acting

The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 24 Comments

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

  • Clear and Clean
  • Convincing
  • Consistent
  • Context & content appropriate
  • Charismatic


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc


Acting Out In Public

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Paul Strikwerda as Thomas PaineJokes about actors.

I bet you know a few…

Q: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one. He stands there, and waits for the world to revolve around him.

Q: How do you get an actor off of your front porch?
A: Pay him for the pizza.

Q: What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?
A: A pizza can feed a family of four.

Ouch!

That’s why many worried parents will jump for joy when their son or daughter announces:

“I have decided not to pursue an acting career. I think I’ll get a real job instead.”

In a world where ninety percent of actors are out of work ninety percent of the time, this seems like a wise decision. What do you think?

THE GLASS HOUSE

I’ve never really thought about becoming a stage or screen actor, although I’ve always been okay in front of an audience. It had to do with my upbringing.

As the son of a minister, I was used to having the spotlight on my family and myself. We didn’t have a crystal cathedral, but we certainly lived in a glass house. It was more or less expected of me to take part in Sunday School productions which my mother directed. I didn’t mind. Another Christmas. Another Nativity play.

When music became a big part of my life, I never shied away from solos, and in my student years I often starred in cabarets for which I’d written the skits, the music, and the lyrics.

At seventeen I was hand-picked to produce and present a youth radio program on a well-known Dutch network, which launched my career in broadcasting. All of a sudden, I had a new audience. Little did I know that it would take thirty-four years before I’d finally appear in a real play on a historic stage.

Now, before you think that I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, I should put things into perspective.

BACK TO THE PAST

A few months ago, I was asked to join a local group in Easton Pennsylvania called the “Bachmann Players.” They’re named after the Bachmann Publick House in my home town. The 1753 House is Easton’s only surviving 18th century tavern, and oldest standing building.

The building was once the home to Northampton’s Court, and people such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, General John Sullivan, William Ellery, and William Whipple (signers of the Declaration of Independence) were guests at the Bachmann.

The Bachmann Players is a group of Easton based amateur historians and actors. Mining Easton’s rich colonial history, they use letters, diaries, and other source materials to recreate the people and events of the 1700’s so that they can be experienced by a modern audience.

The Players are under the artistic guidance of Christopher Black, a veteran stage actor who spent over a decade as a member of the former Jean Cocteau Classical Repertory in New York. 

COMMON SENSE

For their latest production, An Evening with John Adams, Black needed someone to play the pompous Englishman Thomas Paine, a man who didn’t always see eye to eye with Adams. For some reason, Black had to think of modest me…

Knowing how humble and unpretentious I am, I’m sure you can understand that I could not say no to this small role. Anything that gets me out of my lonely recording booth, and that’s in some way beneficial to my voice-over career, is game for me. In fact, I believe many voice-overs have become way too comfortable in their isolated home studios. If you’re one of them, I challenge you to get out of your protective bubble, and find a stage.

Before you audition for your local community theater, I want to warn you. The step from voice acting to performing in front of a live audience is not as small as you may think. Here are a few obvious hurdles:

1. Learning lines

As voice actors, we are spoiled rotten. We never have to learn any lines. We’re masters at reading scripts in a way that sounds spontaneous and natural. When we’re done, we toss them away, and move on to the next thing. 

To me, it was shocking to find out how bad I had become at memorization. The only memory I rely on these days, is the RAM in my computer, and the chip in my smart phone. I’ll be honest with you. It took me three weeks to learn three lousy pages of copy. And at the dress rehearsal I managed to forget an entire paragraph. I was mortified.

2. Blocking

It’s a term used to describe how you move and where you move during a play or on a movie set. Being the lazy voice-over I am, I’m used to sitting behind the mic all day long. The only blocking I ever did was blocking my thoughts about auditions that didn’t work out. On stage, I had to make sure I remembered my lines, and I had to keep track of the “choreography” of the play. In the beginning, my brain only allowed me to do one or the other.

3. Taking directions

Most of my voice-over sessions are self-directed. I choose the tone, the tempo, and the timbre. Sometimes a client surprises me with some vague instructions. The only feedback I usually receive is a “thank you,” “well done,” and a check. At various times during the rehearsal of the play the director had to rein me in because I spoke too fast. I had to redo scene after scene, incorporating instructions about diction, movement, and facial expressions.

To me, getting all this feedback was a gift. As a coach, I’m usually the one giving feedback. However, I know quite a few voice-over colleagues who don’t have an easy time receiving instructions. They don’t like being scrutinized and criticized. That’s the way they see it. It makes them nervous; they become defensive, and they feel the need to justify themselves. 

4. Interaction

Acting is interacting. As a voice-over, there’s usually no need to interact. We’re loners. We have to be comfortable with our own company. The stage is very different. We’re not delivering our lines into a microphone or to an engineer hiding behind a thick wall of glass. On stage we have entire conversations with other people who look us in the eye. They respond to us and we respond to them. When they mess up their lines or get lost, we improvise until we get back on track. 

Voice actors like to talk. Stage and screen actors like to listen.

5. Audience

The audience is also part of this process. The audience responds. Sometimes with silence. Sometimes with laughter. Sometimes by being distracted. You can feel their energy. You can hear their whispers and their sighs. It’s instant, unfiltered feedback. Their criticism can crush you. Their applause is exhilarating. Their smiles will warm your heart. It’s something you’ll never experience if you stay enclosed by the carpeted double walls of your voice-over studio.

One actor put it this way:

“I never achieve ‘performance level’ in rehearsals, which is upsetting to directors until they see me on stage. The audience puts the final polish on the performance. They are really a large part of the whole theatrical happening.”

6. Transitory

The beauty of a live performance lies in the fact that it is ephemeral. It happens in the moment, and once the words are spoken, they only live on in memory. It’s magical, and it is merciless.

In contrast to voice- or screen acting, the stage doesn’t tolerate any retakes. If you mess up your lines, that’s too bad. There are no “take one” and “take two’s.” In that respect, stage acting is more like doing live radio. And there’s something else that’s different.

After the very last performance of a play, everything dissolves. Actors move on. The sets and costumes are stored, and the props are returned. The voice actors’ output is less fleeting.

Years from now, people will still listen to that audio book you recorded. They will still watch that documentary for which you were the narrator. That video your client put up on YouTube will still be there, ten years from now. Like photos, your fragile recorded moments in time may last forever.

7. Showing emotions publicly

If I were to make one generalization it is this. Voice actors tend to be introverted. They may come across as shy and reserved. Stage and screen actors are often extroverted. Their personalities can easily fill up a room and then some.

One actor once said to me:

“The hardest part about acting is letting yourself go, and exposing raw emotions in front of people you don’t know.”

Showing your feelings is even harder when you have performance anxiety, and when you’re not very comfortable around people. If that happens to be you, and you want to open up a little, joining an amateur theater group can be very therapeutic. You see, you don’t have to be yourself while acting. You’re only playing a role. It’s a good rehearsal for real life situations. 

My director kept on saying:

“Remember, this is called a PLAY for a reason. That means you get to play and have FUN!”

MORE RESPECT

Getting ready for An Evening with John Adams wasn’t a masterclass in method acting. We’re talking about amateur dinner theater in a historic setting. It’s hard to judge my own performance, but I think my Thomas Paine was more of a stereotype, instead of a real person. I’m certainly not ready for Tennessee Williams or Tom Stoppard.

This experience did give me much more respect for the people we see on stage, in the movies, and on television. 

I think that one of the reasons people assume acting is easy, is that good actors make it appear easy. It’s the same mistake people make about voice acting. We all know there’s more to it. Much more. And yet, if we do it right, no one will ever notice.

Back in my booth, I miss the camaraderie of the Bachmann Players. I miss having to put on silly colonial clothes to get into character. And I miss the electric energy of a live performance followed by a cast party. A party where we tell each other jokes…

Q. What’s the difference between an actor and a mutual fund?

A. Mutual funds eventually mature and make money.

Q. Did you hear about the actor who fell through the floor?

A. He was just going through a stage.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!


That Dreaded Audition

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 13 Comments

“Do you ever get nervous before an audition?” a colleague wanted to know. Let’s name him Jack.

“Not really,” I said. “I find nerves to be extremely unhelpful. Most of the time they’re the result of future memories.

“Future memories? What do you mean by that?” my colleague wanted to know.

“Well, in my mind, a memory is a reconstruction of an interpretation of what we think has happened to us in the past.

A future memory is something we’ve made up that we believe might happen one day. It’s equally unreliable, and yet people can get all worked up over them. Especially those who are into worst-case-scenario thinking. Nobody can say with certainty what’s going to happen. Take it from me, there’s nothing as unpredictable as the outcome of an audition.”

“Why is that?” asked Jack.

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

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Shut Up and Listen!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 20 Comments

The two women were sitting opposite each other in the ski lodge. Their kids were out on the slopes and so they had all morning to catch up.

I usually don’t mind other people’s business, but these two were very hard to ignore. Their voices were as loud as the bling they were wearing. Even though they were dressed in the latest ski apparel, I don’t think either of them had any intention of ever going down a snowy hill.

This morning they seemed to be discussing their favorite topic: family illness.

“My father just went in for a double bypass,” said the one closest to me, as she was digging deep into a

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover