What I Learned About Life in Voiceover Class

When you try something new, you never know what will happen

Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Like many people, I’m not crazy about hearing recordings of my voice. But I’m kind of a jump-in-first, ask-questions-later sort of person, and I had started a podcast. I definitely wanted to improve my delivery, so when I saw an offering for a crash course in voiceovers with Andy Roth, one of the top voiceover casting directors in New York City, I leapt at the opportunity.

That Sunday, I arrived at the famed Ripley Grier Studios on the seedy outskirts of the theater district. I followed other people through the lobby, past a warren of doors to an inner room where class would be held. It had a sound booth, professional recording equipment and enough mismatched chairs to accommodate 10 actors.

Roth, who had the prowl and biceps of a bantamweight boxer, introduced himself. Early on, he said that when we aced an audition, the clients would think we were great, but more importantly that he was a genius and use him again. He would repeat this mantra several times during the class. Then he asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves.

You know how you go and adopt a puppy? You choose one over the other? That doesn’t mean the other puppies have failed. That’s how casting works.

— Casting director Andy Roth

Amateur Hour

I went first: “I’m probably never going to do this professionally,” I began. “I’m only here because I just started a radio show and I thought I’d get some good feedback on my voice.”

“What makes you think you’ll never do this?” Roth fired back. The question surprised me. But he’s a genius casting director, and who am I to question that?

Andy RothCredit: Photo by Ari Espay and Liza
Andy Roth
As we went around the room, it was just as I suspected: most of my colleagues had impressive acting cred. (Once they got in the booth I wondered why they bothered with class at all because most were so good they could have been on the air now.) What I wasn’t expecting was that we would be reading actual copy in front of each other, just as we would in an audition. Why on earth did I think that this would be some sort of theoretical lecture? I hadn’t been on stage since my college days in the early ’70s. Now I had to perform in front of seasoned professionals.

Oops. Well, it was too late now. Besides, I told myself, if I wait until I’m perfect, I will never achieve anything.

The Puppy Principle

Roth loves voiceover because it’s the “friendliest” business in showbiz. He assured us that if you don’t get booked on a job, it’s not because you failed. He compared it to selecting puppies. “You know how you go and adopt a puppy?” he asked. “You choose one over the other? That doesn’t mean the other puppies have failed. That’s how casting works.

“When you walk into an audition room, everything is designed to help you,” he explained. “When you get called in, it’s because of your age, genetics, skill set and personality. There’s nothing you can do to screw these up. If you’re in there, you’re right for it. You don’t have to prove anything.

“Your biggest obstacle is fear,” he continued. “Don’t think beyond the room and the person you’re in the room with. If you’re getting auditions, you’re doing something right.”

Roth had lots of advice about auditioning, as well as all sorts of other observations. A number of his statements could apply to life in general (“Successful people tend to think they’re right. Less successful people think other people are right.”). He invoked Occam’s razor and Zeno’s paradox. He knew his Shakespeare, too. He was a fount of wisdom. He was also kind of scary.

Follow Your Instincts

Regarding auditions, Roth said we should heed the following three rules:

  1. The difference between instinct and rational thought is that instinct is usually right. Instinct is everything you are that you don’t know that you are. If rational thought doesn’t have a job, it questions everything (and screws it up).
  2. Direction is not correction. It never means you did anything wrong. You’re not asked to be right, you’re supposed to be you.
  3. Auditions are not about perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. Don’t pursue perfection.

Solo Time

The workshop was divided into three parts: solo readings, two-person readings and animation.

Here, Roth really shone. He shuffled through some pages of ad copy. Then he handed each of us a script. His choice suited each student perfectly.

One by one, the actors filed into the booth and read into a giant microphone. Roth paced back and forth as he listened. Then he would give directions: “Do it faster. Go!” he snapped, punching the keyboard to record.

One woman talked so fast it was as though the tape sped up. She sounded exactly like any announcer you would hear on a national ad. Everybody was at least good; a few people were great.

Then came my turn. I regretted being the last to go, but everybody else was volunteering and I could have, too. It would have been a lot better for my nerves if I had just gotten it over with instead of sitting and waiting while my betters killed their copy.

I entered the room and looked at the earphones sitting on the podium. Did I need them? I put them on — only to discover that if I wasn’t wearing them, I couldn’t hear what Roth was saying. Everybody else had known what to do.

I was reading an ad for printer ink. The copy was riddled with clichés, so I figured they probably wanted a slightly sarcastic take on it, which is what I did. And he said everything would be there to help us, but I felt like I was in front of a firing squad.

“Faster!” Roth commanded. Then, “Again!” and “Again!” He was in drill sergeant mode. But I did as he said, and even though I stumbled on a word or two, it sounded and felt much better when I went fast.

Role Reversal

Next came the duos. Person A read one part, Person B the other — then switched roles. Here it got really interesting, because the actors had different takes on how the line should be read. In one couple’s scenario, a line didn’t make any sense until one woman nailed it with the exact right tone.

My partner had a wonderful, slightly sandpapery Eartha Kitt-enish voice. I loved her immediately and she was really easy to work with. I felt much more relaxed with a partner in the booth.

The Amazon Queen

The last part of class was the best: we read roles for animations. Roth told us to study the cartoons and caricatures on the scripts very carefully because they were full of clues about how to portray the character. He cautioned us to choose a voice and attitude that we could sustain for eight hours.

“Anger, sadness and fear are boring,” he declared. “If anger is your choice, choose dark sarcasm. Fear is weak. Anger is a complete loss of power. Anger works in short spurts, but laughter and sarcasm can last forever,” he counseled.

My character was the Amazon Queen, tyrant of the tribe of blondes. She was “a vixen who had never laid eyes on a man before two them were caught and brought back to her village.”

Up until now, I had inklings about Roth’s brilliance, but this clinched it. This role would be a piece of cake. Queens don’t have to impress anybody, they don’t have to please — everybody’s already doing what they say no matter what. I wrapped myself up in my Moroccan shawl, strode into the booth and started barking orders to my minions.

Roth suggested an imperious flounce. I could do that.

When class finished, I was astonished that a few people congratulated me on my work. They seemed sincere. Maybe it was my don’t-even-think-about-disobeying-me attitude, or maybe they really thought it was good. But when the audio files finally arrived a few days later, I still didn’t like the sound of my voice. Every less-than-perfect nuance stood out like a neon sign.

Maybe Roth was onto something about me getting into the business, though. Despite my failings — and serious questions about my talent — I would adore doing voiceovers. It’s the most fun I’ve had in ages.

By Deborah Quilter
Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book.

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