Coming From The Stage To The Booth

The Debate

Will stage acting give you bad habits if you want to transfer to VO?

So in my short time in VO land  — and by short, I mean a few years — I heard something that caused me to have a knee-jerk reaction: “Coming from stage acting to voiceover means you’ll probably come with bad habits you need to unlearn.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but I have heard it or read it a few times. Enough times to make a video about it since that’s exactly what I did.

After cooling off and reflecting a bit, I have a better sense of how true and untrue that idea actually is. So let’s dive in and talk about it.

Cons of Stage Acting as Experience

Completely different medium; hard to turn it on

First, let’s talk about the cons of coming from stage acting to VO. The first one that comes to mind is that it’s really hard to QUOTE – “turn it on” in the booth if you’re coming from the stage.

The stage is great because you have lights that drown out the rest of the world.

You’re in a costume that isn’t your everyday attire. You’re probably in makeup. Odds are, your hair is different.

And you have had weeks of rehearsal to get where you are now and figure out exactly how to tap into the right emotions for this character you have interpreted.

Yeah, none of that is with you in the booth.

You’re lucky if you get your script THE SAME DAY — and you’ll most likely get a character script right before your session starts.

I think it was Rob Paulsen that said that voice actors are the short-order cooks of the acting world, and he’s right.

They have to conjure characters, tap into emotions, figure out vocal placement, gauge intensity, and be pseudo-audio-engineers all in the span of a few minutes.

So yeah, that was definitely new for me. I had to get really good at busting out stellar performances at the drop of a hat. But overall, I think I have become a better stage actor by practicing that.

Projection vs. conversational

Another tough one to tackle is moving from a projected voice to a conversational voice.

Being on stage means people need to hear you. I’m used to performing in a little black box theatre with a 3/4 in the round audience, so I don’t even have to project that far, but I still have to project.

It’s still a theatre that holds a lot of people, so odds are if you’re doing something really intimate, it’s loud and intimate.

This seems counterintuitive, but stage actors know what I mean.

You die loudly. You grieve loudly.

You do everything at a much higher volume than you would in the real world.

And in the booth, you do everything pretty much right at real-world volume. Sometimes even quieter. So yeah, that one truly IS a bad habit to break. You win this round, naysayers.

Pros of Stage Acting as Experience

However, I think stage acting is more of a benefit in the booth than it is a hindrance, so I’m gonna shift gears and talk about THAT now.

You actually learn how to act by acting

There are few better places to learn how to act than a situation where you actually have to act.

Sure, there are workshops and classes and books, but learning on the stage — or on the job as they say — is, in my opinion, the best way to start.

Of course, you’ll suck in the beginning because everyone does. But a real acting situation provides you with a LOT of stuff you can’t get offstage or even off-camera.

First of all, if you’re coming from the stage, odds are you’re working with a director.

And regardless of whether that director is top-notch or mediocre, you’ll have a mostly objective third party whose main goal is to get you to a place where you don’t suck.

They can give you ideas you haven’t thought of. They can stretch your acting muscles in ways previously unknown to you.

It’s like a personal trainer for your ability to emote.

I’d almost go as far to say that this is better than camera folks or self-taping for practice. If you self-tape, you just have you.

If you’re doing on-camera work at an indie level, odds are your director, camera-person, and sound-person might all be THE SAME PERSON.

So maybe this take is good enough, and they’re worried about getting their equipment rentals back on time.

I’m mostly kidding.  But not entirely.

You learn how to take direction

This is by far the best reason to get to any stage at any of your local community theatres.

I could argue that THE most important thing in VO is learning how to take direction.

A lot of us are really bad self-directors. I know I certainly am.

And when I find what I think a character is supposed to be, I have a hard time coming up with multiple takes because I inadvertently dig my heels in the dirt on those decisions.

When I send off A & B takes, it isn’t really an A and a B — it’s more like A and A with sprinkles. I’m working on it, though.

But working with a director and actually DOING WHAT THEY ASK without fighting them on it will get you called back for more jobs.

I have seen actors pseudo-fight directors on decisions that the director makes, and it is super-cringe-worthy. So much so that regardless of how good that actor is, they don’t get called back.

Remember, whatever you’re working on isn’t YOUR project. It’s theirs. And if they want you to change something or do something a certain way, you do it.

And when you do it right the second time, it gives the director a shot of dopamine that gets placed right next to your name in their memory banks.

So do it well the first time. And then do it their way the second time. And if you don’t know how to do that yet, getting to a stage is a good place to learn.

Other ways to get experience

However, if the stage just isn’t an option, here are some alternatives.

Find a local improv troop. Sure, it’s still on a stage, but if there are other factors preventing you from doing plays or musicals, improv is a great way to go.

Take online workshops. Mid pandemic, they popped up all over the place, and they’re still going strong as of the recording of this video.

One-on-one coaching is fantastic, and it will always be the best bang for your buck. Yes, it’s expensive hourly, but the value often far exceeds the price.

And lastly, I found that a lot of my skills of emotional adaptation came from service jobs like waiting tables and tending bar.

Seriously. Go talk to any bartender. Bartending isn’t about mixing drinks. It just so happens that mixing drinks is what you do in the middle of actually doing your customer-service job.

Why I’ll always recommend stage

All that being said, I will always recommend getting onstage for the following reasons.

Aside from the memories I have made with my partner and family, I have made the best memories of my life on stage and in theatres. The sense of community and camaraderie is second to none.

I have made the best friends of my life there. A bonus tip I learned in the theatre is that it’s never too late to make old friends.

The theater teaches you to always give your absolute most in a performance, and you can bet that this concept applies to VO.

Being onstage lets you go wild. And a director would much rather pull you back from 11 to 10 on the dial rather than try to get you TO ten from a 5.

And lastly, being on stage lets you go through a character’s whole journey. It allows you to get into the mind of a character and take them across their whole arc.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

So does coming from the stage give you bad habits when hopping into a booth? Maybe. But remember that some of YOUR favorite voice actors were probably stage actors first.

There is no denying, in my opinion, that those QUOTE ‘bad habits’ don’t matter — and they can be unlearned with the help of a good coach. 

And the real benefit of the stage you SHOULD be focusing on is that you learned how to act SOMEWHERE before stepping up to the mic and trying to make a few dollars or score those cool roles.


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