How to come up with audition ideas on the “spur of the moment”


There’s a major difference between auditioning for most theater roles and auditioning for a voice over job. In the theater, you may deliver a monolog you’ve researched and chosen for its ability to show the best of your abilities. Or you’ve read the play, or studied the sides you were given. You’ve rehearsed and rehearsed, worked with a coach, and you have it down cold. In voice over, it’s typically exactly opposite – although sometimes you’re emailed the script beforehand, often you’re given a script just minutes before you have to deliver. Even if you’re auditioning from you home studio – where you have more time flexibility – your chances of winning the role often depend on how quickly you can turn the audition around.

In so little time, how do you come up with something fresh, something that shows the best of your abilities?

As we’ve noted several times over the past year (particularly in in 18 Steps To Improve your Audition Batting Average last May) a key factor in winning more auditions is in not doing it the way everyone else is likely to. That means coming up with an idea – fast. And fresh ideas being sometimes reclusive critters, an audition session is not the time to start that process.

How do you come up with ideas? That is, the sort of ideas that will help you succeed and progress as a voice actor?

The first step is to recognize that, as a voice artist, you are as much a part of the creative process as the team that wrote the script. Copywriters hear their words in their heads, but many are not trained to voice them as effectively as you. As much as you rely on a good copywriter to give you meaty thoughts and words, that copywriter is expecting you to give those words energy, to bring those thoughts to life.

Voicing them competently is a start. The real charge, however, is to make them fresh. (Hopefully the ideas and words in the script are already fresh, so maybe we should say your job is to keep them fresh, and “extend the freshness date.”)

That calls for ideas. Any sort of idea – maybe you’re asked to match a celebrity’s personality, or there’s an attitude change-up in the second sentence, or you just know everyone will read this script with a vocal happyface and you want your approach to be more distinctive.

We’ve all seen people come up with marvelous ideas on the spur of the moment. But that is not really the way that novel ideas are created. Most likely, those individuals had already laid the groundwork. Even they themselves might not be aware of this, but what you saw was just the final stage in their creative process.

The full process is described in a marvelous little book called, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.” It was written by the advertising agency executive James Webb Young, more than half a century ago. (Never heard of him? Maybe you’ve heard of Bill Bernbach, and Keith Reinhard; they wrote the Forwards.) It’s a thin little tome, big type and only about 50 pages, costing about $7 at your local bookseller, even less for an electronic edition.

You may already know some of what’s in it, from your own life experience. If nothing else, it’s interesting insight into your personal process, and the creative (or sometimes rigid) mindsets of others.

It starts by laying groundwork: What is an idea? How are ideas created? What type of person comes up with them? How can you train yourself to be that type? (Hint, you probably already are, considering that you’re interested in a creative field like Voice Over.)

And then, towards the end of the lunch hour it will take you to read the book, the author itemizes the five steps in arriving at the “Eureka” moment. At risk of oversimplifying the process he describes, the stages are these:

1. Gather information. There are two types of such “raw materials”: information directly related to the problem at hand, and the information you acquire every day in your activities as a curious human being.

2. Think about this information in the context of your immediate task. Focus. If you happen to find a solution, great. But if you do not, don’t fret. Many people start and stop with this step and wonder why they come up dry. But in fact, you’re just getting started.

3. Do something else. Anything else. Clean the garage, work on another project, play golf, take a hike, see a movie. It needn’t be play. It can be work. In any case, it should be unrelated to what you need idea for. During this period, the author says, your mind is subconsciously digesting the input. You may prefer to think of it as the idea gestating. Today’s neuroscientists (we suppose) would say that your brain has been sorting out relationships and building new synapses.

4. At some point after your time away from the problem (Young doesn’t say exactly how long, but our experience is that it may be days), the idea will occur to you. Now you know why so many ideas have come to you in the shower!

5. Record your idea and apply it. Not all ideas – even if fresh -- are great ideas. You’re not through with this process until you’ve found an idea that works, and you’ve integrated it into the situation.

This process works in many contexts. It’s a way to come up with ideas about all sorts of things. For example, script ideas for your demo, character voices, a furniture arrangement, the introduction to a corporate report.

But can you use it in a voice over audition?

Clearly, it must start long, long before you set foot in the booth.

1. Gather information. You can’t know exactly what information may be required by some future script. But you can gather information about life in general. Go through life with interest. Be attentive to everything and everyone around you, and (since that universe is a bit broad) be especially interested in the ideas and technologies that your prospective clients and their customers deal with. The combination of general and specific knowledge is precisely what Dr. Webb ordered.

2. Think about what challenges you’re likely to face in your particular VO genres. Do you need more character voices? Do you need to pronounce words in an obscure industrial vocabulary? Need to understand chemical processes or historical events related to your clients’ products? Make a list of voices heard on the train and in movies, practice pronouncing words on sight. List every direction you’ve ever been given. Read scripts and identify what habits you’ve fallen into – then read the same scripts again in every possible other way. Whatever. Don’t make judgments. Simply focus on the goal.

3. Do something else – have you done everything on your VO business’s Marketing to-do list? Pick something and get at it.

4. After all this strenuous activity, well ... you could use a shower. Voila.

5. Apply your idea. Most likely this involves recording and listening back. Develop your idea (your new character voice, your personal relaxation technique, your subtly expressed mood, whatever) so that it becomes second-nature. Is it working? Then bring it with you – already in your head – to your next recording session.

And show them you can turn on a dime.

So, it seems we should correct what we said at the outset. In this respect, auditioning for a stage role IS comparable to auditioning for voice over: The stage actor’s mantra is “practice, practice, practice” long before they even get the call. And, as we’ve just outlined, the voice actor’s innovative process also takes place long before the recording session where it’s applied.

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