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The Critical Eye: Falling Standard

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1994), pp. 78-81.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—Julius Caesar III:I, 111.

Maybe some accents should have stayed unknown.

O, the sound of actors talking like actors. They don’t trill their r’s as much as they used to, sadly, but the trained American actor retains a high-brow sound for high-brow texts, with an accent that we can’t quite place, except to say that it’s not of our world—British-sounding but not British, American but not American-sounding. The unities of time, place, and action have withered, but the fourth unity, unity of accent, thrives, thrusting uniformity on speech patterns that people would naturally expect to be heterogeneous and unpredictable.

Standard Speech, also known as Good Speech, American Stage Speech, and mid-Atlantic speech (meaning between the East Coast and England, not New Jersey) is the rarefied and reductive legacy of the late Edith Skinner, renowned speech teacher. Starting before World War II, Skinner began training a phalanx of followers that filed forth from her classes to dominate speech training at MFA and non-degree programs. Today, the Yale School of Drama, Juilliard, and Tisch School for the Arts teach their actors to mend their speech lest it mar their fortunes, and the tool that speech instructors use for this mending is Standard. Speak with Distinction, the textbook based on the lessons Skinner formulated in the 1940s, is, in the words of Old Globe Artistic Director Jack O’Brien, “simply the preferred text of theater directors and actors the country over” for a “standard of excellence [that] remains as fixed today as anything in our theatrical cosmos.”

But the sky is falling: growing opposition has begun to yank Standard from its place in the firmament. America’s tradition of classics without Standard stretches from the Group Theatre to Papp’s Americanized Shakespeare, but now, people are challenging Standard’s validity as a tool for training actors. Postmodernist and multicultural ideologies have injected the vocabulary of oppression into a debate that previously focused on whether we were going to have an identifiably American theater or one that emulated the British. In the Winter 1992 issue of the newsletter for the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA), Dudley Knight, head of UC Irvine’s acting division, published an influential, subversive genealogy of Standard that described the accent’s Anglophilic origins. In the Summer ’93 VASTA newsletter, Claudia Anderson, Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University, railed against Standard speech instruction for its roots in “class consciousness, correctness, imitation and drill,” with its “intolerance for differences” that can lead to a “loss of personal power.”

The first time I really noticed Standard was in the A.R.T.’s 1991 production of King Lear, in the performance of the actor playing Edgar. Coincidentally, I knew the woman who had been his voice teacher at Yale. When I told her that I enjoyed her former student’s performance, but found his accent puzzling and jarring, she informed me that this accent was not an idiosyncratic affectation but a technique, a method that is encouraged. That revelation is no less mind-boggling today than it was three years ago.

My own prejudices on the matter were shaped by my brief experience with Shakespeare and Company, the Berkshire theater group started by British expatriates Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater. The latter’s method of voice instruction, based on removing the physical tension that stifles sound, has become as prominent in theater training as Skinner’s speech technique. Although speech and voice instruction are often taught separately, the two obviously overlap, and Linklater’s method has not existed altogether peacefully alongside Skinner’s. In her 1976 book, Freeing the Natural Voice, Kristin Linklater writes,

I am against the currently popular notion that some “standardization” of speech is necessary for a given company of actors in a Shakespeare play. Such surface considerations are usually a cover-up up for bad acting and impoverished direction. Inasmuch as the plays are universal and reflect life, they should reflect the diversity of life and there is no standardization of speech in life. Nor is it likely that the actors in Shakespeare’s companies spoke alike, coming as they did from all parts of England.

While Linklater has moved on form Shakespeare and Company, the above passage still describes the aesthetic of the theater, whose productions have a vivacity at least partly attributable to the liveliness with which the actors speak—and pronounce—the verse.

In fact, the most memorable Shakespeare productions I’ve seen allowed the cast to speak in a variety of accents. Ron Daniels’s 1991 production of Hamlet featured Mark Rylance speaking in a refreshingly American accent (though he’s British!) in a cast that featured slightly varied, but clearly American, voices alongside Jeremy Geidt’s British accent and yes, one or two Standard users. Steven Berkoff’s superb 1988 Coriolanus at the Public had Irene Worth, with her British elocution, play mother to Christopher Walken, who used what Brustein’s New Republic review described as a “gritty urban dialect.” And Keith David’s Tullus Aufidius spoke with an African-American equivalent that complemented Walken’s. These productions had an edge, an exciting and unpredictable mix, as opposed to the monochromatic wash that helped drain the life from Hartford Stage’s recent production of Marivaux’s False Admissions.

The example of success without Standard are relevant because Standard’s defenders often respond to attacks by raising the specter of a Big Daddy with a Brooklyn accent playing alongside an Afrikaans Big Mama and a cockney Brick. My focus is only on the use of Standard where Skinner recommended: in verse plays, translations, and dramas that do not demand regional accents. Standard is no less specific or provincial than a regional accent—in fact, the only people who use it are people who’ve gone to speech classes, so it’s more narrowly parochial than any naturally occurring regionalism. As Linklater writes, “To counter the argument that it is distracting to hear a strong New York accent next to a Southern and a Midwestern one, I repeat that any accent will be modified by freeing the voice….” Skinner said Standard was necessary for what she called “elevated” texts. But these texts are not above us; they’re of us, and nothing makes a text more alive than letting it belong to the living.

The first thing any linguist will tell you about accents is that they are extremely fluid and show significant change over relatively short periods of time. Kenyon and Knott’s A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English—which the A.R.T. Institute’s Bonnie Raphael calls “the standard work in the field”—notes that “recent studies and records of American speech have made it clear that there exists far greater variety than was formerly supposed in the speech of Americans of unquestioned cultivation and importance.” This is from the 1944 edition. Since then, the variety Kenyon and Knott speak of has only burgeoned with the increase in student diversity in universities and the boom in higher education.

From its birth, Standard was an example of myth fighting reality. According to UC Irvine’s Knight, Skinner’s codification of Standard owed much to the Australian linguist William Tilly, who taught his students, including Skinner, to transcribe speech patterns in a way that willfully ignored the natural variation within accents in order to create uniform, correct, teachable patterns. The goal was to create a “world standard” of English speech spoken by cultivated people regardless of nationality. But, as Knight wrote in the VASTA Newsletter, “to American linguists outside of Tilly’s circle, the pattern was immediately identifiable as southern British.” The weirdest thing about Edith Skinner and the people who use her Speak with Distinction is the continued insistence that Standard doesn’t sound British—moreover, that audiences won’t even realize that actors are doing it. Skinner says so, a bit defensively, in her Good Speech for the American Actor, and Tisch’s Hecht says that “Skinner was always harping at us… [that] you shouldn’t sound British.” Perhaps the lady did protest too much. Or maybe she didn’t protest enough.

Juilliard’s Ralph Zito speculates that some directors may use Standard in order “not to immediately summon up a historical and geographic reference.” But Standard does signify that the speaker has gone to a speech school that supports the inferiority complex many Americans have about the way they speak. And nowhere are the implications of its specificity more revealing than in productions that use Standard in tandem with “General American” speech patterns to denote class.

General American speech is not how most people speak normally—with slurred or absent consonants. It’s the accent most often spoken on television and in film. Charles Grodin speaks General American. At the A.R.T. Institute, Bonnie Raphael says the students’ classical plays are done “in plain old General American,” and Brustein says it is used in the professional productions there, too. In the Summer ’93 issue of the VASTA newsletter, vocal coach Jan Gist states that in her work for the Utah, Oregon, and Alabama Shakespeare Festivals, she has been “successful” in using “Standard American for the nobility and educated classes, General American for the lower and serving classes.” The reason Standard can signify class at all is because, as Raphael says, it “leans towards a British model” which “we associate [with] a higher-class sound.”

Not only do the class connotations completely undermine the assertions of Standard’s neutrality, but directors who exploit these connotations are irresponsibly exploiting speech-related stereotypes, which are usually regionalist and often racist. Aesthetically, stereotypes are clichés and hence represent a lack of creativity. Out of such a cultural environment, how surprising is it to read Richard Ryan’s review of Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, where he faults Denzel Washington because he “softens but cannot suppress his African-American accent”? To the extent that Americans still prejudge each other based on accent, why would theater artists want to encourage that tendency?

Tisch’s Deborah Hecht echoes many other speech teachers when she complains that Americans normally have a limited number of vowel sounds, and that Standard helps the actor because it has the widest range of aural colors for actors to use. There is much irony, however, in using an argument that values diversity of phonemes to decrease the number of accents used on stage. An individual who uses Standard may have more colorations, but a cast using Standard will have fewer.

Standard also has had negative effects on the performances of many actors. As Hecht says, “I’ve seen people, I wanted to rip their faces right off, because I felt like they were up there doing their voice and speech work and not doing the play.” But Hecht insists that Skinner, too, “used ot say that if the audience is noticing your speech while they’re watching the play, there’s something wrong; either your speech is excessive or your acting isn’t good enough.”

Many Standard instructors recognize this, and have tired to modernize Standard to make it less obtrusive. For example, one of Standard’s several noticeable features has been the toning down of the “r” sound when it comes at the end of a word. When Skinner says “word” on her taped lessons, it sounds a bit like “wuhhd.” Today, Zito and Hecht say the teach their students to use more “’r’ color” than they were taught to use. But if you don’t maintain a noticeable difference between Standard and General, then what’s the point in having Standard?

Furthermore, Hecht concedes that “there’s an inclination [among actors] to perceive [“r” color] as needing to be dropped too much,” but admits, “I’m not sure where they acquire that excessively dropped ‘r’.” I would hazard a guess it’s the textbook. Or maybe actors end up focusing on the colors of their speech palette to such an extent that they sound artificial and stilted—like the actor whom critic David Denby complains of in his “Theaterphobia” article for the Atlantic Monthly, whose voice was “full of characters and wit and expression, and after a few sentences I [had] no idea what it was saying except “Listen to me.’”

Perhaps Standard pedagogy is mirroring the development of Delsarte, which started as a means of freeing the actor until, upon being codified and formalized, it became identified with the mechanical acting it was designed to prevent. Louis Colaianni, whose The Joy of Phonetics is being published by Drama Books this May as an alternative to Speak with Distinction, suggests as much when he describes how Standard causes the vocal tension that it is supposed to help combat:

If pronunciations differing from the standard are constantly “corrected,” [the actor’s] efforts to shift them will almost certainly lead to vocal tension, and at the same time pull him out of the reality of the play… If speech is dealt with too early in the actor’s development, it becomes a veneer over muscular blockage… An open sound is achieved, but only through shifting a constricted vocal apparatus to one held rigidly open. It is this very rigidity that will rob the actor of the subtle nuance of thought and feeling.

That Standard’s tradition of rigorous drilling stifles the actor is not an entirely new accusation. Although Standard isn’t explicitly mentioned in his foreword to Cicely Berry’s 1973 text, The Voice and the Actor, Peter Brook seems to criticize Standard as he praises Berry for showing that “’technique’ as such is a myth, for there is no such thing as a correct voice… Wrong uses of the voice… level out idiosyncrasy, generalize experience.” The fact that speech and voice are so often taught separately hardly ameliorates the problem. And despite the proclamations of sensitivity from voice teachers who insist that they are careful to preserve the individuality and integrity of the student actor’s “instrument,” Kristin Linklater says that, as a rule, the students and actors she encounters say they have had Standard imposed on them in the drills that have always characterized its pedagogy.

There are alternatives to Standard-based training. As was already mentioned, the A.R.T. Institute’s Bonnie Raphael uses General American as the foundation for learning other accents. At UC Irvine, Dudley Knight teaches his students phonemes by having them listen to the different American regional accents and to tapes of foreign languages. Colaianni’s technique emphasizes the importance of doing physical work in conjunction with speech: his students do exercises throwing differently shaped pillows as they practice pronouncing different phonemes. Some Standard teachers greet techniques such as Colaianni’s with skeptical smirks, but SMU’s Claudia Anderson has been using the technique for over a year and endorsed it in her essay for the VASTA newsletter. Based on requests he’s received for galleys of his book and information on making the phoneme pillows, Colaianni says that at least ten schools are using the method, which he demonstrated at a recent conference for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Besides, adherents to Standard have no right to judge. A little less rigor in terms of uniformity, with a corresponding increase in individuality and delicious inconsistency, might be just what’s needed to train actors to speak, truly, with distinction.

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One Comment
  1. Shane Falco permalink

    I stumbled onto your website and noticed you seem to disagree with Skinner’s, “Speaking with Distinction”. Honestly, I was watching Oceans 13 and saw the book in the background. Yeh, you could say I have no idea what I am talking about. Or, you could say that I have a pure, unbiased point of view. Regardless, I just started reading the book with the goal of pronouncing and phonetically speaking more clearly. Acting is not necessarily my goal.

    Skinner’s goal is to build a phonetic base that helps you project, and pronounce words correctly. ‘Correctly’ does not mean free from dialect. Correctly is for the listener’s benefit. After all, it is mute if the entire audience cannot hear what is being said. Dialect is unlimited. Although it seems like Skinner is teaching a freeze dried standard it is up to the actor(actress) to find and apply the correct regional drawl. While it is American Standard, per say, the speaker projecting Southern slang needs to understand how it is spoken to effectively, emotionally play the part well. All the while, the base for pronunciation is Skinner’s standard for a speaking methodology.

    While each person’s natural dialect appears to be coached out, the pronunciation is improved. This foundation re-establishes effective pronunciation and overall better speaking skills. Now, the actress is empowered. Any dialect can be (re)learned but the words are projected and spoken much more effectively. Pronunciation is paramount. The challenge of dialect is second. Skinner embraces better speaking through pronunciation and it is the user’s job to apply the correct, desired accent – – that separates good from great.

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