Four talented voice actors brought joy and insight to the early Sunday audience in the Hyatt Regency.
Master of Disney versatility, Bill Farmer switched between his natural speaking voice and many characters, not only from his own work (Goofy and Foghorn Leghorn), but plenty of impersonations of celebrities from Walter Cronkite to Pat Buttram to Johnny Carson. When he was asked how he prepared for his career, he said, as a kid “I’d do little plays in my basement, playing with tape recorders.” After earning a degree in broadcast journalism, Farmer worked in radio, where he had the freedom to experiment, especially for shows that ran in the middle of the night.
Sharing her passionate exuberance, Erin Fitzgerald spoke about her years of theatre training, beginning with her BFA at the University of Victoria. “Sometimes, for a video game read, I might have ten minutes to go over hundreds of lines, including an incredibly dramatic scene.” The theatrical and improv training were all incredibly valuable for helping her to reach such a heightened dramatic place so quickly. She also spoke of the importance of vocal exercises. “I still do those exercises today,” she said. “They’re a big deal.”
The incomparable John Ratzenberger said much of his practice and inspiration came from “mimicking people from [his] neighborhood.” He recounted times he’d imitate the guy who worked at the corner store or the cop who’d stop him when he rode his bike. The character Cliff from Cheers came from those experiences. “Sometimes when I get up in the morning, a voice will come in my head, usually with a name like, ‘Bruce the Caboose.’” As a career backup, he suggested that aspiring voice actors acquire “a skill that no one can take away from you,” which is particularly helpful to allow you to make your own hours and thus have the flexibility to attend auditions. Ratzenberger worked as a Journeyman Carpenter and helped to build the stage at Woodstock.
Commanding presence Steve Downes, who voices The Master Chief in the Halo game series, was asked if he ever used any of his character voices out in the world. “Maybe when I’m trying to get out of a ticket. But it doesn’t work,” he joked. Downes said he was genuinely grateful for the opportunities he’s had to attend conventions like Dragon Con. “[I] understand how important the characters are to people. And [I] realize that I have a certain responsibility to the character.” When asked about his inspirations, Downes mentioned Jonathan Winters, but in particular, his respect for Steve McQueen, who was a master of subtlety.
In response, Fitzerald quipped, “That explains everything!”
Many of the audience members asked questions relating to breaking into the business, avoiding pitfalls, and tips to become successful. Farmer said, “If you ask a hundred voice actors, you’d probably get a hundred different answers. But you should probably have perseverance because the career is very competitive; talent, which comes from practicing; luck; and most importantly, acting lessons with opportunities to do improv.”
All the actors emphasized that choosing to work in voice acting means spending a great deal of time doing auditions and looking for work. Farmer said, “Ninety percent of this job is looking for other work.” Fitzgerald said, “The ideal of that ‘Big Break’ is an illusion. No matter how big your game or show is, those [fan] generations grow up,” and then you need to find the next job. She emphasized that budgeting your money is crucial so that you’ll have funds to sustain you in the long periods between projects. Ratzenberger suggested that if an aspiring actor was planning to move out to Los Angeles, “Make sure you’ve got money for rent, your car, insurance and gas for the car, to last two years,” or don’t make the move. Downes added that periods of boom and bust were “the nature of any freelance work.”
One of the final questions asked was if the actors felt as though they were missing out because their faces weren’t recognized in the same way as those of on screen actors. All of them agreed that it was more of a perk than a disadvantage. “It’s the best kind of celebrity,” said Farmer, “because you can turn it on and off.”