Moderation and Character Development
Today I auditioned for a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. We had to perform a song. (Which in my case went horribly -- the piano was so out of tune I couldn't even tell if I was singing the melody correctly, let alone worry about details of intonation and delivery! And the pianist apparently wasn't familiar with the song I performed -- Cabaret -- because rather than the driving beat that is called for, she was using full pedal and a lush, romantic style. Picture a cross between Amazing Grace and Liza Minelli. Agh!)
Anyway, when it got to the reading part, the director asked for a Jewish accent. (I assume he meant a Yiddish accent, but we won't nit pick here.) As the people in front of me read (with noticeably MidWestern accents, lol) I debated whether to lay it on thick -- the stereotype of a Jewish mother -- or whether to paint the accent with a lighter brush -- noticable, but not a caricature. I chose to do the latter, which is, of course, not only harder to do, but which also leaves open the possibility that you're being so subtle the audience doesn't notice it.
I find the same dilmena in writing characters from other cultures. It is easy to make them a caricature of that culture, but tricky to write them subtly and with nuance, and often people think that you just haven't bothered to try to make them different or that you aren't aware of the stereotypical images.
For instance, I've written pieces about Muslims only to have people tell me, "Don't you know, Timothy isn't a Muslim name." It is if your character happens to be a convert who didn't change his name. Similarly, when I wrote about a Catholic character who was quite extreme in his beliefs, people told me, Catholics aren't like that. Sure, most of them aren't (which was mentioned in the piece) but some sure are, like, say, Mel Gibson.
I find that a lot of sci-fi that draws from other cultures or which depicts alien species and their cultures tends to gravitate towards the more caricature-like renditions -- the characters tend to be boldly drawn, the cultures very rigid. Kind of like the Jewish mother-in-law from Planet X.
I wonder if my attempts at subtlety will be perceived as a weak characterization or a nuanced one. I wonder if my audience, like the director, who didn't think about the fact that a lot of Jews don't have Yiddish accents, won't appreciate or even understand the subtlety I'm trying to create. I have a nagging feeling my audition would have been better appreciated if I'd put on the broadest accent I could muster, rather than confining it to a few words with appropriate gestures. I hope my writing won't suffer from the same fate!