Accents at the TONY'S

Are you as excited as I am for this year's Tony Awards? There are SOOO many exciting shows this year! Around this time every year, one of my favorite things to do is investigate how many ACCENT shows have been acknowledged. Whether in new exciting pieces, or revived treasures from the past, accents are everywhere in the world of theater, and Broadway reminds us of this every year!

Here’s a complete guide to the ACCENTS in this year’s Tony-nominated shows:

"The Ferryman" by Jez Butterworth
ACCENTS: Northern Ireland

"Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus" by Taylor Mac
ACCENTS: Standard British (RP), Cockney

"Ink" by James Graham
ACCENTS: Standard British (RP), Estuary, Yorkshire, Australian

"Burn This" by Lanford Wilson
ACCENTS: New Jersey

"Torch Song" by Harvey Fierstein
ACCENTS: New York City

"The Waverly Gallery" by Kenneth Lonergan

“To Kill A Mockingbird”
ACCENTS: Alabama (Southern)

ACCENTS: Standard British

“King Lear”
ACCENTS: Various British

Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"
ACCENTS: Oklahoma (Southern)

ACCENTS: Jamaican and others

ACCENTS: Southern, NYC

“The Cher Show”
ACCENTS: Midwest, Southern, California

Choosing An Accent Show


Spring shows are in full swing these days! Whether you're just about to open, or curtain is already up, one thing is clear--we're in the express lane to SUMMER! Now, I've heard from many teachers that this is a great time to start looking into next year's season. This is always exciting to me! If you're considering doing an ACCENT show next year, I have some helpful information to consider:

1) What’s HOT right now?
According to Playbill, these are the most popular high school musicals and plays from 2017 and 2018:

Beauty and the Beast 
The Addams Family 
The Little Mermaid 
Into the Woods 
Little Shop of Horrors 
The Wizard of Oz 

Almost, Maine
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Peter and the Starcatcher
Alice in Wonderland 
Our Town
12 Angry Jurors
The Crucible
Arsenic and Old Lace 
A Christmas Carol 

Radium Girls 

You’ll notice that I’ve put some of these titles in bold… These are the titles that will provide some fantastic opportunities for accent work. As you can see, there’s quite a few of them!

2) The impact of accents:
Let’s face it—you’re probably not choosing a show JUST for the accents. You’re choosing a show because something about it speaks to you! The opportunity for accent work is a bonus for actors and audiences, and here’s why:

Actors: will have more opportunities to challenge themselves creatively, learn about other cultures, and stimulate parts of their brains that are normally used in acquiring second languages!

Audiences: will be treated to a complete, authentic, multi-sensory representation of this world that you and your actors have worked so hard to create.

3) Rehearsing with accents
Congratulations! You’ve chosen an exciting show that you and your students are going to LOVE! You’ve also decided to include all of the suggested accents that go along with this show! Remember that learning an accent takes TIME! Give your actors at least a whole month to feel comfortable with their accents. The earlier the better when it comes to learning accents!

4) Accent resources
Here are a couple of professional accent resources for you and your students:

YouTube clips: It’s always a great idea to start by listening to people speaking naturally in the target accent. Here are examples of some popular accents!

Accent Study Guide: I’ve created the Accent Study Guide—a show-specific resource that’s designed uniquely for middle and high school theater students! The Accent Study Guide will take you and your actors from start to finish through the accent-acquisition process for YOUR SHOW! For more information, please visit

Music To My Ears


One very popular question that students love to ask is whether they should "drop" the accent when they sing in musicals. As I'm sure you can imagine, I definitely have some thoughts on this! But when I started putting these thoughts into this blog post, I began to see a very interesting comparison:

Accents are exactly like musical theater songs!

I think it’s important to remember why we pay attention to accents in musicals in the first place. Accents are an incredible tool that we’re able to use to create even more vibrant worlds for audiences. Accents help us tell the story. I think that by “dropping” an accent in the songs of a show, we run the risk of halting the story’s progression. It wouldn’t make sense for a character with an accent to suddenly "drop” or “lose” that accent just because she’s now singing a song—think of how jarring that would be to audiences! You and your actors have worked so hard to develop truthful, authentic characters from a specific part of the world… why should music change these characters? Both songs AND accents Songs help move the story forward in the world of musical theater.

What the doctor did NOT prescribe!


Have you ever taken an Alexander class? For anyone not in the know, the Alexander technique was created by Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander as a way to help us retrain movement and posture. The outcome is anything from blissful relaxation to an emotional breakthrough! I studied Alexander briefly in college, and I was incredibly lucky to revisit it recently at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, of all places. One of my favorite moments of the class was discovering how Alexander and accents meet... through TEACHING! As I watched this incredibly talented teacher work with various puppeteers’ aching arms and shoulders, I was amazed by something he said… “Keep moving your arm (through space), we’re just exploring together.” Exploring! There could not have been a more comprehensive word! Exploring is the perfect way to approach anything new—whether it’s spinal movement, or oral posture! I’ve been trying to use exploration in my teaching for a while now. I find it invaluable, especially when it comes to exploring the sounds, and feelings of various accents. Rather than instructing a student to do something (prescribing), it’s much more powerful to explore the new sounds and elements of accents… together. Remember that we all have different anatomies, and that our mouths most likely will have subtle differences. I’ve found that taking students on a guided, exploratory tour through accents produces fantastic results!

Let's Get Physical!


Last month I had the absolute pleasure of sitting in on a puppetry workshop at the annual Maryland Thespian Festival. I learned a lot about moving within a space, point of focus, and the importance of connecting speech to movement. Puppetry, as we all know, is very visual… In order to create the illusion of a puppet’s speech patterns, the puppet’s head might be choreographed to tilt, or even turn slightly in various directions. For instance, to indicate a word with the “LONG O” vowel sound, a puppet’s head might move slightly to the left. I was FASCINATED by this! I loved the idea that a slight tilt or turn was enough to communicate a specific sound! And I immediately connected the dots… Puppetry speech is very physical because SPEECH is very physical! I think it’s very easy to forget this. Our lips, tongues, soft palates, and uvulas are all features of our vocal tracts that we physically use every day in order to speak. And just like any other muscles of the body, they need to be trained, warmed-up, and drilled on a regular basis. The more we understand the physical features of our vocal tracts, the more capable we are of using them for different movements and patterns. And different movements and patterns will help us later on when it comes to learning ACCENTS!



Would you believe me if I told you that the “SHORT A” vowel sound has many different pronunciations in this country? When we learn how to read, this sound is most often taught like this:

In the speech world, you’ll often hear the word LAX used to describe this version of the “SHORT A” vowel sound. This basically means that your tongue is reLAXed, and lower in your mouth.

…but not all of us use this sound 100% of the time!

Have you ever heard someone from New York City say BATH like this:

What about someone from Philadelphia say the word AFTER like this:

Back in the speech world, you might hear the word TENSE used to describe this version of the “SHORT A” vowel sound. This terms suggests that you’re raising, or tensing your tongue while pronouncing this sound.

Now here’s the confusing part… very often you’ll find regional American accents that use BOTH lax and tense versions of the “SHORT A” vowel sound—such as Philadelphia! So when are the “SHORT A” vowel words tense, and when are they lax? Well, in order to answer this question, we have to look at the sounds (or letters) that come immediately after the “SHORT A.”

Here are a couple of examples:








1) Show the following clip to your students:


Ask them to draw 2 columns on a sheet of paper, and label them “LAX” and “TENSE.” Play the clip again and ask them to write down the “SHORT A” words they hear in the appropriate columns

2) Ask them to find their OWN examples of people speaking with the “LAX-TENSE SPLIT.” (Hint: pay attention to New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore/Washington, DC areas!)

Cot-Caught Merger


Say the word COT.

Now say the word CAUGHT.

Do you hear the same vowel sound in these words, or is it slightly different?

What about the following sets of words:



When you say them, do they have the same vowel sound—like this:


…or are you hearing two totally different sounds?


Both of the above options highlight a fun feature of the General American accent called the “Cot-Caught Merger.” This basically means that in some parts of the country these two sounds will be pronounced differently, while in other parts, they sound exactly the same (the two sounds have merged together).

So what parts of the country merge the two sounds (and what parts keep them separate)? Take a look at this “Cot-Caught Merger” map! The green dots indicate a merger, and the dark blue dots indicate a separation.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether your area is represented by a green dot, or a dark blue dot—both pronunciations are correct! What DOES matter is that you understand and know this feature of your own speech. When YOU say COT and CAUGHT, do they sound similar, or different? Knowing how you naturally speak will only help more as you start to explore features of other accents!


1) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who speaks with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

2) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who does NOT speak with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

3) Encourage your students to make a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) COT, and a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) CAUGHT

Know Thy Accent!


According to the Linguistic Society of America, an accent is the way a person sounds when they speak. "When they speak" are the key words. We all speak, and therefore we ALL have an accent--no matter where we're from. So before diving into a new accent, I think it's really helpful to know the features of our OWN accents! Why?...

Let’s start with inflection! Here are some examples:

With a General American accent, phrases typically end on a downward inflection:


With an Australian accent, phrases might often end on an upward inflection!
Listen to Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski say:
“It’s one of the best characters I’ve ever played in my life.”



Here’s an exercise to use with your students: ask them to choose up to 5 characters in any of the TV shows they’re currently watching, and observe the inflection patterns of those characters.

Question Mark.jpg

Questions for them to ask:

  1. Do most of the sentences end on an upward or downward note?

  2. Do the YES/NO questions end on an upward or downward note?

  3. Is there a time when the character uses an inflection in a way that sounds either different or unique?

  4. Are there any additional inflection patterns?

By having a solid understanding of our everyday inflections, it’s much easier to model inflections of other accents to our students!

Inflection is just ONE feature of accents… stay tuned to future blog updates for more!

Accents In Dialogue


VERY often in scripts, we’ll see unusually-spelled words such as:

“perfick” (perfect)—The 39 Steps
”erster” (oyster)—Newsies
”gettin” (getting)—West Side Story

I like to think that the writer is communicating accent notes directly to us! The writer is telling us that some sort of accent belongs here. We might also be able to piece together the following information:

1) Details about the rhythm, melody, or music of the character’s accent
2) The overall flavor of the character’s speech patterns
3) Some hints about the character’s culture, background, or society

Personally, I love seeing “accent clues” in scripts. The more information the better! But we do have to be careful. Sometimes in scripts, you’ll see some very interesting spellings. For example, take a look at this French accent word:

“sair” (sir)

This is what is known as a spelling approximation. A spelling approximation is an attempt to describe a specific pronunciation of a word using a traditional written alphabet. The problem with spelling approximations is that the written letters of English can only do so much to communicate the true accent sound.  (Be on the lookout for more about this in an upcoming blog post!) The writer is giving us her/his interpretation of the sound, rather than the authentic sound itself. So it’s always an excellent idea to cross-reference accent notes in scripts with audio examples of authentic speakers (primary resources). Let the spellings in the script inform you of the presence of accent, and THEN let authentic clips and examples reinforce the accent!