Interview With Bruce Kronenberg of Abacus Entertainment
Sitting down with my Voice Over Coach
Last week Abacus Entertainment celebrated their two year anniversary and the launch of a brand new website. For those of you outside NYC or new to the voice over business, Abacus Entertainment is a media production company that specializes in voice over education, demo production, and on-camera training here in the city. Well over a year ago I had the opportunity to sit down with my former voice over coach and Abacus co-founder, Bruce Kronenberg, and featured our interview as a piece on my blog. Abacus has come a long way since then. And the industry has certainly gone though some changes as well. Bruce's story and experience with voiceover though is unique in that he started working in the early 90s and was, in a sense, a true student of the 'Golden Age of Voice Over'. Because we had so much fun doing the interview, I thought I would share it once again with you and help celebrate this milestone for Abacus. Below is the original interview.
*Original interview with Bruce Kronenberg published on February 5th 2014
A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to sit down and interview one of my all-time favorite voice over coaches, mentors, and good friend, Bruce Kronenberg. A veteran of the voice over industry, Bruce has been voicing a wide range of Commercial, Promo, Narration and Animation projects for over 20 years. As an established and respected VO coach, he is currently co-owner of the newly launched Abacus Entertainment in New York City, which he shares with partners Bryant Falk and Jason Cicci. He brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in various aspects of this ever-changing and increasingly popular industry.
Thanks again for being here. It's great to finally sit down with you. So let's begin by talking about your background and how you got started in the voice over business?
Well, I was doing theater. This is back in 1990. I was in an Off-Broadway production of Tony And Tina's Wedding which was new at the time and had been getting a lot of attention in the press. A lot of industry people were coming to see it. And these two agents- two young gals from Abrams Artists- were in the audience. They liked me in the show and called me in for a meeting and wanted me to work with them doing on-camera work. I went on a few auditions and booked one. It was actually not a commercial- it was an on-camera promo for "Inside Edition" where I had to play this tough Italian guy. The whole point of it was that you replay your lottery ticket, even after you've played it, so every character talks about their experience replaying their ticket. And I'm this tough guy complaining that he's got this girlfriend who wants him to do it but I keep telling her I'm not lucky. 'I'm not lucky Doreen' (in convincing Brooklyn Italian voice), which was my character's catch phrase. This was also radio spot. The woman who wrote and produced it, Joy Golden, had directed me in both spots. After we finished the radio version, she said 'I've got something next week for you. It's just like this. It's perfect and it's also a radio spot. I'll call your agent.' So, a couple of days later I get a call, not from Abrams, but from J. Michael Bloom and Associates, who I knew of, because they were huge but I didn't know anybody there. And on the phone they said "Hi this is so-and-so from J.Michael Bloom, we have a booking for you next Tuesday with Joy Golden." I said "Wait a minute I don't know anybody at J. Michael Bloom" and they said "Well, Joy Golden called here looking for you and we didn't see that you were signed with anyone so we're giving you the booking. The head of the voice over department, Chas Cowing, would like to meet with you on Thursday." I called Joy Golden and told her what happened. She said that she had confused me with someone else and that she had my name next to someone who was actually represented at J. Michael Bloom. Needless to say she said that I should definitely meet with them. I went ahead and met with Chas who had heard my spot and liked it. He signed me immediately.
And the rest is history.
I guess so. I hate to say it but it was something that I kind of stumbled into. But I think I was in a specific place to get to that next place because I was working with Abrams, going out on auditions for commercials and booked something that just happened to be a radio spot. It was a string of particular events that led to getting signed and sent out.
How long did it take until you started booking regular work with them?
Once I got my first spot, I remember the amount of auditions they had sent me on- it was unbelievable! I had auditioned fairly regularly for theater, film and tv but the amount of voice over auditions they gave me per week was mind-boggling. So I was going out for a lot and booking on a regular basis. I was able to figure out what I would average based on the amount of auditions I had per day. And I started booking 4-5 jobs a month. Some of them would be major network spots, some would be demo sessions, while others would be radio spots or industrials. But I began to have a booking every week. Then of course when I left Tony and Tina's Wedding I went to Portland, Oregon to do Glengarry Glen Ross the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And while I was there, my first major campaign, for Campbell Soup, started running. When I called my girlfriend at the time, who I lived with, there were all these checks waiting for me at home-- all these envelopes with residual money. I said 'Just put it in the bank!'. I had never seen that kind of money before, you know, I was a struggling actor in New York. Just mind-boggling.
Wow. That's awesome. And at the beginning of your career, what were some of the challenges you faced as a voice actor?
I think, for me, the challenge was just keeping up with all the stuff I was doing. Auditioning became a full-time job and then I started booking at a fairly regular rate so it just created this whole other aspect of my life that didn't exist before. Again, like I said, I was a struggling actor doing mostly theater and my schedule wasn't that full. All of a sudden, I had this regimented schedule of auditions and bookings each week. You know, I had never really experienced something like that. It was tough to adjust to and initially I was late to a few recordings. My agent would call me and say "You can't do that. You gotta be on time. You have producers waiting." So, I think the challenge was ultimately having the suddenly busy schedule and then going to do a show at night. It was a lot.
What made you decide to get into coaching?
Well, it was something I always wanted to do. Even while I was still doing voice overs full-time, I always wondered what if I could teach this. Also just knowing, and again, I don't mean this in any kind of discouraging way, but this business has got a shelf life. I felt like with so many things coming up and changes in the business- new talents, work going non-union, etc--I didn't want to leave the business and still felt as though I had something to offer. I thought it was worth looking into.
So at the time you weren't booking as much and decided to try this out.
No, actually I just had this huge commercial campaign and it finally went away after six years. I didn't have other campaigns to back it up so I was thinking that coaching might be something I could do. I always thought I could teach. And not necessarily just voice over but acting and directing as well. So I decided to give it a go. It was challenging because I had to develop a style and approach. But I knew that I could teach people the technique and the craft of voice over based on the fact that I had to develop that. When I first started doing VO, I never studied with anyone. I just learned as I went and figured it out myself. And I knew there were people out there who may have a hard time figuring it out. So I thought maybe I could share what I learned all these years doing it.
I also think that's something you often hear from more seasoned voice over professionals like yourself who began their careers prior to the advent of this whole 'voice over coaching' boom. When there weren't many demo production houses and studios teaching and it was more trial-by-fire than anything.
Exactly. It was trial-by-fire learning. And like I said, I basically just fell into this. I remember asking my agent when we started working together, "So actors do voice over?!" and he was said "Oh yeah!" I thought only disc jockeys and announcers did VO, not actors. And the only training I got was from Chas who said make it sound like you which is all based in acting. Being able to coach people, I'm not only using my background in voice over but my foundation in acting as well.
Which leads me to my next question. You have a background in theater as an actor, playwright and director. How has that experience augmented your work as a voice over artist?
Oh it's helped tremendously. Being able to "keep it real" and take a piece of commercial copy and make it sound like it's coming from YOU, while giving it some kind of spin. Having those kind of interpretive skills is something I learned as an actor. It goes back to my training with (the legendary, also teacher of Brando) Stella Adler. I took a class with her in script interpretation. It wasn't an acting class. She would hand out a scene from a play and, with her, we would break it down and interpret what the writer's intentions were. When I work with a student, that's essentially what I do. When I'm coaching and someone is very concerned with how it sounds or whether they're inflecting correctly, I try to encourage them to interpret what the copywriter is asking you to do instead. Let's get behind the copy and find a way into it while bringing your authentic self to the read.
What advice do you have for aspiring VO talents or newbies in the business?
Back when I started voice over, and because I auditioned sometimes five times a day, and booked four or five times a week, that was MY practice. That was how I was able to stay current. Because I was constantly going in and doing it. Nowadays, when voice over auditions don't come as frequently, or you have a dry period, you have to do different things to stay current. Come here to Abacus to take some of our classes or stay home to practice and record commercial copy on your own. The best way to stay current, especially if you're a beginner, is to work with someone you know and trust who can help you develop those necessary skills. Skills can sometimes go out the window though if you don't practice enough. I think there are many people out there who think that voice over isn't a skill and IT IS! And I learned it totally by myself and also in so many different ways. But now there are also people who can help you get through challenging times in your career. You need to have that confidence with you always. Work at it and don't just take it for granted. You have to keep feeding the fire.
What is the most important lesson or golden nugget you hope your students walk away with?
To, again, see this as a skill and don't just assume that you can wing it. And that it is also a business. If you can see it as a skill, a business and at the same time not take it too seriously. Don't have a heart attack over it! Because it's just voice overs. It's just commercials. If you don't book this one, you'll book the next one. When I work with students and they get an interview with an agent, they call me to tell me they're nervous. I tell them that being nervous is fine but advise them not to show that to the agent. Don't need it so badly. If you need it really badly, it never comes. And I'm sure you know this too. You never book the things you expect to book. You book the things you forget about. Why? Because you were relaxed when you walked into the booth and you weren't overly concerned with whether or not you'd get the gig.
That's some great advice and it's certainly helped me over the years in building my confidence. So, you just recently launched Abacus Entertainment. Congratulations! Tell me how this adventure came about and how things are going so far?
Thank you! Well, I had been working with these two guys here, Jason Cicci and Bryant Falk and we all got along great. We thought we could pool our resources together and offer something to people that is exciting, fun and current. We opened Abacus based on the philosophy of offering people opportunities that they can't otherwise learn in a university or college setting. And also it's a place where we create things as well. My other partner, Bryant Falk, is an extremely creative and versatile guy- he produces great voice over demos, as well as animation, and works on various other forms of media. So we're trying to tap into many different facets of the business we all share and make that accessible to people. How are we doing? We're doing great! In our first four months, we've gotten several new students, every event that we've set up is filling up with people- some solid group classes and seminars with casting directors, agents and coaches, which are filling up each week. For example, just today we had an incredible success story with an actress who was previously a soap opera star from the 1970s and 80s. She left the business for 20 years and came back to us to get back into voice over, create a new demo and start meeting people. Within three months, we helped turn her entire career around. I'm not saying that she didn't bring anything to the table herself but because of the support and opportunity we gave her, she was able to kick-start her career again after 20 years. Doing something like that for somebody is a dream come true for us. That's what we want to do for anyone who comes through our doors. Making dreams a reality. That's what we're about.
Also, just so everyone is aware, what kinds of classes and seminars do you offer at Abacus?
We offer voice over private and group instruction, intensives and collectives, where we read copy and talk about the VO business. Also we do seminars with professionals as well, more recently casting directors like Nina Pratt of Grey Advertising and agent Billy Serow of Abrams Artists. And we will continue to have more top-of-the-line agents and casting directors in the coming months. We have a great coach coming in, David Lyerly, who works mainly in the field of network promos. He will be teaching an upcoming promo seminar and is the best at it, as far as I'm concerned. In addition, we have Roger Del Pozo to head up our on-camera division with some new classes. We'll also be getting into animation and audio books as well as several other aspects of the voice over business. Then of course there's all the work Bryant's doing, having recently produced an animation project with PBS. We have a gal coming in-- Shari Alpert, a 20 year veteran of the industry to teach a seminar called "Girl Talk" geared towards women in voice over. I wanted to add that we're also doing actor demo reels- written and shot from scratch.
Sounds like you have a full plate. I want to talk about the voice over market today which is dramatically different from when you started. Nowadays we have lots of celebrities doing the bulk of commercials (i.e. Jon Hamm with Mercedes Benz, Dennis Leary with Ford, Jeff Bridges with Hyundai, etc.) What's your take on this? Do you think this is hurting or helping the market?
Well, you know, my feeling about it is, and my voice over colleagues may not agree with me, however if it's the right voice, great. When Jeff Bridges does those Hyundai spots, it really works. I didn't know it was him at first but just thought that it sounded like a familiar voice. It wasn't until four or five times later that i realized it was Jeff. I don't really know what it does for these companies to have celebrities voicing their products. Though it kind of turns it into Pick the Celebrity. They (the clients) obviously think it helps. But I think in the long run, of course anybody, whether that includes myself or my colleagues, can do just as good a job. But I don't think that's the point. I think that these days with "celebrity" being what it is, having one voice your product is just something the client finds attractive. What I think it does for the voice over business isn't bad because people hear that and say "Wow, I wanna do that!" And I think, even if celebrities weren't doing voice over, people would still feel that way. I really believe that everyone wants to do voice overs. I've never met anyone who I've spoken to, at a party or anywhere, that immediately didn't treat me like a celebrity when I told them what I did for a living. Subsequently saying "How can I do that?" It's so common. It does keep people attracted to the voice over business as a whole as there's something glamorous about it. Unlike some of my colleagues who basically curse the whole issue, while that may be true, I don't think it's damaging to the business of voice overs itself. In some ways it can actually help.
Union or Non-Union?
Ah, there's the big question! Look, it's always great to have a union and there's a reason why they're around-- to protect you. Non-union work, which has become a huge and unavoidable part of the business, especially for those just starting out, is great, if that's where the work is. At some point you may want to consider being part of the union. Of course there are other options which I think are fine. What I'm trying to say is I don't have an either/or. If you're in the voice over business, especially if you're a teacher like me, you have to see the benefits of both. Shunning one or the other isn't a good idea. If you've been non-union for a while and are ready to make that leap, it's a good idea. If you were to say to me that you're going to continue doing non-union work, if that works for YOU, the only cautionary word of advice I have is that, without a union, you have no protection. You run the risk of being taken advantage of. Without one, you're not going to receive residuals. Hearing your national commercial air and getting those usage checks-- that's a very satisfying feeling that you don't get as a non-union actor. You'll get bought out, sometimes for decent money and sometimes for terrible money.
And not all non-union is bad, which is what I think you're getting at correct?
Absolutely. It's insulting sometimes but not always. Again, you have no protection in non-union. You're at the mercy of the producers. And SAG-AFTRA offers a way for you to not be at their mercy. When the union is involved, no one's at the mercy of anybody because you're working equally. It's like "Ok you want me to come in and do this. Well, the union says you have to pay me this rate. You've agreed to that. And if you start playing the heck out of this spot, this is what I'm supposed to get in usage. You have to pay me that because it's been agreed upon prior to the session." It's great to have an organization like that on your side. But you also have to see the benefits of both though. Again, I have colleagues who've been doing this for years, who aren't coaches and teachers, and they'll put down non-union as much as they can. I don't have that attitude. Where the work is, you go, just know that you're doing some of it without a safety net.
Lastly, what are you listening to music wise these days?
You know I still listen to the same stuff I've always listened to. I still like Punk Rock and music from the 60s. As far as new material I've been checking out the new Daft Punk album and, they might shut me down for this, but I've been digging the new Kanye West too. I've always been a huge Bob Dylan fan as well. My wife loves classical music and opera so that's been opening me up to other artists and genres like jazz- Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Terrific! Alright well that just about covers it. Once again, thank you so much for doing this and it was a pleasure talking with you.