Australian voice coach Leith McPherson on how she gets our actors to speak like Elves, Hobbits and Scots
McPherson taught language (Elvish and Orcish) and accents (to Hobbits and wizards) on the set of The Hobbit trilogy. (Supplied: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc./James Fisher)
When you first meet Leith McPherson, you might think — from her accent — that you’re talking to an Australian who’s done a stint abroad.
But the next moment you’re not quite sure if you’re talking to a New York cab driver, an American cowboy, or even a Hobbit.
McPherson is able to shift seamlessly between accents, shaping her mouth around the sounds and tones of people from Earth to Middle-earth.
That’s because McPherson is a voice and accent coach.
“I work with actors to really build a character’s voice,” she explains, “so from the ground up you’re trying to help the actor to embody a character, which is often an act of transformation.”
McPherson is currently the voice and accent coach on the Melbourne production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Supplied: Tim Carrafa)
She’s taught the elves and orcs of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, but mainly works in theatre: she’s a regular at Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), and at the moment, she’s working with the Australian cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ahead of its Melbourne debut.
McPherson is also a senior lecturer in theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).
So how does one become an accent coach? What are the hardest accents to master? And why is voice so important in theatre?
Becoming a voice and accent coach
“Accent was always a passion from childhood; I was a mimic,” says McPherson.
She originally trained in acting in her home state of Queensland, but ended up studying voice at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
That course educated her in the “components of communication through voice and language”, she says: “So training the voice itself in terms of its flexibility and strength, but also the components of language that help an actor to engage with the way that the character expresses themselves.”
After she graduated she started teaching in London: poetry, phonetics, accents, acting skills, Shakespearean language — “all the different aspects of what a voice coach ends up needing to do,” she explains.
These days, McPherson juggles regular MTC gigs with teaching, but says accent and voice coaches are often the last people hired on a crew — and are often afforded little time to do their job.
McPherson is inundated with requests — the biggest of which has been working on The Hobbit movie trilogy where she juggled sets and post-production studios, teaching language (Elvish and Orcish), and accents (to Hobbits and wizards).
“You get a certain degree of licence with something like that because it is a fantastical world,” she says. “You’re not trying to say ‘This person is definitely from Leeds and we will rise or fall by that authenticity’ — you’re trying to create a vocal landscape.”
Submerging and soaking in patterns
McPherson has an arsenal of accents that she regularly teaches actors, including General American, Received Pronunciation (or Standard English), Dubliner, New Yorker and various Londoner varieties.
“Then you get something like a person who is Swedish by birth but is living in 1918 Saskatchewan, Canada.”
McPherson lives for a challenge like that.
“I have no circuitry for that; so you just clear a path in your brain,” she says.
McPherson trained the cast of MTC’s 2018 production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in a “dialled-up” version of Received Pronunciation. (Supplied: MTC/Jeff Busby)
To learn a new accent, McPherson says she must “submerge” herself in it — by listening to clips of people talking, preferably about something quite banal.
She consults linguistic research and listens to interviews from a range of places including the British Library and the New York Times.
“I soak in it until I’m hearing patterns — the repetition of certain sounds in certain places,” says McPherson.
This is often not a natural process for her students: “When you’re first working with an actor they can sometimes feel like it’s just a wall of different sounds,” she says.
“So you need to help their brain to do what their brain is built to do: to recognise patterns.”
She helps her students “break down the rules [of the accent] … and help them to shift the vowel sounds, shift the consonant sounds, then start to piece that together with the tune of the accent”.
Genuine doesn’t always equal authentic
McPherson loves teaching southern US, Irish and New Yorker accents, but some accents are harder to teach than others.
“The Australian accent is really hard to teach people because it’s at the intersection of a number of different accents,” she says.
For Australian actors, she says, Scottish is particularly tricky: “[It] has a very different constellation of vowel placements compared to most of the sounds that we make.”
McPherson’s biggest tip for actors trying to get their mouths around a foreign accent is to observe the accent rather than judging it.
“There’s a person speaking that accent, it’s not the stereotype speaking that accent. So you have to find their truth.”
There are some accents that McPherson won’t teach: “I question as to who has the right to play other characters,” she explains.
“This is a really important question, and there is no definitive answer to it, but … it’s also not my place to give or take work from someone.”
She had direct experience with this issue while working in the UK in the late 1990s, when it was controversial to teach English people how to play Irish characters.
McPherson knows she’s done her job well when no one notices her work.
“You don’t want people to come away saying ‘What a great accent’ — you want them to have focused on the story,” she explains.
Sometimes that means meandering a little bit from a genuine accent.
“Often genuine isn’t authentic to our audiences,” says McPherson, citing negative audience reactions to an accurate Irish accent in MTC’s 2015 production of The Weir.
This tiny instrument
Another key part of McPherson’s job is training actors in voice work, though she says this aspect of her job is less valued in Australia than in other countries.
“We don’t have a tradition in European Australian society of great oratory … and I think this is also colliding with 20th-century acting tradition, where the mumble is seen as the authentic acting.”
Also, Australian stage performers generally use hairline mics, so audiences rarely hear their naturally amplified voice.
McPherson describes this as a “tragedy”: “The performances diminish; they become filmic actors who work for the distance between themselves and their fellow actors onstage — they’re not thinking about the person who’s at the back of the theatre.”
Even so, McPherson says there is still value in voice work for Australian performers: “I try to give actors an instrument that will express the words of the writer, through the voice of the character, in a way that is generous enough for everyone in that theatre to feel connected to,” she explains. “And a mic can’t do that — a mic will only make mumbling louder.”
She tells her students: “This tiny instrument that’s sitting inside your body can take you and your audience to extraordinary places if you know how to use it.”