Bit o' Blarney

Well, another Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone. If you are reading this, you may congratulate yourself on having once again escaped this holiday’s many horrors. Green leprechaun outfits everywhere. Green foodstuffs. Green projectile vomit. But of all the terrors of March 17th, there’s one worse than the moan of any banshee. I speak, of course, of fake Irish accents, which millions of drunken revelers feel compelled to adopt. The sing-song shotgun wedding of a Lucky Charms commercial and a bleating goat. It bears no relationship to any sounds actually made by citizens of Ireland, except if they happen to run over their own foot with a lawnmower while taking heavy hallucinogenics.

I’m particularly sensitive to the perils of poor accents these days, because the few EPAs for which it’s made sense for me to attend in the past few weeks have all required them. The Manhattan Theater Club’s upcoming production of Richard Bean’s The Nap required authentic (or at least authentic-sounding) Yorkshire accents, and Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman – soon transferring to Broadway from its London run – is so particular about its Northern Ireland setting that it specifies whether individual characters speak with an Armagh or a Derry accent. Even if the likelihood of being cast in one of these high-profile productions from an EPA is small, and the best a person can hope for is to make the casting assistant laugh in the hopes they’ll remember you later, you still have to give these auditions everything you have. And in the cases of these two EPAs, this meant becoming familiar with two very particular, very odd regional accents.

In theory, preparing accents for an audition or performance should be easier now than ever before. Once, you had to track down obscure field recordings and make appointments to listen to them in libraries, with a speech notebook by yourself so you could note down the particular vowel sounds and other peculiarities that typified the accent. Nowadays, all that information is a few keystrokes away. These were both sides calls – meaning that I didn’t have to prepare a monologue, but was simply reading from the script – so I could focus all of my energies simply on watching You Tube videos, as many as necessary, until I’d perfected the accents in question.

Something became readily apparent, however. The vast bulk of the videos on the internet which purport to offer instruction in an accent have nothing to do with the scholarly work of theater historians and speech pathologists. No, if you google “how to do a Yorkshire accent,” what comes up are videos of would be internet superstars from Leeds, all throwing out pieces of Yorkshire slang while trying to look as hip and entertaining as possible. (They’ve even scored the things, with original music and everything.) The accents aren’t even consistent – you’ll encounter half a dozen variations of a given accent with only the barest acknowledgment made of how and why those variations exist. They’re still valuable as research, but they make the process much more difficult – instead of nice step by step instructions, you have to wade through a lot of extraneous, often inaccurate information to get what you actually need.

I managed to pull it off, at least well enough for the purposes of an open audition. And I got those (intentional) laughs from the casting assistants, which means I achieved my goal. But it got me to thinking – internet searches like this are how we research just about everything these days. And whatever you’re hoping to learn more about, you have to wade through bad information and disinformation before you can find something useful. And on YouTube specifically, the algorithms are designed that the next video you see on any given topic is going to be more sensationalistic, more problematic, more unhelpful. And you start thinking about all the different topics, all the different spheres – politics, history, science – where this is going on…

It’s enough to drive a person to drink. Even if it’s not St. Patrick’s Day.

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