On more than one occasion I have been asked, “Hey Brock, when are you going to get back into real acting, like theatre?” After I manage to stifle a groan and a grimace, I typically gently reply, “Voice-over acting is everything I loved about theatre acting, without all the things I didn’t like.”
Think about it: no rehearsals, no tights, no 6-week runs, and no drama. What’s NOT to love about VO? However, despite your medium, your primary job as an actor never changes: communicate the writer’s intent and to bring the copy and characters to life.
There are many schools of thought on how best an actor can achieve this, and one that I’ve studied in my time as a stage actor and theatre student was Sanford Meisner. Sanford Meisner was a legendary acting teacher and a founding member of the Group Theatre. Throughout this article, I hope to help show you how the basics of the Meisner technique might be helpful behind the mic
(Author’s Note: I have peppered just a few of his quotes throughout this blog – but they simply don’t do justice to what a vibrant, playful and downright genius artist he was.)
Essentially, (and apologies in advance to my theatre professors) to sum up the thoughts of Sanford Meisner and his technique, was his focus on the reality of “doing”.
To oversimplify, if you are supposed to be smiling – you smile. Are you supposed to walk away in the scene? Well, you get up and walk away. Despite your intention, you lead with the truth in your acting by committing to the real action.
So how does this apply to Voice-over? Well, say you have a fast-food commercial to audition for – although you aren’t actually in a car driving to the nearest Jack in the Box – do you remember the last time you had a food craving/or what it was like when you ate your favorite snack? Of course, you do! So once we set the scene (Scene: Driving to get food) we pinpoint the action (Action: Getting food with a friend).
Are you in a car talking to someone? Great, who is it? Chances are unless it’s an inner-thought spot, you are talking to someone, so if you don’t have a “scene partner” specified in the script, invent someone to play that part and to be on the receiving end of your speaking.
Once we have our setting and our scene partner – how do you play the reality of talking to someone? You start your read by actually talking to them. Simple as that. This can be achieved by using a lead-in line or even just repeating the name of the person you are speaking with.
“Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances” -Sanford Meisner
So, how do we apply this search for the reality of doing and truth to other forms of voice-over? I tend to work in the very “unreal” world of cartoons. Just this week I read for a talking hamburger and a cranky otter, where is the truth in that?
First of all, reading the script will unveil all of this mystery. But let’s use a hypothetical. Say I am asked to voice an evil piece of French Toast that wants to rule the world, how do we do this truthfully? STOP! Before you run for your beret and attempt to roll around in maple syrup… let’s investigate what the character is doing, once you decide what the action is it doesn’t matter how nonsensical the character is. The question becomes: How can I play that action truthfully? Is the French Toast laughing at his maniacal plans to conquer the non-French-speaking territories of Canada? (Mon Dieu!)— then I laugh, and really try to laugh. Not just to force the sound out, either -I try to laugh and sometimes I end up laughing at the absurdity of trying to laugh.
“Find in yourself those human things, which are universal” -Sanford Meisner
Ah. So there it is. The Evil French Toast has its own wants, desires, and perhaps a tragic backstory involving his delinquent father Pierre, an absent-minded sous chef from Quebec.
Often, despite the broad and wackier parts of the story, try and ground your performance in the simpler actions. The more specific you are with your action, the more truthful it is.
When in doubt, imagine that the speaker or character just wants to be heard. Then consider: what are some things you do when you want to be heard? It’s as simple as that. You might speak slowly and clearly or you might speak loud and fast. I grew up with a very talkative family and a result I tend to speak loud and fast, and if I wanted to be heard I would raise my volume. Now, maybe this tactic or action won’t fit the copy or character and at that point that’s where a good director is invaluable -but start down the path of “doing what is true” rather than “doing what is right” and you will often come closer to some freeing and fun acting experiences.
“Acting is fun…don’t let that get around” – Sanford Meisner