What Questions Should I Ask, When I Don’t Know What Questions to Ask?

The questions rarely ever change from generation to generation. For as long as actors have ventured forth, on whatever the stage, whatever the time of day, whatever their age, or what age it happened to be. Actors would and will continue to raise their questions. First, they aspire to the heights. Then, they fall from favor. Families have debated the question for centuries. Why would their children, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, or just passing acquaintances, ever want to become actors?

Long before anyone ever heard of the voiceover artist, the same questions were being asked. Remarkably, not only are the same questions being asked today, but also the same answers are being given. Many of you might query what I have to say for a prospective voice talent to find worthwhile. Voiceover is the truly subjective art form it happens to be. And make no mistake: voice over is an acting craft.

For me, the bottom line will always be the same for actors:
I always advise actors to look out for those (out there) professing to be the last word when it comes to how an actor can accomplish success. What we are involved with is a Method for helping actors to establish their true signature. It’s a way for actors to find out who they are today. Nothing is ever a tougher direction for an actor than when they are told to be themselves. Act natural is another of those seemingly simple enough directions for an actor to handle. In truth, it’s these simple directions that send many actors into a state of shock.

Fifty years has allowed me to gather what certain individuals have found as their important tricks of the trade. I couldn’t help but look back at the actors who have come my way in what feels like such a short period of time. Some folks might receive a great deal of satisfaction as they sit in their counting house, looking at what coinage they’ve been able to accumulate. In my case, the satisfaction comes from the thousands of voice actors that have gained from my teaching method, the thousands that have crossed my path as a director.

From telephone answering machine announcements to the likes of Orson Welles reading a dessert menu, from a voice at an airport warning that the yellow zone is for loading to Buddy Hackett portraying a troll in an animated feature film, from the joy of Brock Peters functioning as the voice of a sage to experiencing the patience, and professionalism of a Cloris Leachman, coupled with the relentless over and over approach of a John Houseman or Howard Duff. And the beat continues to go on. The list swells, and the learning process continues.

The names that I mentioned are a mere sampling of the actors and directors that I have gleaned from. It is virtually impossible for an actor to exist by themselves. Watching and listening plays a big part of any good study program. I can remember as a very young guy, having the privilege of interning for a short period of time during the Alfred Hitchcock anthology series. With Mr. Hitchcock, an intern learned (when he wasn’t doing a wide variety of tasks) by watching and listening. Certainly Hitch (that’s how the “in” crowd referred to him) wasn’t about to talk to anyone of my limited attainment. Maybe a small amount of eye contact took place if he was trying not to fall over me.

Even at my then young age, I understood how important focus was to any creative person. I marveled at the way Hitchcock watched and listened with unbelievable intensity. But it was his listening to what the actors looked like, that astounded me. What I learned then is what I practice today as a director. If I can hear the smile, or feel the emotion of anguish or frustration without being influenced by the actor’s visual display, then as the director, I’ve received a very strong message that I am on track. For that ability to listen, I respectfully submit my thanks to that one short, round man.

It has always seemed like such an obvious trait for the actor to develop. The ability to listen, and the ability to focus, are just about one and the same you might think. Often people profess to be listening. And while they appear to be listening, the what’s missing is the fact they are simply not really focused on the direction. Direction might come in the way of a question. It might be a case of the director asking the actor a question in order to get a response that would allow for where the actor was emotionally at that moment…

Harvey Kalmenson

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