Reducing Waste as an SA (pt.2)

Reuse

Today I was a Support Artist (a.k.a. an Extra) again.  In my attempts to reduce waste in an industry that generally places convenience first, I have been bringing my own supplies to the film set.  Armed with cutlery, re-usable coffee cup and Tupperware containers I had previously come away with a few extra plastic containers that I could re-use.  So how did I fare this time around?

Happily, I was able to improve on the previous effort.  For breakfast I filled my Tupperware container with cereal and milk and enjoyed a cup of tea from my reusable cup.  I also used the tea point to top up on liquids throughout the day.  Lunch was a problem last time as the main course is provided in a plastic container.  I decided to ask for the salad option (pulses with cheese and carrots) in my container, and the caterer obliged.  I then asked if I could have the desert from my other container and was delighted when she not only served me a good portion but complemented my efforts.

So it can be done.  I came home having used only what I brought to set.  If more SAs do this, the culture can slowly be changed to one of reduce and reuse of plastic.

Reducing Waste as an SA (pt.1)

I’ve been an SA (Supporting Artist, a.k.a. an Extra) now on and off for over a year. The days are long but the experiences are always unique and generally rewarding. There are also perks for giving up your time, such as watching actors and directors hone their craft, a chance to read in the green room (area for downtime when you are not needed on set) or chat with other SAs about life in general. And of course there is the free food. Cooked breakfasts are provided, lunches often come with desserts, and there’s always tea, coffee and water available.
This last point is also the biggest problem I’ve found with film and TV sets – waste. When catering for lots of people the amount of plastic bottles of water, plastic cutlery and single-use plates is staggering. Add to that an army of extras and you’ve got tens of bagfuls of landfill every day.

Over time, I’ve been trying to change my habits and avoid the easy options when on set. I’ve been using my own coffee cup for liquids, and this year, I’ve also brought my own Tupperware containers and cutlery.
So how have I got on so far? On the two shoots I’ve attended this year, the first was well run. The main meals were provided on plates and two large bowls were provided to place cutlery and plates in so they could be washed and re-used. The desert bowls not so much, so I used my own. Drinking cups were also single-use and I saw SAs who threw theirs away when they thought they were being called and then moments later select a new single-use cup.

The second shoot was all about the plastic water bottles and non-recyclable coffee cups. They were littered around the seating areas. I avoided the cooked breakfast and filled my Tupperware container with cereal. Again, I used my own coffee cup for teas. Lunch was more tricky because it arrived at our set in plastic containers often used at takeaways. I resorted to using them as well, but have taken them home to re-use as storage for my home-made chilli.
So reducing waste on set it can be done. It will take a lot to change this throw-away culture of convenience, especially when feeding many mouths. But if productions consider the environment as much as budget and if SAs appreciate re-use as much as convenience then we can change it, one SA at a time.

Auditions Review

If you’ve been on a workshop, one thing they usually recommend is to self-assess your performance and see how you can improve.  Voice Over acting is no different and on the recent Showreel course, they provided a research page with resources to learn from, including TV ads and other artists’ demos.

To date, for my own ‘continuous improvement’ program, I’ve reviewed 357 of my own auditions, 82 television adverts and 33 artists’ demos.  In every review I always fill in a box to answer the question “how can I learn it?”.  I thought I would discover and share the most common responses.  This is for my own interest but also for anyone else who might find these lessons useful.

Audition feedback: 24 times: “Work on flow, through reading out loud and polishing takes” 18 times:  “A bit smoother and this would be a very good take” 17 times:  “Give it life!  Flow and character needed to make this an engaging voiceover” 17 times:  “Closer mic technique with subtle enunciation would life this script off the page” 14 times:  “Gravitas – Flow, melody, but most of all… rhythm and space” 13 times:  “Use appropriate tone, energy and melody for the audience.  Make the words come off the page and not sound read”

TV Ads feedback: 3 times:  “Imagine the audience.  In this example like you’re talking with friends over coffee”

Artist Demos: 4 times:  “Confidence comes from a clear, neutral tone” 4 times:  “Find your signature voice and style and bring scripts to life” 3 times:  “Know your ABCs (Audience, Backstory, Character) and use your voice appropriately and with confidence”.

Afterthoughts: It’s interesting looking through and seeing what thoughts crop up again and again.  With my own auditions, I am picking out specific qualities in the performance, such as flow, smooth tone, character, melody and rhythm (and space). In the TV Ads, the VO Artist often sounds natural and conversational, whilst the Artist Demos have natural and confident voices.  That’s the aspiration, really: provide a natural read; an authentic, fully fleshed-out character that the audience would like to spend time with.  That’s a simplified response I know, but it applies in most cases that aren’t character voices or in-your-face announcers.

Out of the Darkness

Post-production review of performing in DMT’s production of Jekyll & Hyde.

Feature photo of Spider and some of the Prostitutes from the Red Rat

Show week is always an intense experience, which is usually a mixture of emotions, adrenalin and endurance.  The people around you are so important in making that experience not only bearable but fun as well.  I have to take my show hat off to Devizes Musical Theatre (DMT) for the way things went.

Organisation What director Matt Dauncey did along with MD Susan Braunton and the production team was to organise everything in advance so that all the players knew what they were doing. We were properly prepared before the dress rehearsal and just had to adjust to wearing costumes and having an orchestra.

Performance Buzz The other vital ingredient that was needed was energy.  The directors encouraged us, and the performers were supportive of each other. That meant we were halfway there. The other half of the energy came from the large audiences that attended and brought fresh eyes and reactions to each performance.

Results Having gone through a tech rehearsal and two dress rehearsals (one for each lead actor playing Jekyll/Hyde) the performances went without any major hitches.  The energy didn’t let up either.  By the end, we were still improving and the leads managed to avoid burn-out.

Memorable Moments 1) In one scene, Emma (played by Naomi Ibbetson) managed to call Jekyll ‘Herry’, which is the name of her real-life husband!  Luckily the performers got through the scene without making the moment awkward.

2) Lord Savage has a line before he dies where he informs Sir Danvers of his next move.  In the script it is “Aberdeen actually, I’ll been in the Highland club if you need me”. Each night Phil Greenaway came up with a different place and club name.  His fictional tour took him to Bristol, Derby, Cardiff, Salisbury and a Yorkshire village where one of the cast members lives.

3) The Red Rat is the Brothel stage set where Jekyll (and later Hyde) spends time with Lucy Harris the prostitute.  During the number, ‘Bring on the Men’, several prostitutes dance whilst potential male clients gawk and make dirty comments before being joined by the dancers.  Over the course of the evenings, one particular group upped the acting pretty much every night.  By Saturday, I dare say the advisory 14+ age range restriction was well earned!

Chorus Activity It was a delight to be in the chorus for this show.  Although the musical is mainly focussed on the three leading roles, there is still a surprising amount to do. Façade and Murder, Murder are very good company numbers.  Bring on the Men, the Engagement Party scene and the Wedding provides the chorus with actions and dance routines.  There are also three or four off-stage choruses which are a demanding sing and add to the atmosphere for Jekyll and Lucy’s onstage struggles.

Conclusion With such a welcoming group this was a rare treat.  The comradery offstage was matched by the dedication on it.  What’s even more surprisingly is that whenever someone wasn’t required onstage, they still turned up to rehearsals, including the leads. This commitment continued until the end; Jekyll #2 (Andrew Curtis) performed in the Saturday matinee which allowed Jekyll#1 (Gareth Lloyd) to take a much-deserved rest, but he still stayed to watch the show. Jekyll #2 only had the one show, but Andrew was fully involved throughout the run, not only as understudy, but as the Priest in Act 2 each night and as a backstage helper.

I’ll miss the positive atmosphere that brought the group together.  It gave the week momentum and kept the energy up.  I’ll certainly be interested to see what shows DMT do next.

Escape to the Dark Side

Preview as DMT prepares to performs Jekyll and Hyde

Photo taken from DMT publicity

History

It was originally a book published in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson called The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson investigates the strange link between his friend Dr Jekyll and the evil Mr Hyde.  The novella was a great success and a year later it was made into a play adapted by Thomas Sullivan and lead actor Richard Mansfield and premiered in Boston, USA.  A year later it made it to London, but unfortunately just before the first Jack the Ripper murder occurred just streets away, which is perhaps why it wasn’t a success this side of the Atlantic.  Skip forward in time to 1997 when Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Briscusse and Steve Cuden created a musical adaptation that toured the USA before making it to Broadway.

 Dark Drama

This is a show that starts off dark and gets darker.  There is a film noir feel to the proceedings as the morality of Londoners and all people is peered at through dirt-flecked spectacles.  In these surroundings we find the morally-upstanding Dr Jekyll desperate to cure his father’s sanity through radical scientific experiments. Unfortunately the corrupt and vulgar board of governors does not allow this to happen.  In his desperation he becomes his own test victim, and in doing so brings out the worst in himself.

 Musical Style

The show’s emotional content and flow is brilliantly enhanced by the music. There is a little of Les Miserables in the style, and a little of the Phantom about Jekyll and Hyde.  The chorus provide the voice of Londoners who are left reeling by a series of murders, and also the occupants of a seedy brothel. There are several excellent character parts too, including the despicable board of governors.  The female leads Emma Carew and Lucy Harris provide a delightful light and dark contrast, because of their high and low positions in society respectively.  The part of Jekll and Hyde is a crazy leading role, requiring plenty of both stamina and acting prowess.

There are some lovely moments throughout the musical, but what I believe the musical does best, is the duets; between Dr Jekyll and Emma, Mr Hyde and Lucy, Emma and Lucy and finally (and most bizarrely) a one-man duet between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!

 DMT Production 2018

It is a treat to be in the DMT chorus for this because having watched their previous three shows, I know what an enthusiastic and positive group DMT can be. They always seem to be able to attract new members to what is already a loyal and talented group of performers. For this production they are directed by Matt Dauncey, who I have previously performed with.  What has really impressed me about Matt is his excellent management of people.  He has praised the group in rehearsals for their positive effort and he has often thanked and talks with individuals as well.  On top of this, he is surprisingly organised, which is not always the case with directors.  Perhaps he gets this from Peter Nelson, whom he assisted during the award-winning DMT production of Fiddler on the Roof.  It is a great comfort as a performer to know that you are covering all the material sufficiently and to see what is coming up in future rehearsals.

For the lead roles Gareth Lloyd and Andrew Curtis (who will understudy and perform the Saturday matinee) have an abundance of stage craft and imagination which is needed to carry off this duel-character part.  The parts of Emma Carew and Lucy Harris will be played by Naomi Ibbetson and Laura Deacon respectively.  This is an excellent choice of casting as they have such wonderful but such contrasting voices.  Naomi’s is pure and bright whilst Laura’s has so many tones and is far more earthy.

The production is at Dauntsey’s School outside of Devizes, Wiltshire from 11-14th April.  It should be an excellent show and I thoroughly recommend experiencing it. Expect dark drama, yes, but also be surprised with yourself for having enjoyed it!

For more information go to http://www.devizesmusicaltheatre.co.uk/

Cantata Pansophical

Fan collaboration on an epic level

Vox Machina: An Exandrian Musical  – Album Artwork by Pumpkin Queen and Angela McCain

Last year I was involved in a very ambitious project that combined two of my favourite things; singing and roleplaying.  Critical Role has become an online phenomenon, with a ‘bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors’ playing Dungeons & Dragons.  The cast of the show were known to be big fans of another recent phenomenon, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, Hamilton.  Will Crosswait and Danita Gilbert were huge fans of both and conceived the idea of basing the plot and words of the Critical Role roleplay to the music of the Hamilton musical.  Not only that, they had the talent and dedication to go through with it.  They put a call out to the Critical Role online community, known affectionately as ‘critters’, to contribute additional voices, and art to the project.  It turns out that the musical-roleplay crossover is pretty big, because many, many fans contributed this project; 67 singers and 42 artists from across the globe!

After an audition, I was given the role of backing singer (Ensemble).  Because of my recent work as a voice over artist, I was able to get on with the recording.  The task was made much easier by Will, who organised the ensemble into teams and allocated songs to them.  Each group was given the lyrics, backing tracks, and most importantly, a scratch track. I fondly remember making notes whilst stop-starting Hamilton tracks on You Tube and combining their harmonies with Will’s rhymes and timings.  It was a pleasure to sing Hamilton tracks and building up the Cantata Pansophical soundtrack.

That was back in the Summer of 2017.  As naturally happens when real life gets in the way, not everyone is able to commit or make the deadlines.  Because of this, some of us were asked if we would do more takes.  I’m sure I speak for others involved when I say it was a pleasure to be involved in such an inspiration project, so yes, I wanted to do more!  More lyrics  and tracks followed.  When I was given the new alternative versions to ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ and ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ I was thrilled, as these are such great songs to sing along to.

I wrapped up in November, but there must have been so much more to be done by the Cantata Pansophical that we just don’t see.  Those members of the cast who checked into the chat forums online will have known more.  Many have continued to network and even form roleplay groups together, which is awesome! In the meantime, I had managed to get tickets to the hottest ticket in the West End – Hamilton had arrived in London, and it was fantastic!

On the 23rd February, Cantata Pansophical released their epic musical project to the rest of the world.  Not only that, they made it absolutely free! – 47 tracks, fan art for every track and an accompanying digital booklet!!!  I was staggered by the generosity and sheer ‘fan’tastic gesture by Will Crosswait, Angela McCain, Danita Gilbert and the rest of the Cantata Pansophical.  They only requested donations to worthy charities that some of the cast are supporting.

The reactions so far have been incredible.  Fans from the ‘critters’ community have shared their love for the tracks and artwork. The Critical Role cast has also been astounded by the efforts of their community, and they even responded:

Laura Bailey: You guys are unbelievable!!! This is so epic!!!

Marisha Ray: Matt and I are currently listening to this in our living room just holding each other as we laugh-ugly-cry through the whole thing. Ugh… it’s like reliving 5 years in a musical.

Critical Role cast – photo by Pamela Joy Photography

On that note, time to wrap up this blog post, but I will simply say that it’s great to be involved in something that is bigger than you and that you believe in.  Well done Cantata Pansophical and thank you for involving me in your inspirational project!

Learning from others at Showreel

Last weekend I went to London to try and further my voiceover career.  So far I have been learning by auditioning for jobs as well as reading resources online. Voices.com provides opportunities but you are competing against many other artists and do not get feedback if they go for someone else.  Fiverr is an online marketplace where you talk directly with the client.  So a course where the focus is on improving your own vocal talents has to be a good move.

Showreel is run by JP Orr and Mike Charters in a studio in central London.  They have many, many years of experience and JP was very friendly and open in sharing tips and tricks with me and my fellow, budding voiceover artists.  The group on the beginner’s course I attended had different levels of experience up to this point and all had their own reasons for coming on the course. We each had four scripts to read based on own vocal style and any subject matter expertise we had.  The best part of the experience was listening to others; the individual quality in their voices and how they adapted to JP’s advice for the second take was really inspiring.  In this positive atmosphere was encouraged each other and the time seemed to race towards 5pm and the end of the course.

Here are some of the tips I took away with me from the day.  Sight-reading scripts is such an important skill.  The more practice, the easier it will be for the eyes, brain and mouth to work together and produce good sounds whilst you are pouring over the next line.   But just as importantly, the voiceover artist has to be willing and able to take direction and adapt the way they are delivering their lines.  This was very clear when in the studio ready to provide a second take.  Other top tips to take away include using the body to help the voice be expressive, including using the elbows as a physical trigger to help lift or lower the voice and give it melody.

As for me, I was able to experience performing in a professional studio and take direction whilst speaking over a music track.  I’ve also been given some great feedback including the many ways I can improve, which is what I needed to know.  My vocal range is currently 30-40 years and my voice description is warm, charming, calm and considered tones, with a soft-RP accent.

I shall return to Showreel soon to work on my vocal qualities with JP and Mike, but right now it’s time to apply the feedback and get back to auditioning.  Oh, and lots more practice at reading out loud!

For more info about Showreel, you can visit their website at https://theshowreel.com/

The Wisdom of Nancy Wolfson

Nancy Wolfson.  Image from IMDB

I recently found a YouTube clip of Nancy Wolfson coaching voiceover and thought it was really insightful, so I was delighted to find there were more clips available courtesy of her YouTube channel and

one or two participants of her workshops.

They’ve been inspiring me in terms of my thinking when performing a read.  Here are some of the key points she has made during her “How To” videos along with links to the corresponding YouTube clip.  If you like what you read and hear, check out her website braintracksaudio.com for more words of wisdom.

The Script

Cover up the specs. All the things you need to know and feel lives in the content of what’s going to be coming out of your mouth. Check the specs afterwards to make sure you’re on the right page.  Deconstruct the copy; don’t deconstruct the specs.

Underline the things you want the audience to know.  What do they (the client) need me to bring to the people?

Swap emphasis over to the nouns and verb rather than the pronouns (not emphasizing ‘yours’ and ‘you’ at the expense of content)

Physique

Hit the deck, relax and let the voice fall to the back of you back.  Then create muscle memory for that voice when you stand up to do takes.

Stance – One foot in front of the other, grab the ground, bend the knees

The importance of voice when referencing is to compromise some volume to frame a story

Tonality and Volume

Admissions at a hush – Speak into the microphone as if talking into someone’s ear

Active Hush = using vocal tension to give energy to your read instead of using volume, speed or emotional cheerfulness.

Language Sandtrap – when the language appears to exclaim the words (e.g. “this is HUGE!”), less is more, and less volume can make it more dynamic.

Approach to Style

I don’t need you to make me happy about it – I just need you to explain it to me.

If something’s important in the sentence, turn it from a black note to a whole note (lengthen it)

Pretend that you’ve tried it (the product), ate it, bought it etc, and you enjoyed it.  Have the intention of the admission; admit that it is good, like you’re giving a testimonial.

Reviewing Hamilton (West End)

Rise Up!

Every so often, there comes a musical whose popularity, originality and style sets it apart and it defines a decade as well as transcending its own time. Think the grand epics of Les Mis and Phantom in the 1980s, the gritty, bohemian hit Rent in the 1990s, or the green and yellow dazzle and wit of Wicked in the 00’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was created in a perfect storm.  It was written during a progressive, enlightened time in US politics but soon after Hamiltons rise to fame, this story of America’s founding fathers feels like a rebuke to America’s current political turmoil.  Not only does it seamlessly combines hip hop with more traditional musical styles but it tells a historic drama but with color-blind casting. This is today’s America telling the story of the birth of their nation.  Unlike most of the classics previously mentioned, the staging here is minimal with just a balcony and two rotating circles in the floor.  The drama, then, is left to the characters to tell, and boy, do they tell it!

There was an incredible buzz for my wife and I being in the audience so near the beginning of the West End run and on Alexander Hamilton’s birthday no less (he would have been 263, in case you’re wondering).  Fans either booked a long ways in advance or paid high prices to be able to see this show so tickets were not bought on a whim.  In fact, we had the distinct feeling that the vast majority of the audience knew the songs and the lyrics already.  As the house lights dimmed, the first immense cheer went up from the crowd. Seeing the songs being played out in front of our eyes was a joyous occasion, the soundtrack having prepared and whetted our appetite.  There was an almighty cheer after the line “Immigrants (We get the job done)!” – Well done, London!

The hits came thick and fast.  The energy of My Shot was incredible.  The Schuyler Sisters kept the excitement levels at max.  You’ll Be Back changed the tone to joyous comedy before the heart-wrenching emotion of Satisfied.  The first half was relentless and absorbing as Hamilton fought alongside Washington in the War of Independence, and ended aptly with the song Non-Stop.

The second half continued to tell the life of Alexander Hamilton, but at this stage

his story becomes more personal and political.  The energy is more sporadic but the telling no less engrossing with comedy and tragedy each taking their turns and including some clever character swaps for the actors.  The finale is beautifully poignant and thought provoking, leaving a positive after-taste.

So would I recommend seeing it?  Emphatically yes!!  Book when you can, or if you’re feeling lucky, there is a daily lottery for tickets which would costs the winners £20 each.  Finally, I want to mention some of the players before the Broadway soundtrack colors my memory of the experience:

  • Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton is relatively inexperienced in the West End but took his shot with both hands giving a young, scrappy and hungry performance.  Hamilton would be proud!
  • Giles Terera as Aaron Burr had probably the hardest job in the musical keeping all his lines in order as every narrative introduction starts with the exact same music, but he delivered with brilliant consistency.
  • Rachel John as Angelica Hamilton had a superb voice and was mesmerising in Satisfied.
  • Rachelle Ann Go as Eliza Hamilton gave a brilliant, emotional performance.
  • Jason Pennycooke as Maquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson had the charisma to carry off two larger-than-life characters and add his own nuances to the performance.
  • Michael Jibson as King George had the swagger and stage craft to carry this royal, comedic part.
  • Obioma Ugolala as George Washington had a lovely bass tone to his voice and gave an assured performance as the Father of America.

The cast were exceptional throughout and the ensemble had as much to do as the principles and did it brilliantly.