This week, Let’s talk a little bit about honing your trade through training in acting classes.
For those of you that have been reading this blog regularly for the last twelve (TWELVE! – who knew I had THAT much to say!) weeks, you will have heard me harping on something over and over: Training. Like any other profession, success is determined by a couple of factors, one you can control and a couple you really can’t: Training, experience and, well, luck. The only thing you, as the talent, can really control is the training. Experience, as my dad used to say, is what you get just AFTER you needed it (he could be a pretty funny guy), and luck is completely at the mercy of the universe.
What do you really control?
To be fair, you have SOME control over your experience, after all auditioning can be counted as experience, but since we rarely, if ever, get constructive feedback on our auditions, that experience is hardly useful. Sure, you learn how to submit auditions, but the experience I am talking about is actually working on projects and learning how to take direction, or self-direct, so you book MORE jobs. THAT kind of experience only comes from working, not auditioning. So that leaves the one thing you have absolute control over and that’s training.
There are probably a million different ways for a voice actor to receive training, some good, some bad. Well, maybe not “bad” per se, but there are definitely degrees of good when it comes to training. I’ll talk some more about voice over specific training and coaching in another blog post, but for this one I’d like to concentrate on acting training.
What does a voice actor really do?
As a voice ACTOR, you are charged with bringing a character to life, to make them “real” a whole person – even in a 30 second radio spot. How do you do that? It’s definitely a skill that can be developed and honed through training. True, if you have natural talent, that makes the job easier, but even if you have ZERO natural talent (and let’s face it, there are some who have none), even though it may take longer, it can be developed.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about voice acting: this is not as easy as it seems. Sure, you sit behind a mic in a small room all by yourself so you never have to appear “in front” of your audience. But make no mistake, there IS an audience, they are just not sitting in front of you when you are on the stage. You are performing for people. At first the director or client, but then the masses who will hear your voice over the airwaves or through the internet. And you are delivering a performance that does not benefit from things like your body language or facial expression. In many ways, voice acting is MORE difficult than stage or film acting.
You may be thinking; So how do I learn to do this, to bring a character to life when the audience can’t see my face or my actions? I’m glad you asked!
How do I learn how to bring a character to life?
If you’ve done some training or coaching (and let’s face it coaching is just a form of training) with a voice over coach, they’ll have talked to you about trying to figure out from a script a couple of things; What is the point of the text? Are there any underlying themes? Who are you in the script? Who are you speaking to? WHY are you saying the things you are saying (and many scripts have you saying things most normal people would never say out loud were it not for the script)?
Essentially, what your coach is telling you to do is to develop a character. Most of the time in voice acting, you have only a short window of time to do that and get your audition submitted before the casting director is overwhelmed with submissions, so you have to learn to get good at this part. This is where acting classes come in handy.
What IS acting?
Acting for stage or screen requires you to “become” your character long enough for the audience to “suspend disbelief” and to see you as a whole person. In a play, TV show or movie, the audience only gets a very small segment of a characters life to actually see, but that character has had a full life up to the moment you first see him, and will continue to have a life after he (or she, I’ll use he because I am a he, but it applies to anyone’s pronoun of choice) walks off stage. That full life dictates how the character speaks, acts and interacts with other characters in the piece. It is that full life that determines WHO the character IS.
Think about the people you know, or even get introspective and think about yourself. Family members, friends, colleagues at work, acquaintances. Every one of them has a history, and in interacting with them you can almost predict (assuming you know them pretty well) how they will react in a given situation. I assume that like me you have met new people who you were shocked acted in a particular way only to find out there was some event in their past that made you say “OHHHHH, I get it now…that’s why he is such a…”(fill in the blank for yourself).
What makes you (and others) act the way they do?
And think about this too: YOU act somewhat (if not completely) differently around some people than you do others? Why? Because you know about them and how they act. You have particular feelings about people, or even sometimes groups of people, that cause you to interact with them in a particular way.
Are you the same person with your parents that you are with your wife? Your kids? Do you talk to your boss the same way you talk to your golfing buddies? Do you act the same way around your crazy uncle (every family has one, of you don’t know who yours is, it MAY be you!) as you do around your grandmother? Odds are: no. This in my mind, is the essence of acting, and by extension voice acting.
They key to good acting is to figure out who the character you are portraying IS, and who the other characters you are playing alongside are as well.
How do you BECOME a character?
Pretty sure everyone reading this has seen Samuel L. Jackson portray a character, and he is REALLY good at it. In his master class, Samuel L. Jackson (I’ll leave out all of his colorful language here, this IS a family friendly blog after all) talks about how he develops a character. I’ll summarize briefly so I don’t take away any revenue from him selling his master class, but in essence he tries to figure out those things I mentioned previously. How does he do that? He reads source material: If the play or movie is based on a book, he reads the book. An author can give you much more detail about the character in 300-500 pages than you can get in a 90-minute movie or a 1-hour show. He tells us that a given character, even if only appearing briefly, has “come from somewhere” and is “going somewhere”. There are motivations for what he is doing, and there are goals he is trying to achieve.
As an actor, even a voice actor, you are charged with portraying the WHOLE person. As Mr. Jackson says, every character is an entire person who came from somewhere and is going somewhere.
But what if there is NO source material? 30 or 60 second voice over scripts hardly come from some sort of source material like a novel or auto biography. What do you do THEN?
Simple. You MAKE IT UP. Yep, that’s right…you make it up. And here is a little trade secret that might help: You MAY get it wrong. Ever wonder why a particular person is or is not cast in a movie? That’s probably why. The character they are portraying is not what the director and producer(s) had in mind when they watched the audition. Even WITH source material, an actor still has to make choices about and interpret certain aspects about the character and that may or nay not be how the people making casting decisions interpreted the character.
A little perspective…
Which brings up another salient point, that may help your ego if you are not cast when you think you’ve nailed a performance: It is a process of selection, not rejection. They are not likely thinking you suck as an actor, they just liked how someone else developed the character better. So don’t get discouraged by rejection – it’s not real. They are not rejecting you, they are selecting someone else. OK, pep talk over.
All of that to say this: Acting classes are how you learn to do these things. When I first got started in acting classes (which admittedly is not very long ago) I thought “Hey, this will be pretty easy. I meet with my teacher and act out a few lines and BINGO! Trained!”. Yeah, no. Actually ACTING in my class is the least part of the class. Character development, both in class and between classes, is the order of the day. I am generally given a monologue from some play or movie, just a piece of it, with little or no directional instructions and asked to develop the character and break down the script.
Where does the character come FROM?
That means I am charged with coming up with a back story for whoever I am set to portray, and then to identify within the script how the character is feeling when delivering a particular line or set of lines (and for class, explaining WHY he feels that way). How they feel may be different from line to line, so I need to identify transitions as well. It’s a relatively simple exercise if I am unfamiliar with the piece, but MUCH more difficult if it is something familiar especially if it is from something well known or popular – it’s tough not to just mimic how the actor already portrayed this character. Try it, take the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue from A Few Good Men portrayed by Jack Nicholson and try NOT to do it the way he did. Go ahead, Ill wait.
Not so easy, right? I didn’t think so. It’s fairly straight forward to come up with a back story, at least for the bits we see IN the movie, but what about the person who existed before he shows up in the movie? What makes him act the way he does? Why is he even THERE at that particular point in time in the movie? What gives him his disdain for the Navy? How about the arrogance? There are reasons, in a real person’s life, why they act the way Nicholson’s portrayal of Colonel Jessup acted. Suffice it to say that the character you are portraying can’t just show up as a two-dimensional entity that miraculously popped onto the scene and popped back off again once his lines were delivered. They have to be a complete person with reasons for how they act, and why they are trying to achieve whatever goal they are trying to achieve.
OK, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the bit about how to find ways to train as an actor and what exactly it has to do with voice acting, right? Soo, patience grasshopper (and props to you if you get THAT reference!). All of the foregoing pontification is designed to convince you that acting classes actually ARE beneficial to a voice actor. In summary: They are.
Where do I find training?
One quick diversion before I go on, though. While acting classes, or IMPROV workshops, ARE beneficial to a voice actor, voice acting is different than stage or film acting. As a voice actor, the only arrow in your quiver is your voice (although actions and facial expressions surely come through in your voice!). You don’t have the luxury of using body language or movement or facial expressions to show your audience how you are feeling or why you are saying the things you say. While acting classes are helpful, they do not REPLACE the need for a good voice over coach or classes. I just don’t want to give the impression that taking classes for acting is the end-all-be-all for your career.
Anyway, how do you get the acting training you need? The best place to start is Google. Search for local theater groups in your area that offer acting classes, or for nearby schools that offer acting as a discipline or even degree or certificate programs. Where you get your training and how is determined largely by what is available locally and what your budget for training is. You can also get some training AND experience by volunteering in a local community theater group.
What if I am just getting started and don’t have a lot of cash?
Sure, there are some very inexpensive (sometimes free!) ways to get started in learning this trade, but the real meat of the training is going to come from a training program that you’ll have to pay for. If you just want to dip your toes in the water to get an idea what you’re in for, check out some of these resources:
These are just a few, and don’t mistake their inclusion here as an endorsement, just an example of what is available for free. Do your own Google search for “Free Online Acting Classes” and click around till you find one you like. Do a class or two and decide if this is something for you and then maybe move on to something a little more beneficial.
And where do I go if I have a little bit of money to invest?
Here are a few places I’ve gotten training I enjoyed that were not very expensive:
- Master Class
- Just Be Acting (I haven’t used this one, but I considered it and it is reasonably priced)
I started my online acting lessons through Udemy (very reasonably priced – cheap even) and have now moved on to Master Class, which is a little more expensive, but the lessons are from recognizable actors (such as Samuel L. Jackson) and they are presently having a 2-for-1 special so I was able to gift an account to my daughter who is interested in investigating an acting career. But the issue with online video training such as these is they lack direct feedback on YOUR ability. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but they can’t replace a real human who is able to give you feedback directly to YOU. I mean you don’t think Mr. Jackson has time for YOU individually!
Training is WAY better with feedback!
So the second BEST method of training is to find a class or a one on one acting teacher in your area. Personally, I found my acting teacher through Lessons.com where you can search for independent instructors in your area. Lessons are available in many areas, and acting is just one of them, but you have an opportunity to interact with prospective instructors before deciding who to hire. This route is going to wind up being more expensive than others, but the feedback and individual training you receive is invaluable and well worth the extra cost.
In the same vein as one-on-one training are group classes. There is SURE to be available acting classes and workshops available in your area, and with the current pandemic most are now offering these classes virtually, so you are not limited to local classes. These are good, as you get to interact with not only an instructor, but other students as well. This is not MY preferred method, but it may be yours. You should definitely investigate local acting classes and workshops if learning in a group environment works well for you. I’d provide a link here, but honestly unless you live where I live it wouldn’t be helpful. Just Google “Acting Training Near Me” and look around.
What if time and money is not really an object?
Of course, the VERY best way to get trained is through an accredited college or University. This one is clearly going to be the most expensive and will require 2-4 years of commitment from you as the student. In a university setting, you will get not ONLY acting training but well-rounded training across the entertainment industry. Having a diploma or certificate will be a welcome and helpful addition to your resume or CV. For those of us getting started later in life, even though we may be able to afford it, this may not be the preferred method of getting trained. If you are younger and just getting started, you should definitely consider a school that offers degrees or certificates in the entertainment industry.
But how does this relate to VOICE acting?
OK, so lastly, how does this relate to those voice actors who are auditioning for a 30 or 60 second radio or TV commercial? You won’t have the luxury of time to fully develop a character through source material or even sitting down to really think about where that character is coming from or going to. But it WILL help you decide WHO it is you are portraying in the commercial. Looking at a script, even a short one, requires you to decide WHO the person talking is, WHERE they are, who they’re talking TO, what MOTIVATES them, and what their GOALS are. All of these things, which you’ll need to decide before recording your audition on are needed for you to make decisions about how the script is voiced. Putting yourself into that character’s life, even briefly, will define your attitude and HOW you say what you have to say. You may get it wrong (according to the people making casting decisions) but you MUST get it.
Even after all of this, I will repeat that nothing can replace your own personal coach for voice over. A coach is someone who is working in the industry, who follows and understand industry trends and can help guide you in making good decisions about any given read. A coach essentially helps you become better at self-directing, which for most auditions is critical for success in the voice over industry.