Re-inventing yourself from time to time leads to a fulfilling and continuing working life. It's easy for actors and voice actors - and I guess for artists of all kinds - to get stuck in a rut and just repeat and rehash whatever has brought you success, to play safe and to concentrate on whatever brings in the pennies. But experimenting in new areas of work, changing your perspective or finding new outlets for your abilities, is something I have found to be rewarding emotionally and professionally and also to be lucrative. You change - your skills develop - and if you have the ability to be flexible, to accept and build, to continue developing new threads and honing your craft, you realise that all of the skills you have picked up along the way help you to stay relevant and employable - even in a young industry such as audiobooks.
My first visit to the theatre was a Christmas treat in 1954. The play was 'Toad Of Toad Hall' (designed by Voytek I know now) at the old Nottingham Playhouse in Goldsmith Street - with Michael Hordern playing Toad. It was magical. I left the theatre on a cloud and announced to my astonished parents 'that is what I am going to do when I grow up!', and really, I never wavered from that ambition - and I still haven't. Every job I have ever had of any meaning has been connected to that one desire. To be an actor, to interpret language and emotion, to bring words to life.
It wasn't an easy journey to begin with. My father was of the impression that being an 'actress' was akin to walking the streets! He insisted that I went to secretarial college before drama school - and though I hated every moment of it, the touch typing has come in very handy! Fortunately, I won a scholarship to Guildhall, and got a grant as well, so with the financial burden out of the way, and the unwavering support of my half-sister and my mother, he was eventually persuaded that I was actually going to drama school, not into some den of iniquity! So - at the age of eighteen I headed for London and the start of the greatest adventure of my life.
At about the same time, my oldest friend, whom I first met at primary school at the age of seven was also embarking on a career in the theatre. She had a similar passion and though our journeys were different, our careers ran a parallel path - these paths crossing surprisingly often during a friendship spanning more than sixty years. We did drama classes together as children, were in numerous plays together, did public speaking and poetry exams. We both went to a summer school at Rose Bruford college when we were fourteen - and we were both bitten by the acting bug. I went to college, she joined the local repertory theatre as an student acting ASM, then after I graduated from Guildhall, we both ended up in the same repertory company at Nottingham Playhouse for several seasons. When she was pregnant, I stepped into her role in Stuart Burge's production of 'Sons and Lovers' for the BBC, when I was pregnant, she was my maternity cover at Central television - and when I returned from maternity leave, she and I worked together at Central for several years. We both had young families by this time, so when Central stopped in vision live continuity, our options were a little limited - going back to treading the boards wasn't really viable for either of us, but we both found a way to use our skills in different ways and we stayed in touch, meeting when we could. I went into television production, she retrained as a drama teacher (some years later, I directed a student production at the school where she was head of drama). Latterly she travelled the world as a LAMDA examiner - I got into audiobooks and voiceover - and so it continues.
We have re-invented ourselves yet again. Both returning to our roots!
The day after my birthday - we went to our monthly 'Speakeasy' voice and accent class at our local theatre. We are years older than the vast majority of participants, two silver haired women with a few creaking joints - both of us once again jobbing actors - quoting passages from Shakespeare to each other (from memory I may add) loving what we do, supporting each other and enjoying ourselves while continuing to explore and discover. My pal Evadne Fisher and I, developing our skills, honing and practising our craft - and acknowledging that re-inventing yourself every now and then is a really good idea - and that we are both very lucky!
That sinking feeling - money thrown away or a wise investment?
When I am out shopping in the real world and am tempted by an impulse buy, I take a break - I leave the store and have a walk around, get a coffee and talk to myself very severely! If I haven't convinced myself not to buy whatever it is within half an hour, I go back and take another look - a very critical look and I ask myself some questions:
If I can honestly answer 'YES' to those questions - then I ask myself
But what about shopping online for stuff I need for my business, whether that be equipment, software, coaching, mentoring, support - or membership of an industry related organisation or group?
I know that on more than one occasion I have been swept along on a wave of optimism and have pressed the 'buy now' button without a second thought. It's so easy to do - maybe I've succumbed because colleagues are posting on social media about joining this or that amazing organisation; signing up for this fantastic course; taking classes with this wonderful coach; or how simply doing X, Y and Z has transformed their career.
Sometimes it's a persuasive sales pitch or an hefty discount 'upgrade to the latest version of 'A' and save $100 dollars ... offer ends on Friday' that convinces me that my life and career can be transformed. Why am I tempted to buy a new mic, or the upgrade to the latest version of my editing software rather than sticking with the tried and tested version that I already have - and which works perfectly well? Why on earth do I find myself being tempted into signing up for this, that and the next thing? Why and how is usually-cautious-me being so easily seduced?
Audiobooks - Telling the story
And importantly - how to we ensure that we stay engaged and connected with the text so that the listener is drawn into the story and remains fully involved and connected throughout?
B is for ...
As actors we use our bodies to express our mood, our thoughts and emotions - and of course the essence of the character we're playing. Gesture, posture, the way you walk, the speed of your general movement is a powerful way of expressing yourself. The way you use your body speaks volumes to the observer showing your age, your personality and even your outlook on life without you having to speak a word. The way the body works is an essential part of character creation - let's face it, Charlie Chaplin's whole career was linked to his unique walk.
We are all increasingly aware of the value of exercise and keeping fit and while many of us are interested in improving our physical appearance and stamina, traditional keep fit and gym training doesn't necessarily give us the kind of workout and body training that fulfills our needs as performers - needs which are quite different from the kind of physicality needed to be an athlete.
For an actor the emphasis is on flexibility, stamina, expressiveness, characterisation, on motivated movement with purpose as well as on posture, relaxation, stillness and control. But what relevance has this for a voice actor?
An actor’s body is on show and under scrutiny and unless the intention is to draw attention to a character’s particular physical attributes, then the ability to move in an easy and fluid way that doesn’t distract the audience’s eye is a valuable attribute. An actor needs to develop a healthy body and maintain it in good working order - a actor's body needs to have an extraordinary level of control and stillness and be flexible and expressive. For an actor, any exercise regime is targeted on a different set of goals than simply gaining strength or losing weight; strength and stamina are obviously important; acting can be physically challenging – dancing and fighting occur in a great many plays and films! Movement training for an actor will normally include dance (incorporating period dance), gesture, fencing, stage fighting and tumbling.
Dancing, fencing and tumbling have no immediate relevance to voice acting; indeed you may wonder whether 'the body' and its fitness and flexibility has anything at all to do with voice acting. When you're in a small padded room in front of a microphone, you can't move around very much, you can't gesture and no one can see your posture or the physicality of your character.
However - especially for long form narration, stamina is vital - so is the reduction of physical stress which affects the voice, so body training and awareness combined with specialist forms of movement and relaxation such as the Alexander Technique and the Laban method are relevant and play a significant role in a regime that helps to build stamina, good breath control and vocal flexibility - all vital requirements for voice actors.
Your body is part of your vocal equipment and you owe it to yourself to stay generally in as good a shape as you can manage. Being generally fit is a great blessing and an asset to all performers and aids stamina and the ability to breathe properly.
Let's delve a little deeper. . .
Your voice is your voice … or is it?
There is a lot of talk about ‘authenticity’ buzzing around at the moment. Just Google ‘Authentic Voice’ and you’ll see 11,000,000 results. Many of them are about writing, urging authors to find their ‘authentic voice’, but ‘authentic’ also seems increasingly to be seen as a desirable asset for actors. Everyone, it seems, is trying to achieve that ‘an authentic performance’. Surely there can be no such thing! A performance by definition isn't 'real' or 'natural' or 'authentic' - it can never be. It is a performance.
I became ‘bi-lingual’ within a few days of starting school because I knew that if I spoke at school the way I spoke at home, I would sound too different to be accepted by my peers. So I am left struggling with the concept of one voice being more authentic than another - particularly within an audiobook, or any other kind of vocal performance.
We are actors … it is our job to make whatever we are doing believable and authentic. When we act, we aim to create something that is credible and convincing even though we may be playing a character light years away from ourselves in age, in experience and in attitude. And the joy of narration is that we get to play all of the characters - many that we would never be cast as in any other genre - and the narrator's skill is to make every single one of those voice sound 'authentic'.
Does this mean that I lost my ‘authentic’ voice? Does the fact that I (and many other actors and narrators) speak with a neutral ‘RP’ accent, make our voices less authentic than someone a voice with a regional dialect?
I don’t believe so … and actually I am inclined to think that applying the word ‘authentic’ to a voice is just so much gobbledygook!
An open letter from an Actor to Casting Folk
Now I am sure that I am sure I am not the only actor to whom this has happened - but it makes be mad!
On Wednesday morning an email pings into my inbox with details of a job: How exciting! It asks whether I am interested and available, gives me dates and rates. It's an interesting job that is almost certainly going to lead to more work - and yes, I am available! I agree to the rate - and put the dates in my diary.
I email the casting director by return saying thank you, how nice to hear from you. Yes I am available/interested and can do the job within the deadline you specify - I ask a couple of technical questions - and she helpfully suggests, that since I've not worked with these guys before, it might be a good idea to chat to one of their tech guys regarding my queries. He is not available right now, so we arrange a time for me to talk to him the following afternoon. The tech person and I speak late in the afternoon of the next day. A very useful helpful conversation - and everything I was uncertain about is cleared up. I email again as soon as we have spoken (though I know they won't pick up the email until Friday morning), to say all is now clear and I am happy to go ahead.
I have a lovely weekend, happy in knowing that I have a job in the pipeline ... and not just one, potentially a series of jobs.
On Monday morning, I email the casting assistant again, just to confirm everything and to ask her to send me the scripts as soon as possible. It's a big project ... and as I have other work in the pipeline, plus I will be away for a couple of weeks before the delivery day, I'd actually like to begin doing my preparation as soon as possible, even though the deadline for completion is some way away.
The response comes by return ... thank you, we have gone with a different voice! A male voice!
Now, I have been around the block a few times and I know how casting works, and I know the final decision is not always down to the casting director - or even the producer; there is normally an end client who calls the shots. That's quite normal and I accept it is part of the job.
My problem with this particular 'offer' that wasn't an 'offer' was the wording of the email. Never once was it indicated to me that I was being 'considered'; was being 'asked to audition'; was being asked of my availability for a 'possible' job that might or might not happen. There is an enormous difference between 'we have an upcoming project that we hope will interest you. Are you available between these dates to record it?' and 'would you be interested in being considered for a project within these dates?
Perhaps it was just a fishing expedition to check whether I would work for the rates they were offering - not the greatest, but with the mention of this being an on-going project - yes, I would accept their rate on that basis, though perhaps not for a single job only. Perhaps they were just thoughtless.
So ... a weekend spent on a high thinking I might have a lovely job popping into my inbox on Monday morning, giving me a couple of months work at least, has turned out to be a damp squib - a rotten tomato - a nothing! Plus the fact that I have cancelled several other jobs to make room for this one ... the job that never happened! Thanks a bunch.
So casting people - I know you're busy, I know you're stressed and working to tight deadlines, just as I am ... and I know the final decision is not likely to be yours, but I beg you, please consider the wording of your emails and how it reads to someone on the outside. Are you emailing with a firm job offer, or merely an availability. You know us actors ... we're often out of work; we're often up against immense competition. We know the industry is vastly overcrowded and we know how busy you are. We also know it's not you who makes the final decision. We know all that - and we accept it is just 'part of the job'! But dear casting director, have you ever thought how it feels to receive an email that appears to be a firm job offer - only to have it pulled from under your feet? How such an event may not actually incline an actor to feel kindly towards the organisation you work for - and how actually, you've been totally unprofessional.
We actors know we're totally expendable, that there are a hundred others waiting to step into our empty shoes - but that is no excuse for not behaving professionally when checking availability or making job offers.
Who knows, next time you want me to work with you, with a bit of luck and a following wind, I might just not be available.
A jobbing actor!
Where are the Working Class Voices?
"The percentage of people working in publishing with working-class origins was given as 12.6%. In film, TV and radio it was 12.4%, and in music, performing and visual arts, 18.2%. Aside from crafts, no creative occupation comes close to having a third of its workforce from working-class origins, which is the average for the population as a whole.
My roots are firmly working class, but I grew up in an era when elocution lessons were the norm. Speaking properly was expected, slang was frowned on and grammatical and pronunciation errors were firmly ironed out even in primary school and certainly when I went to drama school at the tail end of the sixties, the remaining traces of my northern roots were definitely and firmly discouraged. Fortunately, they remain in my aural memory and are a useful and much used tool in my work and I am very often asked to use my accented voice rather than my RP one.
Actress Maxine Peak has spoken openly about the prejudice she has found in the industry and the pressure she faced, particularly during the first series of 'Silks' to reduce her decidedly northern British accent with its flat vowels.
“There is only one class in the north, and that’s working class, and if you’re a woman you will be slightly brassy and a bit blowzy; if you’re a man you’re either aggressive or you’re angsty and poetic. That is the entire north in a nutshell."
Maxine Peak - Actress
Does the same prejudice exist in audio work? I suspect it does to some degree - but we are only the voices and unless we're creating our own content, we can only read what other people write .
There has been a tradition of working class heroes in fiction, from Dickens to Arnold Bennett to DH Lawrence to Catherine Cookson - but looking back, I think the working class hero is being increasingly neglected. There was a brave new working class world in the sixties with the works of Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, and Stan Barstow changing the face of popular contemporary fiction - and there were still some glimmerings a generation later in the works of Jeaneatte Winterson, and Melvyn Bragg; but since then, it seems to me there is a real lack of quality fiction with a working class setting. There are people working in television and film who are creating ng working class characters in their works: Ken Loach, Sally Wainwright and Jimmy McGovern to name a few, but though there are lots of novels with a historical setting that are firmly working class, in contemporary literature there seems to be a definite decline.
So, come on writers ... give us some grit to get our teeth into!
The narrator's view
'Acting ... Audiobook narration is all about acting'
Performing Audiobooks is a whole different ball game from doing any other kind of voice work - and you might think that 'performing' is an odd word to use. Most people use narration or reading - but to my mind - audiobook narrators are performers in exactly the same way as actors, dancers and singers are performers. There is so much more to reading an audiobook than just reading aloud.
'Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning'.
There is absolutely no doubt that performing an audiobook is a huge challenge - and it is little wonder that so many voice over artists balk at the idea of being shut in a padded room for days on end for such small reward - for there is absolutely no doubt that financially at least, audiobook narration is the poor relation. A thirty second network commercial shown across all networks at peak time for a major brand can command a higher fee than a ten hour audiobook ... and the work will be completed in hours rather than days. People do make money in audiobooks - but we generally don't make very much - and we certainly don't make it quickly - and we earn every penny.
In this article, I am going to look at what's involved in creating an audiobook from scratch from the performer's point of view.
Sun King Media - investigated by Simon Hare on BBC ONE
This organisation has cropped up in various guises - and they're still at it - I recently saw them advertising jobs for Audiobook Narrators recently on LinkedIn - of course they were calling themselves something different, but a little digging revealed it was good old Sun King. And it sounded very appealing ... audiobook narration at a PFH rate of £300 - in the UK? The old adage holds true - it it sounds too good to be true - it probably is!
Reporter Simon Hare of BBC One's Inside Out programme has Sun King Media in their sights ... and his report airs this coming Monday on Inside Out on BBC One at 7.30pm across the Midlands and on BBC One HD - also available on BBC iplayer for thirty days. A must watch (and a warning) to every voice actor, actor, and voice artist in the UK. Watch and Learn.
You can find out more here. HERE
If you're under the impression that Audiobooks are created for people with a visual impairment, think again! Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the digital publishing industry with the United States being the biggest marketplace with sales of over $2.5 billion dollars. Michelle Cobb of the Audiobook Publishers Association (APA) said that, “26% of the US population had listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months with an estimated 79,000 new audiobooks, published in the last 12 months, a 29% increase from 2016". Major publishers in the US confirm that the only way that their digital units have consistently been in profit, is due primarily to audiobooks as e-book sales decline. Currently in the UK only 12% of the population listen to audiobooks.
Audiobooks - producton and narration is a huge topic ... a genre of voice work that I spend most of my time working in and which I am passionate about. Because of the amount of information that I want to share, I have split this article into two parts. Firstly ... lets find out more about Audiobook Production. . .
Voice Over Auditions
An invitation to audition for a VO has arrived in your inbox. What do you do? Instructions are minimal. The pay is OK but the deadline is tight. You're not particularly busy but it's not a genre you feel confident in or are particularly interested in - so, do you audition or not? Before rushing to record your submission - bear in mind the wise words of veteran voice actor and coach Johnny Heller
'You only get one chance to make a good first impression ... make it count!'
There are exceptions to this way of working, though not often. However, some audiobook producers and production studios in UK studios still invite actors into their studio to do a sight reading before casting. The drawback of this is obvious ... especially to those of us living outside of London; thankfully there is usually some flexibility and narrators are given the option of recording their sight reading and share it over the internet.
This ability to record remotely and send an audition or a sample read directly via the internet to a client, or agent, or online casting site or producer or publisher has fundamentally change the way we work and look for work. Because it's comparatively quick and easy to record and upload your thirty second read, the temptation is to submit for every job going - a kind of knee jerk reaction - without really thinking about whether you stand a chance of getting it, whether your read is showing you to your best advantage - whether you're playing to your strengths and whether you really WANT the job.
In my opinion ... this kind of auditioning frenzy - pile em high and hope (that simply based on the law of averages) one of those reads will result in a job, is counter-productive and even damaging to your professional reputation.
Don't audition for practice ... practice in order to audition!
A is for AUDITIONS - Face to Face Casting sessions
Auditions - I was at Spotlight studios for a meeting recently and there in reception was a collection of nervous actors clutching their scripts and waiting to be called to the audition studio. Auditions! The bane of an actor's life but a necessary evil.
So what's the big deal? You know you're going to have to audition to get the job, you've had time to prepare, you know that there will be stiff competition- but in fact, the final decision will be made taking all kinds of external factors into consideration and may actually have very little to do with you or your ability.
"You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Make it count"
Johnny Heller - Audiobook narrator & Coach
You'll save yourself a lot of heartache, stress, and feelings of rejection and doubt if you concentrate on always playing to your strengths and if don't waste your time in auditioning for jobs that don't really interest you or that you don't stand a cat in hell's chance of actually getting. Of course you want to stretch yourself, to take on new and challenging projects ... but an audition studio is not the place to try out something new or to experiment with new genres. Really it isn't!
If you follow a lot of the online advice regarding acting, voice acting, auditions, success and applying for jobs, you might get the impression that all you need to do in order to gain success and recognition is just to want it enough. There is a lot of propaganda floating around that seems to imply that all you need to do in order to succeed is:
A: A firm belief that you can do it
B: To register for lots of coaching or classes
C: Record a voice reel (often 'the carrot' offered free that pulls you in and encourages you to enrol on the course) D: To work really really hard,
E: Do lots and lots of auditions and just keep on believing!
No mention of talent or even an interest in a particular job - but I digress.
I've divided this article into two sections - live face to face auditions first, then recorded auditions for voice overs.
Back to auditions . . . firstly ... live, face to face casting and auditions.
Accept & Build
""Rehearsal is not practice....it's FINDING"
Sir Peter Hall.
And you will never 'find' anything if you're trying too hard or are tense and closed to the possibility of something wonderful happening.
Acting requires you to 'Accept and Build' ... to always openly accept what is offered and to truthfully build on it; being open and flexible. Trying to force anything will only push what you're striving for further and further away from you.
With sincere gratitude to my acting and mime teacher from Guildhall, the inspirational and unique Ben Bennison.
An actor's technique - tip of the day
"Rehearsals are the discovery period. When you get to the performance itself, whether it be a one-off, a recording for television, radio or film, a play with a limited run, or for a long season, your technique allows you to reach back to the rehearsal period in order to remember and to truthfully recreate your original discoveries".
My Acting Credentials
I won a scholarship to the prestigious London Drama School, The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, graduating in 1969 after two years of intensive training in all aspects of acting. The first part of my career as an actor, was mainly on stage, treading the boards of many of the UK's foremost Repertory Theatres playing major roles across all genres, Strindberg to Shakespeare, Aykbourn to Agatha Christie. Highlights include playing at the Old Vic in Jonathan Miller's 'King Lear' with Sir Michael Hordern, and playing Miss Julie at the Roundhouse Studio. In the West End I played Mollie Ralston, the Heroine in year 29 of 'The Mousetrap', which holds the record for the longest running play in the world, ever! Acting has always been my first love - I feel strongly that good training is vital for actors - even though I am not sure that acting can ever be taught - it can certainly never be pushed or forced - it is absolutely about being open and accepting and though an actor can be guided in his craft, but the inherent talent must be there to begin with.
A is for ... Acting
Actor's Technique Tip of the Day
An Actor's Voice
In addition to that formal voice training all those years ago, I have learned so much from voice coaches, directors, fellow actors and narrators over the years and I'd like to share some of that knowledge. Hence this blog which I hope will be useful to fellow actors (both voice actors and stage actors), public speakers, and indeed, anyone who speaks in public or into a microphone.
So ... I'll be covering all the basics of vocal training and using the voice in performance - starting with the letter 'A'. So I'll be looking at Accents (how and when to use them, how much is too much?); Accuracy (why accuracy is important both in writing and reading); Acting - in particular how to use your voice effectively - and why muttering is not acceptable); Also ... Adaptability; Ambition; Articulation; Audio; Audibooks. and what appears to be the latest buzz-word Authenticity.
I hope you'll join me over the coming weeks.
My opinions are mine and my views are my own!