Voice Actor for a Weekend: Top 5 More Lessons from Bob Bergen’s Advanced Class
Last year, I took a beginner voice acting class with Bob Bergen when he brought it to New York City, and had so much fun doing it that I wanted to take his advanced class this year. Luckily, taking Bob’s class last year fooled him into thinking that I was qualified for the advanced class. Plus, there was a returning student discount and I can’t pass up a deal.
Bergen’s introductory class focuses on the basics of the business and steps students through two auditions, with Bergen providing pointers and tips on each student’s performances. In the advanced class, we do auditions on day 1 for roles in a real half-hour cartoon script that we record on day 2. This class did the first half of a Fraggle Rock cartoon, and students were allowed to audition for as many as 14 parts (I think the record was one person who auditioned for 11, and quite a few auditioned for 10). I opted to take a shot at the rat Gunge, Boober Fraggle, the Architect Dozer, Uncle Traveling Matt, Gobo Fraggle, Flange Dozer, Wembley Fraggle, Pa Gorg, Sprocket the Dog, and Marjory the Trash Heap (nyaaaaaaah). I ended up begin cast as Gunge, Boober, Pa Gorg, and Sprocket, as well as Doc based on my read as Flange. Unlike real life, Bergen often cast several different students for the same role and let us all take turns doing scenes in the booth. Including me, there were 3 different Gunges, Pa Gorgs, and Boobers, and 4 Docs (all of whom got to interact with me as Sprocket, which meant I did a lot of barking on day 2).
The class was just as educational for me as last year’s intro class, although the lessons learned were all much more about acting and performance than about the business. In no particular order, the top 5 things I learned in Bob Bergen’s Advanced Voice Acting Class are:
1. “Trained Actors Make Choices. Untrained Actors Make Guesses.”
This was something Bergen told us on day 2 of the class, after drumming it into us over and over during auditions and during rehearsals. Who is your character speaking to? How many of them are there, and how far away are they? Are you telling them something new or repeating something you think they should already know? How much do you respect them? Making up that story in your head is the only way to transform reading words off a script into a character and a performance, even if a lot of that thought never comes out explicitly. If you don’t know the answers to those questions when you’re reading a line, it’s going to come out as a lackluster performance. Those choices also mean that the same words become entirely different when different actors take them on, which we found out by example during day 2 of the recording. My nasal, nerdy Boober was radically different from the grumpier, gruffer version or the jittery, neurotic mess that the other two actors performed.
In this class, Bergen also told us that the audience doesn’t care so much about your choices as much as that you made one that they can hear. The microphone in a voice acting booth will pick up your hair growing, so it will certainly pick up hesitation, uncertainty, or lack of commitment. I found this out the hard way in my awful audition for Gobo. I picked him specifically because I couldn’t get a handle on him before the class, but I wanted to take him on as a challenge. Unfortunately, I was just completely unable to wrap my arms around the character — I didn’t make concrete choices, and it really showed in what came out.
Actually, that’s not quite true; the one choice I did make was that I didn’t want to do a bad imitation of the Gobo Fraggle I remembered on the original Muppet version. In hindsight, that was really avoiding a choice; you can’t build a character on “I don’t want to do that.” Bergen also addressed this to an extent with a story in class, when he was pressed for ideas at a live audition and ended up just imitating the actor who auditioned before him. He was pretty surprised when he got the job instead of the other actor. Who knows what the producers heard in his audition that they didn’t hear in the other, but the bottom line was that it was Bergen getting scale plus 10 and probably residuals because he made a choice.
Oh, that other actor? George Takei. Bergen relayed this story to him when they met some time afterwards, to which Takei laughed and said, “Oh, my!” Yes, he really does that in real life, apparently.
2. If You Physically Perform the Character, the Voice Will Follow
If you relay something physically, it will be relayed vocally. Bergen tells the intro students this same thing, and it’s a lesson worth repeating. If your character is supposed to be straining with effort, you can’t record in the booth with your hands at your sides. Even if you’re just turning a faucet on or off, making the motion with your hands will affect the way you say it. It also doesn’t have to be very big or visible: one of the things that helped me get into character as Boober was just flaring my nostrils as much I could to remind me to be really nasal.
In addition to what it does for your performance, it’s fun to flail around in the booth like an idiot. Wild gesticulating and concentrating on the movements was also a good way to take my mind off the nerves that come from auditioning for parts in front of a bunch of complete strangers. It’s easy to tell when someone’s not quite past that sense of embarrassment or self-consciousness, and wonderful to hear when they can finally forget it and fully commit to a role. One bit of advice that Bergen has for his students is that you’re better off being told to tone it down than to turn it up. If you start off suppressing yourself, sometimes the folks on the other end of the glass may think that’s all the energy you have to offer and will move on to another actor. If you demonstrate the outer bounds of your energy up front, the directors can dial you down to where they want you.
It is possible to take this too far, though. You don’t want to break any of the nice, expensive recording gear. You also need to be a bit less vehement if you’re in the booth with other actors, as we were in day 2, or else you’re going to smack someone in the face. Finally, you can’t do things that are going to interfere with the recording. Even if your character is jumping, you aren’t going to get a usable read if your line is overwhelmed by a “thump” when you hit the ground. I also had a bad habit of actually slapping my hands or patting down my pockets when the action called for it, both of which are amplified a lot more than you’d think by the microphone.
3. Pay Attention
Voice acting is tons of fun. Voice acting can be so much fun that it’s easy to miss a cue or forget the direction you just got.
So, pay attention. Bergen relayed a lot of information at the start of day 2, culled from the Fraggle Rock series bible, and we needed to listen to all of it whether it related to our characters or not because that information helped in making our choices as actors to establish our characters and the relationships they have to others. You also never know when advice that someone else is getting is something you can use yourself. If the director is telling everyone “More energy!” then you’ll do well to walk into the booth turned up to 11 from the start.
Pay attention to what the director is asking for. Bergen told us that getting direction is not a bad thing, even if they’re telling you to do the exact opposite of what you were doing. It means that they hear something that they like and want to shape it further. Take direction as a good, positive thing and try your best to give them what they’re asking for. They’re the ones who are going to decide whether you’re getting scale plus 10, after all. The most frightening thing to hear is a quick, “Thank you,” after an audition, because it means that they love exactly what you did or they hate it so much they don’t even want to bother giving you direction. For your own mental health, you’re much better off assuming the former even if you don’t get the part in the end. On a more brass-tacks level, pay attention so you know when the director is telling you to start or to stop.
Write things down. It’s hard to do on top of everything else you’re supposed to manage in a voice acting job, but classes are a good environment for practicing it. If you’re getting information from someone important like the director, write it down or you’re more likely to forget it when you get caught up in the moment. Writing things down will also help you process and internalize information, and that makes your choices easier and more natural. The three most important things we needed when walking into the booth were our scripts, our water bottles (protect that throat!), and a pencil.
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If the doing the audition hurts, think of what it’s going to mean when you get the part and have to do the same painful vocalization for 52 episodes of a TV show. Protect your voice like your knees; you’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Finally, pay attention to your fellow actors. Study the choices they’re making, and the things they do that get positive or negative reactions. Steal — what you do is not going to come out exactly the same anyway. Pay attention to their lines so you don’t miss your cues. Playing off other actors is one of the best, most fun things about acting, especially when you can start feeding off each other and make each other look better, but you’re not going to do that if you’re not paying attention to them.
4. That “Conversation With Yourself” Trick? It’s Really, Really Hard.
These are all ways to help you commit to a role. This is a bit of a double-edged sword when you’re cast for two roles that results in a “conversation with yourself” in a scene. Committing to a character is the only way to produce a convincing performance, but it also actively works against you when you have to mentally change gears to read your next line as someone else. An actor like Kevin Conroy or Maurice LaMarche makes it look easy, but that’s because they’re terrific actors. Doing it convincingly is a lot harder than it looks.
Bergen’s advice on this mostly came down to taking a second between lines to get your mind straight before diving into the other role. It’s OK to take a beat to make that mental shift; the sound guys can take out the pauses in editing later. Don’t do what we all did at some point when we’d throw away the end of one character’s line to prepare for the mental switch to the other, because then you’re not doing either one well. Physicality tricks can also help you keep characters straight, since a physical change can assist in making the mental change. But mostly, this comes down to practice. It’s very hard to appreciate how difficult this really is until you’ve tried to do it. It was fun but really bewildering to record a scene as both Doc and Sprocket, and it turns out that all our Gobo Fraggles were also cast as Philos, meaning they had to shift from starry-eyed gung-ho optimism to smarmy sarcasm in the space between lines.
This is a trick worth practicing, though. If you land a voice acting job, the producers can get you to do two roles for their scale plus 10. They have to pony up more if you do a third, but that amount is still less than it would cost to hire another actor. There are also last-minute pick-up roles, which a casting director will be more likely to give you if she or he knows you can do it. So, there’s a real financial benefit to you as a voice actor if you can have a three-, four-, or more person conversation with yourself.
5. Bark Like a Dog
One thing that surprised me was how to bark like a dog for voice-over. You’re supposed to bark while breathing IN, not out as you normally do when play-acting a dog. The proper way to bark like a dog for voice over is to push all the air out of your lungs and then breathe in while making repeated “ror” sounds. Work your jaw a lot to get volume, and smile more broadly to do a smaller, yappier dog. You also breathe in to do a howl, and work the jaw to get those “awooo-woo-wooo” sounds.
If nothing else, I’m getting an amusing mental image of all our readers trying to bark like dogs while reading those instructions.
This ends up making a much more believable barking sound, although it requires really good breath control if you don’t want to hyperventilate. I learned how to do this while auditioning for Sprocket, which felt like packing a parachute after I’d jumped out of the plane. I can safely say that I’m sure as hell not going to be stealing any roles from Frank Welker or Dee Bradley Baker any time soon. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and was positive that I sounded awful, so I was pretty surprised when Bob told me that I’d gotten the part of Sprocket at the end of day 1 and am taking him at his word when he says that I got it right on day 2. But it’s a skill that might come in handy when you least expect, and can land you that third role on top of your scale plus 10.
Special thanks to John Marshall Sound for another delightful and educational class experience; to Marian Massaro for all her efforts in coordinating the class; to Zane Birdwell, our awesome sound engineer from John Marshall Sound; and to my fellow classmates for a wonderful time.