Hard Work In Reverse Order

9 Aug

Feeling like the kid with the measles watching his buddies play outside, I’m getting my “vacation” this year reading the posts from many of my VO friends who are out in Los Angeles for two big voice conferences.

I look at their pictures and marvel at all the hard work they’re doing (and rewarding themselves with some hard playing afterward), and the hard work they’ve done to get where they are.

Then there’s me.

I’ve discovered it’s hard work learning how to work hard.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve done alright.  On another writer’s advice, I’ve gone back over my own accomplishments, taking encouragement and satisfaction from the things I’ve done over the years. It does help bolster the spirits, and I recommend the idea.

But I notice that in most cases, I’ve done it in reverse order: not really working that hard for the opportunity, but being ready to jump in and work when the opportunity arrives. It’s a lengthy inventory, but here are some highlights.

First Job In Radio – didn’t seek it out, but my Uncle Willie knew the station’s chief engineer and heard of a part-time opening at the hometown station.  He arranged an audition. Pitiful though my try-out was…I still have the reel to keep me humble…I got the job and eventually gained proficiency, and a little local fame.

First Job In Audio Production – had no idea how to start a business (and still don’t), but met Richard Fish as we scrambled to the professor’s desk to beg a copy of the tape he’d just played in our college class (“Three Skeleton Key”, with Vincent Price, SUSPENSE on CBS). We formed a partnership and spent two years trying to become the next Dick Orkin/Chickenman sensation. (You’ll no doubt note, Mr. Orkin is in Los Angeles, and I’m here reading about him…although I’ve met him twice.) Rich is successful in Audio Drama, working with everyone from Firesign Theatre to Norman Corwin.   Benefit of those years – honing production skills, writing, timing, effects editing, character voices.

First Job Away From Home – sort of sought it out, answering ads in Billboard. Was flown to North Carolina on the strength of my production with the failed partnership. Was turned down by management over salary/lack of exprience, but the production guy (Jack Shaw…yeah, that Jack Shaw) liked me and kept in touch. He brought me out again after three months of guys who “couldn’t live up to their demo tape”. I took a lower salary but gained a mentor in commercial production and copywriting, earning several local ADDYs before the year was out, and was given Jack’s job when he moved on.

First Job I Filled Out The Application For After I Was Hired – Station consultants are usually spoken of in derisive terms, but I owe one of them (Bob Canada) a lot. He was working ours and WRAL in Raleigh, and knew they were looking for a production manager and put Bob Inskeep in touch with me. I had moved three times in the past 12 months and didn’t want to move again, but Bob made the offer just too good to turn down. He literally sold management on me, helped me find a place to live, even co-signed the lease when the landlord didn’t want to allow my cats! Over many years with Bob and WRAL I got my first taste of local character celebrity…and a couple of national advertising awards, including a national ADDY (which merited a write-up in Advertising Age alongside…guess who…Dick Orkin!)

First Job In TV – The aforementioned Mr. Inskeep knew I’d done puppeteering with local church groups, and introduced me to the kiddie show host at the company’s TV station, “Uncle” Paul Montgomery. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to suggest he take me on, but with Paul and Bob’s encouragment I auditioned and was incorporated into the Uncle Paul cast, eventually doing six different puppets and appearing on-camera as a cartoonist. Paul taught me so many things I didn’t even realize I was learning: improv (there was never a script), timing, jazz (which incorporates both). And his main puppeteer, station art director Art Anderson, introduced me to using a TV monitor in puppetry.

First TV Commercial, First TV Production Job – I don’t actually remember which was the first one, but I do know I did not seek it out. Someone watching me work with Paul brought me in on another station project, which led to some station clients asking me to do some freelance, to some corporate clients (who were by then fans of my radio work) asking me to do industrials.

First Work On A Real Movie – I’d long since given up the idea of moving to L.A. (too scared, too lazy, too risky with family obligations), but my agent for local video work got wind of Jim Henson Pictures doing a movie at the Screen Gems Studio in Wilmington, NC and sent me to audition as an “additional muppeteer”. While I couldn’t even get cast as an extra as myself, my years working with Uncle Paul landed me one of the dozen slots open for “Elmo in Grouchland” puppeteers. Not a star turn by any means, but if you had told me 20 years earlier I’d be working on the same set as The Count and Big Bird, I would have laughed. A year later, the same group asked if I wanted to come back for “Muppets in Space”. It was only a few days’ work, but hey…they asked. I never had the nerve to pursue it.

First National Commercial VO – I’d love to tell you I fearlessly lobbied the top producers. But no, I was put forward by friends I’d made at ProComm after they’d accepted me on their voice roster, taken the time to know what I could do, and recommended me to their client. I never knew I was even UP for the job until after I’d been cast. That’s happened a lot since then, courtesy of people like Procomm, SunSpots, and VoicesOnLineNow.  And talking about ProComm…I didn’t even have the nerve to call them myself.  My friend Wendy Zier went out there to sell them on using her talents, and ended up selling them on me…years before she got on their roster herself!

The list goes on: learning how to be a freelancer (free advice from my dearly-missed friend George Lee, who had started a few years before me), learning computers and non-linear editing after years of splicing tape (friend Scott Pearson, who started out as a fan of mine and turned mentor, even though he’s far younger than I), first foray into blogs and internet marketing, and long-neglected coaching (Bob Souer, who has taken me on as a personal project).

A lengthy list of accomplishments, to be sure. But none began with anything like hard work, determination, or a plan. That always came after the fact.

So now, I’m watching these talented people doing all the marvelous things they’re doing — actively seeking out advancement with a firm plan and a clear idea of how they’ll make things happen. And I understand for the first time why I feel so totally “at sea” in comparison. I’ve never initiated the action, though I’ve at least been ready to respond. As several of my director friends have noted, I’m a decent “actor”, but I’m an even better “RE-actor”.

But maybe it’s not too late in life for a little change. With help from teachers like Nancy Wolfsen (voice acting) and Peter O’Connell (marketing) and all the other friends and mentors I’ve collected over time, maybe I can stop doing this backwards.

Come to think of it, though…I didn’t seek out either of those teachers. Someone else introduced me.

— over and out –


2 Responses to “Hard Work In Reverse Order”

  1. Tom Dheere August 11, 2008 at 1:56 pm #

    Interesting musings there, Rowell. Just remember that some things come to you as a result of hard work from the past. It’s about developing “passive income”, money that you make well after the work is done. Just because you feel like you didn’t workd to earn your current gig doesn’t mean you didn’t!

  2. Bob Souer August 19, 2008 at 5:07 pm #


    Like you, I’ve done much of what I’ve done without a clear plan or firm set of goals. I’ve often just sort of backed into things. But, my secret agenda in taking you on as a personal project is that I’m learning what I need to know as we’re going through these steps together.

    Be well,

    PS: Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I hope you’ll still let me hang around your radio ranch.

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