You and the Director

The on going question: What kind of a director was he to work with?

The question I ask, not as a director, but as the educator would be: What would you do if there were no directors to work with?

“Most actors who have not studied the acting craft of voice over will go up in a puff of smoke.”

An actor without training won’t be able to get a handle on what the director is asking for. Inexperienced actors are caught up in the circumstance of not even understanding that the recording booth demands a certain degree of etiquette be practiced.

On the director’s side of the glass, we find that most directors have almost no training at all. By that I mean, formal training. That fact has always been difficult for me to comprehend. Why would anyone who desires to be able to compete and win at a casting assignment be guilty of placing a totally inexperienced person in the booth to do the directing?

So now you have the conundrum: Actors without training mixed with directors without training. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Yet it happens to be the case, more often than not.


I have often said that directing commercial voice over auditions is the singular most difficult assignment a director can have.

Examine the plight of the experienced director. Experienced, that is, in other forms of theatrical presentation. For the sake of conversation, I’ll use the theater as an example.

Our director, man or woman of today, usually enters the theater after graduating from a college or university having majored in theater, in one way or another. They have picked up a degree in some form of communication. They have learned all about the language of the theater; what you call things, and what things are called. They have developed study habits and methods for portrayal of a particular character or characters.

Now, as an actor, they find themselves looking at a script that doesn’t apparently have a beginning or an end.

The director having worked for an agent or an advertising agency is at an even greater loss concerning what to do, or what to tell the actor to do. They usually get started by the director just having the actor do the first take on their own without direction. From there, a great many of the auditions proceed downhill.

As a casting director, I’m rarely given the assignment of selecting the winning actor. Again, that is the job of the advertising agency producer, writer, and in most cases, both of them, along with the commercial sponsor.

As the director, I am in a comparable position to that of the actor, having to create something based on usually sketchy information. Many times, we receive a variety of directions from the ad agency. The writer sees it one way, the producer another, and often the sponsor (the guy who pays the bills) is diametrically in opposition to the both of them. So we have a great deal in common. Aside from wanting the best performance possible, the actor and the director attain the best results when they find a way to work as one. This, of course, is a lot easier said than done.

The director’s job is to ask the actor to do something that he knows the actor can do. It is of importance for the director to know what the actor is uncomfortable with. All of this is a moot point when neither of them (actor or director) has any idea of what the others’ skills are.

Note: Self-direction is a topic to be discussed.

In the Los Angeles marketplace, unlike other parts of the country, most auditions are conducted in your agent’s office. Briefly, it’s a situation where the advertising agency sends their commercial scripts and character breakdown directly to the agents. They (the agents) do a casting call from their stable of players. This means that as an actor, you are subject to being called in for auditions based on how your agent sees (hears) you.

The word for you is “Signature.” If you’re a Mr. Macho, white collar or blue, don’t be surprised if that particular signature translates to beer or trucks where your agent is concerned. For women, a comparable call might be for a sexy feminine approach for the sale of perfume. This too could be referred to as your signature.

At Kalmenson & Kalmenson, we take great pride in our attention to talent detail. Thousands of data entries have been compiled as an in-depth reference for our casting team to draw on. In our classes, a major thrust of the curriculum is to assist in the uncovering of your signature. In a way, it’s just the same as your written signature. With the latter, people who correspond with you can immediately tell if the signature is authentically yours. With the voice we have the same awareness of signature recognition.

I think it’s important to separate style from signature. An actor may have a soft-spoken approach or a certain way that they phrase. That is what we refer to as “style.” On the other hand, when we say “signature,” we are referring to your individual truth.

Whether a particular director is classically trained, or a person who has managed to pick up some skills along the way, what matters to them, consciously or not, is the basic question: Has the actor grabbed them? Has some special interpretation been presented as just what they’re looking for?

Regardless of the breakdown. The printed, or verbalization of their direction.

Perhaps an example will help to clarify?

(This was an actual call.)

The call was being put out on behalf of a hospital specializing in the care of the terminally ill.

The advertising agency producer specified that they were looking for actors, men and women, well into middle age who could honestly convey the importance of a hospital of this nature.

We, in turn, relayed our choices to a vast group of agents, and after our careful consideration of each idea, we individually hand-picked a bracketed selection, representing a range of creative interpretations of the given creative spec. The auditions were well-directed and uploaded within a day. Some twenty-five men and woman came in to audition for this role.

Their voices and ethnicities were made up of a wide variety of choices. All of them were experienced voice over actors. All had outstanding skills.

The bottom line will help to prove my point. The essence of truth casting was accomplished. The signatures of each actor came across as clear as a bell. Warm, friendly, homespun, city dweller, and farm worker. Garage mechanic, schoolteacher, and just your neighbor next door. Our casting conveyed the message that terminal illness could be the concern of all people. In my estimation, they could have thrown a dart at our end result. The casting and direction was impeccably sound. We had nailed it. How would they ever decide who was going to get this job? Who would be the actor they would choose?

It came down to two of them winning instead of just the one they had originally consigned for us to find. One man and one woman who had both experienced a close family member being taken away after a long illness. Both of these actors weren’t acting at all. They were telling the truth. For sure you must convey your signature, if it is truly yours as the truth.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… what about you and the director?

Whether it’s at your agent’s office, or at a casting service, or even at the advertising agency, your assignment is to make the very best from the direction you’ve been given. Etiquette is extremely important. Please make it a point to look at your director when you speak to him (or her) and conversely, the same would apply when they’re speaking to you. At this point, an actor needs all the help available. A director’s facial appearance might even be an assist. In general, try not to be a pain in the ass. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why any actor chooses to be an annoyance to the one person in the best position to help them.

So there you are. You’ve arrived a full ten minutes before your call time. With script in hand, you find a place away from the rest of the actors. Now it’s time to study the script, so you can go in there and ace it. But then you get your first look at the script direction. There it sits on top of the page. You’re not to be an announcer, though it clearly shows you reading the role of announcer. It says for you to be one-on-one, warm and friendly, and to be internalizing (stream of consciousness).

What you have is a common occurrence: Contradictory directions. I use this as an example in order to point out the importance of the director, if for no other reason than to function as the live and breathing human being right there in front of you. Use your first take as an opportunity to meld with your director. Make the director feel that you are being responsive to him or her.

Your job is to wait for the director to tell you what comes next.

And now it’s experience time. The more experience you have the smoother your trip will become. Just as there are no two actors that share complete similarity, I feel the separation in director style is even greater. In my opinion, I think you’ll find the fewer the number of words a director uses, the better their direction becomes.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing the knowledge Harvey. These columns are greatly appreciated (as reminders, good info and food for thought) Looking forward to the next one…
    b wl, valeri

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