Friday, March 9, 2012

The Voice Behind the Trailer: Rachel F. Hirsch (Or How I Learned That Being an Actress is Shockingly Similar to Being a Writer)

Today I'm so excited to spotlight the #1 reason I love my trailer: Miss Rachel F. Hirsch, the fantastic voice you hear in it.

Rachel is an actress who grew up in Alabama where she practically spent her whole life on a stage (she even got married on one!) before moving to the home of the Great White Way (that's New York City). Throughout our friendship, we have discovered that, even though Rachel wants to belt out songs on stage and I want to hide under my desk most of the time, being an actress and being a writer are very similar.

How, you might ask? Read on to my interview with her to get that insight along with a lot of fascinating information about how to pick up accents! Which is going to come in very handy for my future spy career. (Where I feel like my talents for hiding under desks might be put to good use).

Can you tell us a bit about your acting background?
Rachel F. Hirsch: My love affair with acting started when I was teeny-tiny. I was lucky to grow up in a town (Birmingham, AL) with an amazing theater scene (I's surprising, right?), so I had a fantastic summer theater workshop available to me every summer and spent childhood to 18 performing in the local professional and community theater shows, and traveling the state and country with a performing group. I continued my training in college at George Washington University, and made the inevitable move that all actors with Broadway on the brain do…to NYC right after college. All this training and traveling has led me to work with companies like the Really Useful Theatre Company with the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (longest title ever!), National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Washington National Opera, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre.

And then of course I added voiceover to the mix, but I'm sure we'll get to that in minute…

What made you decide to get into voiceover work?
RFH: Ahhh and there it is! As a kid, when I wasn't performing or taking some sort of theater based class, I was watching Disney movies and The Muppet Show. For me, the most interesting parts about those movies and shows were the people behind the voices. I always loved when I got to see behind-the-scenes footage--when I got to put a faces to voices. I started to listen and try to recognize who was who, sometimes even attempting to mimic their sounds and styles. With someone like Robin Williams for example, I loved when I picked out his voice even if it sounded drastically different each time. The way he could change his sound depending on the role was like magic. I wanted to do that.

When I moved here as an actor, I realized I could finally get started pursuing this crazy dream of mine. As a singer I have a strong ear and good control over my voice. Those skills have definitely made it an easier transition for me.

You did a fantastic British accent for my trailer (you probably couldn’t tell, but Rachel is not really British!) Do you have other accents you can do? What are they?
RFH: Haha thanks! British accents are particularly fun because there are so many different kinds! Actually though, for the trailer I approached it more as an animation project than a narrative in an accent. With character work I usually try to get a visual in my head. For example, for the trailer I imagined an older lady in a rocking chair knitting and telling this story. Somehow, that character seemed to me like she would speak in a slightly British know, like old ladies in rocking chairs tend to.

In my voiceover work I do specialize in accents/dialects and character voices, so when I'm working on projects that require accents, I have quite a few to draw from. My strongest are different variations on British, Russian, Southern, Italian, French, and Eastern European/Yiddish. But if I'm required to do something new, it's just a matter of spending a few hours doing research and I can usually start to get it down.

Do you practice and develop different voices? Tell us a little bit about your process when you get a voiceover project and how it differs from your theater work.
RFH: Wow that's actually three questions at once! I'll start with the first one: Yes! Whenever I watch a movie or TV show and someone has a strong accent I secretly whisper to myself, repeating what they say. I pick up most accents, dialects, and character voices by watching people's mouths. It's something I've done since I was a kid. The way we sound when we speak is mostly based on tongue placement, lip shape for vowel production and cadence. I pay close attention to these three elements any time I encounter or want to learn a new accent. YouTube is a fantastic tool for watching videos of people talking and there is this great site called the International Dialects of English Archive that I often turn to as well to listen to recordings of authentic international accents speaking English.

As far as approaching new projects, my process really depends on the project type. I already walked you through character work a little bit. For commercial projects it's more about who I'm talking to and why. Those generally require my natural voice, but even that needs tweaking depending on the project. Is the speaker supposed to sound sexy, funny, silly, friendly? Once I figure out the tone I start working on the sounds and placement.

The biggest difference between theater work and voiceover is the size. On stage you have to be a big presence. Your acting choices have to read all the way to the last row of the balcony. Voiceover is more like the approach to film acting--it usually needs to be much smaller. If your choices are too big it can come off sounding phony and sometimes even abrasive. (Think local car commercials). The key is to be natural. Whether it's animation, commercial work, narration, it needs to sound natural…like you are sitting with a friend at a table. That has definitely been the hardest transition for me to make since I have spent most of my life and career focused on stage work.

What are some dream voiceover projects you’d like to attempt?
RFH: If they start to regularly bring back Disney Princess movie musicals (as it seems like they might be) that would definitely be my dream role. In the past, they used to use a separate actor for the speaking part and the singing part. My dream was always to do both parts! I would also really love to be the voice of a commercial campaign--like if Flo from those Progressive commercials was a voiceover (although I'd take an onscreen campaign as well!) And I LOVE to cook and am a little obsessed with The Food Network, so it would be pretty awesome to be the voice of that channel as well or something like that.

You’re also responsible for creating Actors’ Embassy, a resource for actors living and working in New York City. Could you tell us a little bit about what led to that? How has creating a community for actors helped you in your career and pursuits?
RFH: Like you do with writing, I write a blog about being an actor called I Hope I Get It--which I've written for about a year and a half. It started out as me addressing all the questions I had when I first started out in the biz but didn't know where to get answers. I started to realize though, that the real issue wasn't just a lack of answers in the acting community…it was the lack of community! So I set about to help facilitate change.

Actors' Embassy is now an extension of the blog in 3 parts. Part 1 is a comprehensive website which serves as a resource for actors. There are also forums on there so we can crowd-source answers to issues and questions that might come up. Part 2 is a monthly free event for actors featuring industry speakers. This gives us a chance to hear about the business in ways we may not have thought of and meet each other to start forming our own sense of community. And part 3, which is a little ways down the road, is a shared workspace for actors. It would be like an office space but specific to actors' needs: internet, printers, showers, lockers. A home base for us really.

I created this out of my own need for a sense of community. The work I've done with it so far has introduced me to some amazing folks. I've started to realize that I'm not alone in thinking this business is pretty…well, lonely. All us actors go through the same struggles and triumphs every day, but we aren't necessarily able to connect with each other to talk about it all. But hopefully, with the introduction of Actors' Embassy, we will be able to.

You and I have discovered that pursuing writing and acting have a lot of similarities (perseverance, dedication, the importance of finding a community). Could you share some of your thoughts on that?
RFH: You and I have so much in common when it comes to figuring out our prospective businesses. We both have had to learn to self-promote.

Neither of us have built-in colleagues. If we want that, we have to look for it. And thankfully, it seems like we have both found ways to create that for ourselves.

We both have had to learn to navigate the world of advocates--agents and managers; for me coaches and directors; for you publishers and editors.

And, of course, both of our businesses require a thick skin and true passion for what we do. Neither is worth pursuing if you don't come equipped with those qualities. The funny thing about passion, though, is that most people are drawn to writing and acting because of it. But those that are successful are the ones that take the time to figure out the business, too. Being an artist is great, but if you don't realize you also run a business you are going to have a much harder time getting anywhere with it.

I absolutely could not say it better. Thank you, Rachel!

I highly recommend you check out Rachel's singing here (it is a very cruel thing to go karaoke with her) and definitely take a look at her amazing actor's resource, Actors' Embassy.

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