Bad acting, defined. Sorta.


The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a specific definition for the term “bad actor,” but it has nothing to do with voice acting or stagecraft. In our field, bad acting is harder to define. It’s important because virtually every voice over genre involves acting to some extent. How do you know bad acting – or lack of acting altogether --- when you hear it?

First, let’s review some traditional definitions of acting ... that is, beyond the general dictionary definitions, one of which is:

“To do something for a particular purpose or in a particular way.” - Cambridge Dictionary

Actually, that’s not half bad, because it includes the ideas of “doing” and “focus.”

But how have acting masters defined it?

Appearing to be real in an artificial situation. Or, to get closer to Sanford Meisner’s (or was it Stanislavsky's?) description, it’s “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

Lee Strassberg said, “Reacting to imaginary stimuli.”

Suppose, for now, we combine those, as: “Truthfully reacting in imaginary circumstances.” How do you apply that in a solo voiceover genre? How do you listen when no one else is speaking? How do you react when you’re often the only person there?

That’s where the imaginary circumstances come in. Common advice is to imagine who you’re speaking to. Specifically. Not “I’m speaking to people who like dogs,” but rather “I’m speaking to my (actual) friend Sara, who loves the most mischievous mutt.” Also imagine where you’re speaking. In a living room, you’ll speak a bit differently than in a veterinarian’s exam room, in a waiting room or outdoors. And again, be specific. Not just “outdoors,” but “at the dog park.”

But that’s just a start.

No one has friends and relatives enough to cover all script situations, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for additional listeners in your daily wanderings. Maintain a mental or even written notebook of them, so when you need to conjure up someone who’s just seen, oh, a horrendous car accident, you can picture that person and the accident in your mind. It will help the relevant emotions flow so much better than if you’re seeing only your Director.

Now that you know where you are and who you’re talking to, who are you? And what are you doing? These latter questions are often answered simultaneously, because they involve a goal. Or (definitely going back to Stanislavsky this time), what is your intended action?

An “intended action” is analogous to what salespeople call the “most wanted response.” They don’t just ask for the sale -- they know beforehand exactly what action the prospect should be motivated to take -- or what button the user should click -- in order to consider their pitch successful.

For example, the who are you: you might be Sara’s friend, or you might be her veterinarian, or the veterinary practice’s receptionist. Each would talk to Sara slightly differently. But only slightly... that’s why combining the “what” part helps . It further colors the manner of your speech. Are you explaining why she should adopt a stray of a certain breed? Or why she should use a particular brand of flea spray? Or that it’s her fault that her dog was choking on cheese? That’s likely determined by the script, but flesh out the scene with whatever unspecified specific details you might. (And ignore the issue of whether “unspecified specific” is an oxymoron.)

Each of those situations involves a different sort of intended action. Make it a specific action. Not just “love the dog,” but rather, “sign the adoption papers” or “kiss the dog.” Not just “buy the product,” but rather “get out her credit card,” or “kiss the vet” (presumably in gratitude). Not just “don’t feed him cheese,” but “pout in disappointment,” or “burst out in tears” (you meanie!)

Now you know how Sara should react to your line – you know how to deliver it. Even more, you know in your being how it should feel to deliver it. And, because you’ll know her reaction, you know how to deliver your next line, too. Rather than pushing “emotions” on your listener (another definition of “bad acting”), you’ll be acting from within, more subtly, more believably, more real. Acting well.

Can you parse an hour-long documentary like this? Not in such detail. But you can set the scene in general. And such detailed analysis can really help with a 1-minute commercial.

It even works if you’re lucky enough to have another actor across the mic. Just be sure to listen and react appropriately to their response, because they might surprise you. That helps endow the scene with freshness and energy. And is part of the fun.

Great article!

Thanks for addressing an issue everyone struggles with--sometimes for YEARS. I know everyone has probably heard this a zillion times, especially if you have a radio background, but I worked in radio during the "transition" from "announcer-guy" to "real guy" (or gal). So we were to imagine that, instead of speaking to an audience of thousands, we were speaking to thousands of audiences...one on one. Try it, it really works!

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