The Characters in My Pocket
When I work with actors on character development, I often refer to "the characters I keep in my pocket." These are my core characters - the ones I go to first when I receive any audition. In a way, I'm holding my own "auditions" before I decide which lady to use. I have 10 or so of these alter egos and each of them gets her turn at delivering the script. If one of them resonates with me, then she goes to the next level where I'll make some minor changes in pitch, attitude and mouth work to make her unique for that script. In this article, I'll introduce you to some of my friends and show you how I use them in my commercial voice work. Click here or on the character links to hear some audio examples (all links play the same audio).
One of my favorites character is Marjorie Finkle. Marjorie is a very loud, obnoxious Jewish mother with flaming red hair, who lived most of her life in New Jersey, but is now retired and living in a lovely condo in Boca Raton, Florida (such a deal they got!) with her husband, Herb (a.k.a. Jim Alburger). Yes, she's overbearing, but she's got a great heart and always means well when she gives advice . . . which is often . . . and to everyone! She talks with her hands and is flamboyant in the way she dresses and with the expensive jewelry she wears.
Marjorie (in her true form) doesn't get much commercial voice over work - mostly because of her ethnicity. However, if I keep Marjorie's energy, take out the accent, take off the jewelry, dress her in sweats, make her a California blonde and put her hair in a ponytail - I've got the character of Debbie Delaney who is my soccer mom. Debbie gets LOTS of work. She's very enthusiastic about anything to do with her kids and their sports - even their peanut butter. Her life revolves around her kids and sports (both theirs and hers). I bring Debbie to life by removing Marjorie's accent and giving her a new attitude - my voice placement stays about the same. I can use Debbie for a mom-next-door, concerned young mom, gal-on-the-street, news reporter, kindergarten teacher and many others just by adding layers to her natural enthusiasm.
Back to Marjorie Finkle: To create a character who has a similar accent, but not the energy of Marjorie, I pitch my voice down into my throat, where there's lots of "gravel," to get my character, Thelma Jones. Thelma is in her late 60's and has been a heavy smoker for years. She is adamant that her smoking has never affected her voice at all - although it obviously has. She has very low energy and a rather caustic attitude about life, men, and the world in general. Thelma gets a lot of work doing political commercials - need I say more?
If I need a character who is somewhat of a snob, and she's from New Hampshire the New York accent can't be used but I can use my character, Marjorie, to find the voice. I use her energy but attach a snobbish attitude which brings it down a bit. I take out the arche-type typical Jewish accent and use mouth work to create a kind of "locked jaw, thin-lipped" delivery. And viola! I have my character Buffy Desmond - of the Hainesport Desmonds. She lives to go the club and enjoys tennis very much (oh, and she's sleeping with the tennis pro). She's unhappy in her marriage but has to keep up appearances for the sake of the family (and her bank account).
Another of my ladies is Emily Fernwood - the librarian. Her personality includes a high-pitched voice and nervous giggle that has the sound of little bells. She wears very thick eyeglasses that come to a point at the corners, accented by sparkles. The glasses also give her the appearance of having highly magnified eyes. A chain attached to her glasses lays on her shoulders. She wears a pink sweater with pearl buttons with which she fiddles constantly when she speaks. She always wears "sensible" shoes and is quite introverted until the topic turns to books.
Emily has done quite a bit of commercial work. One of the reasons she works a lot is that her voice is so easy to manipulate. With just a little bit of pitch change (and an older attitude) I can use Emily for an elderly character - a sweet little old lady - or even a grouchy one. Or with a few more changes I can use Emily's voice for my Christmas Elf, a nervous chipmunk or a young child (boy or girl).
Lilly Lambeau is my very genteel southern lady. She speaks in a soft and deliberate manner. She sits with very good posture, her knees and feet together and her hands folded on her lap - she is impeccably groomed. She is from Georgia and comes from "old" money. Lilly has very little tolerance for the poor, but she tries to be kind. She knows she's attractive, and that she has a great deal of power over men. She's not above using it if it will get her want she desires. I have been able to find work for my southern belle on occasion, but not often because she's a little too quiet for most commercials. However, if I need a very quiet, gentle tone for say a hospital spot, Lilly's personality works quite well - sometimes with the southern accent - and sometimes without it. My energy remains the same. I also use Lilly as a starter voice for many other southern accents.
Creating a "stable" of characters is an invaluable tool for any actor - especially voice actors who have to produce characters very quickly - sometimes within minutes. We don't have the luxury of several weeks or months to develop our characters as a stage or screen actor does. We have to be able to produce fully developed characters with unique voices and attitudes on-the-spot! The more real you can make your core characters, and the more you "know" them, the better. It may seem odd to you that I know exactly what Marjorie looks like, or that Buffy is sleeping with the tennis pro, or that Emily always wears pink - but making my ladies real to me allows them to come to life in an instant - when I need them the most.
Because of this group of ladies, I don't have to "re-invent the wheel" (with a brand new character) every time I get a new script - I just use the characters in my pocket and they do the work for me. My friends come in very handy!
As voice actor, Wally Wingert, says, "I used to have voices in my head - but then I got em' all jobs!"
Embrace the voices that live in your head! You'll find they will become your most treasured friends!
Penny is senior producer, creative director and voice talent at VoiceActing.com in San Diego, CA. She is also co-instructor with James R. Alburger for The Art of Voice Acting Workshops. You can visit her personal website and hear her demos at www.pennyabshire.com
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