A Weekend at Bob Bergen's Voiceover Group Therapy Seminar
Acting is an art. Being an actor is a job. More accurately, acting as a career means you have to be a small business owner, responsible for the marketing, promotion, selling, and accounting of a property that happens to be you. Being the most amazing artist in the world isn’t going to help you if you can’t pay your bills or eat.
Nearly every “how to be a voiceover actor” seminar will spend time talking about the business side of acting. However, it always seems that the business side gets short shrift compared to studio time. There are valid reasons for this, of course: solid acting and microphone technique is essential to a career in the business; it’s tangible and easy to see progress on the mike in a relatively short span of time; and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Much more fun than talking about the ins-and-outs of qualifying for SAG-AFTRA or effective marketing techniques or landing an agent. You can get better at the microphone in the span of a weekend; odds are that you aren’t going to get into the union or score work or land an agent in that time. But the “job” part of being an actor is often as important, if not moreso, than the “art” of being an actor if you want to make a career out of it.
It’s the “job” part of an actor’s career that Bob Bergen’s Voiceover Group Therapy seminar is intended to address. Unlike his beginner and advanced character animation voiceover classes, the Group Therapy class does absolutely no work in a studio. It is entirely about the business of being an actor, and specifically “how to take your career to the next level,” whatever level you happen to be at when you walk in the door. I attended Bob’s seminar this past weekend when he brought it to New York City, with about a dozen other students ranging from newcomers to the voiceover business all the way to experienced, working voice actors (some of whom the audience at Toonzone might recognize) seeking more out of their careers. Bob spent quite a bit of time with each of us, finding out what we wanted out of a voiceover career, where we wanted to be, and how to get there.
In the first section of class (which ended up being a day-and-a-half worth of class time), Bob asked each of us individually, “What do you want out of your career?” and demanding specifics. Every actor “wants to work more” and “grow as an actor.” Those platitudes are meaningless because everyone wants that and they’re too vague to do anything about. What Bob seems to be emphasizing (though he didn’t say so explicitly) are what business management classes call “SMART” goals, which is an acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.” “I want to work more” meets none of these criteria.
An example might be the best way to describe what you’ll get out of the class. Rather than “I want to work more,” Bob would force us to come up with a much more specific goal, such as, “I want to be a regular voiceover narrator for PBS’s Nature.” This is more like a SMART goal, and naturally turns into smaller, achievable milestones. Who does the narration for Nature now? What kind of acting training have they done? How did they get the job? Who are their agents? What can I offer those agents that’s different or better than what they already have? How do the Nature programs cast their narrators? Am I connected to someone somewhere who’s linked to Nature? In this case, the very helpful PBS.com website has full credits for many Nature episodes, revealing that a frequent narrator for Nature is…uh, F. Murray Abraham. So, what I have to do to achieve my goal is to be a better actor than him.
At this point, one might rightly question whether this goal is “Achievable” or “Realistic” because, well, he’s F. Murray Abraham. On the other hand, so what? If F. Murray Abraham is my target, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me and honing my acting chops to his standard means I’ll definitely “grow as an actor” even if I miss the goal. It’ll also make it that much cooler when I can kick F. Murray Abraham’s ass (acting-wise, of course — he looks like a pretty tough dude to me with good reach). The truth is that voiceover is filled with brilliant actors, and knowing your competition is someone of F. Murray Abraham’s caliber tells you immediately that you have to be brilliant before you’re going to be able to compete. If your goal is being in cartoons, look at the actors doing them now and you can have an F. Murray Abraham moment of your own.
Beyond the “art of acting” aspect, there is still have plenty of work to move towards the goal. Seeing F. Murray Abraham’s name means that Nature is almost certainly a union production, so that means I have to get into SAG-AFTRA to get that Nature gig. I can also find out who F. Murray Abraham’s agent is, who else they represent, if I know any of them, if any of those connections can recommend my brilliant demo (once I have one) to the agents there, and so on. Taken as an entirety, a voiceover acting career is too big to be managable, and Bob points out that lots of people spin in place because they don’t know where (or are afraid) to start. Being specific gives you something concrete to aim for and work towards, breaking the bigger task into something managable. You still won’t have enough time to do everything you want, but even if your day job only allows 10 minutes a day, that still means you get more than an hour a week to work on your career. You can accomplish a lot in an hour, and that’s one hour more than zero.
Getting the “Realistic” part right in setting your goals as a voiceover actor requires knowledge of show business, and this is where Bob’s mentorship is infinitely valuable. He can draw on a wealth of experience in the industry, and will often illustrate points through examples (including mistakes) in his own career. Nobody in voiceover, including him, can make a living without a commercial demo reel (audiobooks being the occasional exception to that rule). No agent will take you as a client if you only have an animation/character demo, because you won’t generate enough work. Animation is still almost entirely in Los Angeles, and it’s almost all union. One of the best things about the class is getting his personal attention and the input of all your fellow students in exploring paths to break out from the pack and accomplish your personal goals.
Bob also doesn’t hesitate to puncture illusions, especially to underscore realities in the industry or highlight counter-productive attitudes. There were many uncomfortable silences in response to some questions, and a lot of moments when students confronted their fears, their behaviors that did little but hold them back, and their outright mistakes (which was the focus of the back half of day 2). Bob has a bracing honesty that’s refreshing in a business that has a lot of people ready to smile and tell you what you want to hear (usually while taking your money), but I’m pretty sure all my fellow students would agree that the breakthroughs were easily worth those moments of discomfort. Bob also made sure to point out his own mistakes and misconceptions during his career, and his challenges and confrontations never felt like personal attacks because they were always aimed at advancing our voiceover careers. Many times, Bob’s probing would reveal underlying fears and insecurities, and if those weren’t entirely overcome in the weekend, at least they became known quantities, and as a famous cartoon once pointed out, “Knowing is half the battle.”
I can’t recommend Bob’s Voiceover Group Therapy class enough. For every one point I make above, there are at least 20 more in my notes. I think it may be even more important for a successful career in voiceover than his advanced character class. It’s exhausting and exhilarating, letting you face your fears and confront your failings in a controlled context and ensuring you can keep moving forward. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and the Voiceover Group Therapy class can really help ensure that you start making those steps, and keep them moving in the right direction.