VAM 023 | Interview with Melanie Chartoff about Improv, Part 1

VAM 023 | Interview with Melanie Chartoff about Improv, Part 1

Welcome to episode 23 of the Voice Acting Mastery podcast with yours truly, Crispin Freeman!

As always, you can listen to the podcast using the player above, or download the mp3 using the link at the bottom of this blog post. The podcast is also available via the iTunes Store online. Just follow this link to view the podcast in iTunes:

In my last podcast, I discussed the 5 Essentials for voice acting. I talked at length about the first of those essentials: the need to become an actor. I also said that of all the different acting training I have had the pleasure of experiencing, the one that helped me the most in my voice acting career was improvisational acting.

So I thought I would invite my improv teacher, Melanie Chartoff, on the podcast to talk about the importance of improv and how it relates to voice acting. Melanie has had an extensive acting career both on stage and on screen, but those of you who follow animation will probably be most familiar with her performance as Didi Pickles, the mother in the famous Nickelodeon series, The Rugrats. Melanie has taught me a lot and I think you’ll benefit from her insight and experience.


Download Voice Acting Mastery Episode #23 Here (MP3)


11 Responses to “VAM 023 | Interview with Melanie Chartoff about Improv, Part 1”

  1. Kalyn McCabe says:

    Oh my goodness, my childhood was Rugrats! So many fond memories of that show.

    Anyway, I cannot WAIT for the next podcast. Character voices are so much fun to create! Recently in my audio book, I had to play a few old men, a butch woman and the main two boys. I had to use several accents and ranges to differentiate the characters. It was my favorite part so far.

    If you want a listen in your free time (I don’t know if I can do this… may I?), I have a link to a playlist on youtube of all the parts. If you don’t, it’s fine.

    Lovely podcast!

    • Crispin Freeman says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

      I don’t really have the time to be listening to people’s demos right now. Hopefully I’ll be able to work out a system for that in the future. Good for you though for putting a demo reel together!

      • Kalyn McCabe says:

        I said audio book, not demo reel.

        Two totally different things. Haha! I am glad you’re considering a listen. Though, other actors can only recommend an actor for the production company/agency’s rosters. The guys/gals in charge have your fate in your hands.

        Though I do need to update my demo reel. Getting a bit outdated, and I need original lines.

        Speaking of, what is your recommendation for how often you should update your reels? Once a year? Six months? If you feel the reel doesn’t match your capabilities?

        Some VAAers update with the seasons, others with the year. Very varied.

        Read on your twitter you got a slew of audition e-mails, hope you got them all done!

        Much love!

        • Crispin Freeman says:

          I realize that you said audiobook, but it seemed like you were asking me to listen to it in order to get feedback from me. I unfortunately don’t have a system set up to do that right now. I hope to implement that in the future.

          I’m not sure there’s any conventional wisdom about how often you need to update your demo. I guess it depends on what stage you are in your career. If your demo is mostly made up spots, and you’re booking a lot of real voice over gigs, then it’s probably wise to start working those in as soon as possible. If your demo is real spots and it still represents you vocally, I’m not sure there’s much incentive to change it.

          A demo just needs to reflect what you can do right now. As long as it does that, you don’t really need to change it unless you want to.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I know that when voice actors usually start out doing voice over it usually isn’t their main income. So I was wondering, off the top of your head, what types of jobs are flexable enough were you can audition and voice act in a spur of the moment. I know that depending on the person it will vary, but I’m just wondering what some actors find best to suit them when trying to break into the business.
    Thanks for all the help.

    • Crispin Freeman says:

      Every actor has their own answer to this challenge. Historically, waiting tables has been a common way for actors to have a flexible schedule that allows them to audition for roles. Luckily with the internet, there are more opportunities to find work with flexible hours. Some people become bartenders so they can work at night and keep their days free. I know a friend of mine who’s a bookkeeper and works for different clients at different times so as to keep his schedule flexible. Other people are web designers and can do the work from home. You can even become a virtual assistant and do all your work online. Those are the ones that come to me off the top of my head.

      • Caitlin says:

        Thank you, I’ve been a little worried about it. I just wonder how my path will turn out, kind of exciting to think about. I look forward to next week’s podcast!

  3. Wes Davis says:

    Like that you two touched on slating on this one, even if just for a second.

    Starting out slating always felt so foreign and odd to me. But I think what Melanie said really hits the issue on the head. It’s a matter of confidence.

    At first I was most definitely not confident about my abilities. And I’m sure my slates reflected that. The slate felt like it was just an unnecessary formality for me that I rushed through so that I could get to the end of my read and hear the feedback from my instructor.

    It wasn’t until I heard an instructor audition an actual piece that the importance of the slate really hit home. When slating I had always just quickly said my name and my part and then read. But when she slated she started off with a confident introduction by saying, Hi, this is and then her name. With just those three words my attention was grabbed.

    But it wasn’t just the introduction that was so different about the slate it was the feeling behind it. This wasn’t someone who thought they might be right for this role, they spoke as if they knew they were. And ever since I’ve done my best to bring that same feeling to mine.

    Really cool to hear that Melanie does an exercise with slates in her classes. Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Crispin Freeman says:

      I’m so glad you liked our discussion of slating. I think Melanie’s “name” exercise is really revealing. So many people are nervous just saying their own names. That goes back to needing to have confidence in order to succeed. No one wants to hire a nervous or insecure voice actor.

      I’ll get cracking on the next installment! 🙂

  4. Crystal Jean says:

    I have question, the whole “You” puzzle me. And I don’t quit understand it. My acting style is very European, I have moved away from silly American method of acting that have you use “sense memory” trying to turn yourself into someone you’re not, depending too much on the emotions and not enough of the understanding, actions, or the subtext of the script or too much on the objective. I have always been taught “Do as the character does. The character is never you so don’t try to turn yourself into the character.” I understand that character always going to be some of you in it, by your understanding. Even in Improv, I would think of situation in my head, play a character, or just react to the other person, if the other person had an idea, but what does she mean “You” If someone wanted me to do the voice of Alucard, I would see the world through his eyes, by leaving my bias and judgement out of the studying progress, find his humor, understand the relationships, understand the subtext, pay attention to structure of the sentences and some times I’ll even pay attention to the rhythm how he speaks. But I really don’t understand this “You” because Alucard is never going to be me, nor am I going to be 14th century medieval prince of Romania in real life. And that how I understand “You” when she explains it.

    The reason why I don’t understand it because, as you said they never give you the time to study or read the script, when you said that I am thinking they put you in booth hand you the script, don’t give you the time to look at it for little bit and you just do it. Hoping maybe the director tells you about the situation or the relationship. I understand the whole imagine the relationships or what the person does, I have done that in acting when my scene partner doesn’t give me what I need.

    The only voice acting work I have done was for an indie film where the director called me, and I spoke my line through a phone, but I had the script for days. And the other insistent was for a commercial, and even that I had time to look at the script some at the audition, make choices and stick to them before I went into the booth.

    I really don’t understand how improve helps with voice acting, I know it help me a lot in my cold reading, but I’ll listen to the rest of the interview.

    • Crispin Freeman says:

      I don’t quite understand your question. What do you mean by “the whole ‘You’ puzzle me”. It’s not clear what you’re asking.

      I too have a very European acting background. I’ve studied Suzuki Acting training, Grotowski Plastique training, Meyerhold Biomechanics, European clowning and Commedia dell’Arte. However, I would not call the “sense memory” method of acting silly. It is one technique among many and it can be a very quick way of getting a personal emotional reaction that can read well, especially on film. I myself don’t use “sense memory” because I find it doesn’t get me the results I want, but it’s not silly. Plenty of successful actors use that method to great results.

      I would disagree with your statement, “the character is never you”. When I used that mindset, my acting was stiff and self-directed. I did not get the results I wanted. I had to change my mindset to realize that portraying a character was allowing that part of me that identified with the character to come out and play pretend. Nolan North, the famous video game voice actor had a similar realization when he was first starting out as an actor. He was trying to create a character separate from himself and he did not get the results he wanted. When he realized that he could bring his own emotional sensibilities and immediacy to a role but still play pretend as a person different from himself, that’s started him down the road to being the famous voice actor he is now.

      However, if you find that personally identifying with a character doesn’t work for you, then by all means use your own method. As long as it gets you the results you want, then it works. There is no objectively right way to act. There is only what is and is not believable to an audience. I can only share with you what has worked for me and gotten me success in the field of voice acting. Every actor is different however and what works for me may not work for you. Every artist has to find his or her own method of getting the artistic results they want. There is no one-size-fits-all method to acting.

      Hopefully my response to your earlier comment explained why improv is so beneficial to voice acting. Almost every successful voice actor I know is quite skilled at improv. Improv allows you to make very quick acting decisions on the fly, commit to them fully and then change them at a moment’s notice when you need to. That is exactly the situation you will find yourself in when voice acting.

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