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Actor accent smackdown: US vs. UK

Posted by Laura Collins-Hughes  March 6, 2011 12:17 PM

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In a world inundated with American pop culture, logic would seem to dictate that British actors have a certain edge over their Yank counterparts. Aren't they, as a product of that constant exposure, better at performing American accents and manners across a range of classes than actors from the US are at doing British accents and manners?

We figured that London director Maria Aitken ("The 39 Steps"), who has taught ultra-British, ultra-verbal high comedy at the Juilliard School, New York University, and the Yale School of Drama, ought to know. Her cast for Willy Russell's terribly English play, "Educating Rita," which begins previews Friday at the Huntington Theatre Company, consists of two actors, both Americans, each of whom she's worked with before.

Here's Aitken's verdict:

"It's interesting," she said. "I think it's two-tiered. Of course we've been exposed to American culture forever, and obsessed with it, and we aspire to it. So, yes, we hear it, see it, yearn for it. You know, there's no question of that. But we don't technically perform it with anything like the ease or the skill that those [American] actors who can play English people do. The drama schools here teach it really, really well.... English actors in American plays, they don't always bother me, but it's not universally terribly well done. If you were in London and you went to see an American play, your ear would hurt. No question. Whereas there are not just a handful, I know many [American] actors who do astonishing English accents of different periods and different classes. That sort of refinement, the idea that you could do four or five different American accents -- well, of course English actors come to Hollywood and turn themselves into Americans. They do that. But generally speaking, if you were to go to the West End or to Broadway and watch, I think the Americans do it better. I think Americans are technically dazzling. There are some drama schools here that send them out into the world incredibly well equipped. I mean, I'm really impressed by it. And I love working with American actors. I think if you can't get it out of them, it's probably my fault, you know, not theirs. Because I think that if they're good -- and I've chosen them for their apparent talent -- their training is generally exceptional."

For more on Aitken and her Huntington production of "Educating Rita," see our Q&A with her in today's Boston Globe.

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Culture Desk is a blog that serves to highlight both local and national stories of interest in the worlds of art, music, movies, TV, theater and more. Most items are written by writers and editors from The Boston Globe arts and culture staff.

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