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From Mic to Stage

Nancy Cartwright talks about her move from behind the mic to the stage.

Back in 1978, when I just landed in Hollywood to study with voice pioneer, Daws Butler (voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Elroy Jetson, etc.) actors viewed voice overs as a way to supplement their income. Voicing funny characters or doing commercials was viewed along the same lines as waiting on tables, running errands and assisting other artists who had real jobs. Today, voice acting is the envy of any actor, whether they focus on their craft in front of the camera or behind the mic. And if you are very clever, you can actually manage to do both.

Having recently returned from a four-week stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I have an enlightened perspective of what it means to commit to a project and how that commitment influences others. The festival itself is the largest theatrical festival in the world. Some 500,000 tourists join millions of Scots to revel in the work of thousands of artists. There are more than 1,700 productions performing on the streets, in pubs, in phone booths, elevators, balconies and dozens of genuine theater spaces.

Our show (for it never really is a one-person show!) was in one of the largest spaces available, the Music Hall of the Assembly Rooms. With the exception of the month of August, this space is normally used for seminars, conferences, exhibitions, receptions, dinners, parties, weddings, etc. It is elegant, with spectacular chandeliers, intricate plasterwork and mirrors, making it a very upscale venue.

A brief nod to the unsung heroes: In just this one theater, there were seven different productions daily. An extraordinary crew of about 15 men and women from all around the world, including Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and countries far and wide would strike, set up and run each show. They were hopping from 9:00 am till 2:00 am every day. Their commitment to making the performances run smoothly was so admirable. They were a show of their own!

To give you an idea of what it took to get me to Scotland, I worked on the script for more than a year, writing, re-writing and honing, cutting, pinching and editing with script collaborators, Rose Goss and Peter Kjenaas. We each brought our own sensibilities to the script. By the time spring rolled around, we were ready to workshop it. Since this show was an expression of the fact that I love The Simpsons and the joy it brings me and so many people throughout the world I wanted to honor the series by being really prepared for the 14,000 potential theatergoers in Edinburgh.

To put my best acting chops forward I prepared by doing three performances on Memorial Day weekend at Cal State Northridge. Hundreds showed up, giving us the opportunity to survey what worked and what didnt. This was most invaluable to Rose, the director, and the writing team.

The main difference in performing live in front of an audience and performing behind a mic in a studio is the vulnerability, the sheer nakedness of being alone on stage. A dear friend told me that stage fright is simply the feeling you get when you dont perform enough in front of an audience. The only antidote for this is to do more! As the clock was ticking and the date to depart for the U.K. was upon us we only had enough time after the last rewrite to do the show once more for about a dozen people. That was pretty intense going from 12 to a preview night in Edinburgh for 630! Yeoooowie! But once I hit the boards I was fine.

Theres something magical in actually being able to see the faces of the people, and hearing them laugh at all the right spots. Actually, I didnt have to say much. My first line, Hi. Im Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you? brought down the house every night! Then I just held my breath and put one foot in front of the other and carried on with the show. By the fourth performance, I was feeling pretty good and gradually I really started having fun with the audience. I totally encourage every actor to do a one-person show.

Obviously, in voice over work, you dont have to memorize your lines. That, and the fact that you dont have to wear makeup, costumes and hit your marks, makes it, in most ways easier to do voice overs. On the other hand, the challenges are many: how to sound like a 10 year old, as opposed to an eight year old; how to pitch your voice in such a way as to give character to your character without him/her sounding stilted or strident. And in the case of most of the actors on The Simpsons, how not to sound like any of the other characters you have done or do.

The live show became more fun but never became easy. One night, during the second week of the run, I totally went-up on my lines. This is something that would never happen at a Simpsons record or any other voice over record. I honestly could not remember where I was. Fortunately, I had prepared for this and had come up with a strategy were this to occur. I kept my cool. Dont panic. I merely looked at the audience and said, Omygod, I have no idea where I am! Nobody moved. And after a long breath... I picked up where I left off and sailed forward with ease.

For the first several shows I had the opportunity and took advantage of the fact that this was theater and we continued the writing process. Some of the jokes just didnt work, so snip-snip, they were gone. I got more familiar with the sense of humor of the Scots and fell into a more comfortable delivery and it was terrific. Of the 23 shows, we sold out many and 90% of the tickets overall. What a rush that was to arrive at the theater and know that the line of people that ran from the front door, down the block, past Starbucks and around the corner and down that block were waiting in line to see my show!

With only one show per day, I had plenty of time to see other theater pieces. I saw some fantastic and inspiring theater. Companies originating in South Africa, Belfast and Japan were all there to entertain and enlighten those of us fortunate enough to be there too. I saw dozens of shows and some were pretty incredible. I wore myself out show jumping from one venue to another. The Spiegeltent was one such venue. Omygod - it was incredible, like a 1930s circus with a bit of a vaudeville theme.

The presentation, the music, the performances were just awe-inspiring. There were the twin men from Poland who performed on stage à la Cirque du Soleil. They were amazing with their half-naked, very buff physiques, holding each other up with one arm. And there was the comedian/juggler who had the comic timing of Chaplin and every bit as funny. When the show ended they cleared the floor and we stayed late and mambod into the night or was that morning? Yes, the sun walked me home, but it was worth it.

The entire trip was an absolute treat, to travel the world and make people laugh at the same time. There is no question, artists influence the aesthetics of the culture, and without artists we would still be in caves. So, keep challenging yourself in whatever venue that may be, for you are the one who can make a difference!

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in her career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disneys Kim Possible and Chuckie on Rugrats, All Grown Up. To learn more about Nancys career, listen to her new audio book My Life as a 10-year-old Boy.

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