How to learn an accent overnight...
As an actor myself, I get it. You have spent most of your adult life and part of your teens training, studying, practicing, creating, and networking all in the hope that the net result will be someone offering you a job. You have worked hard and invested in extra classes to expand your abilities and really own the skills you put on your resume, even if you've gotten a bit rusty in some of them or haven't quite got around to mastering others yet. The belief that you can learn any skill and do anything asked of you with just a little prep time still resonates deep within. It's ingrained into the fabric of actors everywhere.
Can you ride a horse? Yes. Just give me a couple days.
Can you play guitar? Yes. I can brush up on the songs I've learned.
Can you dance well? Yes. You should have seen me last weekend.
Can you learn 9 pages of dialogue by tomorrow morning? Absolutely.
Can you do it in an Australian Accent? AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!
Yes you studied accents in acting school, but they didn't teach you the one you need now or you never used it and forget how you did it. Or maybe you've never studied accents because someone told you that your natural voice was all you should ever use so there's no point. Many actors have at least tried to learn an accent at some point but without encouragement or positive feedback, quickly gave it up and decided it wasn't their “thing”. And yet, here you are. The audition is tomorrow. They want to know if you can do a mild version of the accent, nothing “over the top”. They say if you can't it's OK, but of course you are unable to bring yourself to ever say “I can't” so you inevitably say “I'll try” or “I've got this”.
Then the panic sets in.
How do you even begin!? What does the accent sound like? If you had to guess at it right now, what can you pull off? Why does it start off well and then devolve into another accent? Whose voice is this anyway? I sound like a cartoon!
Before going too far down this not-so-helpful road, my best advice is to contact someone you trust. An actor friend, a coach, a teacher, a relative, or anyone you can talk it through with and who either knows the accent or can refer you to someone who does. If you have more than a day to prepare, a professional voice coach is always the best way to go. Even if you can't meet them in person, often a Skype chat or phone call can give you a big boost in terms of your own confidence when applying the accent to the text. If you don't know such a person, or just don't have time to do anything other than working on the performance you will have to give in 15 hours, here are my 5 tips for emergency accent relief:
1. Don't procrastinate!
Work on the accent simultaneously with the character.
If you analyze the text, make a bunch of character choices, and decide how you're going to play it before working on the accent, you are setting yourself up for failure. You will sound less authentic because you are essentially preparing a character based on someone who speaks one way, then trying to change the way they speak. Better to prepare a character who speaks this way, because this is who they are! Remember: the character is not 'doing an accent', the character HAS an accent, and you are playing that character.
2. Rhythm is very important
You can spend a lot of time learning the sound changes of an accent and adjusting your pronunciation of certain words but still sound like an actor attempting an accent. My best advice here is to watch YouTube clips of people speaking the language or dialect in its home environment. You can also listen to native speakers on IDEA. Pay attention to the way they speak rather than just the sound of the words. Even if you can't understand what they're saying, hum along until you feel like you understand the musicality and flow of the language. Then apply this to the text you are learning.
3. Walk it out
Accents are closely tied to the culture of the people who have them naturally. How do people in that culture move? Do they use their hands a lot? Do they lean forward? Nod their head a lot? Find a few small gestures that will help you key into the character's rhythm and tone. You don't have to bounce off the walls. Even a subtle shift in the way you hold yourself will help you tap a whole different way of speaking.
4. Read aloud
This should be obvious. Of course you are going to practice your text out loud if you are trying to learn it in a new accent. But if verisimilitude is your goal, try reading other things as well: street signs, shop names, and news articles using the accent as well. If you can only speak the audition words in the accent, you may find it disappears when asked to try a different tactic in a redirect.
5. Get out of your head
For most actors this is just good general advice. When working on an accent it's also important to practice hearing yourself do it. Rather than just thinking about doing it. You can record yourself speaking the text in the accent, although I would use caution in this, you could end up creating a blueprint for your performance and killing the spontaneity of it. A better strategy might be to annoy your roommate/partner/spouse by speaking in this accent in conversation. If you live alone, talk to the cat, the houseplant or the poster on the wall. Make mistakes! You won't know if it sounds wrong unless you hear yourself do it. If you're brave you might even take it out into public and try ordering coffee or chatting up a bus driver using the accent. Yes you might look and feel like a crazy person, but you're an actor, you signed up for this!
And when you get there: breathe, relax, and have fun with it.
Break a leg!