Whatever dialect you perform, the best acting is universal and truthful. Paula Cavanaugh Carter, Dialect Coach and Linguistic Anthropologist, shares how acting trumps accent. Always.
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Paula Cavanaugh Carter is a Dialect Coach and Linguistic Anthropologist. She speaks several languages and developed the Carter-Graphic method of accent acquisition, which fosters rapid integration of new speech patterns. She formally trained in language instruction and acquisition at the Berlitz International Language Institute in Rockefeller Center, NYC and studied the Stanislavsky Method at the Lee Strasberg Institute, New York. Paula will lead dialect workshops this summer in New York and Los Angeles, and will present her techniques at the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA) conference in Montreal this August.
Welcome to Voice Over Experts, brought to you by Voices.com the number one voice over marketplace. Voice Over Experts brings you tips, pearls of wisdom, and techniques from top instructors, authors and performers in the field of voice over. Join us each week to discover tricks of the trade that will help you to develop your craft and prosper as a career voice over talent. It’s never been easier to learn, perform and succeed from the privacy of your own home, and at your own pace. This is truly an education you won’t find anywhere else. Now for our special guest, Paula Cavanaugh Carter, dialect coach and linguistic anthropologist.
Paula Cavanaugh Carter: An accent is never abstract. Every voice has an age, a stress level, heartaches, intentions. Whatever dialect you perform, the best acting is universal and truthful. Acting should trump accent, always.
In order to achieve voice performances that resonate with listeners, infuse your speech with detailed choices. This layers your specific voice with authenticity and believability that compels an audience to extend their trust to you and the text you bring to life.
The first great dilemma facing voice over artists is that decisions often left to a director in production must somehow be guessed in advance based on the information published in the audition information. Talented actors are capable of making hundreds of very subtle distinctions with their voice and accent to paint the picture of the world of the character, but of course worry that guessing wrong will lose them the gig.
How does a voice over artist get from “I can speak anything you want” to “my voice is everything you want.” Here’s where my training as an actor and an anthropologist comes in. When studying human beings, especially for the purpose of recreating them in body or voice on a stage, in film and television or via audio, we’ve all heard that observation is essential. This is typically part of artistic training whether method acting or visual arts.
But for audio performance, what observations make a difference in the sound of the voice? Whether an actor or a social scientist, a life is mapped by more than just age, ethnicity, income and education, the typical demographics. To capture a true voice of a real person one must ask other questions.
How much sleep did this person get last night? What is her biggest worry today? What does he love above all things? Does she smoke? How many children does he have? How many jobs is she holding down? Think of the great Garrison Keillor, the voice of Prairie Home Companion and the beloved Lake Wobegon series. His is not a polished, bland voice. We hear his belaboured breathing as he pauses, clearly divulging his smoking habit with every ear listening.
We hear the measured, careful rhythms of a Lutheran sensibility that seeks to offend no one, at least publicly. We hang on his every Midwestern-accented word. Every layer and choice he projects through his voice creates such a true person that we accept the character as real. We believe what he says as true. We hear age, we hear veiled humour, we hear surprise, we hear humility.
A voice over audition won’t provide any of that detail of character study to guide you. You might get “we’re looking for a Garrison Keillor-type voice” or “we’re looking for a Keira Knightley British accent.”
Here’s the next dilemma. It’s no secret that it can appear at times that producers don’t know what they want and they’ve sent casting professionals, or interns, to the store to buy them the perfect solution that will make them happy – an impossible task, right? You actually have the power to make this overwhelming array of choices easier for you and the production. It’s up to you to make those choices and present that person to the casting professionals shopping for voices.
It’s a fact. You cannot be all things to all people, especially with no guidance up front. You’ll have to make a choice. Many choices, detailed choices in order to sell what you create, which is ultimately the business bottom line for you. As pure as you want to keep your art, a voice over artist is selling his or her creation. You’re making a living with what you love.
So in order to keep doing that you do need to present what the casting team or producers want to buy. The critical point here is, you need to present what they decide to buy. It may not have been precisely what they said they wanted to buy, but that may not have been a clearly defined thing in the first place.
Secondly they’ve sent someone out to get the vague thing they’ve asked for. Imagine a powerful person with little patience who sends an intern to a local deli to pick up sandwiches for lunch. He or she has not been overly specific. “Just get something good,” they say, and off goes the intern.
The boss doesn’t actually want just something good. He or she wants something great, but they don’t know how to precisely describe what great is. Intern is greeted by the cheerful deli owner standing in front of his fine array of meats, cheeses and vegetables, and the deli owner says, “I’m happy to make anything you want. Otherwise I’ve made some delicious sandwiches ready to buy if you’re in a hurry.”
Note: productions are almost always in a hurry. Few of us have the luxury of time or money, and certainly not both. To extent the analogy to voices, let’s say the intern says, “I’m supposed to hire a British accent.” The deli owner says, “Wonderful, would you like West London, Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle?”
The intern says, “Oh, uh, I – I didn’t know there was a difference. She said it should be like Keira Knightley.” The very knowledgeable sandwich artist says, “Great, I can do that. Do you mean Keira in Love, Actually, Keira in The Imitation game or Keira in her natural voice in interviews? The intern begins to sweat, the clock is ticking, the boss is hungry.
The sandwich artist says, “No problem, I’ll tell you what. Nine times out of ten when someone describes Keira, what they mean is a refined, beautiful voice. Someone cultured, educated. Someone who probably speaks London-received pronunciation. So does Helen Mirren, but if they’d meant a strong, powerful grown woman they’d have probably mentioned her by name instead.”
“My guess is that your boss is describing a young, bright voice, a voice of privilege. Someone they picture wearing a Jane Austen empire-waisted dress, not a leather jacket and steel-toed boots. I get that a lot. In fact so much so I’ve got ten of them in my case right here, all ready to go. Grab one and you’ll be through the checkout in two minutes.”
The deli owner took a risk in pre-guessing the types of things his customers would like and want to buy. Sure, a person could quibble over mustard versus mayo or tomato versus lettuce, but it’s just a lunch. It’s just the audition. It’s just to show if you can in fact make a decent sandwich that tastes good.
It may taste great, but you’ve done the work to make those choices without having to be told every step of the process. And for that the boss is grateful. You’ve created a true voice of a real person, from a real neighbourhood or town with a real accent, with a level of fatigue or joy that’s palpable in the speech. It’s not just somebody from England.
To do that you make several choices and go with it. You put your delicious sandwich out in the case and there will be customers who find that you’ve given them something real, something great, ready to go. You’ve done a lot of the work for them, which is a lot of what happens before you get in the room with a director. But you’ll never get into that room if you wait to be told which of 50 ingredients you should put into it.
You’re the gourmet. You know what combinations and layers go into recreating a representation of a real person. If you don’t then you have more training to do. You yourself see how many hundreds of recordings are submitted to auditions. And sure, if a person’s hungry and in a hurry they may grab fast food in the hope that it will be good enough. But over time, when those who hear your voice are drawn in because of the dimension and depth you’ve created, you’ll book jobs.
And those jobs will compel audiences to remember the commercial, fall in love with the novel, etc. The Garrison Keillors and Morgan Freemans of the voice over world know this, and they know the power of a truly gourmet voice. Take your risks, make your choices and put them out there. It’s how the best of the best do it and what makes us come back for more.
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