ROBIN ARMSTRONG’S “HIDEOUT” VOICEOVER STUDIO IS BROUGHT OUT INTO THE OPEN.

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Robin Armstrong has a long and distinguished career as an actor, director and producer. It was his pursuit as a director, however, that opened a window into the depth and joy of teaching voice actors to find their most profound performances, and it may be here that his legacy will live on in others for generations to come.

By Rudy Gaskins, July 15, 2019 Society of Voice Arts and Sciences


RUDY: Give us a thumbnail view of your background in voice acting.

ROBIN:  Wow, that goes back to when I was 17 to 19. My hometown of Phoenix was pretty much of a cultural wasteland in the 70’s and 80’s, and I was scrapping around doing whatever I could find creatively – studying acting, performing in local theatre, studying classical vocal music at Arizona State while playing in rock bands around town, and shooting tons of documentary and music photography. All this sort of fed into the idea of giving filmmaking a try. I started on Super 8, and it was nuts – we were hanging off telephone poles and out of cars – no money for anything, no liability insurance [laughs] – it was a crazy, hilarious, amazing time… and for kids, we did some decent little projects. Then the owner of a local chain of jewelry stores took a chance and gave me the opportunity to start directing/producing little television commercials in 16mm – still miniscule budgets and tiny crews of three to five, but tons of fun. That seemed to work well, so the Phoenix ad agencies and clients came along with more work. While in post on these spots, I performed the temp voiceovers for them – “temp” meaning the temporary VO used to allow the agency and client to evaluate the cut. And clients started deciding, “Hey, we like your VO – let’s keep it.” So most of the time my reads stayed in for the finish. Then other local agencies and clients started hiring my voice. And at 21 when I made the move to LA to start a film director’s apprenticeship with Peter Bogdanovich, I landed an agent and started film/TV acting and voice acting here. So my directing, film/TV acting and voice acting skills grew up pretty much parallel to one another.

How did you transition into teaching voice acting?

Robin teaching at the Hideout in Los Angeles.

ROBIN:  To me, directing and teaching are really two sides of the same coin. There has to be teaching in directing when it’s needed. And for me, acting’s a deep, rich, almost inexhaustible playground. Coming up as an actor, before I began directing films, network commercials and audio productions, very often I had to teach actors while directing them. Remember, in Arizona, and in my first six or seven years in LA, we made scores of regional radio and TV commercials, plus small indie guerilla films… projects that couldn’t afford many highly trained actors. It was trial by fire, and took a lot of effort. And I grew a lot – discovering, guiding, challenging, nursing – hanging in there and working with the less experienced actors or non-pros to bring out the performance. It also taught me a good bit about creative editing to keep the performances out of trouble, by the way. [laughs] As my own voice acting/voice directing careers grew through those years, it all came together for me in kind of a great way, really.

Aside from intuition, no teacher knows how to teach anything until they start doing it. What was your experience of discovering you had a true knack and a love for teaching?

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Armstrong’s mentors: Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles

ROBIN:  [Laughs] Interesting question. There wasn’t any big epiphany. It was more just that I cared, I worked really hard and had a passion for what I was doing. Again, I started teaching out of necessity – with performers in the film and audio projects I was directing. I had to go deeper when actors weren’t able to give me what I had to have. Facing a hard deadline to have it in the can is pretty compelling motivation, so I learned to work quickly from my own acting training and instincts. Later, working under Bogdanovich for months, then also under the incomparable Orson Welles, I learned infinitely more – but funnily, among the things I learned was that both these master artists dealt with many of the same challenges getting nuanced performances from their actors that I faced in my little projects. Both were brilliant actor/directors – and each gave me their own philosophy on acting, on actors, and on directing actors – as well as their own baskets of tools and techniques to get inside what’s really going on, and to motivate new levels of realization in actors to motivate authentic performances and bring scenes to life. I learned to get to know my actors, and really listen and observe – to pay attention to what’s beneath the surface. The actors learned from me, and I learned from them, and we always found a way to get there. The films won awards, I started doing more work, and after winning the Sundance Festival in the 90’s I had a number of actors ask me to teach. I did, and began adding voiceover coaching to the mix – and it just took off. Just as a sidebar, with all the hype sometimes people can forget that voice actors, as all actors, are not just talented tools – but pretty sensitive creatures. We’re really sticking our necks out – risking everything, every second. In coaching and mentoring, and in producing their demos, I’m always staying open for new and inspiring ways to open up that talent and sensitivity so they’ll excel, and of course, book. So gratifying! And with exciting new actors coming up all the time, it’s actually as rewarding, or even more rewarding for me than simply voicing more roles myself. I’m jazzed at seeing the light go on in an artist’s eyes when she/he catches a concept and brings it to life on the mic. Helping them achieve is something I’m fortunate to get to participate in.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of teaching? 

ROBIN:  You probably know how I’m going to answer this. [laughs] It’s the person who expects this to be a cinch, or who simply declares her/himself a voice actor and expects the results and benefits of success without doing the work. Most often it’s not intentional, but it’s a sense of entitlement, really. Almost weekly people call, emails or walk into my studio with little or no training, perplexed as to why their amateur homemade demo has gotten them nowhere, or cockily wanting me to create a demo so they can “get into” voiceover, or… – well, there are a million variations. I’ve got lots of time for serious students, whether beginners or pros, and patience to help when there’s difficulty grasping certain concepts. But as with any other highly competitive, skilled profession, artists need to come to voice acting with a humility, and a respect for it – with an understanding that it’ll take time and hard work. If they’re amazingly gifted and can move ahead quickly, wonderful. But so many get a rude awakening when they realize it’s going to be significantly more challenging, and take far more effort, that they first thought.

For the student who has no traditional acting background, what tends to be the most challenging aspect?

Robin in his element, teaching in “the Hideout”

ROBIN:  There’s usually a pretty clear difference between those actors with solid training and those without. For trained actors coming to voiceover, I most often have to work more on issues of technique – the mechanics of how they bring their talent and training to the uniquely specific demands of this wonderful medium. Not just an understanding of VO script breakdown and analysis, but story and script mapping, cold reading and ‘acting-while-reading’ skills, tone memory, and often improv skills and more. Then we need to make it genre-specific. Now, for the person who hasn’t had much acting training, we have to teach acting along the way. These are often people who’ve been living in a left brain world who need to break through and begin to feel. They automatically tend to gravitate toward the technical, because they’re looking for the boxes to check, the rules to follow, the things they need to “do” to feel like they’re making progress. And while technique is vital, they often tend to be slaves to it. Learning to go beyond this takes development of different muscles.

Do you want to be known first as a teacher or an actor, or an actor who taught his craft to others?

ROBIN:  Actually, given only those two, I don’t quite think of myself as either. I love creativity and talent, I love adventure, I love storytelling, and I love motivated people. And as pertains to voice acting I have two passions: building creative projects and building creative artists. Yes, I’m a working voice actor, and I voice two or three projects a week and that’s wonderful. But bringing creativity to life – in a script or project via directing/producing, in a person via teaching/mentoring, or in branding an artist via demo creation – is what really gets me going. So, I guess rather than the two given options, you could say I’m a creator/director/teacher/coach/mentor who also does a good bit of work as a voice actor.

Are you still learning about voice acting?

ROBIN:  Absolutely, I’m learning all the time. Voice acting is a constantly changing, dynamic performance medium. It varies widely according to the genre, script, client, demographic, talent, as the generations and culture march forward. Think for a second about how millennials understand and use language, as compared to the generation before. One can prefer the millennial style or not, but it won’t be much longer before this unique-sounding generation fully dominates the key 25-49 demographic coveted by broadcasters and marketers – not to mention that the talent buyers are increasingly millennials themselves. I love to listen, to pay attention, and to stay open to the flux and flow as communication styles and approaches continue to evolve and transform from year to year.

A prominent North Star for traditional actors is the idea of “being human” on stage – not to act, but to be. Of course, it helps to have other actors, props and so on to ground you in a performance, but voice actors must achieve this “being human” aspect as well. How do you teach voice actors to be human in the booth?

Robin (center) at the 2018 Voice Arts Awards, joined by his student and 3-times Voice Arts Nominee Dennis Kleinman and SOVAS Co-founder Joan Baker

ROBIN:  Naturally, it’s a bit different for each artist. And of course there are certain known principles that can be employed for emotional connection; they’re among our tools. But particularly for those performers who want to try to reduce acting to a series of tasks or steps, it’s important to remember that this is only partially a knowledge-based skill. The rest is sensory, emotional or experience-based – and as a solid technical foundation is being established, voice actors need to be able to slow down, take in, absorb and integrate the “being” nature of acting rather than simply the “doing”. I use exercises in listening, observation, emotional sensitivity, sense memory, object focus, empathy, imagination, etc. – and key is finding the way into each artist’s specific need, and unlocking the specific obstacles that are getting in their way. The difference between a bookable read and an unbookable read can generally be boiled down to one or more of a dozen or so error areas. It’s thoughtfully walking down the road with the performer, and actualizing the discovery and work on these challenges, that helps her/him discover and connect these dots.

I’ve noticed you are committed to encouraging voice actors to think positive and push through adversity as they pursue their careers. Where does this theme come from in your life?

ROBIN:  Wow, big subject. I suppose it comes from the challenges I’ve faced in my own life. Everyone has obstacles, and I’ve had mine – from being born into working poverty in an alcoholic home, to growing up with a severely autistic brother, to losing a son to SIDS, and so on. All the concentrated creative pursuits I began in my teens came from my sense that my only chance to accomplish something and move ahead in life was to get out and to get away from the hard parts of my past. I was determined I just wasn’t going to go back there – that’s what fueled my motivation. With a truckload of passion, hard work, and mentoring by some of the best, I was able to climb out of that. I don’t mean to suggest that my trials or tribulations are worse than anyone else’s – there may be many whose trials have been far tougher than mine – but my life is the only one I have, and I knew I had to make this happen. There have been hundreds of challenges and setbacks, but if I’d allowed myself to be beaten down in discouragement, I’d have given up and never would’ve achieved anything. Like so many, I got to LA back in the ‘70s with little more than dreams, ideas drive – but I made my way. Now I’m able to just do what I love. And I’m convinced that anyone who truly sets her/his mind to it, focuses, thinks smartly and creatively, faces challenges tenaciously, doesn’t shy away from the hard work and stays with it, has that same chance.

Robin with student at the Hideout in Los Angeles.

Can you point to a specific challenge that made you a better teacher?

ROBIN:  I’ve had the delight of working not only with young people, but with developmentally disabled people – those with Autism and Down syndrome – in both acting and voice acting. There’s some pretty amazing talent there – and while it can come out in different and sometimes unexpected ways, there’s an authenticity there that’s surprising and unmistakable, and that I love – usually with zero shyness. Zero nervousness. Zero fear. None. I wish I could say the say for all my “normal” talent. It reminds me that on a certain level we’re all children – and to try to start with every new student remembering what it was like to be brand new, fresh and naïve – to start with a clean slate, and to never be presumptuous about what someone should or shouldn’t know when they walk into the door.  And while it may sometimes be challenging to uncover the vein of authenticity and creativity in each performer, It’s been a blast developing the sensitivity to recognize it, to bring it out, and to celebrate it.

Contact Robin at ArmstrongVO.com


 

Rudy Gaskins is the Co-founder,  Chairman & CEO of Society of Voice Arts and Sciences, voice acting coach and brand strategist. He is a Backstage Magazine columnist and Emmy® Award winning TV producer with long experience as a sound and music editor for features films, and a director of documentary films for PBS.  IMDB  LinkedIn

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