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By Brian Robin

Teaching the Art of the Accent

David Nevell grew up in Brea, if not exactly in the shadow of SCR, shadow adjacent. As a boy, he remembers the voices coming to him from the stage. Voices like SCR Founding Member Richard Doyle, who entranced Nevell with his command of voices, characters and the moment.

The voices never left him. Nor did the love of theatre those voices nurtured. They led him down a winding path of college, grad school, a residency, teaching gigs in New York and Southern California and eventually back to the SCR stage, where he returns as the dialect coach for A Christmas Carol, now playing through Dec. 24 on the Segerstrom Stage.

Here, Nevell works with the actors, helping them develop proper British accents reflecting their social standing. For most of the characters, that’s an accent called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is the standard British English accent found in Southern England, including Victorian London. For a few others, specifically the Scavengers, that’s the Cockney accent common to the British lower classes then and now.

Received Pronunciation requires American actors to change their intonational patterns. Nevell explained that Americans emphasize words by speaking them louder, while adding emphasis to every other word and trailing off the sound toward the end of sentences. In RP, Nevell teaches the actors to elongate vowels and emphasize far fewer words. An RP sentence would emphasize no more than two syllables per sentence. But the vowels would sound different because they’re elongated.

The Head of Voice and Movement and the MFA Program Coordinator in the Theatre and Dance Department at Cal State Fullerton, Nevell came on last year, after SCR Artistic Director David Ivers and A Christmas Carol Director Hisa Takakuwa decided that more authenticity was needed in making audiences feel like Victorian London of the 1840s was unwinding in front of them.

“In theatre, it’s traditional for people who do what I do to be called a dialect coach. But it’s more accurate to call me an accent coach,” he said. “The difference between dialect and accent is the accent is how it sounds and how it’s pronounced. Dialects are a much larger category. That encompasses idiomatic phrases and slang, possibly only understood by people who are from that particular place.”

Nevell said the entire cast made spectacular progress picking up the new accents.

But there was a larger issue in play.

“It’s always a balancing act between the authenticity and the audience understanding the story, but what’s more important is the audience understanding the story. We start with what is the authentic sound: what would a British person sound like? Then, we make adjustments between me, the actor and the director.

“We’re doing the accent work, but we have great storytellers here who are making it clear to the audience. Hisa is terrific at valuing the audience’s understanding of the story. … We’re doing all this authentic accent work and if the audience doesn’t understand the story, we failed.”

The balancing act worked well, starting with Doyle’s Ebenezer Scrooge. Nevell said that Doyle is so skilled with accents that “I have very few notes for him.”

To get Doyle and the rest of the cast to that point, Nevell begins the process by creating packets of information and audio recordings the actors can download to their phones. The recordings are Nevell going through the particular rules for the accent, then leaving time gaps on the recording for the actor to repeat the sound.

Nevell follows up with hour-long tutorial sessions with each actor, then meets with actors in pairs, such as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit or Young Ebenezer and Belle, for more work. As he watches various runs of the production, Nevell takes notes and gives them to the actors afterward.

As you might imagine, from watching such shows as “The Crown,” “Downton Abbey” and “Peaky Blinders,” British accents vary based on context. Nevell used the Cratchits as an example.

“The Cratchits are doing what we call ‘polite London.’ People who lived in Victorian Era London needed to adjust,” he said. “When they are at home, they speak one way, but when they go to work, they have to adjust their accent a little bit to be in a service position.”

The position Nevell finds himself in as dialect coach for A Christmas Carol, as well as Taking Steps (2008), Noises Off (2009) and Shakespeare in Love (2018), and as an actor in A Raisin in the Sun (2023), Peter and the Starcatcher (2015) and Shakespeare in Love (2018) is one that someone who grew up SCR-shadow adjacent cherishes.

“I grew up as a boy going to SCR … and every time I open the program and see my name in the program, I have to pinch myself,” he said. “One reason I decided to make a theatre career is because of SCR and what David (Emmes), Martin (Benson), and yes, Richard Doyle created. To be able to work with him as I have is a joy. I worked with all of the Founding Members over the years and it’s really meaningful for me.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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