BUSTING OUT

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I was on a plane most of today, traveling to New York, so I’m taking a day off from reportage on America’s Got Talent to share an essay about voice acting.

I have been interested in voice acting, narration, voiceover and of course, impressions, since I was a little guy.  I was exposed to wonderful recordings as a child, maybe even as a baby, and I learned early on how expressive and delightful the voice can be, in storytelling, poetry recitation, and comedy.

Having been raised by two actor parents who loved to read aloud was a definite advantage.

Now, after thirty years in show business doing almost everything one can do with voice, including singing, radio, audiobook directing, animation, looping, videogames, apps,  narration, sound effects, ring tones, impressions, animal noises, even GPS system voice recordings, I find that I have some definite opinions about voice acting, and some artistic tips for people starting out.

One thing that I think is both vital to understand and practice and also rather easy to explain is the following, which applies to any vocal performance where one is working from a script.

The script should never drive the performance; the actor is in charge of pace, emotion, timing and everything else.

What do I mean?

I think this is best illustrated by listening to a child read anything, or better yet, a digitized voice.  Both are mechanical to the degree that they do not exercise judgement about what they are reading.  One word follows the other in more or less the same pace, the sentences follow without pause, or with identical pauses, just as if a little conveyor belt were feeding the words out.

Obviously, this is not good technique if you want the audience to feel anything or follow the thread of your discourse, whether you are reading Chaucer or explaining how to boost ROI by using a new website dashboard.  It is the ultimate of dissatisfying storytelling; nobody would listen to it.  

Strangely, I have found many examples of computer generated narration of audiobooks on YouTube; it is inconceivable to me that anyone other than another laptop would ever listen to such a recording for more than a minute.  It’s torture!

We can easily see by this example what the wrong thing to do is, and that is to just read the words with the same weight of importance and emphasis, and let the symbols themselves do all the work.

When we stop letting the WORDS be in charge, and take the necessary micro-seconds to form an opinion about them, and DECIDE how to deliver them in order to convey the scene, not becoming a slave to the assembly line on the page, then the performance gets more under our control and we really begin to tell the story.

Observe some people on the street or at a party talking about something that interests them.  They don’t ever sound mechanical, or like they have to say things at a certain set rate.  They pause, they consider, they stop to see if YOU are still following them, and if you agree.

The most interesting speakers take time to let the listener digest what was said, then speed up or get loud or color the words in a million different little ways to get the point across…. because that IS the point– to GET A POINT ACROSS.  Not to “Talk single file” at a proper rate, (that’s what they do on newsradio– everything is of equal value, the train wreck that killed hundreds and the latest appearance of a Kardashian at a mall opening) but to COMMUNICATE SOMETHING.

So, an exercise I recommend is to read a page of something aloud, just read it through, without paying particular attention to the rate of speed or the delivery, then read it AGAIN several times and exercise your own control over the time you take saying the words, and especially the pauses in between sentences and phrases.

See if you can take control.  If you feel in any way “Tugged along” by a section, then break up the rhythm on purpose, whether or not it makes sense to.  Do whatever you can to break out from the domination of the lines of text that seem to demand you not stop in your delivery of the next syllable, and the next, and the next…

The shared font size of letters seem sometimes to demand that all words are more or less equal, or should be stated similarly; for example this quote from Oliver Wendall Holmes:

“The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”

Now how would you read it if it was printed like this:

The sound of    a    kiss           is not so loud     

as that of          a    cannon,

but its           echo               

lasts a great  deal  longer.

We don’t print things that way, because we generally are in a hurry to give and take information, but when we are performing text, be it for radio commercials, live poetry readings, instructions on a webpage, or as a character in any story,  we can add a lot by simply exercising our ability to differentiate the relative value of words and sentences. That’s what human beings do.  Machines can’t.

Be less and less a machine in your approach to text, and your work will improve instantly.  Give it a try.

Hope that helps.

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ACCEPT IMITATIONS, A Beginner’s Guide to Performing Celebrity Impressions Chapter Five

SPEED OF DELIVERY

When you are developing a celebrity impression, or any character, one little thing to look at is speed of communication.

Not everyone speaks at the same rate, or processes information at the same speed.

Some personalities are as fast as a greyhound, others, as slow as a slug. Some, like Harold Camping, who famously predicted the end of the world in July and then again in October of 2011, are almost too slow to effectively imitate; no one will sit through the impression.

Sometimes that has to do with age or education, sometimes it’s just some factor resident in the personality of the individual themselves.

If you study early American movie stars, they generally have a much quicker rate of exchange in their communication than their modern counterparts. My theory is that Americans were in better shape physically and mentally back in the 1930’s and 40’s. They were more decisive and more used to dealing with others face to face than in modern times. They were more literate and relied less on automation to get things done. They were, arguably, more social.

Audiences, too were therefore more able to understand and absorb rapidly spoken language, as they too were more literate and educated than the audience of today.

There also might have been a financial consideration from the studios; they might have been guilty of trying to pack in the most dialogue in the smallest amount of time, to bring movies in at a little over an hour, so that more showings could be scheduled.

Who the Hell knows?

All I know is, listen to someone like Jimmy Cagney, Rosalind Russell or the blisteringly fast talking Noel Coward in films from that period, and then you try talking that fast.

It’s a challenge.

The only reason I bring it up is to get you to take a look at the speed at which your target celebrity delivers his or her dialogue. It will have everything to do with making your impression accurate.

Are they slow and methodical, like John Malkovich, or relatively rapid, like Martin Scorcese or Dennis Hopper? What is the general speed of that actor or character?

It’s sometimes easy to get excited onstage and whip through your voices quickly in your enthusiasm, but you might be missing a critical element in the rendition of that persona.

Break it down for yourself, compared to your own rate of speech, (and here you might do well to actually record yourself and see how quickly you talk compared to others– damn, I really hope you did that step back in Chapter Two) and see if that reveals anything to you.

JIMPRESSIONS: review of the new show in Hollywood

Jim Meskimen: A Man for All Voices

By Bonnie Priever The Tolucan Times
May 12th, 2011

Jim Meskimen opens his show, Jimpressions, at the Acting Center in Hollywood, with a pithy, profound statement: “It’s all about the voice!” This enjoyable evening of impersonations and clever humor takes me back in time to Las Vegas showrooms, featuring headliners like Rich Little and Fred Travalena, and their visceral performances of celebrities past and present. As Meskimen succinctly states, “there is an infinity of voices — we have stumbled upon in our lifetimes, and clearly recognize — yet each one is unique and special.” The audience is in for quite a treat, as they get to once again hear the distinct voices of Robin Williams, David Letterman, Jack Nicholson, and President Barack Obama, and many more, as if these larger than life personalities were right on stage themselves!

It’s a true art to impersonate the famous (and infamous!), from JFK to Truman Capote….it’s not an easy process to learn a specific voice, its tone, inflections and accent, yet Jim Meskimen makes it look easy and effortless, while enjoying every moment. His impressions take us into a world of ‘in the moment’ theatre, created by Lee Strasberg, fully immersing himself in the character portrayed. The show covers a range of territories, geographically, from Southern politicians to New York actors. He does a segment, honoring the “New York Greats,” such as Pacino, DeNiro, and Woody Allen; followed by a Presidential walk through memory lane. The audience is transported to another place and time… it’s like fingering the pages of history, and makes one proud and patriotic. In times like today, with the recent death of Bin Laden, we know that we have been graced with the presence of greats, and their voices of hope and courage linger on.

In Act Two, Meskimen portrays a professor of Ancient Art History, with improvised Q&A from audience members. Jim, both passionate about arts, performing and visual, decided to opt for the performing arts. With his strikingly good looks, amazing voice and talent, along with a chance encounter with Harvey Keitel, his professional venue and crowd-pleasing is the perfect choice.

Jimpressions plays one weekend every month through the rest of the year at the Acting Center located at 5514 Hollywood Blvd. For ticket information, call (323) 962-2100 or visit www.theactingcenterla.com/on-the-stage-2.