How Improv Can Make You a Better Voice Talent by Vanessa Richardson
Sep 05 2013
Most people have done it. Some people do it all the time. We step into an office, classroom, party or club meeting in front of strangers, and, armed with only a few notes or preparatory thoughts, we wing it. We try to relax, breathe and go with the flow. But it’s easier said than done; our lives are not scripted or planned.
That’s improv. In these situations, ordinary people generally succeed, but who hasn’t encountered a false or slow start, distracting nervousness, going blank, or later thought that “if only I’d said _____”?
The same applies at the mic. Learning improv skills and techniques – and practicing them – helps you deliver better voice over performances, whether you’re following a script or not. But in voice over, there’s seldom time in the budget (or the producer’s patience) for you to “get your juices flowing” or move past a series of false starts. Is there a basic way to gain the skills and confidence needed to improvise well and quickly? Yes.
It’s called listening.
In our everyday lives, we all need to listen, being aware of our surroundings and open to a change in direction. This is a key reason why (as actors such as Meryl Streep have long advised), listening is at the core of acting. Listen to the other actor. (Or if you prefer, your character should listen to the other character.) Even when you’re working solo, listen to yourself
Also listen to your producer, director or client. They are, in effect, your scene partner. The better you listen and are able to take direction in a relaxed and positive manner, the more able you are to make them look good.
What to listen for? It varies. Some directors know exactly what they want to hear and they give very specific direction. Others have no idea what they want – they just love something about your voice and will tell you simply, “try something else” or “now give me something completely different.” In many cases, they know what they want, but they also want to hear other options – options they may not even have thought of.
This takes a special kind of skill – the ability to comfortably step out of our comfort zone. You need to give a read that is unexpected, and interesting.
Students often ask, “What is it that producers are listening for? What’s going to get me hired?” The hiring process is extremely subjective, so there is no blanket answer to this question. You may win the job because you sound like their favorite aunt or best friend – or you may not get the job because you remind them of an ex. It’s like when you‘re flipping through radio stations, searching for a great song. You’ll know you’ve found it when you hear it.
If you’ve ever participated in Edge Studio’s Weekly Script Recording contest or listened to its archived entries, you have a sense of what producers hear when they are casting. Many people read the script pretty much the same way as other people did. Hopefully everyone tried more than one take before submitting. I suspect that in most cases, even those takes were very similar to each other. This is natural. Alternative reads might occur to us, but we tend to hear a “right way” to do it, and there’s a strong temptation to take the safe path.
But then you hear someone who has a completely different take on the script – a fresh approach. Maybe they added an inflection in an unexpected place, or brought an unexpected tone to the copy, or somehow made the words more “real,” than the other people did, in a unique way. THAT is what producers are listening for. Something that’s going to tweak their ear and make them ask, “WHO is THAT?!”
Producers listen to many, many auditions (often HUNDREDS) before finding the right VO talent. It is important to stand out. But diverging from the typical path requires confidence, training and experience. Otherwise, one’s improvised variations turn out to be fairly minor. Improv capability helps you get out of the slump. It enables you to move out of your comfort zone with the confidence to try something … completely different.
So look into improv classes. They vary, just as voice over coaches vary, and not every improv class works for everyone. And just as it’s good to work with more than one VO coach, it’s important to find an improv class or group that will nurture you. You’re probably not looking for a “competition” or “comedy club” atmosphere, but rather, an improvisation class for actors that teaches the “rules” of improv. (Then, once you’ve learned the rules, you can break them.)
Become comfortable with getting out of your comfort zone. Trust your instinct, go with the flow, and don’t forget to breathe. It will make you a better performer and, as a result, make you better able to win more work.
1. Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation.
2. Produce or make (something) from whatever is available: “improvised a costume “; “sleeping on improvised beds”