Broadway star Danny Burstein recently wrote a moving tribute to his wife Rebecca Luker in The Hollywood Reporter. Rebecca passed away due to complications from ALS on Dec. 23, 2020, at the age of 59.
She starred in shows like The Music Man, Mary Poppins, The Phantom of the Opera, Showboat, and The Secret Garden. Luker was nominated for three Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two Drama Desk Awards.
“When I described her singing, I used to say, “She opens her mouth and her heart falls out.” That’s exactly how it felt. I know of no other singer who’s had that same effect on me. She had some innate connection to her soul when she sang that made the listener instantly feel the deepest emotions. It made you understand why poets wrote about purity and beauty. It was simply that obvious. That perfect. That special. That connected.”
In voice over circles, the latest buzz word seems to be authenticity. Clients and booth directors all seem to want it, but no one ever tells you how to get it. “Just be yourself” is another one of those overused, empty phrases.
The trouble is, we’re almost never hired to be ourselves. If that would be the case, we’d be using our own words and not some idiotic script that seems to be penned by a twelve year old.
If we were hired to be ourselves, we wouldn’t be asked to pretend to sell something we’d never buy, or teach something we have no interest in learning.
As voice actors we are paid to pretend, to lie, to fool the listener into believing we love this new deodorant, or we give a damn about the environment.
In our profession, the best liars get the best paychecks and some shiny statue. Perhaps even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, if you’re on camera.
Be yourself, my ass!
Half of the time I don’t even know who I am, so how am I supposed to be this person I’m still trying to get to know?
What people really ask when they want us to be authentic, is to sound natural. Whatever that may be.
“Paul, talk to me the way you would normally talk,” a director once instructed me. “Pretend I’m your best friend.”
That particular director was a notorious, womanizing jerk I would never hang out with if it were not for the money they were paying me to even listen to this guy.
Best friend? Never!
Think about what it means to talk like you normally talk. It is a mental exercise in and of itself to imagine yourself listening to yourself when you know no one is listening, but let’s try it anyway.
When I talk, I stammer and stagger, I start over mid-sentence, and I don’t care about proper enunciation and emphasis. I say “uhm” and “ah,” and I often lose my train of thought. It is imperfect, and no one cares. We all mumble and stumble our way through life.
Conversational speech is an unconscious process.
As voice overs we are paid to be perfect. Every word of our script was carefully chosen after much debate and intervention by the legal department. Just as a musician can’t simply make up notes that aren’t in the score, we can’t just burst in with our own, spontaneous version of the text.
Our goal is to ensure the listener clearly understands, remembers, and connects to the approved message the minute they first hear it. The moment they have to think: “What did that guy just say?” we’ve lost our audience and our impact.
It’s our job to be precise and deliberate. Every word gets its own weight; every phrase its own melody. Even every pause is premeditated.
This is an entirely unspontaneous, conscious process.
Natural speech, on the other hand, is impulsive, imperfect, and uncalculated.
That’s why the phrase “Act naturally,” is a ridiculous contradiction in terms.
Only the best actors and singers like Rebecca Luker, can make what they do SEEM and sound spontaneous, as if what they’re saying and singing is invented in the moment.
It’s a professional illusion.
To me, the key to reaching this level of unconscious competence, lies in memorization. You know, the thing voice over artists never do.
Danny Burstein describes his wife’s process as follows:
“She could memorize a lyric in 20 minutes. By contrast, it takes me a week. She read music easily and could make the most beautiful sounds without even trying. That’s not to say she didn’t work hard, she did, but she had an ease with music and lyrics. They liked her and she liked them and they melted into one another very easily.”
When you memorize a text, you become the words, and the words become you. It’s the melting Burstein was referring to. Once you have memorized something, you never have to consciously think about what to say. The words just flow out of you, like a pianist playing a prelude from memory.
It takes a lot of conscious effort (hard work) to attain unconscious competence, but once you know the score, you can focus on actually making music. If you’re still learning the notes, it’s a struggle to play the piece, let alone add some feeling to it and make it sound seamless.
As voice overs, we never get the time or take the time to go off book. We rarely do any memorization. We’re always reading lines, which is one of our occupational weaknesses.
We seldom get to the point where, when we open our mouth, our heart falls out. That’s something that separates the true masters of the craft from those who are making a heroic attempt.
Danny Burstein lovingly remembers his wife:
“Two weeks before she passed she finally began to talk about her own death and asked how it might happen. She’d been in such denial until then. She spoke with her doctor and rejected his offer of a tracheotomy because she knew it would mean that she would never speak or swallow again.
She was extremely weak but told him that she didn’t want to live attached to a machine that way. She told him:
“If I don’t have my voice, I don’t know who I am. My voice is everything I am. I’ll take my chances.”
I broke down sobbing next to her when she said that. I’ve never witnessed anything so brave in my life.”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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