Voiceover Auditioning, From a Ballerina’s POV

I was thinking about this during a recent hangout while listening to other voice actors talk about their fears when it comes to auditioning, and I started thinking about my own feelings toward the audition process.

There are times where I do get pretty weirded out and have to talk myself up…but those are few and far between. Usually, it’s those auditions that I understand are bigger than anything I’ve tried before. And it’s not that I’m afraid to audition (yes, it is); it’s more that I’m awestruck by the project (the people behind it, really) and having to quiet the voice telling me to walk away because I’m playing in an area too advanced for little old me.

More often than not, though…I really don’t. It’s just an audition. I sit down with the script. I figure out the voice and the context. I give it a few shots (no more than five, because if I can’t get it in three, I really don’t have a handle on the project.). I walk away (sleep on it if I can get away with it), and come back later and decide if it’s sendable. If it is, I do. If not, I take one more stab at it. It works for me, and I have heard there are others do something similar.

Last night, listening to the others, I started wondering why I’ve pretty much always dealt with voiceover auditions this way. And then I realized it’s because of how auditions were handled in the various ballet programs I was in. When I was little, auditions were just that. You walked in with your group, you learned a few combinations and performed them a few times, and then you left. It was like a really short center class. The older I got, the more auditions became master classes. The choreographer for the project (or someone close to them) came in and taught an extended class where the center work turned into the audition combinations.

We all knew we were in an audition, but we were also in class, in our studio, just doing what we did daily. And those were some of the best classes because you got to see some aspect of dance through a new set of eyes and then someone told you what roles you would be working on in rehearsals for the next two or three months.

This practice of “class as audition” was something I lived with for a pretty decent chunk of my childhood and young adult years. And so I think that’s how my brain sees voiceover auditions. Yes, it’s an audition. I’m showing someone how I’m interpreting their copy and what I can do with it so they can figure out if I fit into their vision of what they’re creating. But at the same time, I’m experimenting and figuring out for myself what I can do when put on the spot. It’s their audition; it’s my play time. And as such, when I complete an audition (because I work remotely), I add it to my practice files for future review and inspiration.

Like I said, I know I’m not the only one who does this. But I think viewing the audition process as an opportunity for personal growth rather than getting tied up in anxiety over whether or not you’re going to be picked is probably a bit healthier and ultimately leads to better results.

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Light Novel vs. Visual Novel

When you get it into your head to explore the different types of media out there, it can be a very…educational…experience. Not only are you learning and juggling new voiceover jargon, you are also learning that the world is bigger than just audiobooks, games, and animation. I ran into this early in my voiceover work, and somehow keep running into it now. So, I thought it might not be the worst idea to start documenting what I’m learning, and maybe even help others out or find people who work with these media who can add to what I’ve learned.

Let’s start with the first terms I ran into years ago that left me saying, “What is that?”: the light novel and the visual novel.

Like some of its fellow unfamiliar terms, a light novel is a Japanese invention. Sort of. Light novels are fast-paced, pulpy novellas, usually aimed at teen and children readers. It’s not unusual for a teen light novel to become popular enough to be adapted into an anime.

Really…not terribly different from wandering the middle grade and YA shelves in any bookstore or library…or Netflix. Heh.

The visual novel also has its origins in Japan. It’s often described as an interactive game genre featuring static images and occasionally incorporating audio, and is most often associated with dating sims and hentai (porn). While the genre is expanding to cover more types of stories, it’s slow going. You would get farther pursuing interactive fiction.

There is also a subgenre, kinetic novels, which are visual novels that lack interactivity. Sometimes, you’ll find these referred to as dynamic novels, although that term sometimes to refer to stories that have some sort of animated display element triggered as the reader moves through the story.

So, that’s round one. I may come back and update this as I explore them more.

Using Negative Space in Audio Content

When we teach online writing, we spend time focusing on the white space, or the space where text and images aren’t, on the page. Our eyes can only take in so much information before they become fatigued. Art’s negative space works with this same concern – although artists often use the negative space to add another layer into their art.

We can similarly become fatigued by being exposed to too much sound, and so negative space is something the audio creator has to think about as well. We use negative space, those moments of silence, to create and build tensions, but the listener needs those moments of quiet to have a moment to process what they just heard, and to prevent (or at least reduce) fatigue.

Audio creators can also use those moments of quiet to enhance the clarity of the material, using them as an audio punctuation of a sort. In fact, narrators are trained to use actual punctuation in the text to help guide where and how to create moments of brief silence for the listener.What’s funny is that because teaching often comes in the form of a lecture, we’re actually already accustomed to processing these pauses, to help organize what we’re listening into bits of information we can process (or at least file away for later processing before the lecturer moves on to the next topic).

Regardless of the medium, negative space is important to help the viewer or listener better process and enjoy the experience.

Audiobooks and Literacy

There’s been a disturbance in reading circles lately over whether or not audiobooks count as “real reading”.

And I, a former teacher and current narrator, have some thoughts on the matter…and a pretty low opinion of those claiming audiobooks aren’t real reading.

Once upon a time, I taught for several years in a K-12 learning center, where it wasn’t unusual to find reluctant readers among the fifth grade though eighth grade crowd. Some of them were wrestling with learning or physical disabilities that made just focusing on what they were reading difficult, and it didn’t feel like it was worth the fight to them when they could see other kids reading the material quickly. Some of them were still working on comprehension skills, and felt “stupid” because they could read all the words but couldn’t make them make sense.

So they gave up.

While we recommended many of these kids explore graphic novels that targeted either their age group or one group lower, there were some kids who benefited from switching over to audiobooks. And really, it should have occurred to us sooner, because we used listening center methodology common to kindergarten classrooms in our own younger reading programs. For these older kids, they could find and load the audiobook that matched the book their class was reading onto their phone, and then it just looked like they were reading while listening to music when they were really reading along (because they often were trying to hide their struggles).

This workaround helped these kids build and strengthen their reading comprehension skills, ultimately doing better in their English classes as they were better able to understand and work with the material. That’s pretty compelling evidence that listening to a book is “real” reading.

But consider this: When I finally decided to give voiceover a try, I started at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, and I’m reaching out to Learning Ally as soon as my schedule permits. Both are dedicated to making textual materials, including educational materials, available to those with vision-related disabilities. And then there are radio reading services, who among their services read newspapers, ads and all, to an audience composed of people with vision-related disabilities who benefit from the service.

This is where I lose my patience with people who look down their nose at audiobooks as quality reading experiences. Actually, this is where I hope those people have perfect eyesight every day of their life and never have to consider alternate ways to read. Or where I ask if those same people think reading Braille is not “real” reading…because it’s pretty much the same situation. Not everyone has perfect eyesight, or eyesight that can be adjusted through medical means (because that’s what glasses are) , and they still read…be it books, magazines…for pleasure, for work, for learning…through whatever means they can get their hands on. If you dismiss this whole group of people who read through other means, for whatever reason, it actually indicates that you’re an ableist, someone can only empathize with the needs of people in absolutely perfect health.

Bottom line: There are a lot of people, in every single demographic, who benefit from audiobooks for a wide variety of reasons. That doesn’t make them lesser readers. It doesn’t make those who look down on them the literary elite. And maybe it’s time to accept that reading is reading, regardless of how it takes place.

The Robots Are Coming

Recently, one of the major audiobook producers told their narrators to prepare to be replaced by computers. Some narrators have panicked. Some are already thinking about how to work around it.

The thing is, this isn’t the first time voice actors have had this threat dangled over their head. When Hatsune Miku proved to be more than just a proof of concept, voice actors were warned that they would soon become extinct. That was about a decade ago, and the field is still going…and growing.

Teachers have been facing this threat since the first personal computers came on the market years ago. And then the internet was going to end the need for human teachers. And then tablets would be the end of the profession. Yet they’re still working to prepare kids for a quickly-changing world.

Human teachers aren’t going anywhere, and human actors won’t, either…pretty much for the same reason. There’s a level of empathy, emotion, and intuitiveness that goes into both careers that a computer just can’t match. I know they’re doing some crazy things with AI development, and VocalID is gaining ground as a pretty cool accessibility device. But we’re not to a point where an AI can process the sheer jumble of information a teacher or a performer has to internalize and react to with anything resembling the speed and awareness.

Maybe some day both professions will be genuinely threatened by this technology, but AI is going to have to cross some fun divides to get there.

On Recognizing the Actor vs. Expecting the Character

A voice actor recently shared an experience she had on Twitter where a fan attacked her for behavior actually committed by a character she played. While most of the commenters sympathized with her, it is sadly not an uncommon to find fans who cannot separate the actor from the character.

Who knows what leads to this inability to separate reality from fiction, but it does make you wonder how these fans reconcile actors who play a variety of characters who may not have a whole lot in common. For example, I had a recording session recently where I was (over the course of an hour or so):

  • two different little girls
  • two different adult men (Wow, does that sound creepy after the previous line!)
  • an older woman and her elderly husband
  • a sawhorse
  • a couple of creatures made of rock
  • a village of paper dolls
  • a brigade of spoons (and various kitchen utensils)

And let me tell you – Trying to type up this blog post with no fingers (or any appendages to speak of) while the light glints off my silver surface to reflect on the computer screen is quite trying. But honestly, there just weren’t any qualified spoons lining up to fill these parts.

Even more impressively, throughout a childhood (into college) engaged in ballet, I was a rat, a bat, a flower, a variety of candy, dolls of various nationalities, and a wraith. In fact, in the same show I was a wraith, I was also a page and a soulless churchgoer, so… The worst part of that was quickly having to shift between having no body and having no soul. Or was it giving up my body to begin with…? I wonder if I remembered to get my soul back after that show…

You may be rolling your eyes right now, but I hope I’m making my point.

Often, part of why people become actors or dancers to begin with is to get the opportunity to be people we would never be in our daily life. Yes, sometimes we get to play characters similar to us, but more often than not, we don’t and we look forward to the chance to explore. I’m no more a rock creature than I am a society woman who would carry on with a married man. But I’ve played both, just days apart.

And you can’t even say, “Well, actors and dancers have some choice in what they audition for, so they can stack their deck.” Because while that’s sometimes true, we can’t control what happens after the audition. Many actors and dancers, myself included, can tell you about auditioning for one character, and then being cast as a completely different character that we would never in a million years have tried. We’re really just doing our job and having as much fun as we can in the process. And then we go home. We’re not our characters.

But someday…if I continue to work hard, I might just figure out how to become a convincing potato masher. (That’s the transformation I’m really looking forward to!)

Finding Yourself By Exploring Different Characters

Recently, I’ve found myself playing characters with the exact same descriptor – sinister. Sometimes, it’s the key description of a character. Sometimes, it’s down the list, behind such fun adjectives as stern and aloof. In one case, it ran in direct opposition to the other descriptors in the list.

I’ve played a sinister character before. I have an award for that character. The problem is…she wasn’t openly sinister. She didn’t even see herself as evil. She thought she was doing what she had to in order to keep her world from completely dying, even if it meant engaging in some…less than moral activities. So, she was sinister…but she never really presented herself that way.

The most recent sinister character to cross my desk was not that subtle, just based on the script and notes I had. But it was clearly important to the director I figure it out, so I tried.

But I am not a sinister person by nature. Sarcastic? Yes. Sinister? Not so much. I used to teach middle school and high school students, and while I could be regarded as firm or even strict at times, I failed to come across as mean, let alone any shade of evil. (It’s amazing what you learn about nuance of language from teaching teenagers.) I struggle to come across as unfriendly in my interactions with people I don’t really care to be around. So, trying to figure out how to play sinister has been…challenging. Something I’m going to be working on for a while. (Probably why it keeps coming up.)

You might argue that an actor should be able to just drop into any description…but when the description is far from your own personality, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. An actor isn’t an empty vessel. They walk in with their own definition of self, and then layer or build a character off of what they walked in with. (Or…I do… Maybe I do it wrong…) For characters who aren’t a strong fit, it’s a chance for the actor to take some aspect of themself and play with what would happen if that aspect developed in a certain direction. The closer the shift, the easier the exploration.

I think this is actually what’s meant by increasing your range, because each time you engage in these explorations, you expand what you bring with you, and can then expand off that. It can be a lot of fun, but it’s a definite challenge.