Published Online: February 8, 2005
Published in Print: February 9, 2005, as Theater Class Stirs Debate Over Accent

Rural Education

Theater Class Stirs Debate Over Accent

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A theater class in rural eastern Kentucky has seen more publicity than organizers could ever have imagined. The reason: They were teaching young Appalachian performers to get rid of native accents.

The Associated Press picked up on the story and quoted some local folks criticizing the class, which was designed to help students learn diverse acting roles. Some observers said children’s mountain accents were more precious than embarrassing, no matter what stars in Hollywood think.

But the theater troupe said critics had it all wrong. Lois Leslie, the executive assistant at the Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg, Ky., said some people were offended by an e-mail that advertised a class for young people on adapting dialects in theater.

Some readers “thought we were encouraging local middle school and high school students to shy away from their culture, which was never, ever the intent,” she said.

Discussion of native accents, especially in parts of the South, has been a sticky issue for educators and parents, not just thespians.

Dee Davis, the president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit organization based in Whitesburg, Ky., said that the Appalachian region has seen one of the largest out-migrations of people in U.S. history. In such a region, losing an accent has been an important way of fitting into new communities.

But more business people and educators are seeing value in keeping accents and cultural roots, Mr. Davis said.

“There’s a lot of joy in listening to people tell stories, and speaking to each other in the local accent,” said Mr. Davis, whose group provides marketing assistance for community-development groups and pushes for national attention on rural policy issues.

He said students should learn about other accents from across the nation, including the array of dialects in the South. Learning about regional accents around the world can be a valuable teaching tool, he added. In other words, learning about the outside world can help young people value the places they come from—even if they never leave them.

Vol. 24, Issue 22, Page 12

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