John Sims, James Kawano and Carmen Coll gather around the Direct Energy ad at the Narberth SEPTA station.
"Fixed rate? Hmmm. Sounds great," Coll, who lives in New York City, reads aloud, cheerfully stretching out the "e" in great with that je ne sais quoi lilt only a Frenchwoman can carry off. "Sign me up!"
A few minutes earlier, Sims of Claymont, Del., spoke the same copy in a resonating voice of authority. When Kawano, of Narberth, gave it a go, he sounded like that nice, helpful guy next door.
And so it went on this field trip for voice-over artist wannabes. Like its cousin acting, the voice-over profession seems to attract all sorts.
Sims, 67, is a retired police officer, a Marine, and current Realtor. Kawano, 59, is a retired pharma exec and budding actor. Coll, in her 60s (that's all she will reveal), is a retired professor.
The group also includes James Eadline of Gilbertsville, Pa. - somewhere in the 50s/60s age range, he offers - who is also a retired police officer (must be that voice of authority) and who is dressed to kill in a tuxedo, complete with red cummerbund and spiffy white hat - even though this is all about sound, not looks. Lastly, there's Karen Moore of Philadelphia, the baby of the group at 53, who works in software support.
To hone their skills, the quintet have signed on for former Shadow Traffic reporter and voice-over pro Ruth Weisberg's first-ever voice-over field trip. It's called - drum roll, please - "Throw Drama From the Train."
"It's an opportunity to practice interpretative reads . . . to play with your voice without the pressure of an audition," explains Weisberg, 58, a private coach who also teaches at the Voice Box in Narberth, a voice-over (or VO, in the lingo) studio where many in the group have taken classes. "A lot of beginning narrators are not used to hearing the sound of their own voice."
So, naturally, she thinks of reading aloud while riding the train?
"This is what I do when waiting for the train," she says, adding she has become adept at ignoring the raised eyebrows of her fellow travelers. After all, she is the (TV ad) voice of Oliver Heating, Cooling, Plumbing & Electrical, and West German BMW.
While the students, who have paid $54 each for the experience, wait for the 10:32 a.m. train to Wayne on this frigid Saturday, they waste no time. They practice promos plastered on the shelter, playing with interpretation, pace, pitch, volume and other elements covered in class.
"Can you do it more seriously?" Weisberg suggests. Kawano strips the natural cheeriness from his voice and reads the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center ad again, ending on "making cancer history."
"Very nice," the instructor says.
Eadline, who besides voice-over now also pursues modeling and acting, takes a turn, bringing a growl to his read.
What's the appeal for the former police officer? "I've worked with the dregs of society," he says. "I'm tired of seeing the negative side of people. In acting, you see real people. They're friendly. They smile."
Once on the train, the reads continue. Other passengers either grin with amusement, ignore the whole drama, or move to other cars.
Before each reading, Weisberg diagrams the billboard.
"No matter what you're reading, it has a discernible beginning, middle and end," Weisberg says, in a clear, loud voice, trying to keep her balance as the train sways. She's standing in front of a Sila Heating and Air Conditioning billboard. "Every commercial is a story."
Rob Holt, a casting director and producer who owns Voice Box, says interest in the profession is strong. In the last three years, his classes have attracted about 200 students, he says.
The field trip is a great way to test the old vocal cords, Holt says. "You're putting yourself on the spot," he says. "It's a cold read." He means that students have not had a chance to read over and practice the copy. But on this day, his words are prescient, as temperatures hover in the teens.
Voice-over can be a fickle business, of course, but for those who make it, it's not a bad gig, Holt allows. "You become the voice of something . . . and if it runs nationally for a couple of years, that can be a nice living," he says.
Weisberg, considered a top voice-over narrator in the area, was a special-ed major at Penn State, where she got involved in theater and radio that turned into her vocation. One of her points of pride was serving as Bell of Pennsylvania's recorded voice that intoned: "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed."
Her specialty is medical/pharmaceutical commercials and training and patient education videos. She has a knack for correctly pronouncing those tongue-twisting, 10-syllabic medical terms in copy she's reading cold.
A couple of years ago, Weisberg expanded her repertoire to include a documentary - well, actually, a mockumentary - titled Head Cases: Serial Killers of the Delaware Valley.
"You're really a voice actor," she says of her love for the profession. "You can embody so many different roles with your voice. Older, younger, cartoon characters, inanimate objects. It's not your looks. If you sound the part, you get the gig."
Her students find similar appeal (though she has had the occasional novice looking to leave voice-mail messages that actually get returned or hone public speaking skills).
"I'm interested in making a second career in voice-over," says Coll, who taught 17th-century French literature at Marymount Manhattan College. "I find it exciting to try to put yourself in the skin of someone else."
As for Moore, she says she simply enjoys performing. "I love using my voice," she says in a soft, cello-like tone that oozes honey.
What's the best voice to make it big? Turns out there isn't one. "I need workaday voices," Holt says of his casting requirements. "We're not playing classical music. We don't need a Stradivarius."
After lunch, the voice-over students reverse their tracks and take on more ads. As the train pulls into Narberth, Sims voices one last sentiment:
"I'll never look at another billboard the same way again."
Even the Quiet Ride sign gets a read. Hear Ruth Weisberg's students give voice to display ads. www.philly.com/voiceoverEndText