Hey handsome, wanna buy some instant potatoes?
I was a very nervous child and one of the ways I tried to overcome this was by never talking in my own voice. Instead, I selected my “output” from the vast array of television, radio and cartoon voices available to me and used those as my communication platform.
Sometimes this was a good thing; my little brother loved having someone on hand who could entertain him by talking like Donald Duck, Snagglepuss or Mister Rogers.
Sometimes, however, it was a bad thing. Teachers found it puzzling to be answered back by a robot (“What is four times eleven?” …”Mmmmmm…. Buzz, click, forty-four… buzz, click”) and my parents, my father in particular, found it infuriating to be raising a cocaine-free miniature version of Robin Williams.
As time went on I grew slightly less shy and learned to channel my anxieties into more constructive pursuits. I joined the theatre program at my high school (where, ironically, I played Robin Williams’ famous character “Mork” for our grad-year play). In more recent years I’ve taken part in amateur theatre groups, sung in a couple of well-known choirs and narrated audiobooks for CNIB.
But still, the Impersonation Bug persists. Colleagues are occasionally treated to accidental outbursts of “Herbert” from Family Guy, or an impromptu verse of “Hello, mah baby!”, with tap-dance accompaniment, in the voice of Michigan J Frog. One boss in particular made me pay her a dollar every time I spoke in a voice other than my own. I lost a pant-load of money that way.
However, all this aside, I have been told over and over that I do actually have a very nice voice and should learn to put it to good use. So it will come as a surprise to no one (and possibly a relief for some) that I finally signed up for the voice-over course at VoiceWorx, a Toronto training and production facility run by Libby Lennie, who is the station voice of TVO, and Mike Kirby, the voice of HGTV.
The classes are small – maximum eight students – to give everyone a chance to get in front of the microphone. Everyone is given a workbook of actual radio, TV and documentary scripts to practise at home and bring to class, and without much ado we are gently but firmly flung into the deep end, one after the other.
Your personal work, along with the teacher’s commentary, is recorded onto a CD during each session to allow you to listen (and sometimes cringe) later on, at your leisure. (Me, I like to listen in my car; that way if I am in a wreck, I like to think of the paramedics pausing, hacksaws in hand, and going “What the hell? Earl, did you just hear her talking about shampoo??”)
James, the long-suffering and endlessly patient young technician who records the CDs, also positions the microphone for each student and, after a brief read-through of the script we’re doing, he adds in the music. You’d think music would be a distraction (I know I did) but it’s actually an enormous help: suddenly you feel less like a mental patient mumbling in a phone booth and more like, well, an Actual Voice Person, doing Actual Voice-Overs. It’s magic, it really is.
The first class covered radio ads. For my first go I picked a very cheeky spot for Virgin Mobile and while I got points for picking up the droll reference to Satan, I also learned that I sounded like a seven-year-old on helium. “Place your hand on your chest,” said Libby helpfully. “It’ll help you centre your voice.” It did (this is why she gets paid the big bucks!): my hand vibrated in a satisfying sort of way as I ran through the piece again and to my surprise I sounded, well, like someone doing an ad for Virgin Mobile.
The second ad, for Lincoln automobiles, went much more smoothly. I stepped into the booth like a pro, placed my hand on my chest, and as the slinky music began, out came what I can only refer to as a Porn Voice. “Hey, big fella,” my new alter-ego purred, “it’s just you, me, a bottle of Bailey’s and this big…manly…car.” Given that it was late at night and I was clad in muddy paddock boots, grubby jeans and a crappy old sweater, there was a sudden flurry of activity outside the booth as Libby and my classmates looked wildly around to see where Miss Luscious had been hiding. I giggled and picked a piece of straw off my sleeve; such is the power of radio, boys.
The following week covered documentary narration and was taught by a seasoned vet named John Evans, who is the signature voice of the History Channel and has about four zillion other credits and awards to his name. This time I picked a piece about the marijuana-growing industry in BC which, along with the ad featuring Satan and the quasi-pornographic car ad, is starting to make my friends wonder just a bit….
At any rate, this class felt much more like work than the radio class did; the pieces are longer, which requires a lot of concentration and patience on everyone’s part, especially in a night class and with multiple takes and do-overs. Also, they often involve switching character voices to provide a back-and-forth dialogue within the piece, which is harder than it sounds. In my piece I had to play a teenaged boy, his older drug-dealing friend and the kid’s mother without missing a beat. (I missed many beats; it’s one thing to have voices in your head but quite another to have them talk to each other in a way that strangers can understand.)
This week, just when we thought things were getting into a nice comfy routine, however, they brought in the big guns for the Cartoon Voice class, in the form of one Elley-Ray Hennessy. Hennessy, who does movies, television, commercials and radio voice-overs (in other words, everything), is like a Jack Russell on crack, but in a good way. I vaguely remember her bellowing, “All right, people, leave your egos at the door – tonight we’re gonna FREE-FALL!” and then everything got weird.
We learned how to enunciate while holding pencils, corks and water in our mouths (I understand Voiceworx keeps the photos of this for blackmail purposes later on). We did tongue-twisters. We screamed, we made our cheeks go wubba-wubba-wubba and…we burped. Remember when you were a kid and your brother taught you how to burp the alphabet? Those kinds of burps, the ones where a bit of your lunch comes up. I swear I heard my dad going, “Do that again and I’ll tan your backside!”
By the time we actually hit the studio our prissy little Southern Ontario egos were in shreds: we were sweating, laughing, ripped on adrenalin and covered in spit and snot and water. It was like being a kid all over again, which was exactly Elley-Ray’s point. Time flew by as we crowded into the studio, three by three, clamouring to be witches, bats, robots, princesses, bees and evil geniuses. And as my session drew to a close, I heard Elley-Ray’s manic voice in my headphones going, “OK, that was great, GREAT! Now… do it again, but this time in a Scottish accent – and pretend you’re DRUNK!!” My god, life is good sometimes.
And to think, you can get PAID for this.
Next week is the last session, and that’s where we will learn the ins and outs of how to actually make money doing this stuff. As Libby says, it’s more competitive than the Olympics, and while some of my classmates already have agents and a bit of experience, I know I personally have a ways to go before I’m ready to get out there and swim with the sharks.
But hey, in the meantime, if you’re looking for a drunken Scottish spaceship pilot to sidle up to you and try to sell you a luxury car, have I got a deal for you.
Visit Dr Smiter’s actual for-real voice work profile (for those of you persistent enough to read all the way to the bottom of this item!)