SURE, YOU LOVE acting, but could you act in a closet? Could you deliver your lines without a scene partner? Could you pivot from narrating a documentary to advertising an NBA phone app to voicing an anime character in a single week? If so, then you may want to consider voice-over acting.

“It’s just a blast,” said Kirsten Day, an alum of Thespian Troupe 1794 at Floyd Central High School (Floyds Knobs, Indiana). She voices Skipper, Tammy, and others on Netflix’s Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.

Kirsten Day, an alum of Thespian Troupe 1794, voices the character of Skipper on Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.

Kirsten Day, an alum of Thespian Troupe 1794, voices the character of Skipper on Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Not only is voice-over acting pandemic-proof (most of the work is done from home), but it also encompasses many types of projects. Day’s first voice-over job involved audio description for  iCarly on Nickelodeon. Audio describers voice the visual action onscreen for people who are blind or visually impaired. “So, you press a button and hear me say, ‘Carly walks into the room and puts down her backpack,’” Day said.

Mia Bankston, an alum of Troupe 1509 at Southfield High School in Michigan, once had a job giving voice prompts to an air conditioner. The manufacturer wanted to ensure the air conditioner’s user interface responded to a variety of voices.

“I thought, oh wow, this is considered voice-over too,” said Bankston, now an award-winning voice actor who specializes in online learning and commercials.

Barry Yandell, who has voiced hundreds of anime characters including William T. Spears on Black Butler, remembers his first voice-over job with Six Flags as the voice of a roller coaster. “I was paid 100 bucks,” he recalled. “It’s played 800 times a day. I wish I would have gotten a contract for a penny every time it’s played, because it’s been played for 10 years.”

The field of voice-over work is expanding (think video games, foreign language dubbing, and more), and acting experience is key to getting started. “If you go into the studio and just come up with a funny voice, that’s flat,” Yandell said. “If you’re an actor, you want to develop a character that is multifaceted, multilayered.”

The basic acting questions are the same: Who are you talking to? Who is this character? What are the emotions and intentions behind what the character is saying? But emotion must come entirely from the voice, which means you need to go big.

“Musical theatre actors are so prepared to be voice-over actors,” said Day, who starred in the touring production of Go, Diego, Go! Live and other musicals. In musical theatre, she said, “We’re trained to be bigger and expressive. We’re pretty much living cartoons onstage.”

Yandell’s first anime role was Dolltaki, a villain who turns people into dolls, in  Dragon Ball GT. He got a picture of his character before gong in to read. “I noticed the shape of his mouth,” said Yandell, who has led voice-over workshops at the International Thespian Festival. Dolltaki had a prominent chin, and Yandell experimented with protruding his own chin. He also relied on a tip he read in  Audition by Michael Shurtleff: Make the opposite choice.

“Whatever your initial instinct is for the character, that’s powerful,” Yandell explained, “but consider the opposite.” Normally, villains have deep, dark, intimidating voices. But Dolltaki’s voice is nasally with an over-annunciation of the “s” sound (due to Yandell’s protruded chin). The voice stood out, and Yandell landed the job.

Voice-over actors Mia Bankston, Kirsten Day, Aaron Goodson, and Barry Yandell.

Diction is important, too, and pace is critical, especially with commercials that are only 30 or 60 seconds long. “It’s not like a play where they’re saying, ‘Live in the moment and do whatever it is you need to do,’” Bankston said. “You need to live in the moment, but you only have six seconds to live in that moment, so you better get it right.” She recommends attending improv classes and working on comedic timing to develop pacing skills.

Aaron Goodson, who does voice work for the NBA, Atlanta Braves, and other sports clients, added that “voice-over is all about the text, so being able to read well is really important.” Many times, the script arrives just a few minutes before the job starts. This is especially true for commercials and promos. Much of the success comes from doing a very good cold read.

“Any kind of reading class that focuses on literature and interrogating literature is going to be really important,” said Goodson, who previously led Junior Thespian Troupe 88828 at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School’s middle school campus in Georgia. “The client may just send you the script, and you’re left to interpret what they are trying to get across.”

Testing the waters in voice-over is easy. Caroline Perkins, a Thespian in Troupe 8250 at Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, has been working in unpaid voice work for years under the name Owl of the Galaxy. “I was in sixth grade, and I saw animation on YouTube and decided I wanted to be a voice actor,” she said. She landed her first role in a YouTube series a year later. She now is a main character on two cartoons: The Marvelous Adventures of Danny deComp, where she plays a crime-solving ferret named Gracey, and Wolf Moon, where she plays tough wolf Wendy.

Perkins looked up animation casting calls on YouTube. She also recommends Casting Call Club for finding jobs. Though most are unpaid gigs (for example, college thesis film projects), Perkins says the experience and connections are invaluable. When she identifies a job she’s interested in, Perkins records an audition. Typically, the notice includes some lines and a description of what the creators need, as well as how they’d like audio submitted. If you have questions, Perkins recommends reaching out.

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Perkins said. “I’ve met a lot of great people through voice acting.”

For those who want to push their voice work further, it helps to start with voice-over classes. Bankston studied for a year before jumping into the industry, even though she had extensive acting experience. The additional training was critical when she earned her first job. “I had done mock auditions, and that was gold,” she said. When she walked into the booth she thought, “I know how to do this. I’m prepared. I’m ready.”

If classes aren’t available, find a voice-over coach. Some, including Day and Yandell, coach virtually. Also, YouTube videos — Day has her own YouTube channel — can teach breath work, diction, sound-proofing, and other voice-over tips.

“Breath is so important,” Day said. “You have to learn to control the breath so you can read a long piece of copy, or so you can talk like a boy or a little girl. It requires a lot of breath support.”

Teachers can connect students to voice-over jobs and agents, but classes are helpful for creating your first demo reel. A demo reel is the résumé and headshot of the voice-over world. It’s typically a 30- to 60-second recording of three to five short reads. Demo reels can be expensive to produce unless you understand sound engineering, so make sure you have good work samples before making the investment.

How do you record your reads? Nowadays, every voice actor has an at-home recording booth. This may double as a closet. “A closet can make a good VO booth,” Goodson said. “The clothes are good for absorbing sound, and usually closets are not near outside walls, so you can get farther away from outside noise.” If you want to move around, then it may be better to empty the closet and line it with sound blankets and other sound-absorptive material (and, of course, a light if necessary). But when you’re starting out, Perkins recommends finding a quiet room, such as a bathroom or bedroom for recording.

The voice-over studio doesn’t require much equipment, but that equipment can be expensive. A good microphone, for instance, can cost $200. You will also need a computer with sound-editing software, and, depending on the type of microphone, you may need an audio interface or mixer connecting the microphone to your computer. Additionally, a music stand can be helpful for holding your script. Perkins has a Snowball microphone that plugs directly into her computer. She says it works great and retails for under $100.

So, you’ve seen YouTube tutorials, bought a microphone, installed GarageBand on your computer, and placed a thick blanket against your closet door to muffle sound. You’ve found an audition. Now what?

Auditioning can be rigorous. Pandora Radio asked Bankston to read eight commercial scripts. But usually you record two takes of a script in different styles. Label the audition with your name and any other requested information. Perkins usually uploads her auditions to YouTube with the “unlisted” privacy setting (meaning that anyone with the link can access the video, but it doesn’t appear in searches) and sends the creators or clients the link.

After landing the job, record your lines for the project. When Perkins records at home, she does it by herself, which is also the case for professionals recording longer projects such as audiobooks or narrations.

“One thing that is critically important is learning how to self-direct,” Bankston said. “You don’t always have someone in your ear saying, ‘OK, I need you to hit this particular sound or note.’”

Thespian alum and voice actor Mia Bankston in her home recording studio.
Thespian alum Mia Bankston specializes in online learning and commercials. Photo by Mia Bankston.

For some jobs, a director or producer listens as you act and asks you to respond to their guidance and feedback. “The project will usually give some direction in the specs for tone, feeling, or the mood they are looking for,” Goodson said. “They may include a reference of something that sounds similar to what they want. But I also have the artistic freedom to interpret it as I see it.”

If that interpretation isn’t working, it’s important to pivot. Day’s first voice for Skipper on Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures was princess-like. “My directors were like, ‘Hey, Kirsten, can you ground her a little bit?’” she said. They settled on a Skipper that sounds like the cool, slightly sarcastic younger sister to contrast Barbie’s bright, positive energy.

“If a person is not understanding the direction, it’s terrible,” Bankston said. “Taking classes and having that coaching is really important because you want to be directable.”

Depending on the job, you may record your lines or someone else may serve as the audio engineer, recording you remotely. If you’re recording your work, there is no expectation of extensive sound engineering. Delete mistakes and remove large breaths or other distracting sounds, such as coughs or swallows. If a distracting noise can’t be easily edited, you may have to record certain lines again. A little experience with editing software is helpful.

“That technical aspect can sometimes throw a wrench in the operation,” Goodson admitted. “It can be frustrating.”

But any frustration is outweighed by the excitement of turning on Pandora Radio, clicking on a YouTube video, watching Netflix, or flipping on ESPN and hearing your voice.

“It’s weird hearing your own voice,” Goodson said. “You’re usually hearing it from inside your body, and it doesn’t sound the same. The first time I heard my voice-over work, I was at a friend’s house and we were watching ESPN [when] my promo for the Braves came on. I was like, ‘Wait a minute! That’s me!’”

Day had a similar experience. “The first time I saw my name on the screen on my big TV on Netflix, with America [Young, who plays Barbie] and Cassandra [Lee Morris, Stacie], I freaked out!” she laughed. “I admit I have no chill.”

Like all performers, voice-over actors must take care of their voices. When Day recorded the role of Constance for Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses, she had to talk for eight hours over the course of two days. “And then you have to do ‘efforts,’ which are any noises you make when you’re fighting or kicking someone and for big deaths. I’ve died so many times. It’s important to find healthy [vocal] placement for all these noises even when you’re falling off a cliff or someone is stabbing you,” she said.

A surprising fact about voice actors? While their regular speaking voices were all lovely, none of them sounded like their portfolio of work. Yandell, for instance, speaks with a friendly Texas twang that completely disappears when he does voice work. So, your natural speaking voice does not determine whether you’ll succeed in voice work.

“It’s your job to create believable voices for every project you do,” Day explained. “That’s the key to voice over. When you keep doing it, you find new voices. It’s about confidence and placement and knowing that you are capable of anything if [you] just have the right tools and try.”

Caroline Perkins, a Thespian in Troupe 8250, has been working in unpaid voice work for years under the name Owl of the Galaxy.
Caroline Perkins, a Thespian in Troupe 8250, has been working in unpaid voice work for years under the name Owl of the Galaxy. Photo courtesy of Caroline Perkins.
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