SAG-AFTRA NY’s conservatory teacher Cynthia de Ben focuses on voice-overs. From the very start taking a class with her was enlightening. Cynthia is one of those very energetic and bubbly people who moves at Jaguar speed. She talks fast and with each sentence offers a dictionary filled with great information. In between each sentence she interjects some fun humor to keep the class light and fun.
This New Orleans native and New York actor and voice-over (VO) coach brings with her a lifetime of experience. In the acting world she has worked stage, soaps, television, film, commercials, and audiobooks. For many years she also worked as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) therapist and life coach. She holds a BA in Theatre Arts (acting and directing) from Marymount Manhattan College and a Master’s in Clinical Social Work (MSW) from New York University.
Cynthia enters a room with a “let’s get it done” attitude and in no time we were off and her dictionary filled with great information began.
“I think of my VO class as ‘Acting for the Microphone,’" she remarked. “I help each actor discover what is working in their read and use that strength as their own key building block to replace whatever is not working for them with what works better.
“My goal is to show actors how to get themselves both energized and relaxed; and to show how they can get themselves physically, mentally, emotionally ready and proficient on the mic so that they are skilled and confident enough to deliver a read that can get them a callback, if not a booking.
“A lot of people think it is something that happens from the neck up,” she continued, “but doing voice-overs is very physical. I tell people to come from there hoo-ha and get really connected to a person who is real to them. When you have that, you have better control and the more intimate the read the more support you have to have.”
Years ago Cynthia taught at the conservatory for 6 years then became an LCSW therapist for many years before 9/11 brought her back to SAG-AFTRA. She reactivated her membership and continued as a volunteer coach until she stepped away for a few more years to care for her husband who was diagnosed with Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC). Sadly Cynthia recently lost him to this rare and aggressive skin cancer. Now the fulfillment she finds in teaching is helping her move forward.
You’d never know by Cynthia’s upbeat attitude how recently tough her life has been but fortunately SAG-AFTRA members are able to take advantage of all the knowledge she has to share as a conservatory teacher.
For those who don’t know what the conservatory is, it is the educational component of SAG-AFTRA. For just $35 a year, you can take one class a week from one of the 15-20 teachers who donate their time teaching a variety of acting classes. The volunteers are professional actors particularly experienced in the subject that they teach. Cynthia is one of those volunteers.
When asked why she donates her time, she didn't hesitate and said, “I learn more than the people I teach and it is exciting to see a change occur in someone when the light goes on when they are their best self and very natural. When people finally relax they can work. Getting to relaxation is the hardest thing.”
Getting down to business
Actors new to voice-over often don’t think how you look matters, but it does. Industry pros unfamiliar with you or your work will cast you by how you look to them walking in the door.”
Some people also feel like they have to memorize the copy, but Cynthia discouraged us from doing that. “When doing voice-overs don’t try to memorize the copy. Try to be familiar with it. Normally you will get just one take and so that take has to be your best.
“My job is to get you to the point where you could get a call-back or you’d be in the running. I’ve auditioned when there were 300-500 people up for one spot and I got it. So, you never know.”
Yet, how do you get to be the person that stands out among the rest? For Cynthia it is about being relaxed. “Getting to relaxation is the whole key. Let the words come out of your mouth but understand the microphone.
“What you are trying to do is vibrate in the listener’s ear. You are not selling a product but rather the benefit they are going to get. What are they going to get out of life after they use this product.”
Cynthia then had us do a series of exercises. First we spoke the copy into the ear of someone else, then over articulated each word and then projected it to a partner across the room. The goal was to get our energy up and make a connection at the same time.
She encouraged us to find a long piece of poetry or nursery rhyme to memorize and deliver in one breathe, make that a daily practice and use it as a warm up on audition days. It gets your energy up, expands your breathe capacity and it gives you the physical support you need.
Within seconds she was zipping out the words for "This Is the House That Jack Built," a well-known British nursery rhyme.
…this is the farmer that sows the corn
that fed that cock that crowed in the morn
that woke the priest all shaven and shorn
that married the man all tattered and torn
that kissed the maiden all forlorn…
You may think that you are just saying words into a mic but in fact there’s a whole lot more going on. You have to prepare your body, your voice, your spirit, your energy, and anything else that will help get you into the part you are reading for.
“When you work on a mic you are using everything, so everything has to be available for you to really embrace the person you are being,” she affirmed.
Envision who you are doing the voice-over for. If you know physically what it would look like on camera you can ground yourself in that time and place.
Cynthia then talked about the positioning of our bodies. “Before you do you voice-over get balanced over your feet. You are a working actor and so all of you must be working. Unlock your knees, pull your shoulder blades together and feel them glide down your back,” she guided.
At least once say it to a kid. Convince that kid to buy it. Kids only trust you if you are being real and being straight with them. If he or she will buy it, anyone will. “So, do it with a kid. Discover in you what parts of you come out to play.
“Say it out loud several times especially if there is a word you stumble on. Work on the articulation, the speed, the energy and then pull what is special in you to make your read different, a little more fun and unexpected.
She capsuled her thoughts by noting, “You’re up; you’re listening, you’ve got passionate energy and there you go.”
Preparing to read the copy
Obviously the most important part is how you deliver the copy. That’s what the audition is all about and that’s where you need to nail it. Cynthia gave us tips on how best to prepare for that very special and intense moment.
“Analyze your copy and focus your brain on what clues are given to you.”
Over and over again and using different words Cynthia encouraged us to have energy in our piece but be real.
“Really articulate what it is but you have to do it with personality. You have to feel the dynamic energy of it. Get your whole personality and energy through. You’ve got to be alive – if you are not alive – go home.”
Then she explained that it is the people auditioning us who need to see what we have to offer. Just listening to her advice and how she delivered it helped us understand how we needed to deliver our audition.
Okay so now we are about to read the copy and her suggestion was to hold the paper just beyond the mic but be careful not to hit the paper on anything as the mic is sensitive. “The copy, the mic and the person you are connecting with should be in a single point of focus,” she explained.
When reading the copy don’t speed through it but have the feeling that you are tightening a string of pearls. So, don’t pause between sentences but rather string everything together so the copy flows, and becomes conversational.
Your first sentence you want to get people’s attention. You are looking for compare and contrast. Cynthia let the ideas flow to help us understand what we needed to do.
“They don’t know what you have. They are not going to pull it out of you. They need to see what life is there in you and available for them to work with.
”You have to find a way to make it fun – you need to make them laugh or you have to turn them on. If you turn them on you are going to hook the audience. They are not going to hire you if you can’t hook them. The way you do that is to free yourself and get into that space where you are connecting with a kid you know.
”Don’t judge it based on what the product is. Bring originality to the piece. As long as you do it carefully and get all the words. That’s important because they’ve run it through legal so you have to say the words exactly as they appear on the page.
“Find some little key that is going to set it apart a bit. Put something in it that is a little unexpected but is still going to deliver what is needed.
“You are not a person doing a commercial but rather being yourself because your voice becomes more resonate and personal. The resonance of your voice becomes more real and natural.”
It was at this point after having read our copy and having heard ourselves being recorded that she asked us what we liked the best about our voice-over and why. She wanted us to relate to the energy of each piece. It is generally those parts that are the building blocks to the perfect voice-over.
“When you get more and more of what you like, the stuff you don’t like falls away,” she explained.
“You are hooking up all your chakras (energy points), all your energy centers are working and the people listening to you are going to be excited. If you are hooked in and you are connected, so are they.”
And in fact, so were we. This class full of students pretty much soaked in every word Cynthia de Ben had to say because she met all the criteria she was guiding us to achieve.