ACCENT-UATE THE POSITIVE
Hello there, my name’s Alix, I’m an actor and accent coach and I suddenly have a lot of time on my hands! This last of course doesn’t differentiate me from most of you reading this, but it does mean that I’m actually sitting down and writing it less than 24 hours after Louis asked me to, rather than putting it on my to do list and never getting round to it.
So how’s your apocalypse going? Mine’s OK. I was making a good living from accent coaching (more on this shortly) and voiceovers before Armageddon hit, and now I’m down to about a quarter of my former students – all online now of course. At least I’m not going out and spending money though eh? I’m mainly interested in books at the moment and those are a lot cheaper than a night out/a fancy meal/a trip to the hairdresser/a binge in Topshop. By the way, if you’re looking for book recommendations in this time of hibernation, I can recommend Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, and The Heart is a Burial Ground by Tamara Colchester. I’ll be getting on to the new Hilary Mantel and the new Phillip Pullman shortly.
Anyway, enough of this end of the world chat, and onto my favourite subject: me. I grew up in The Biz. My Mum is an actor and my Dad was a director, teacher of acting and author of books on acting (he wrote An Actor’s Guide to Getting Work, and collated a couple of anthologies of lesser-used Shakespeare speeches). I was a cripplingly shy child, despite my Mum’s gregariousness and my Dad’s awkward charisma (describes most directors we know right? Sorry Louis). When my folks finally got tired of me clinging to their legs at parties they decided to send me to Saturday morning drama club at my brilliant local amateur dramatics company, which has its own theatre (and I hope will weather this financial storm…). For an hour a week I wasn’t shy. I was the best in the class, the most popular, the coolest, the one who got distinction in the LAMDA exams. I played Viola and Helena. I was asked to audition for the grown-up company and did my first Rattigan (The Deep Blue Sea) at the age of 16. I got into the National Youth Theatre. I started auditioning for school plays too, and much to the chagrin of the girls who actually took drama, I got leading roles. I still think one of my finest moments was the three nights I spent playing Ralph Clark in Our Country’s Good (girls school, I’m tall and flat-chested).
I wasn’t going to be ‘an actress like my Mummy’. No way. When the idea was mooted drunkenly by luvvies in pubs (remember pubs?) after shows, I would roll my eyes as if to say ‘Have you SEEN her?’. We spent a couple of my young Christmases happily making presents for each other because we couldn’t afford to buy gifts: I knew what kind of financial precariousness the business entailed. But by the time I had to start thinking about choosing my A-Levels (remember A-Levels?) I began to realise I didn’t want to go to University. I knew I wouldn’t apply myself as I’d just be itching to finish my ‘fallback’ course and go to drama school. Looking back on that now I think perhaps I should have applied anyway, at least to have had the life experience. My career didn’t get going until my late twenties anyway and I was extremely callow in my first terms at Bristol.
Bristol Old Vic had always been my favourite, just from reading prospectuses, and Dad really rated it. I didn’t get in to RADA, LAMDA or Guildhall, but I was ecstatic to be chosen as one of only four women and eight men to take the three year course, graduating in 2004 (yes I’m very old). Bristol is a wonderful city and the training was solid – Old Vicars are disciplined AF, I’ll give us that… and our diction is precise to the point whereby we’re ridiculed by other schools – but it was old fashioned. There was A LOT of singing and dancing to make us ‘all rounders’ and the most modern play we did was The Betrayal by Harold Pinter. Written in 1978 folks. And that was just a ‘text project’ in our first year, only open to members of staff. Still, I made some wonderful friends and I got myself a good agent who worked very hard for me for two years, then lost interest and dumped me after four.
Things were very hard for a long time. I made money doing promo work (I was just sick in my mouth a tiny bit), bar work, one entire day’s temping – after which I cried and told them I couldn’t come back – and a bit of food prep for a catering company. I did a lot of free theatre, some for companies and theatres (remember theatres?) that no longer exist. During this time I was involved in setting up a theatre company called The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. We did (and the company still exists so you might be able to catch a show some day if we haven’t reverted to the feral state by next month) 1940s style radio shows, live. We dressed up, had vintage microphones, and made the foley (sound effects) ourselves. The humour came – to use a popular example - from a very po-faced type in black tie punching a cabbage swiftly followed by another, similarly dour chap saying ‘Ow, you punched me’. We started off doing old American scripts that we anglicised, meaning we could punctuate the show with silly adverts. The inherent sexism and racism in the scripts was unbelievable, which gave us the idea to start writing our own, and see how far we could go.
The company thrived. We were able to pay our actors, Time Out LOVED us, we played at the Globe, and various regional theatres across the country. A corporate wing was set up and I got my start in DJing, which made me a living for several years and still happens occasionally.. or did until the collapse of society. Darn.
Finally after about six years in the business, I began to get regular paid work. I could at last tell myself I had a legitimate career. I don’t know what kept me going and hopeful through those years of unpaid acting work and working myself to the bone for the paid stuff, especially when so many others around me (quite sensibly) gave up, but I did keep going and I was always hopeful. I guess it helped that I’d gone into the business knowing what to expect… but still assured by myself and my parents that I was a special princess. That last bit wears off quite quickly I can tell you.
In 2012 I was rehearsing a tour with Out of Joint and was doing my usual selection of exotic accents. I’ve always been a good mimic and excellent at accents. I’m really interested in languages, so maybe that helps, but it’s always been my super-power to be able to do almost any accent at the drop of a hat. This has meant that I’ve barely ever done my own accent in a show. There’s been a lot of Heightened RP, a fair bit of American, a couple of Germans, a bit of Dutch, loads of Northerners from both sides of the Pennines, the list goes on. Anyway, in this particular show I was playing Australian and (don’t judge me) Japanese. 2012 guys. Sorry bout it. The show involved many of the cast members having to do a Suffolk accent. Who can do a Suffolk accent? I bet you can’t – it’s f*ckin weird. It’s a bit West Country, a bit Australian, and it has it’s own particular rhythm you don’t really hear elsewhere. So the poor accent coach really had her work cut out. We had a day of one-to ones with her, and when she got to me she was rather tired and not looking forward to having to teach Australian AND Japanese accents to a white woman from Hertfordshire in only an hour. I did some scenes for her. She said “Well. I have very little to say to you, except that you should be an accent coach.”. I think she’d also seen me helping the others with the Suffolk accent, and noticed that I had a knack for teaching.
I went for a session with her after the tour had finished. She advised me not to do a course – there were no specific Accent Coaching courses out there, only Voice courses, and she knew how extensive the Voice training is at Bristol. She appreciated that I didn’t want to take two years out of my career and pay for a course, most of which I’d already covered in my training. She recommended a small library of books, and that I relearn phonetics (any excuse for a secret language!).
For about five years I didn’t do much about it. I read the books and practiced on friends whenever they needed an accent for an audition, charging them little to nothing. Eventually an agent friend sent me my first proper client (who’s now a friend and is, I hope, doing OK over in New York – love ya Jason!), which gave me the impetus to start promoting myself and charging proper prices. Finally, two years ago, I got over my imposter syndrome enough to build a website. By serendipity, my friend Ronni (@veronicadoesdesign on Insta) was just graduating from a Manchester graphic design course and needed to build her portfolio. She jazzed up my website and designed me some really sexy cards and flyers. After all this, I was earning half my living from Accent Coaching and getting by on the odd voiceover and theatre job. Then I joined Instagram, after years of dismissing it as superficial and too image-obsessed for me and my business. Turns out it’s a godsend. I hardly ever post pictures of my face, apart from the odd tongue twister video (hey, I’ve been bored), but as I said at the start of this post, only a month after I joined Insta, I was making a good living from Accent Coaching.
I’m really proud of what I achieved, even though it took me too long to swallow my fears and grow some self-belief. Hopefully I can get back to some semblance of normality with the rest of the country in a couple of months. I did only one session with Magnetic Island on their (cross fingers) upcoming show, Saffron Hill, which will now hopefully happen later in the year. I got so lost in several rabbit holes doing research for it, knowing they didn’t have the budget to pay me for any of the time I spent on that aspect, only the physical time spent with actors. What that told me was that I’ve finally found a side hustle that feeds my soul. I always look forward to my sessions – now more than ever as they’re few and far between.
I know you’re broke. I know you’re waiting to hear about this fabled 80% wage based on our last three years of work that the government might or might not tell us about this week. I know your show was cancelled, or postponed, and they’re possibly being cagey about whether they can give you any money. I know you’re worried that half the companies and theatres you have worked for will perish. But please keep your creative side active. Sign up for online theatre companies; do an online clown workshop; if you can afford to, get a home recording studio set up (that’s what I spent my erstwhile holiday fund on!).
And if you want to brush up an accent (ANY accent – I have the time to do the research), get in touch. I offer half hour sessions as well as the full hour and I’ll do you £5 off per session if you block book a course of 4. My website is www.alixdunmoreaccentcoaching.com, my Twitter is @AlixDoesAccents and my Insta is @AlixActorAccentCoach (follow for regular #TongueTwisters in different accents, as voted for my you!).
Stay safe and well. Be gentle with yourself. Keep stimulated. Don’t hoard (who has all the chicken?) and don’t be a dick. I’ll see you at the theatre and give you a big hug as soon as it’s safe.
Alix is an actor and accent coach. She loves books and languages. She sometimes DJs and should really write more. This is her first apocalypse. See www.alixdunmoreaccentcoaching.com to get in touch for online sessions.