Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Interview with Voice Coach Nancy Benjamin

By Simon Hodgson

“Every single play that I pick up has its own accents,” says A.C.T.’s Co–Head of Voice and Dialects Nancy Benjamin. “The actors, the director, and the coaches have to figure out what that accent is and do it authentically.” Before she started working on Stoppard’s The Hard Problem—playing until November 13 at The Geary Theater—we sat down with Benjamin to talk about acting and accents.

Nancy Benjamin works with M.F.A. Program actors Emily Brown,
Alan Littlehales, and Albert Rubio. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
How important are the accents in The Hard Problem as an identifier of character?

Accents and dialects help us understand the culture of the play, the environment, the status of the characters, their education, their place of origin, and how they identify themselves. Specifically with The Hard Problem, once I understand where the character comes from, their age, and their level of education, then the accent or dialect comes from that. Our accents, our way of speaking, is so integral to how we think about ourselves. Our word choice, our word order, the sounds we prefer, all of those reinforce how we show ourselves to the world, but it also colors how the world sees us.

How is dialect work different between stage and screen?

This is going to sound really perverse, but I will buy a dialect in theater if the level of commitment is there. If dialect work is shaky in film, it bothers me a lot more than if it’s not nailed in theater, because film actors have so many opportunities to get it right. In theater, you have to get it right every night. And you’re probably not living in the accent that you’re doing onstage. The challenge is much greater.

What TV shows or films do you recommend to actors working with British accents?

If I’m working with old-school Received Pronunciation [a general British accent traditionally associated with elite socioeconomic groups], which I would use for anything from Noël Coward to George Bernard Shaw, then I’m going to look to older films like Brief Encounter (1945). In terms of more modern films, I’d choose anything with Emma Thompson (she’s wonderful) or Alan Rickman. And Downton Abbey.

The Hard Problem is playing at The Geary Theater until November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To learn more about Benjamin, Stoppard, and the hard problem, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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