Back to Basics

So, after a year of creating vocals online for songs, characters and presentations, I thought it was time to take a look at the many ways I could do things better.  I had recently paid up to a 1 year premium package with Voices.com, a site that acts as an online job market for clients and voiceover talent.  If I’m to sound attractive to a worldwide market and get noticed in auditions, what do I need to take into consideration?

In this first research assignment, I decided to start with Dee Bradley Baker’s website dedicated to imparting knowledge to others, iwanttobeavoiceactor.com.  Who is Dee Bradley Baker?  Well, you probably know him in one form or another.  He is something of a legend in the voiceover industry!

If I’m going back to basics (not far too go), then I may as well start with his Newbie Mistakes article.

Dee lists the following six mistakes:

  1. Overlapping (taking over someone else’s read) is a no-no. It also means leaving a space in between takes for editors and recording engineers to adjust their equipment.
  2. Not acting.  If you are asked to give multiple takes, switch up your read (more voice acting) each time.  Dee generally recommends three takes as a sort of little menu for the creator to choose from.
  3. Distracting Wardrobe sounds.  I didn’t even think of this, but yes, clanging jewellery is not a good idea!  He also recommends losing the watch, bracelets or bangles.
  4. Not being silent during recording.  Walking around, rummaging through a bag while others are recording is definitely not done.  I’ve noticed at home just how much outside noise is picked up on the microphone!
  5. Running takes with your mobile phone or electronics.  The rule is to silence your mobile (cellphone) completely.  It can also be a distraction for you if not careful.
  6. Ruining a take with page turning during silence.  Dee recommends that if you must page turn during a take, do so silently and in between sentences – the space can then be edited out.  Currently I use my Kindle device, which is great in terms of noise and allows me to have it in front of me when recording.

Dee also had a Runners Up list that mentions not moving on when the director is happy,  ignoring direction, not watching shows from an established series, turning your head during a take, giving the booth too many choices which can confuse and slow down the recording/editing process and only notating your script changes in a multi-character scene.

For me, #2 – the not acting and getting the number of takes right was definitely something to work on.  I’ll try and stick with the rule of threes in future and give a little more expression each time.  I’ll think Dee should get the final word on this blog post however.  Here’s what he wrote in response to a reader:

“My first year in L.A. I didn’t book any voice over gigs. This was after a number of years’ experience in smaller markets. As an actor, you get lots of no’s always. I still do!”

Playing Doctor Bartolo

A post-production review:  Opera with a pinch of improvisation!

Photo courtesy of Dajana Kovac.

It is said that the best way to move on from one project is to start another and that was certainly the case after performing in TITCo’s production of Into the Woods. With Tessitoura’s production of Barber of Seville I had a month to learn the lines and music for the part of Doctor Bartolo.  The production had its difficulties; for starters there are many difficult passages to sing, which at times (especially for the Count and Rosina) was the equivalent of doing vocal gymnastics.  The dialogue lines (replacing the recitative, or sung dialogue) were also adapted and completed with about a month to go.  Finally, the director also had to pull out of the production and so Harry (playing Don Basilio) took on the role of stage director. Thanks to his general direction and character tips the scenes took shape, but the performers still had room to contribute and suggest possible moves and expressions.

These difficulties actually brought out a freedom in the performers.  The best part of being involved in this show was seeing how my fellow performers and I managed to adapt to either someone not remembering a line or trying something different.  Couple that with three very different venues (2 churches and a medieval barn) and every performance was unique.  An example of this was when Sam, who played the Count, wanted to change the joke name he gives my character.  Rather than calling Doctor Bartolo ‘Barbaro’ (Italian for Barbarian) he went with ‘Fartolo’, which makes more sense to English audiences, and got a big laugh on the night!

The final example I will give was certainly not scripted but worked because of how the cast reacted to the situation.  My character is getting a shave. Brendan, playing the barber Figaro, has shaving foam at the ready and is motioning it slowly towards me like a parent would ‘train’ food into their child’s mouth. I reacted by leaning back in my chair… my plastic, basic chair… SNAP.  I hit the floor.  There is an uproar of laughter from the audience.  I, both as a performer and character slowly get up, bewildered, helped by Brendan.  I try to stay in character, blustering, knowing that if I don’t I won’t be able to stop laughing myself.  Meanwhile Rebecca playing Rosina has swiftly replaced the chair.  Finally the Musical Director announces we will go from a certain figure in the score, and we carried on.  Blatantly a gaff had occurred but it was handled beautifully by the cast and the audience loved it.

It was a pleasure to be involved in a production with such on-the-edge energy about it, with such a talented bunch of performers!

 

Playing Doctor Bartolo

This week, I will perform with Tessitoura, a Bristol-based opera company that performs in unique spaces with a small but very talented group of singers and musicians.  This project is Rossini’s masterpiece, The Barber of Seville (1816). It follows the fortunes of The Count Almaviva, Rosina, Doctor Bartolo, Don Basilio to name but a few.  Oh, and a certain barber called Figaro.  This very special opera was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ French comedy Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and is the first of a trilogy, the second of which – The Marriage of Figaro – was famously adapted into an opera by Mozart (1786).

I play the main villain of the piece, or perhaps more truthfully fodder for the Count’s trickery and Figaro’s scheming.  He is a physician and Rosina’s guardian, but he has grander schemes in mind involving marriage and money. This role appears to be the exact opposite of Enrico in Donizetti’s Il Campanello di Notte (The Night Bell) in which I was a bugs bunny-esque rogue.  Now I am Elmer Fudd!

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Doctor Bartolo?

The role certainly requires an ability to say things quickly, as with the pitter-patter song, A un dottor dell mia sorte.  Otherwise it requires a mix of comic timing and a hint of malevolence.  But mainly, it is a straight-role, being a yin to the Count’s yang.  If he is outrageous, be grounded, and when the Count is calm, then Doctor Bartolo will no doubt be pacing the stage, raging (again, think Bugs and Fudd).  He is also an older man so I need to modify my behaviour to suit that persona.  I even have a prop (a cane) and a bow tie!

It should be lots of fun. The cast is very talented and Rossini’s music, sublime!  If you are looking for something to do this weekend, then do consider coming along!  http://www.tessitoura.co.uk/  It will be performed in St Matthew’s Church in Kingsdown Bristol, St. Mary’s Church in Stoke Bishop Bristol and the medieval barn in Winterbourne.     It’s also in support of the Above and Beyond charity.

Playing the Baker

A post-production review

Performing the Baker with Teresa Bray as Baker’s Wife and Jemma Brown as the Witch.

The Invitation Theatre Company has completed the show run of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  So, how did it go?

From an overall perspective I have to congratulate everyone involved on what has been a tremendous undertaking and has provided local audiences the opportunity to experience this fairy-tale extravaganza in the intimate setting of the Wharf Theatre. As it turns out, a Sondheim musical requires a lot of dedication both musically and dramatically and a lot of hard of hard work has gone into this production.  Then there’s the set, costumes, lighting and sound effects needed to make this fantasy realm come to life.

This production was a journey all of its own.  The director modified the script considerably, making cuts in order to reduce the running length of the show.  This worked but did mean that some plot or character elements were missing.  The cast was guilty of poor attendance thanks to holidays and other show commitments.  This meant there were perhaps only a handful of rehearsals when the entire cast was available before show week.  Another unexpected issue was that our young performer playing Jack could not legally perform the show for 6 nights in a row.  Luckily, a drama student who had previously performed the role was able to learn it in super-quick time.  Finally, this is a very challenging production musically.  Not only are the vocal lines repetitive but with subtle changes each time, some sections are rhythmically and melodically unpredictable.  For ensemble numbers such as the Act I Prologue and ‘Your Fault’ you really have to know everyone else’s part as well as your own.

How did the part of the Baker evolve? During the final rehearsals the director praised my energy during one scene. That stuck with me.  Playing an Everyman character doesn’t lend itself to putting on any particular character traits but it made sense to me to convey his emotions by engaging with them.  So if he is nervous, provide that nervous energy.  If he is joyful, express that joy.  So in a sense, he becomes a focussed version of me rather than a character of his own.

The Baker, like all the characters who venture into the woods, goes on a journey.  It was important, especially with script cuts, to really show changes in his mood or character during the scenes.  In short order, he starts off relatively content, but becomes nervous and cautious when he starts his journey into the woods.  When he starts retrieving items to make the witch’s potion he becomes emboldened.  This is an important change as the Baker’s Wife needs to see the changes in him by the time they sing the duet, ‘It Takes Two’.

In Act 2, the second journey into the woods turns far more serious.  Again, expressing the part with sincerity and energy are key.  The main change here is showing his dependence on his wife before then having to achieve things without her guiding hand. To quote the character:  “It was my wife who really helped.  I depended on her for everything”.  I really liked developing this relationship and made sure that during Act 1 and the first part of Act 2 he can be seen looking to her for reassurance or moral support.

It was a pleasure to perform such pieces as No-one is Alone, Your Fault and No More.  They are beautifully written songs and it was a treat working with my fellow performers to bring this to life.  Thanks to choreography we were set in our positions and could concentrate on expressing and vocalising the characters.

Verdict Into the Woods is deceptively difficult and requires a lot of hard work and focus to pull off. The Baker is no different in that sense. He requires attention throughout the show and doesn’t really have a lot of off-stage time.  For this reason I’m happy the run is over.  It has been a wonderful experience, one I’m delighted to have had, but now it’s time to leave the woods.

Playing the Baker

I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol.  The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building.  The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer.  This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.

What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending.  To quote the musical:

Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.

I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker.  It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?

The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical.  They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own.  It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.

Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that!  The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.

As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel.  The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young.  From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.

Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.

Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him.  This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.

Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.

The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience.  Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.

Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again.  He is human, after all.

So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world.  He has issues, as we all do.  He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly.  His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.

Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.

TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.

http://www.titco.org.uk/

Playing Escamillo

A post-production review:

Photo from the dress reheasal taken by Stewart McPherson.

So it happened. The dust has settled after an incredible week performing in Bristol Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.  So, how did it go?

Since March, the part has continued to evolve and my interpretation alter, partly organically but also thanks to input from fellow performers and friends such as Thomas Woods (playing Don Jose), Herbert DesLauriers (choreographer and dancer) Charlie Monk (Director) and John DesLauriers (friend).  Their advice was truly important, just as the time I had to myself to interpret and adapt the part was crucial.  And so let’s see what happened next…

Character Visualisation:

For me, the one word that represents Escamillo is ‘Focus’.  He has had to believe and demonstrate that he is the best bull fighter to earn his reputation.  He then wonders through the mountains alone and to the bandit camp, all to win Carmen’s heart.  This is one very driven and confident man!!

I still envisioned singled-minded modern footballers such as Ibrahimovic, but also Christiano Ronaldo, who seems to believe first and foremost that winning and personal image mattered most of all.  I would also add to that mix, the character Stacee Jaxx from the musical and movie ‘Rock of Ages’.

In this, the world-weary character has become a stereotype of a rock and roll star unable to escape what his fans expect of him.  His legend precedes him wherever he goes, so much so that he barely needs to react and those around him still respond wildly.  This last visualisation came when working with the rest of the cast and using trying to create the character’s physical attributes suggested by Herbert. For him, less movement in general added to his persona and emphasised any grand gesture he made.

Character Physical Adaptation:

John mentioned that it is easy to over-analyse this character.   In a sense, you cannot overplay him.  He is an all-testosterone alpha-male action hero.  I freely admit I could never reach those heights, and I do not have Escamillo’s confidence or drive to do so.  I used the brilliant reactions of the chorus to build on the character’s ego, but had to find another way to bring him life.  Herbert’s advice was brilliant in this way.  He talked about how to walk, with chest and libido leading the way. Standing tall and keeping gestures to a minimum.  When I continued to have problems adapting however, he saved his best advice to last –   only do one thing at a time.  This means when he walks, he walks.  When he uses a hand to gesture, he is expressing one thing, when he turns his body, he is turning.  This gave the character extra gravitas.

One final help was viewing the excellent photos taken by Stewart Mcpherson.  I looked through and in some photos I could see Escamillo whilst in others I saw a generic principle on Broadway with shining eyes and a wide grin that felt totally inappropriate!  From this I modified my on-stage actions.

Character Vocal Adaptation:

This was the area I was least worried about.  I could sing the part already and as John said, if you concentrate on the character the voice will take care of itself.  What I needed to work on was projection.  I was given some great tips by Thomas.  There are exercises I worked on to improve supporting my voice, but visually this all about focusing on getting a personal message to someone in the backrow of the theatre.

The Good:

I feel like the character evolved before and during the performance week and had a stage presence. Thanks go to my other performers for providing me with the reactions to build from. It gave me the flow I needed to enjoy the role and I came off the stage buzzing every time!   The greatest moment came after the final performance when I was asked to pose for a picture with two members of the children’s chorus. The idea that I have helped inspire them into perhaps performing again gives me great joy!

The ‘Oops’ factor:

Apart from minor moments, faults such as my large size 12G feet continuing to look a little penguin-like I have two confessions make.  Firstly, I do not condone using bathroom cleaning wipes on your face!  I have learned (did there really need to be a lesson?) that this is not healthy and have been treating my face kindly ever since whilst the burn and peeling subsides.

Secondly, on the final night after leaving the smugglers’ camp I tried to exit the stage but could not find the opening to the curtains.  After a moment’s panic I crawled underneath.  I hopefully didn’t break any audience member’s spell!

Playing Escamillo

There is something both scary and liberating about preparing to play a showman like the celebrated Toreador or bull fighter.  He is a character in Bizet’s opera masterpiece, Carmen.  It’s based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Merimee.  The characters of Carmen and Don Jose are already very fleshed out but Bizet does a brilliant job in turning the story into a full-scale opera.  The music is also stunning with so many memorable tunes and pieces containing such exotic flavour, both in rhythm and style.

Two principle characters in the opera do not exist in the original story – Escamillo and Don Jose’s maiden friend from Don Jose’s village.  They represent two different facets of Carmen and Don Jose’s brief relationship. Micaëla represents the simple, innocent life that Don Jose used to enjoy whilst Escamillo could be Carmen’s future, however brief their love affair might be.

So, who is Escamillo?  What is it like to step into his shoes?

In my audition, I said I pictured Eric Cantona after he scored a sensational goal for Manchester United.  The way he slow-turned on the spot allowing a rapturous stadium to drink him in; this to me was the modern-day Matador.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the other football showman I have in mind.  He is so sure and convinced of his own brilliance that he is perceived as arrogant.

As a role, it is brief but explosive.  He appears three times, once to promote his next bull fight, then in pursuit of Carmen and finally arriving at the bull ring.  In those three moments, he sings about how great he is, has a knife duel and serenades Carmen in front of his adoring public.

Now that the lines are learned, I’m learning the fight choreography and how to appear more macho and arrogant, physically.  For this I have Choreographer Herbert DesLauriers to thank as he works with us to refine our character movements.  Anything which gets you into character and out of your head is useful, such as a new posture, a focus, a costume.  I’m hoping I get my Toreador swagger soon…

Bristol Opera’s production of Carmen will be performed 26-29 April 2017.

40 Voices Challenge #9

Boy #2 – A Child’s Dream of a Star

This story was written by Charles Dickens in 1850.  According to Bartleby.com Dickens told a
biographer that as a child he used to wander at night about a churchyard near
their home, with his sister.  This sister
died only two years before this story was written.

The text can be found on Bartleby.com

For this voice challenge I was going to work on
children’s voices, but once I completed the narration it seemed more natural to
keep the voices in the narrator’s voice.

The story itself is both and beautiful and the narrative
is the most important part.  I also felt
inspired to add some mellow guitar to add an extra layer to the text.

Vocal Observations

Breathing Capacity

Last week, I mentioned the way the Bradfordians prepared
their performers so that they could better project their voices in a Tithe
Barn.  The other exercise they did in the
same workshop was designed to increase the performer’s breathing capacity.

The exercise was simple but it is effective if practiced;
the recommendation was doing it every day to see improvements.  So what was it?  Saying the alphabet… three times through…in
one breath.  The rate should be constant
(approximately 3 letters per second).  In the workshop,
the first time through was done in a whisper, then in a normal voice, then in a
loud voice (using diaphragm, not shouted).   As an exercise it can be added to a general
vocal warmup.  The first time through only about half the performers could do it, but I can testify that with practice, this does improve!