5 Questions for a Professional Voice Over Talent – Rowell Gormon

Rowell Gormon_Voice Actor

Today’s 5 Questions for a Professional Voice Over Talent are answered by Rowell Gormon, a professional voice over talent based in Raleigh, NC.

1. The beginning: When did you know you wanted to be a voiceover talent; how did your career begin (please include what year it started) and then when did your passion for voiceover develop into something professional?

I knew I wanted to be a “voiceover talent” long before I even knew what it was. As a little kid during the late 1950s and into the 60s, sitting in front of the TV, absorbing the characters of Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Paul Frees, Bill Scott, Dayton Allen, Stan Freberg, and so many others…I had no idea I was studying characterization, timing, and other aspects of voice acting. I found myself using those voices, or my versions of them, in play…with puppets, plastic toy figures, or just goofing around with buddies. Of course, I knew I’d never be doing those cartoons. But the fun of creating “something out of nothing” kept me at it.

Then came radio. Not “Radio”…just “radio”. My uncle’s friend was Chief Engineer at the local radio station and in 1968, my junior year in high school, he heard they needed a part-timer and got me an audition. I still have the tape, and to this day I don’t know why they ever hired me. Years later I played it and sat there, waiting for “me” to come on, instead of that awful-sounding guy mangling some Associated Press copy.

But radio got me in front of real microphones, real tape machines. I was taught basics of the equipment and the timing needed to “ride a tight board”. I learned to “talk to someone…not ‘the Folks out there in RadioLand'”. And while it was often cringe-worthy, I found places where my voices could sneak in and entertain, using these new toys. This wasn’t a rock station, it was multi-format. So the people I learned from were more “personalities” than “disc jockeys”. I think that may have helped me get a better start than some.

My parents bought me my first tape recorder (those 3-inch reels!), and I started making my own audio “cartoons” in my basement “studio”, swiping sound effects and inspiration from cartoon kiddie records.

Then: college, and real “Radio” with a capital R. Unfortunately, I was learning it as ancient history. People called it the Golden Age, with radio comedies and dramas at a network level…only available to me as recordings saved by collectors. I quickly latched onto a couple of these collectors and became one myself. Now I had a new universe of inspiration: Orson Welles, Jim Jordan (Fibber McGee), Gale Gordon, Bill Thompson, Gosden & Correl…Jack Benny and his crew (Mel Blanc again!), Fred Allen and the denizens of Allen’s Alley, and all the vocal “shorthand” tricks they and the other voices…stars and bit players…used in creating something out of nothing.

Again, wonderful stuff. But hardly anything I was going to be able to use to make a living…since that style of Radio had been largely sidelined (though, thankfully, it still exists on a smaller scale). A college buddy and I even tried our luck as a production company, cranking out a few local ads…and 65 episodes of a radio sketch comedy series we had no idea how to sell (and never did).

But wait! There’s more! That’s right: then came…Advertising.

The great Stan Freberg was once asked what qualified him to create advertising. He answered it was his years as “an enraged consumer!” I already knew the Freberg voice and style through his comedy records (and there was Daws Butler again…and Paul Frees again!). So it wasn’t too hard to spot his style showing up in clever, entertaining ads and public service campaigns. Here was hope that there might actually be an outlet for these “audio cartoon” things I’d been playing at.

After two years of unemployment following my sterling college education…during which time I collected some very nice rejection letters from Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and even Blanc Communications (hey, at least they all wrote back personal replies to that kid in Indiana!)…I answered an ad from a small radio station in North Carolina for a production job: “If you think like Freberg and can keep it clean, call me.” It was posted by a guy named Jack Shaw. They flew me out for an interview and we became instant friends…but I didn’t get the job. Evidently I had asked for too much money.

But Jack called me every few weeks. We’d swap tapes of old radio shows, or newer stuff being produced by Dick Orkin, Gary Owens, and others. After a few months he called again and said, “Would you take the job out here for a hundred-thirty-five a week and all the records you can eat?” They’d gone through at least three other guys since my visit, none of whom had been able to live up to their demo tapes!

During the next year, Jack taught me how to write commercial copy, how to adapt what I’d learned about reel-to-reel multi-track production with my college buddy into working with cart machines and turntables…and deadlines! Also during that year, he got a better offer, moved on, and I inherited his job as production manager, winning a few local Addy awards in the process and coming to the attention of a larger station in Raleigh.

Before Jack left, he tried to impress upon me that it was okay if I didn’t sound like the “regular” announcers and DJs…that the character work I could do was something more rare — something a lot of the announcers wished they could do. I have to admit I didn’t really believe Jack then, and wouldn’t for quite some years down the road.

2. What is the one thing you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first started out in voiceover?

I wish someone had made me…forced me…to take courses in sales and marketing, in promotion and basic accounting. But what did I need those things for in the 1970s? I worked for broadcasting companies and did voice work as a freelancer. The station had sales people, I had steady exposure on a highly-rated station, and I had a decent accountant to help me keep me straight with the IRS on any outside income. That lack of business sense has been my biggest stumbling block since the world changed and I wound up being my own one-person-shop. The protective insulation which the station job provided left me woefully ill-equipped to go out and sell my product (me) in person, or even over the phone. It’s a problem that continues to this day.

3. What do you see as the biggest professional or personal obstacle you face that impacts your voiceover business and how are you working to overcome it?

At first I was going to answer, “See the above”, but that’s not altogether true. Over and above that lack of business and promotion savvy, I (like many other “creative types” I know) work under an additional burden of shyness, and its ugly cousin…lack of self-confidence. And for all the truly wondrous freedoms working as a freelance voice talent provides, working solo also removes the daily support group of friends and co-workers to distract from that inner voice which can fill the void with taunts of self-doubt. The fear of failure, or making the wrong move, or the wrong impression, can stifle even the first attempt toward success. It’s the one “voice” in my head which has had absolutely no useful purpose…and the one which teacher Nancy Wolfson once said she wished she could reach into my head and strangle! To date, I’ve only been able to chip away at that problem and the lack of business accumen, with what sparse coaching and workshop-ing I can afford, and collecting advice from other freelancers as to what works for them.

4. What personal trait or professional tool has helped you succeed the most in your career so far?

There are several personality traits, and even more technological tools I could credit. But if I have to point to one single thing over the course of my life, it would have to be “Imaginaton”. From those very real cartoon characters in the 50s, through the worlds brought to life in my mind from those Radio shows, right through to this week’s work in the booth, my ability to do what I do well is possible when I can imagine I am what the script says I am…doing what I am supposed to be doing…in whatever setting I’m supposed to be inhabiting. It’s an off-shoot of playing with those toys while doing their voices.

In fact, Richard Horvitz (Invader Zim) says a willingness to allow oneself to be “at play” is essential for any kind of voice acting, not just cartoon or character work. And he’s right. You’re not just doing a voice, you’re pretending to be someone or something you are not…and having fun doing it, even if it’s a straight “announcer” part. Halfway measures don’t yield full results. I suppose one can be a voiceover success without much Imagination…but I wouldn’t want to try it.

And let me hastily add a P.S. to the above: two other things I deem essential to developing my Imagination were: 1) my parents’ encouragement to READ from an early age. I love books. The best-written stories play out in my head like movies;
and 2) the ability to LISTEN. So many actors, voice or otherwise, seem only to be focused on their own lines. The best ones listen…either to the other actors, or to the story behind the words of a commercial script.

5. In your development as a voice over performer, who has been the one particular individual or what has been the one piece of performance advice (maybe a key performance trick, etc.) that you felt has had the most impact on your actual voice over performance and why?

As I think about this one, it’s really been the same piece of valuable advice phrased in different ways by different people I’ve encountered. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it still hasn’t fully sunk in, because every so often someone has to tell me again in a different way.

From my friend and teacher Jack Shaw: “Don’t worry about sounding like all the other guys. They’re dime a dozen. A lot of them wish they could do what YOU do.”

From a wonderful theatre director (and friend), Jack Hall: “You tend to rush through your part as if you were trying to get out of the way of the ‘real’ actors. These lines were written for you. Claim your time, use it, then make way.”

From the brilliant and insightful voice coach Nancy Wolfson: “You…are…enough.” (…although I encounter a lot of audition-seekers who might dispute that, you know what she means.)

From generous mentor and wonderful friend Bob Souer: “You have no competition. Because no one can do a Rowell Gormon voice better than you can.”

When I can get myself in that groove, the work becomes fun…the job becomes play…imagination takes over. And more often than not, everyone has a good time and the client is pleased…and is more than likely to come back for more.

19 Responses to “5 Questions for a Professional Voice Over Talent – Rowell Gormon”

  1. Oh, those old radio days. It really was a different world. How lucky we are to have seen it. And when these days pass – the youngsters of today will have the same kinds of stories, but probably a lot more of them – considering how fast things change.

  2. Great post, great subject and great writer. Now if it just had a maraschino cherry on top it would be perfect!

  3. What a treat this morning to accompany Rowell on his thought-provoking trip down Memory Lane. Thanks to Peter for making it happen, to Rowell for investing the time and effort in responding to the questions, and (of course) to Bob Souer for passing along the link in his email this morning.

  4. Peter and Rowell, thank you!
    Reading this felt like I sat down with you both and enjoying a cup of coffee. It was a pleasure to be in your company.

  5. Thanks for allowing us to get to know you a bit better, Rowell.

    Amen to your statement about business acumen. They don’t teach that in voice-over school.

    We all know that a great voice can only take us so far. Selling it is a whole different ballgame.

  6. Can I cancel my own “5 Questions” answers and use Rowell’s instead? πŸ˜‰

  7. Rowell,

    You are loved and respected throughout the industry and it was great to learn more about you.

    Dan Friedman

  8. …wow. thanks for the affirmation. it truly is the online friendship (as much or more than the jobs and paychecks) that has helped me get this far in my freelance career.

  9. There you are, Rowell! …. remember? (you’re an engaging writer too)

  10. Deb:

    You couldn’t be more spot on…Rowell is an excellent writer who I will attest put a great deal of thought for the reader into his responses. Great stuff!

    Best always,
    – Peter

  11. It is your TALENT, Mr. Gormon, that has gotten you this far in your voiceover career.

    Your friends are like the benefits package.

    Which is not to be confused with “Friends with Benefits”. That’s something ENTIRELY different.

    Completely.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  12. No Lee, you may not….your story was just as awesome.

    It’s the great part about the series and the “quiz” itself, there are no wrong answers and everyone scores 100%!

    Best always,
    – Peter

  13. Agreed Dan.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  14. By the way, Paul, where the heck IS voice-over school?

    I’ve always assumed it was one of those many schools that would never let me in. πŸ˜‰

    Best always,
    – Peter

  15. Hi Jane,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed Rowell’s story as much as I did.

    However, the rule here is that you have to bring enough coffee next time for ALL of us. πŸ™‚

    Best always,
    – Peter

  16. Truly Rod, if it weren’t for Bob’s links, I’m pretty sure I’d be the only reader here. I’m glad you enjoyed Rowell’s words.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  17. Pam;

    With you, its always about dessert. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for visiting!

    Best always,
    – Peter

  18. Connie,

    I wonder how many will have stories….considering how much automation goes on in radio today. I think the number of people employed in radio has dwindled so far it’s almost as scary as it is sad. Still my favorite medium though. And I miss it.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  19. Rowell, you rock.