What about my Accent? And, should I join the Union?

The US voiceover community has a mix of very talented voice actors from all around the world, many of whom speak with either a regional accent or a distinguishing accent from their native country. So, if you do have an accent, just how does that figure in to your ability to succeed in the US voiceover business?

Phil White sent in this question: Hello James. My name is Phil White. I am an English man in his early 20s living in Kansas Cityand am just starting out in voiceovers. I have a demo tape and have signed with an agency, but because of my English accent I am worried that I may not get many jobs, particularly in the small KC market. I will be graduating from university in July and am considering relocating to a larger market, but I know that talent agencies in New York and LA usually only sign talent with years of experience. I have done several non-union jobs but would like to go union and make it in a larger market. It would be great if you could give me some expert advice on the best way ahead. I have read your book and others several times, but need more specific advice. I hope you have the time to help me. Thanks for your trouble.

Here's my reply:

You've addressed two separate issues with your question, both of which I'll answer here. Your English accent will definitely have an affect on your ability to obtain voiceover work in the US - no matter what market you are in. You'll definitely be able to get VO work for certain types of jobs, but In order to really "break in" you're going to need to learn how to speak with the standard non-accented American English. How do you do this? I thought you'd never ask!

It's actually easier than you might think. If you've read my book, you know that voiceover is more accurately voice acting, and voice acting is all about creating the appropriate character for the script. Creating a character requires a discovery process in which as many details of the character are put together to ultimately make the character real in the mind of the audience. The manner in which the character speaks is one of those details. Attitude, subtext, emotion, physicalization, and accent all contribute to the character's style of speaking.

Did you ever stop to think that you never had an accent until you came to this country? England is a land of many accents and dialects, and your particular accent is the result of a habit you have acquired in which you speak the sounds of the English language in a certain way. Your individual speaking habits date back to when you first learned to speak. You developed your "accent" partly from imitating the vocal sounds you heard from your parents and family. Over time you learned to form sounds that closely resembled those of what you heard, and the physicality of how you formed words became a habit. Habits can be changed.

I'm sure you've mimicked other regional English accents at one time or another, and perhaps even some regional US accents. Because you are familiar with the various regions and their unique sounds, you were (or probably are) pretty good at coming up with a believable imitation of how someone from a different region would speak. That's exactly what you need to do to master non-accented American English. Basically, you need to modify your speaking habits - in other words learn how to change the way you speak.

If you are doing this as "Phil trying to change his voice" chances are you're going to have a tough time with it, or it may take longer than what you would like. The reason this approach may be challenging is because you are focusing your personal energy into a process of changing something about the way you are.

What I suggest you do is first study what non-accented American English sounds like by listening very closely to radio commercials, radio programs and television shows. Then create a character that fits the mold for the sound you want to achieve.

By creating a specific character you can freely experiment with finding the correct manner of speaking. Essentially, what you are doing is imitating or mimicking the speech patterns of someone who speaks with non-accented American English. Through imitation, you will learn the differences between the way you "normally" speak and form your words (your learned speaking habits) and the way you want your character to speak and form his words (the new habits you need to develop). Recording your practice will be helpful, and you may want to enlist the help of a voice coach in your area. There's also a CD course you may want to purchase titled "American Accent Training" by Ann Cook that guides you through the process of adjusting your speaking patterns to those ofnon-accented American English.

The other part of your question involves moving to a larger market and "breaking in" by joining the union. Although AFTRA is an open union, meaning you can join simply by paying your initiation fees and staying up on your dues, joining is not something to be taken lightly. Union membership implies a high level of expertise as a voiceover performer and you will be limiting yourself to working only union jobs. As a Union member, it is expected that you are very good at what you do, so if you've only done a few non-union jobs, chances are you need more experience before joining the union. Union membership may be tempting because of higher talent fees as compared to non-union work, but if you do not already have the connections for getting work and have only limited experience, joining the union can be a costly mistake. My recommendation is to do as much non-union work as possible before going union. You'll be able to explore many more options for voiceover work and get valuable experience. Learn and master your craft, and develop your voiceover business skills before joining the union.

Many voiceover talent agents will handle both union and non-union talent. If you are non-union and get booked for an AFTRA union job, you will get the applicable union scale (but no benefits) for that job. You will be vouchered under Taft-Hartley, so you won't have to join the union immediately, but the next time you do a union job you will need to join.

If you feel you need to join the union because you are moving to a strong union market, just make sure you have the experience, qualifications, and a killer demo before making the move - just make certain that you can consistently perform to the quality of your demo. You might also want to look into joining the union in a smaller market. The initiation fees will most likely be lower, and you can always transfer your membership to a larger market later on.

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