Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From The Twitters: Advice for Partner Reads?

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I like to vent my frustrations there.

When someone does something utterly douchey during a casting or session, I have no problems calling them on it, but when someone just doesn’t know that they’ve done something wrong, it’s my duty to correct the behavior in as conflict-free a fashion as possible, so as not to disturb the rest of the session. Sometimes I’m able to swallow that annoyance, sometimes not, but I find myself doing A LOT of teaching...

[Tangent: I lay the blame for most of this at the feet of our current fascination with locking voice actors in their closets to act, record, direct, and edit all on their own, devoid of any outside influence or support, but that’s for another rant...]
During one of my more recent tantrums on Twitter, the subject of partner reads came up. Partner reads are a hot button issue for me. We get to do them so rarely in this “record from home” obsessed culture, that they SHOULD be my favorite projects to cast. Unfortunately they  often end up becoming the most frustrating days to work.

Upon receiving this tweet from a follower:
@SomeAudioGuy What issues are they [partner reading actors] having that I could potentially avoid in future auditions?
@SomeAudioGuy It would be much appreciated for all of us left behind, waiting for the end of the universe in October

I figured it was time to throw my two cents in.

Why do a partner read?
With how fast commercial casting is, it can be imperative to hear whether or not your actors can actually act. With skill sets WILDLY fluctuating, and with many actors becoming better editors than performers (see my above tangent), there’s no guarantee that putting a voice actor in a booth means they’ll be able to relate to another human being in an honest way.
While working at a talent agency, even though it was a lot of additional work to go through setting up times and partners, we held to reading actors together, in specific groups, designed to play to the strengths of each performer. We really believed that it increased the likelihood that one of our groups would book the spot. I hold to that line of reasoning now working for a casting company.
When a group clicks, it really can raise the level of the audition beyond that of the individual performances.
How to approach the partner read?
It’s an acting gig. Just as you would approach a Theater/Improv/Film/TV gig, it’s all about developing some chemistry with another individual. You can’t get away with just delivering your lines, your involvement in the process needs to show how you can create a relationship with the other body in the room. Listening is key.
All those classes,workout groups, workshops you attend, I’m here to tell you today, that your time OUTSIDE the booth listening to other actors is MORE valuable than your time INSIDE the booth reading. From an educational standpoint, your ability to think critically, interpret direction, and analyze copy on the fly is greatly improved by observing what works and what doesn’t work for other actors. If you’re not paying attention outside the booth, you’re wasting the class, your time, and money.
Likewise, if you’re serious about VO, alongside VOICE acting classes, you should be augmenting your education with any other performance based classes you can get your hands on, theater, improv, even singing. I was not surprised to find that several of my really successful VO pals routinely refresh their skills by taking new classes and workshops.

Analyze that Script!
Script analysis is a vital tool that is often overlooked. If you enter a casting booth figuring that the director will tell you everything you need to know, then you are already statistically on the losing side of the booking game. It means you are waiting to get lucky. However, walk into the booth with an idea of what you hope to accomplish, and you’re MUCH more likely to deliver a competitive take. Even if your idea is WRONG, it still gives your director more of a starting point to properly guide you. Walking in like a blank slate means the director is just going to cram his or her voice down YOUR throat. How successful can you be if you’re constantly performing someone else’s voice?

Things to ask yourself:
*Who is the audience for your character?
*Who is the spot trying to reach (often a different audience than who your character is trying to reach)?
*What is your character trying to accomplish?
*What is the tone of the spot?
*What is the pacing/timing of the spot?

And here’s a gimme, if the spot is being played for comedic effect, it’s usually because one character is doing something out of the ordinary. Now read carefully because this next point is GOLD:

Does the “silly” character do silly things all the time, or is this a first time occurrence?

You should be able to craft substantially different reads with your partner based on that one question alone.
If you can’t answer at least a few of the questions above, I’m sorry to say it’s not as likely that you’ll book the job, and you’ll be pulling your partner down as well.

Of course these all wont completely apply. For example, I recently cast a project where an Announcer was narrating while another character delivered pieces of a monologue, but even in a situation like that, where conversational elements might not apply, you can still glean a lot from the copy to make decisions based on the character’s relationship, proximity, and what they are each trying to accomplish.

Technical concerns for partner reads?
DON’T SWALLOW YOUR MIC! I’ve already posted a WHOLE nuther rant regarding the proximity effect, but it bears repeating. You CAN NOT sound like you’re in the same room as another human being if you are hogging the mic. It’s gotten so bad that I routinely mic groups of three or more with overhead mics, and actors will STILL try to hog a microphone while the mics are HANGING FROM THE CEILING.
Don’t do that.

Direction concerns for partner reads?
Now this is more of a personal preference situation. 
It will largely depend on how your director communicates what they need from their performers.
For me, I tend to err on the side of "natural". 
I figure there’s little point in wanting to hear voices in tandem just to do a “clean take”, where there’s no overlap of the dialog between people in the scene. We just don’t speak to each other as humans like that.
I want that “life” that permeates conversation. The overlaps, the interjections, agreement, disagreement, it’s all vital in my opinion, so vital that I often refuse to “direct” it. Giving specific notes on how to craft conversational elements is often the fastest way to kill the "natural-ness" of a given interaction.
Listen for buzz words, “conversational”, “interruption”, “overlap”, etc. 
If the producers DO need a clean take I’ll specifically ask for one, or record one as a safety for a take two.
You have to listen to a director. 
I’m often shocked at how two actors will talk over me the entire time they’re in the booth, then expect me to help them out after three or four takes have failed to vibe. I have neither the time nor inclination to hold an actor’s hand, or validate an actor’s choices,  when he or she is being dismissive of my role in the casting process.
I am not a talent agency booth director, whose role is to make the agency’s actors (THEIR clients) sound as good as possible. My job is to provide MY clients with the best options for their projects.
Even if an actor has an amazing read, if they are difficult to work with, dismissive, rude, late, it’s often in MY best interest to closely consider whether or not MY clients should also be subjected to that behavior should the actor book the job.
If you make us look good to OUR clients, we'll bring you in more often. Simple as that.

Ask questions! But not too many questions...
No such thing as a stupid question. I do believe that, especially if the actor has  tried to ask themselves some of the questions I listed above. I’d rather you ask than waste our time. However there is a fine line between clearing up a couple points before recording, and TALKING A PIECE OF COPY TO DEATH before recording. It’s different for every individual, but there comes a point, where a realization will dawn, that the actor is already stale, dissecting a piece of copy, asking me further and  further nuanced questions about specifics in the copy, that they’ve already talked themselves out of booking the gig.
I can’t find a good rule for this one. It just sort of happens, but it often feels like a defense mechanism, usually  from someone that spends more of their time focused on delivering a piece of copy rather than performing it...

It’s all the same.
These are all the same concerns and notes people have heard time and time again. Partner reads aren’t really any different than any other acting challenge, but maybe that is what is so unique about them. They are acting challenges, NOT editing challenges. 
We live in an age where we are actively encouraging voice actors to NOT be actors. Instead requiring them to focus on self directing, recording technique, equipment maintenance, editing, post, and delivery. Somewhere in there, a performance needs to happen. Placing the actor in my booth, I often find actors who just don’t know what their role is anymore, actors who can’t relinquish control over things like mic placement, constantly futzing with their copy, stands, or headphones. It’s frustrating, for both me AND the performer. We’re constantly stepping on each other’s toes.

At the end of the day (and this terribly long rant), if I can only impress upon you that there are different processes in place between web casting, agency auditioning, and showing up to read at a standalone casting facility, that might just be good enough.
Just respecting the fact that everyone does business in their own unique fashion, and being flexible or amenable to the different goals each are trying to accomplish, will make you more successful in this business.

Now you crazy kids, get the CRAP OFF MY LAWN! Kids... walking around with their pants on the ground... Twittering their facebooks... Just awful...


  1. I am going to follow you on twitter. Thanks for the update.