5 Things That Happen to British Stage Actors in American Community Theaters

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

As a British expat living in the United States, my voice is often the topic of conversation among Americans, who love it when I say oregano, schedule or van Gogh. And as an actor, there is one place in particular where these pronunciations—and many others—truly get noticed: a community theater.

Having acted in various theaters up and down Indiana throughout the last five years, I have come to find that—perhaps owing to an actor’s natural fascination with speech—American thespians are among the most inquisitive when it comes to the British accent. Their interests range from those listed above to stage-specific queries such as, “How would the Artful Dodger say this?”

Moreover, members of both the cast and crew will occasionally corner their British colleague with odd requests (more on those below), while community theater can also place a Brit at the mercy of the most curious minds of all—those of children.

And so, here are five things that happen to British stage actors in American community theaters.

1. At the first read-through, American actors will initially think you’re faking that accent.
Whether it’s during the initial meet-and-greet or your actual reading, there will be at least one member of the cast who immediately marks you down as a pretentious jerk with a fake accent. After all, and this is particularly true in rural or remote areas of the U.S., actual Brits are a rare addition to the local landscape. A couple of years ago, I successfully auditioned for the role of George Bailey in a stage production of It’s A Wonderful Life. One member of the cast later joked that, whenever I dropped character during that audition, my British accent sounded very unconvincing. On the other hand, the fact that the production team had allowed me to adopt an American accent for the role was itself something of a rarity. And this brings us on to our second point.

2. You might be asked to play an iconic American role with a British accent.
Years before I humbly donned the costume of George Bailey (a character memorably played by U.S. screen legend Jimmy Stewart), another moderately iconic American role had come my way—that of Richard Sherman in the The Seven Year Itch. Sherman’s character is a baseball enthusiast, who strikes up a one-night-stand with his neighbor. His lines are filled with brilliant Americanisms such as doggone, punt (an American football term), and shoot the whole works. Clearly my prior accent training would come in handy for this one, I had thought.

Except it wouldn’t. The production team was so enamored with my actual voice that the character—against all logic—became British. But so much for American scripts; even plays with actual British dialogue present their own challenges. Here’s point number three.

3. American actors will frequently ask you how to pronounce a line of British dialogue.
Whether you’re tackling a Noel Coward comedy or an adaptation of, say, A Christmas Carol, if you are cast alongside American actors in a traditionally British play, there’s one thing you can count on: people will ask you how to pronounce a word or two in the text. This, of course, is understandable, given that you are their one and only firsthand reference point. But there is something quite unusual about an actor seeking guidance on London accents when you, yourself, are from up north. I’m sure the same is also true in reverse.

Meanwhile, with their particularly curious nature, you can bet with almost near certainty that none will ask more questions than the show’s younger actors, who are also inclined to do number four.

4. Child actors will attempt to mimic your accent.
They’ve seen Doctor Who, devoured all seven Harry Potter books and have themselves, at some point, played a role in Oliver. Their undying love for all things British and their cavalier approach to social etiquette means children will not only mimic your accent, but giggle at it from time to time. For me, this is secretly one of the most enjoyable aspects of performing in an otherwise all-American cast. After all, what could be better than convincing a group of starry-eyed children that you’re as cool as David Tennant? Certainly not the final entry on this list.

5. You might fear your accent is a white elephant during performances.
Partly because of number two on this list, and also because others have affectionately made a big deal out of your accent, you might develop a nagging doubt come show-time that your accent is some sort of white elephant projecting itself throughout the auditorium. No matter how absorbed you might be in your character, the mere notion that 300 hundred Americans are listening to you—the only actual Brit in the show—may or may not cause you to stumble over a line at some point.

See more:
What British Actors Should Know Before Moving to Hollywood
10 Things British Musicians Should Know Before Heading to America

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Laurence Brown

Laurence Brown is a British freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs a blog called Lost In The Pond, which charts the many cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.
View all posts by Laurence Brown.
  • expatmum

    It’s not just child actors who imitate you. I quite often have the very weird experience of my ten year old’s friends imitating me, without actually letting on that they’re imitating me. They’re not just unconsciously picking up my accent, they’re deliberately mimicking me but not acknowledging it. I never know quite how to respond and usually just give them a slight punch on the elbow and say “Oi, cheeky charlie”.

    • frozen01

      I have to admit, I’m just as guilty. After 3 years of being with a native Lancastrian, there are a few (hilariously random) words whose pronunciation has crept, over time, more towards his. I’ve tried to train myself back but after a while just gave up.
      A friend of mine, on the other hand, has it far worse. She’s worked all over the US and with various Brits in the movie industry for years, and her normal accent is the most cobbled-together thing you’ve ever heard. Some people have even commented on how “bad her fake British accent” is, when she’s not even *trying* to do an accent at all. Poor thing.

      • tikiwa

        Long, long ago, I used to live in England. I spent a lot of time with the locals, as opposed to spending all of my time with other Americans on the RAF base. As time passed, I realized I was developing a bit of an English accent. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but when most of your conversations are with someone with a different accent, then most of what you hear in your own head has that accent. Eventually it begins to come out of your mouth. My American friends told me I was getting an English accent, and my English friends said I was losing my American accent. I loved that!

        On another note, if you are British, and I think English in particular, I would like to let you know that as Americans, we dearly love your accent. We can’t help ourselves. As soon as you open your mouths, we are entranced by you. I don’t know why, but we absolutely adore you. It’s in our blood, it’s in our bones. So please don’t be offended by people asking about or mimicking the way you speak. I assure you, it is universally a compliment.

  • expatmum

    I’ve also had the odd experience of being told how to to a British accent by Americans. I’ve done a few voice overs where a Brit accent was required; last one was pretending to be a news announcer. British anchors and reporters have a very different delivery and cadence from their American equivalent, so I did that. The director kept stopping me and telling me to do it “like this” and then proceeded to do the American version. Sigh.

  • ProudYankee

    On the bright side, the corollary of number 5 is that if you’re a bad actor, everyone will be too enthralled with your accent to notice!

  • Amy

    I pick up accents very easily, When i was in Europe I could not stop rolling my rrrrrrs but I can rarely do that at home in the states. My now ex-husband was furious at my change in accents and demanded I go back to my usually way to talking but I could not stop it.