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Talk Is Cheap: Coach and actress Samantha Paris has dedicated herself to the art of the voiceover.

Talking Points

The fine art of voiceover is honed at a Sausalito school

By Sara Bir

Ron, a middle-aged laid-off sales rep, has an amazing, booming bass voice, rich and warm. Cynthia, an older woman, is a drama teacher in San Francisco; as she reads, her facial features twitch to match the expressiveness in her voice. There's Sherri, a younger woman who works as a cashier at a grocery store. Her squeaky voice is ultragirlish, and she had probably come here to cash in on what has most likely been, up to this point, the bane of her existence--a voice that's too adorable, a voice that makes Sarah Vowell sound husky.

There's Paul, a carpenter, a friendly guy whose library of goofy voices comes spilling out of him with a frequency usually reserved for fifth-grade playgrounds. He looks like he's having the time of his life. And Gail, an older, soft-spoken woman who initially comes across as too demure to belong here, reveals layers and layers of life once she sets foot in the recording booth.

We're in a classroom in Sausalito, and we're here to find our voices.

Our existence is filled with voices without faces, the anonymous narrators of the age of mass communication, from hokey ("Sale at World of Waterbeds!") to dignified (James Earl Jones' monolithic "This is CNN") to everything in between. We know these voices because they enter our lives every day, over the radio, over computers and television, and on training videos and books on tape.

They are the commanding presences that narrate movie trailers ("A desperate man . . . a helpless woman . . . the diabolical lawyer who will stop at nothing to keep them apart!"); the measured tones of instructional CD-ROMs ("First, insert the gray cable into the terminal located above the blue switch plate"); the refined poshness of the luxury-car commercial voice ("The new Marxux Z-235 Townhouse Edition. It's not just an SUV--it's a lifestyle machine.")

There are people in this world whose job it is to say stuff. Not talk-radio goons like Howard Stern or vaudeville nostalgia hounds like Garrison Keillor, but people who make a living by reading scripts ("copy," to use the jargon) into a microphone. Their mouthpiece, as it were, may be a an interactive exhibit at a science museum or an animated blue thing, like a Smurf. The flat, omnipresent voice at the airport that comes from nowhere and everywhere, forever repeating the same five phrases in the same five languages, was, at one point, emerging from the throat of a real, live human.

As often as voiceover actors step into our lives, we never give them much thought. A voice that can earn a living--or a person disciplined enough to earn their living by their voice--must begin somewhere. Voiceover acting is acting, after all--there are demos, there are agents, there are auditions. And, before any of that, there is training.

While stage actors can cut their chops in community theater, there is no such thing as community voiceover theater. That's where Voicetrax comes in. And that's why there are 10 people, of all ages and professional backgrounds, assembled in a classroom on a Tuesday night trying not to mess with the mic.

Loud and Proud

Based in Sausalito, Voicetrax bills itself as the nation's leading voiceover training academy. (There's a smaller voiceover school in Sonoma called Radio Magic.) Founded in 1988, Voicetrax offers group workshops, seminars, small labs, and private one-on-one sessions for aspiring and professional voiceover actors. In 1990 Voicetrax launched a casting company to fill Bay Area producers' need for voices in all kinds of media, from CD-ROMs to books on tape to radio.

The engine behind Voicetrax is a small blonde woman with short hair and pixieish looks named Samantha Paris. Call her Sam, just like the pink neon sign hanging up in the Voicetrax classroom does in its curlicue script: "Sam's Place," it reads.

Samantha Paris was born into a radio legacy. Her grandfather, Martin Block, created "Make Believe Ballroom" in New York and is recognized as one of the first radio DJs to gain fame in his own right. Raised in Los Angeles, Paris yearned to break into acting, but because she had a chubby face (and, no, Sam is not fat--she's a tiny thing), her career in front of the camera didn't meld with casting directors' images of gaunt Hollywood types.

So Sam diversified, working as a voiceover actress, at first specializing in young voices. Eventually she landed recurring roles in a few animated series and won three Clio awards (sort of like Oscars for the advertising industry). But as we here in Northern California like to say, L.A. sucks, and so Sam came up here to get away from the frenzy--though hardly to get away from voice acting, because there are many more opportunities for a voice actor in the Bay Area than one might assume.

A few myths about voice acting debunked:

*Being a radio DJ and doing voiceover are two very different things.

*Voiceover actors don't just do cartoons and radio spots (in fact, here in the Bay Area, there are very few cartoons).

*Voiceover acting is not as easy as you'd think.

That last myth is the realization I come to while sitting in on one of Voicetrax's beginning workshops, a six-week course that serves as an introduction to the world of voiceover. The other students in the class had, in the previous five weeks, gone over script interpretation, microphone technique, dialogue, and improvisation.

I figured beforehand that the class would consist of students sitting in folding chairs, scribbling away at note taking while the instructor prattled on about voiceover theory. This was not the case. I would be, I had been informed, participating in the class just as if I had been in it from the get-go, and this included reading scripts with everyone else.

The Disembodied Voice

Voiceover acting is more about the fun than it is about the glory; even people who become pretty famous beyond the industry are more or less unrecognized beyond their names. Sure, we know Nancy Cartwright is Bart on The Simpsons, and we can instantly recognize the pipes of Lorenzo Music, famous for providing his voice to Garfield and Carlton the doorman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Music passed away in 2001).

Tom Chantler, a full-time voiceover actor who previously worked as an industrial designer, averages 30 to 40 auditions a month, primarily in the Bay Area. He says it's very hard work--it just never seems like it. "When you get paid for it, there's always some little giddy part of me that says, 'I can't believe they're paying me for this!'"

Chantler's been teaching classes at Voicetrax since 1993, which he likes because it helps him keep in shape for auditions and jobs. While he can do goofy voices, Chantler is hired mostly for his natural speaking voice (which is pretty much the classic "regular guy" voice) for anything from radio ads to CD-ROMs, as well as what is called "industrial"--anything that's not so much in the public sector, such as spots for trade-show booths, that sort of thing. You might come across Chantler's voice saying "Stick your ticket in here" coming out of a ticket-validating machine in Las Vegas.

Voiceover actors have to not only read copy in an engaging way, but they also have to do it in an evocative way, because they are typically not working to back up images, says Chantler. "Television has pictures to support it. Pictures do way more talking than you need to do, so in a way, you are supporting the images that are onscreen. In radio you are creating those images. You have to be more in the moment in that sense and try to work what is a two-dimensional problem into three dimensions."

Johnnie Anderson, another Voicetrax instructor, has a glowing elfin smile that rarely leaves her face. She works with Voicetrax's new "Put Some Power in Your Presentation" class, which is aimed at helping corporate business people enliven their presentations with voiceover techniques.

Anderson, the very model of warm composure, was a sales rep for Delta Airlines for many years, so she knows a few things about corporate America. Because there is so much industry in the Bay Area--think Silicon Valley or Lucasfilm--there are lots of less high-profile opportunities for working voice actors.

"We're very fortunate in the Bay Area with having so many corporations and production companies," Anderson says. "That's a very good reason for voice actors to be as versatile as possible--not just doing narration, not just doing character work or CD-ROM work, but to try to be as versatile as you can so that you can get more work."

On the Mic

Sam herself is a very intense person, the kind who scoots her chair close and looks you straight in the eye as she speaks to you. There's nothing particularly amazing about her normal speaking voice either, though it is pleasant.

She has not yet met any of the members of this class, though she has seen many groups like this one become acquainted with voiceover. I ask her if there is a prototypical Voicetrax beginner. "Most of the people have never done anything like this before," she says. "If there are two people in this room that are actual actors with acting experience, I'll be surprised."

In that case, how does a person wind up there in the first place? "Usually people have told them, 'Oh, you have an interesting voice,' or they've always had this hidden desire to be a performer, but the thought of performing in front of groups of people is kind of scary, so they like the idea of hiding behind a microphone."

Even though they've only met for a few hours on the past five Tuesdays, the nine have a loose rapport with each other. It's what happens when a bunch of people with creative, outgoing personalities take a class together. So far, they've studied simple monologue, short 30-second pieces, and they've worked on trying to sound natural without sounding like they are reading. They're about to enter the recording booth.

The recording booth is where the magic happens. It's a small space in the corner of the room, the size of a closet, really, with a few mics and stands for scripts. ("See the mic?" Cynthia asks me. "Don't ever, ever touch it! Speak into it closely, but don't touch it!" she warns. "Why?" I ask. "Just don't!" I do not tamper with the mic.)

I'm put into a group with Paul and Cynthia, and we read over a script for a Godfather's Pizza ad. I'm Guy, Cynthia is Man One, and Paul is Man Two. In the copy, I ask Man One and Two how to get to the nearest Godfather's Pizza, and they give me convoluted directions. After a few run-throughs, we go into the recording booth to try reading in there.

Something interesting happens in the recording booth. For a bona fide hater of commercial radio, I find it's still very fun to deal with radio commercials when you are the person who makes the annoying voice instead of being the person stuck listening to it. Suddenly, doing the best damn job as Guy that I can is the most important, serious thing in the world. It's up to me to pick up on and play off the nuances of Man One and Man Two. Be expressive, but be natural. And don't stall. Or sound fake. Or sound too normal. And do it under 50 seconds. And for God's sake, don't touch the mic.

Sam makes suggestions from the control board, giving us little directions of character. "Sara, with the Guy, maybe you are a half-hour late and you are in a rush and you don't know what they are talking about. Don't start off annoyed but get annoyed as the conversation goes on. Be more quizzical when you say, 'Past the Godfather's Pizza.'" I make a note on the script.

"The stronger your acting skills get, the more you're going to stand out on tape," says Sam. "It's not about always being wacky and nutty. Besides the creative, silly side, there are other areas that require a lot of discipline."

Sam's talking about demo tapes. A demo tape is what gets you work--it's like a talking résumé, with snippets of different things a voice actor has done, all edited neatly together. Sam is really big on students not rushing into making a demo tape. "You don't make a demo tape until you're ready!" she stresses multiple times, in class and during interviews.

The reason is that, for a person just starting out who has no ads under his or her belt, a demo tape consists of fake ads. Many hours can go into making a demo tape, and there is, with the assistance of good editing, room for error. At an audition, there is not.

"You've got to get to a point where you can pick up a script and, within a matter of minutes, deliver a really fantastic performance," Sam relates. "You're going to go in the recording booth, you're going to rehearse it down to two or three sentences, and the agent's going to say, 'Let's do a take.' You get one take only, and then you're out."

Later, after the Godfather's ad, the class rifles through a stack of photocopied cartoon-character drawings. Student will select a character and create a voice for it. Then we'll pair off and go into the recording booth to do improv from Sam's prompts. I choose a sketch of Flo Rubble from The Flintstones Kids. She looks like an older Betty Rubble, though I assume she is actually Barney Rubble's mother. She has an upturned nose, stone-age horn-rimmed glasses, and evokes quite the busybody.

I go into the booth with Paul, who's chosen a hound dog for his character. We do an improv where he (the dog) wants to come over to my (Flo Rubble's) house and sit on the furniture. We record it, and Flo's voice comes out in my generic "mom voice" --we all have one, the voice we use when imitating our moms.

It's very amusing, a playtime for adults. After the class--the improv especially--it becomes clear that people come here to get comfortable with their voice and the things it can do, and the things their brains can push out of their mouths. Two of the students in the class called it "therapeutic." And it is, in the way a yoga class or a watercolor class can be, and that way of being in a communal room making something out of nothing is.

"For beginners, they did quite well," says Sam. "It was fun." I am told that I did very well for not having any experience, and for a moment I indulge in grand illusions of me providing the voice for an eBay ad, a big hunk of change in the bank and a cool thing to tell people I just met. Maybe voiceover training could help me get on NPR's This American Life. Or maybe not.

Sam was right, though; it was fun, and at least now, when stuck in traffic and enduring terrible radio commercials, I can instead appreciate the work that went into them, that someone reading a Godfather's Pizza ad put all of their being into bringing Guy One to life.


For more information on Voicetrax, visit www.voiceover-training.com or call 415.331.8800. Radio Magic, in Sonoma, can be found at www.radiomagic.com, 707.996.3073.

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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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