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An Interview with a Voice-over Genius

By Dr. Shanessa Fenner

Joan Baker is the epitome of voice-over success. The multi-talented humanitarian recently sat down with Bronze Magazine to discuss her training and experiences, the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences, and the facets of voice-over training.  

Bronze Magazine: Please share your training and voice-over experiences.

Joan Baker: My formal training was originally in dance. I started in grade school with ballet, modern, and jazz. As a child, I was fortunate to add real-world practical experience, when I auditioned for, and booked a weekly role on a local kids TV show in San Francisco. The show was called “Whatchamacallit” and it gave me an opportunity to work as a storyteller, host, news reporter, and circus clown. I went to a high school for the performing arts where I was trained in acting, singing, and more dancing. After high school I was awarded a dance scholarship with Alvin Ailey in New York. It was an incredibly competitive program with hard core training from morning to late evening, 5 days a week. When I wasn’t training in their studios, I was fulfilling class requirements and written reports on Alvin Ailey dance concerts. The real training happens when you hit the audition circuit. I say that because it’s not until then that book knowledge and hours in the dance studio truly fall into place and the full 360 experience merges into talent, perseverance, attitude, and imagination.

I went to a high school for the performing arts where I was trained in acting, singing, and more dancing. After high school I was awarded a dance scholarship with Alvin Ailey in New York.

During and after Alvin Ailey, I also continued to study acting through New York’s top private acting schools, while auditioning for Broadway. As for my voice-over experience, it was initially the result of looking for a way to diversify my skill set and bring in more work. I studied one-on-one with a very fine voice actor/coach named Joni Robbins, created a demo reel, and got signed with a top tier agency a few weeks later. From there the jobs and auditions came in steadily. I have worked for many major product brands, but had the most success in the world of TV promos. The list of clients is long, as it is for any experienced voice actor, and each one was a dream come true.  But, two jobs stood out: I narrated a documentary about the creation of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is now part of the library’s permanent display, and I voiced a six-part promo campaign for the Muhammad Ali Center that ran during the Olympic Games.

BM: What are the qualities/skills that make a great voice-over artist?   

JB: First, you had better be disciplined, diligent, and an open vessel for input from directors and clients. They want your unique point of view, but they also want you for your malleability to be shaped according to the needs of the brand. Voice acting is not a very exact skill until it is. By that I mean you have to get into the water before you really learn to swim. From there you discover your unique talents- some natural, others learned. Once, you’re in the water, you come to know whether you’re better at the freestyle stroke or the butterfly. In voice acting, however, we’re talking genres, rather than strokes. Commercials, audio books, animation, promos, e-learning, etc., are a few of the voice-over genres. And, each genre requires different interpretive skills and talents. 

Voice acting is not a very exact skill until it is. You have to get into the water before you really learn to swim.

A good voice-over artist maintains a reverence for language, the genres, and the work process. She has a healthy regard for her place in the larger collaborative process in which her role exists.  A good voice-over artist understands how to navigate the business of working with agents, managers, directors, networking with buyers, and prospecting for work. All the talent in the world is useless if you can’t navigate the business.

Founders of SOVAS: Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker with Lonnie Ali at the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards.

BM: When and why did you decide to start Society of Voice Arts and Sciences?

JB: SOVAS is an evolutionary step. The initial spark was a desire to honor my father, who had recently died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. I wanted to do something that would honor his memory and support finding a cure for the disease. I had already been journaling about my experience, and the logical next move was to write a book. But the book had to go beyond my personal journey of grief. It had to be bigger than my story. So, I turned to the voice acting community, which had been sustaining my career, and asked them to contribute their career stories.

My father’s voice had been literally silenced due to Alzheimer’s, and here I was, privy to a community of people whose very livelihoods depended on their voices, and could now share their personal career journeys on behalf of people who had lost their voices to Alzheimer’s Disease. The result was authoring “Secrets of Voice-over Success: Top Voice-over Artists Reveal How They Did It.” This was the first VO book that brought together a variety of viewpoints from different voice actors. More importantly, one hundred percent of the book’s royalties were, and continue to be, donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

SOVAS is an evolutionary step. The initial spark was a desire to honor my father, who had recently died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. I wanted to do something that would honor his memory and support finding a cure for the disease.

I and various contributors to the book (21 in total) conducted book signings. The book signings were so well attended that we found it necessary to rent hotel space to accommodate the attendees. We started doing these events around the country and it eventually became the full-on conference known as That’s Voiceover!™ Career Expo. A few years later it expanded to include the Voice Arts® Awards. The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS) was a way to bring our mission and purpose into a single focus. Further, going nonprofit allowed us to create a framework for the underlying humanitarian focus that gave birth to it all.

BM: How does your company stand out above the rest?

JB: I wouldn’t say we stand out “above” the rest, as much as we stand out as a catalyst for innovation and excellence. We know this from having created a phenomenon that did not exist before, but we also know it from the positive feedback we receive from attendees, and a handful of conference organizers who flattered us by following in our footsteps.  SOVAS has established a leadership role in innovating ways for voice actors to improve their odds for success by effectively connecting with key industry players and to strive for excellence. We always intended to create a platinum standard. Fortunately, as a nonprofit, we don’t have to be as purely transactional as other entities. Excellence, gainful employment, diversity, and inclusion have always led the way.

SOVAS has established a leadership role in innovating ways for voice actors to improve their odds for success by effectively connecting with key industry players and to strive for excellence.

We also champion a higher calling that invites voice actors, as experts in the use of the human voice, to consider the legacy of their voices to make a positive impact on a humanitarian level. In this regard, we have created special award honors that highlight humanitarianism, environmental preservation, lifetime achievement, and excellence in the arts and humanities. Honorees have included Barack Obama, Erin Brockovich, James Earl Jones, Muhammad Ali, Sigourney Weaver, Van Jones, William Shatner, Nancy Cartwright, Rosario Dawson, and others.

BM: What does voice-over training entail?

JB: Like acting, voice acting teaches you to pretend faithfully – to be natural in unnatural circumstances. Specific to voice acting, where the script is read for a performance, as opposed to recited from memory, you learn to generate the words as if they are coming from your own heart and mind, as if they are your thoughts, not words on a page. Voice acting is not about reading; there are exceptions, but about making the words your own. With good acting, you never think of the actor as reciting words from a script. You believe the words are those of the character being played. The same is true for voice acting.

In addition, and equally important, voice-over training involves script analysis, training in speech and diction, interpretation, sense memory, emotional recall, and learning to preserve your vocal instrument. Voice acting draws on your emotional and psychological life, so be prepared for a bit of a roller coaster ride as you ride the learning curve. The learning curve includes learning to let go of, or manage, mental and emotional barriers that keep your voice small and suppressed, especially under the glare of the spotlight. In fact, one of my specialties as a teacher is to expand the student’s freedom of self-expression which is always mirrored in the performance.

That’s Voiceover! Billboard in Times Square

BM: Tell us about the annual “That’s Voiceover! ™ Career Expo.”

JB: That’s Voiceover!™ Career Expo is the longest running voice-over conference in the world. There’s an enormous amount of learning, networking and edutainment that goes on for both beginners and seasoned pros, but the ultimate goal is to create gainful employment. The conference is set up as a real-world context for creating and enhancing careers. For example, we have auditions for actual paid jobs with major brands and we set up one-on-one interviews between actors, agents, producers, and managers.

Attendees come away with a life-changing experience that forwards their careers. And because everything happens in the context of real job opportunities, the learning is more purposeful and meaningful. What you learn in the 9 am session may enhance the audition you’re doing at 12 pm that same day. A real-world context has to be the leading edge of any effective conference. People want to learn so they can work.

Feature Photo Credit: The Voice Arts Awards 2019

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