Part 5: Working with Voice Actors | So You Want to Make a Fiction (or Any) Podcast?



Note: Multitude is a podcast collective and production studio. This piece is part of a ten part series by them to help you create a fiction (or any) podcast. Did you see Part Four? Make sure you check that out and come back next Tuesday for Part Six.

Actors! They’re just like us, except they’re really good at expressing their feelings. And, if you do the casting for your podcast right, they’re extremely talented, nice, and awesome to work with.

Still, there are some things you should know before jumping in. So, based on our experience producing NEXT STOP, Multitude’s new podcast, here are some tips on how to make your voice actors feel appreciated and creatively fulfilled, both before and during production.

Have a Table Read

You should have a table read! What is a table read? Why, it’s reading at a table! (crickets)

But seriously, folks, a table read is when actors sit around a table and read through all of the scripts aloud.

Here are some reasons we love a good table read:

  • It’s a chance for everyone to get on the same page and to hear everything out loud together.
  • It’s a chance to flag any problems in the script to the writer.
  • It’s a useful process for the director to get a feel for the actors’ working styles and personalities.
  • Also, it’s great for the actors to start building chemistry with one another and maybe to get some first-time jitters out of the way.

Some podcasts invite every actor to come to a table read, but for NEXT STOP, we were on a tighter budget, so we only invited our principal actors. We accounted for a day or two of table reads, which meant paying the actors for their time and feeding them lunch. By focusing our time on the characters that most needed to attend, we were able to stay within our production budget. Plus, as an added bonus, our production team got to fill in and read for the minor characters, which was pretty funny in its own right.

We started our table read with the writer laying out the world of the script, the origins of the idea, and what the show is trying to accomplish creatively. This gave them time to explain their story to the actors. This step is important — because the writer is the keeper of what’s on the page, they are invaluble in helping the actors make certain metatextual and auditory choices, like deciding what a certain line means for a character, and what emotion should be evoked when acting it out.

Then, it was time to read through each scene. First, our director gave context on the emotional arc and plot points of scene, and after that, the actors jumped in to read it from start to finish. When they were done reading, the director chimed in with feedback for the actors on the motivations of their particular characters, and the assistant director answered all questions about continuity. Last but not least, the writer gave more background and context on the plot and highlighted relevant inspiration points on the actors’ performances.

At our table read, we got through eight of the ten episodes in one day. As for the second day, we called that off since the remaining two episodes were sampled heavily in the audition sides we used in casting.

We waved goodbye to the actors, but our job wasn’t finished; it was time for a table read debriefing. That way, before we got started on production, we could talk through, coordinate and create an action plan to solve any issues that surfaced during the table read. It also allowed us to make sure each member of the production team was clear on their area of responsibility going forward, giving us enough time to prepare and tweak the script, the blocking, or any sound effects.

And then, finally, it was on to production!

Directing for Audio

Now that we’ve told you a bit about our table read experience, here are some tips to help you when it’s time to hit record.

Read up on directing: Before you wade into the directing waters, it’s a good idea to read up on how to communicate with actors in a creative and open way (and since you’re reading this blog post, you’re off to a good start!). You can find plenty of great books about directing, like Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston. If the book you are reading is about how to work with television actors, keep in mind that while much of the info will apply to your production, some parts may feel a little different when applied to a scripted fiction podcast.

Be respectful of your actors time: We gave this advice earlier in the series (see part 3 on casting), but it applies here too: be mindful of your actors’ time. It’s their job after all, so be professional and treat their time with respect. Anyway, you kind of have to, especially if you’re following SAG rules: a half day is four hours, and a full day is eight, so if you go over that, you’ll have to pay overtime.

To ensure that your actors aren’t waiting around, and that you don’t go over budget, you’ll need to keep your production moving, and sometimes that means stopping the recording of a scene that is taking too long. If an actor hasn’t nailed something yet, don’t worry — the best part about audio is that pulling from different takes is easier than video. You can always do another take on a day when you have more time or even grab that perfect, single line with pick-ups later on.

Keep things as cool as possible: Things can get pretty hot and stuffy for your actors in that sound-proof studio they’re recording in. So, while they’re working, make sure to keep the flow — like literally, the air flow. In between scenes, turn on some fans and open the studio door to let some sweet air in. Never underestimate the power of fresh air; it can be the difference between happy actors and a mutiny.

Capture authentic performances with actual blocking: Blocking is an underrated and often misunderstood part of acting in audio. Why try to sound design slamming a door when you have a real, bonafide door in your studio? For instance, if the character is lying down in the script, have your actor lie down when they read their lines. If you want a character to sound like they are running into a room, actually have your actor run into the room! It’ll remind your actors that this stuff is actually happening, not just being conjured into the audio ether by sound design, and it’s very, very fun.

Make time for improvisation: Something else to keep in mind when recording is to give your actors room to improvise and to be silly (because you tested for that in the casting process, so you know they can do it!). You can capture a lot of really great stuff when you let your actors do a fun take at the end of each scene. Also, it gives them an opportunity to experiment, which can lead to great creative places. Another thing we suggest is to let the mic run before a scene is supposed to start, and also a few moments after the scene is over, so you don’t miss out on any fun, loose moments the actors may have.

Keep your writer close by: The writer is a pivotal player in making sure these improvisational moments work with the overall story and script. If the actors strike up a particularly successful riff, the director can bring in the writer to make sure the moment gets into the script. On the other hand, if lines are proving hard to say or the actors don’t know if a scene makes sense, the director and writer can rewrite lines or parts of scenes so that things continue to move smoothly through production.

Make sure feedback only comes from the director: It is important to note that the director should be the main point of contact for the actors during production. If someone on the production team has a note or feedback for an actor, they should say it privately to the director first. Having one voice in that way will make everything simpler in the long run by making sure there is a single point person for communication between the actors and the production team.

Come back next week: But working with actors is only one part of the production. How about setting up the mics? How do you make sure everyone is fed? Next week, we’ll answer these questions, along with other topics that your sound director and studio manager will be intimately familiar with. Until then, if you missed it, make sure to go back and read part four on how to set an airtight production schedule for your podcast.

Note: Our production process began in January 2020 and this guide is written from our in-person perspectives. Many parts of this process can be done virtually for social distancing; although we emphasize the importance of having everyone together in the same room. Do what is right for your production and the health and safety of your team.