This month's article is from Harlan Hogan's Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor.
"It is better to know some of the questions, than all of the answers." - James Thurber
Fear is the enemy of creativity. If you are afraid - afraid of the producers, the writers, your agent, or coaches, you can't be creative. If you are afraid to ask questions, you are doomed.
I've encouraged you throughout the techniques sections of this book to constantly ask questions. Who is the audience I'm talking to? Will this promotion piece delight the recipient? Do I have the right agent for me? What does this humungous wheel of cheese sound like and how will he escape destruction in the Velveeta melting pot? But asking questions always carries the implicit risk of a "wrong" answer. So it's only human that we often settle for the tried-and-true no-risk approach to performance, promotion, and business. Safe, perhaps, but not much fun, and certainly not very creative.
Most of us - particularly Americans - have been taught to ask the big, bold, breakthrough kinds of questions. How will I make a living at this? How can I get that new agent to sign me? How can I make this auditions so good they'll send everyone else home right now? How can I make my voice demo break through the clutter? How can I get rich by tomorrow? These kinds of questions are self-defeating and downright depressing. They are ends, not means.
The ancient Zen philosophy of Kaizen (pronounced Kigh-zen) suggests a different approach and different kinds of questions. Instead of seeking "breakthroughs," Kaizen teaches small constant improvements by taking tiny steps and asking easy questions to achieve large goals. The philosophy advises you to look closely at small, seemingly inconsequential details to learn big lessons.
Instead of "How can I make a living at this?" ask, "What one producer could I call or write today?"
"How can I get that new agent to sign me?" becomes, "Have I told my present agent that I appreciate her efforts?"
"How can I make this auditions so good they'll send everyone else home right now?" might be, "Can I make a newcomer feel welcome in the waiting room?"
"How can I make my voice demo break through the clutter?" could become, "Have I gotten around to joining SAG's Book Pals and volunteered to read to school children?"
"How can I get rich by tomorrow?" might be more productive as "Can I put aside $5 or $10 today toward a postcard mailing next month?"
Big questions send your brain into the "fear zone." Little questions - and little steps - are easy, comforting, and attainable. When I started to write this book, I was fortunate not to know that I'd need to write roughly eighty thousand words before I'd be through. My ignorance was Kaizen in action - I never once worried about that daunting task and instead just wrote one word at a time.
If this sounds a little ethereal and unbusinesslike, you're wrong.
After World War II, the Japanese auto manufacturers used the principles of Kaizen first to rebuild, and then to perfect, their auto industry. While American manufacturers were busy cranking out the same old land yachts loaded with chrome, whitewalls, and mediocre quality, the Japanese encouraged their workers to ask small, easy questions every single day to find small, manageable ways to improve their cars - over the long term. By the 1980s Japan had the US automobile industry on the ropes.
Ask yourself what one, tiny thing can I do to further my voice-over career today? The so-called "right" answer is, as always, up to you. Read a book, lunch with a friend, or play with my kids is just as good an answer as pitch a new agent, make a new demo, or mail out a promotion - maybe even better.
Advocates of kaizen strength training recommend adding only a small amount of weight in each workout to build their strength slowly and surely; improving your voice-over career is also a step-by-step, one-day-at-a-time project. Keep acquiring and improving the four Ts of voice-over - Training, Talent, Tools, and Technique - by asking the small questions, taking the small steps, learning each lesson, and enjoying the long journey - one session at a time.
Harlan teaches The Long Haul at Voice One on Saturday, January 12 - his only West Coast class of 2013. To save a spot in this class, click here.