using a lot more of their mouth than I am. So it’s knowing which one of those points to start with-

Christina Carè: As an access.

Josh Mathieson: Exactly. And that can be then your way in. So it’s knowing where to go to listen. And then it’s knowing what to listen for when once you are listening. So, yeah.

Christina Carè: And then is it just about sort of basically playing with it, just having it in the mouth and just trying to experiment a little, and get it as much into you as you can in that limited time that you’ve got?

Josh Mathieson: Yeah. So knowing how you like to learn is always a really useful piece of knowledge to have acquired. So whether you are a more of a kinaesthetic person and you need to put it in your mouth and have a feel. Whether just listening gives you then the skills to be able to then repeat. And if you’re quite a good mimic, then that might be a way in for you. Whether you are slightly more phonetically, ready, writey, and would like to write some stuff with the phonetic side of things. Or writing orthographically works for you. That can be a really useful tool.

So, yeah. So it’s knowing you and having the autonomy to go, “Okay, I know that for me, if I can feel it in my mouth, I’ve got a sense of the groove that I’m slipping into.” Or it’s, “I need to write it down and annotate my script and go, okay, every time there’s an ah vowel, it changes to eh vowel.” And then I’ve got that kind of sense of whatever it might be. Yeah. It’s knowing you and then knowing how you’re going to play with it. But playing is definitely a keyword there.

Christina Carè: Helpful.

Josh Mathieson: Yeah. Just trying stuff out and not being afraid to voice it and never get down the notion of just doing it in your head.

Christina Carè: Right. Of course.

Josh Mathieson: If you’re sitting in a room, “Okay. I’ve got to learn this accent. So I’m just going to try and do these things in my head.” You’ve got to get it out loud. You’ve got to be hearing those sounds in the room to know what you’re working with. Record yourself, listen to it back, get other people to listen to you. Compare that to the source material that you’ve found, your listening source, and work from it from there.

Christina Carè: Yeah, absolutely. I want to ask you your opinion on this next thing, which is that I know you’ve directed as well. So I’m kind of interested to see what you think. But a common question that we get is for the person who’s sort of quite nervous and freaking out before their audition, we often get asked, is it okay if I just walk in with the accent already on? As opposed to saying, “Hello. Hi, I’m so-and-so,” in your native accent and then switching. Do you think there’s a problem with that? If you just go in and speak immediately, for instance, in my case, in an American accent? If I just suddenly started talking like that, would that be weird or is that okay?

Josh Mathieson: I don’t think so. The casting director may well know what your native accent is. If you put that on your Spotlight page, or you put that on whatever. It may be apparent so that you might get a raised eyebrow. I was expecting a Geordie and all of a sudden you’ve walked in and you’re Irish, this is interesting. But I think everyone has their own process and everyone has their own way of doing things. It wouldn’t bother me sitting on a casting panel to hear somebody coming in and introducing themself in the accent that I know they’re going to adopt. I might ask the question of, why have you chosen to do that? And do you feel like you just need to sort of get yourself into the groove? But if people want to go down a more immersive route where they feel like they need to embody the accent, and if that helps them, why not? Why not, would be my answer to that. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

Christina Carè: And if someone didn’t choose to do that, if they come in and they say, “Hello,” in their native way of speaking. Are there good ways to sort of quickly hook in as soon as they do need to start talking in that other accent?

Josh Mathieson: Yeah. Good question. So trigger phrases are a big thing, which some people find really, really useful. And that’s not a defined list of, okay, I can go through the accents and see what the trigger phrase is for that particular thing. I always work with actors on them finding their own trigger phrases. So them being able to identify for me what they’re hearing, that’s the most significantly different from their accent to the target accent. And then taking those significant features of that accent and coming up with their own little short, condensed phrase that seems to repeat those sounds or include all of those sounds. And then they can use that as their trigger phrase.

Ideally, by the time you get in the audition room, it would be really useful if that trigger phrase, you don’t need to sort of say that out loud before you start. And actually, you could perhaps work into you’re using the trigger phrase to get yourself used to the way your mouth is working in a different way, the sounds that you’re making. But then actually be able to use the first line that you’re going to be speaking as that way in.

Christina Carè: Yes. That’d be a good way to do it.

Josh Mathieson: That would be a nice way to do it. So you can just launch straight in.

Christina Carè: Launch straight in. Yeah.

Josh Mathieson: I suppose. But again, I’m not going to besmirch anyone who feels like they need to say, “How now brown cow,” to go straight into their Northern Irish. That’s fine. So, yeah.

Christina Carè: That was very nice, thank you. I definitely cannot do a Northern Irish accent. I want to ask you next about sort of, because your workshop was specifically about younger performers, what the kind of differences are working with younger performers, particularly when maybe they haven’t been fully trained yet? Are there any sort of key skills that they should try to learn first as opposed to older performers?

Josh Mathieson: Yes. And I think the main skill is autonomy. It’s how I learn myself. Application is a big thing that I don’t think you really learn until you’re in further or higher education. So if you go on to a college environment or a sixth form environment, and then go onto a university or a drama school environment. One of the main things that you take away is, how I can absorb this information and then apply it for my own needs. So one thing that young people don’t have because of the way that our education system is set up, is that they don’t have that ability necessarily to be able to be very conscious of their own learning. Take that and go, “Okay, I need to do that with it. And I can use this in all these different ways.” And younger performers sometimes will be very much more used to a prescriptive way of: do this to get this, do this to get this, and do this to get this. And I don’t think it’s ever too early to start teaching those skills. I think it’s such a useful thing as an adult to be able to do those things. So why not start from 11? Why not start from as soon as you’re there? I think that’s the main difference, is that sometimes you might need to be a little bit more, well, this is right, and this is wrong and this is a way. Follow this way.

Christina Carè: Right. Becoming more conscious.

Josh Mathieson: Yes. But as soon as you’re increasing that consciousness and that awareness of the way that you like to learn, the things that you can do, the things that you can’t do yet. Then everything can kind of slot into place. And you can find that you’re able to take something a little broad like this is a toolkit, and then be able to intellectually and maturely say, “I need this tool from my toolkit now. And I don’t need the rest.” So that would be the main difference, I think, between adult actors and young performers is that that might not be a fully developed skill yet.

Christina Carè: Right. But otherwise, the sort of toolkit that you draw on is quite similar regardless of age.

Josh Mathieson: Oh, yeah. I pretty much teach the same things if you were 6 or if you were 66. It would be no different.

Christina Carè: Right. Either way. Do you have any advice for parents who are potentially supporting their children, learning an accent? Should they do what you just said and sort of Google some things and show them to their kids?

Josh Mathieson: Yeah. I mean, if you’ve got really young performers doing that internet searching for them and knowing how you can, as a parent, be supportive and facilitative in finding those source materials. And being a listening ear in offering genuine opinions and not, “That was really wonderful. Well done. You’re going to be amazing.” But actually going, “Oh, do you know what? That bit was really, really nice, but that vowel wasn’t quite the same as the one that we listened to on YouTube. Do you remember?” And then seeing if we can work on that together and helping them through that repetitive process of, okay, I just need to drill this particular sound because that’s the one I keep stumbling on. And just being that extra listening ear, which to be honest with you, any actor can sometimes use a friend or colleague to be able to go, “Can you just listen to me and be really honest?” So, yeah. Again, it’s no different. But the parents can definitely help and be proactive in making sure that their children are working from a good starting point.

Christina Carè: A good starting point, yeah.

Josh Mathieson: Because if you’re listening to the wrong stuff in the first instance, you’re already not off to the best start perhaps.

Christina Carè: For sure. I want to ask you the other very, the most common question I think we get about accents is the RP. What’s your view on how someone perhaps from a regional location can actually slot into a good RP accent? Or what does that even mean in your opinion?

Josh Mathieson: Yeah. RP, Received Pronunciation is what is sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘BBC English’. I’m very pleased to tell you that that’s not really the case anymore. And if you watch the BBC, we get all sorts of diversity, which is just fantastic. But there was a time when the BBC were very prescriptive about the way they wanted their broadcasters to sound. And that became the standard UK-wide, and drama schools would insist on their actors graduating, having that sound. And casting directors would insist on having that sound. And a lot of directors staging classical works, in particular, would say, “Well, it can only be performed in that sound.” And there’s been a huge move in recent decades. So that’s not the case anymore, which is wonderful.

That said, particularly as historical and period dramas and those kinds of things. And of course, the traditional canon is still very much in play. It’s a useful skill to have. And within this country steeped in its history and its class, and it’s all of those different, complicated socio things. It’s a useful one to be able to do, but please don’t mishear that as there’s more of an onus on an RP than any other accent. Because the more we can take ownership of our accents and say, “Do you know what? This is where I’m from, and I’m proud of this is where I’m from. And I can do an RP accent if it’s required, in the same way that I can do my Scottish accent if it’s required. I can do my Texan if it’s required.”

There should be no weight on that RP over any other particular accent, but it is a useful skill to have. I think, particularly I work with a lot of musical theatre, actors and students. And within the MT repertoire, within that canon, RP and General American do tend to get relied on more often than not. Though again, it’s really reassuring to hear that there’s a shift in the contemporary musical theatre that’s coming out towards regional accents, away from that General American and that RP. But if you look at the historical canon that’s still being brought out and those things are going to come in useful for you.

Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. It’s a good skill to have, but-

Josh Mathieson: It’s a good skill to have.

Christina Carè: Things are changing.

Josh Mathieson: It’s no different to anything else. Yeah.

Christina Carè: Yeah, absolutely. I want to wrap up on our questions now and just ask you if you have any final advice for someone who’s getting into different kinds of accent work, how can they make that process successful and nail their audition?

Josh Mathieson: Sure. So I’ll go back to the notion of knowing how you learn in the first instance, knowing what works for you. If you’re somebody who wants to write it all down and scribble and annotate like mad, that’s great. If you want to be someone who’s a listen and repeat kind of a person. If you need to get it in your mouth, if you need to be watching a speaker, rather than listening to a speaker. So you can get a sense of their range of movement with their mouth or their oral posture, whatever it might be. Knowing what works for you, knowing what you’re listening for, knowing what your access point is. And knowing that if you are limited on time, it can seem an overwhelming task, but just anchor yourself to what are those significant features? What are the key players, if you will, between your accent and the target accent?

And I’ll say that again, you’re working from your accent. You’re not going via the accent coach that you’re working with, which is a misconception I think a lot of people have. They’re like, “Okay. So I need to go via you, my accent coach, or that person I’m listening to online. And then to the accent that I’m going to.” Why would you have that middle person there? There’s no need for that.

Christina Carè: Just go straight to the accent.

Josh Mathieson: Go from, what do I sound like? What’s different between me and that thing, that person that I’m trying to sound like, that accent, that part of the world? Great. I can find some really big changes. Whether they be consonant changes, vowel changes, musical intonation, prosodic changes or placement changes. And start there. And then the more time you’ve got the more nuance and specificity you can find. But don’t start with those subtle shifts, if the big ones haven’t been addressed yet.

Christina Carè: Josh, thank you so much. If people want to get in touch with you or follow more of what you’re doing, where can they do that?

Josh Mathieson: Sure. You can either head to my website. So that’s www.joshmathieson.co.uk. Or my Twitter handle is @MathiesonJosh.

Christina Carè: Fabulous. Thank you so much, Josh.

Josh Mathieson: No trouble. It’s been lovely being here.

Christina Carè: Thank you. Thanks so much for listening to today’s episode. If you’ve got any other questions you’d like us to answer on an upcoming podcast, you can get in touch on Twitter @SpotlightUK.

Read more great advice on voice work including our latest video on YouTube. If you have a topic or question you’d like us to cover in a future podcast episode then please email your ideas to questions@spotlight.com or send us a Tweet @spotlightuk.