Rebecca Atkinson-Lord speaks with an accent that she stole. Her family all have Wolverhampton accents, but her parents’ decision to send to private school meant that she adopted a voice that endowed her with a social status above the rest of her family. It allowed her to ‘pass’ as part of the elite and has benefited her career, her relationships and numerous other areas of her life.
Her reflection on her voice and tribute to the rich history of the West Midlands and Black Country is a moving acknowledgement of the deep-seated bias and associations between accent and social class in Britain. Though not confrontational, it asks the audience to reflect on their own attitudes towards people and the way they speak.
‘I won’t put you up for anything other than American roles until you fix your accent.’
These words from my agent still sit heavily in my memory even though they were said a decade ago and I’ve since given up acting. I did it – I ‘fixed’ my accent, so I could widen my work opportunities. It was also easier to fit in, too.
Without doing so, there was no way I would have ever been cast in the Shakespeare and classical theatre I trained to do, not whilst working in the UK in the mid-2000s. The neutral but noticeably American broadness and hard r’s evoked immediate disdain from casting directors because, being American, my training was not perceived as being as good as British actors – even though my Master’s is from the UK. I trained at the Globe and the RSC, but could I get seen for their productions?
Could I fuck.
The industry snobbery was an endless frustration whilst I was still party to it. Now, my neutral, Southern England accent carries other implications. Like Rebecca, I’m immediately signposted as educated, intelligent and worldly. I’m also assumed to be British. And being white, no one has asked me where I’m REALLY from, and I’ve been told on numerous occasions that ‘I’m not one of THOSE immigrants.’ I’ve never been told to get out, or go back to my country.
So Atkinson-Lord’s story of her upbringing and ties to where she’s from resonates with me still, several days after seeing it. It’s a rare show that does that in the Fringe daily routine of, ‘show, write, show, write, show, show, write, sleep’. I can’t tell you what else I saw that day, or since, without looking at my colour coded spreadsheet. But I can still see Rebecca schooling us about our accent prejudices and how they make us judge the people we meet as soon as they open their mouths.
I’m ok with having changed my accent. I didn’t feel forced into it, and I am conscious of the advantage my new voice has given me. But I recognise that by choosing to change my accent and keeping it after no longer needing to do so is a rejection of where I’m from and the cultural history of my country.
The Class Project runs through 27 August.
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