I have a brainstorm. I have been reading textbooks on tape for a small nonprofit, and the staff members tell me I have a good voice. I’m reading poetry, fiction, history, physics — why not get paid for it? Voice actors command quite a premium. I imagine myself using dire, Cate Blanchett-like tones to tell tales of great struggles between worlds. I imagine opening up new worlds to commuters stuck in their cars. I imagine not being one of those commuters.
I ask around at the volunteer center and get a recommendation for a voice acting class. I schedule a private lesson and await the appointed date with a sense of destiny. I can see it now: I will walk into the studio, step behind the microphone, and have an agent within two weeks. In a month, I will be reading audiobooks professionally. Classics like David Copperfield, modern novels, perhaps even children’s books.
When I arrive for my private lesson, the studio seems well appointed. The instructor is an animated woman named CJ with a boy-haircut. “Let’s start with some exercises,” she says.
I feel silly bending forward at a 45-degree angle, making sounds like a dying elephant as I attempt to slide fluidly up and down my vocal range, but she seems to approve.
“Excellent!” she enthuses. “Now let’s try a little commercial work.”
“I’m not sure I want to do commercials,” I explain. “I was thinking more audiobooks. Of course, I’ll do anything to start, but –”
“Let’s just see how your voice sounds on these.”
CJ gives me a handout, leads me into the studio and positions me behind a microphone, and walks out, closing the door behind her. I glance at the handout and wonder if it is too late to cut and run. The first blurb I am to read is titled “Sesame Street Pasta.”
“Okay, just start at the top,” CJ says. Her voice is piped into the room via speaker, and I can see her grinning at me from behind a pane of glass. “I’ve got your tape ready to roll, so you’ll have a nice sample to take back with you.”
She presses a button and gives me a hand signal that I assume means “Go!” I stare down at the page and try not to laugh.
“Your kids will love it. New Sesame Street Pasta. Shapes of Big Bird and friends in a special sauce. With no preservatives. So you’ll love it too. Sesame Street Pasta by Chef Boyardee.”
Whew. That was grueling. I feel debased. And it’s only been three minutes.
“Not bad for a first try,” CJ says. “Try smiling when you say it.” She demonstrates. “Think you can do that?” she says.
“Sure,” I reply. I feel trapped. Surely it is too late to get a refund, and I have paid $100 for the privilege of standing here. You can write about this later, I tell myself. Just close your eyes and think of Chef Boyardee.
I smile as wide as I can. I feel like some demonic Chucky doll.
“Your kids will LOVE it!” I say, in my scarily grinning persona, allowing my voice to flit through the words in a parody of a PTA mother on uppers. “New Sesame Street Pasta. Shapes of Big Bird and friends in a special sauce. With NO preservatives! So you’ll love it too. Sesame Street Pasta by Chef Boyardee.” I finish with a flourish, a confident note in my voice that intimates Chef Boyardee is the king of pasta, the Wolfgang Puck of the soccer-mom set, a Man To Be Trusted.
“Great!” CJ enthuses. “Let’s try the next one.”
I glance down the page. It says “Mabeleine.” Perhaps I can offer my proofreading skills to CJ when I am done, to try to recoup the $100 cost of my humiliation.
“The Maybelline one?” I ask.
“Yeah. Remember, you’re really fresh-faced, a teen sharing a secret.”
“Right,” I say.
The tape rolls. CJ makes the “All systems go!” gesture again, and I am off. This time I use a softer, more girlish voice. I have never in my life talked to a real friend like this, but I must appease CJ.
“Hi, can you keep a secret?” I whisper into the microphone, then giggle for good measure. “I never used to be this popular before. Then I started using this new eye shadow from Mabeleine and the invitations to the parties just keep coming. Maybe it’s me. Or maybe it’s Mabeleine.”
“That was okay,” CJ says. “Not quite in-character enough, though. Pretend you’re telling your best friend a secret, something you’ve just discovered. Put your heart into it.”
I struggle through the paragraph again.
“Let’s move on to the next one,” CJ says. I glance at the slowest clock ever, hanging on the wall outside the studio. I reach into the depths of my soul and find the shreds of my dignity. I promise them we will go out for a venti mocha frappuccino with whipped cream after this is over.
I nod to signal my readiness.
She starts the tape. Waves her hand like the voice acting fairy.
“Growing up in my old neighborhood, I always wished I was Italian,” I say. “They had this way of always doing everything a little bit–I don’t know–a little bit more. It’s like, they didn’t just shake hands, they hugged. And the food. Let me tell you. Everything was incredible. And you know, I get that feeling now when I go to the Olive Garden.”
My shreds of dignity are going to throw up.