By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Samantha Paris lives a dual life. One part is in Petaluma with husband Graziano Perozzi. At one point, she moved to Palm Springs but came back after five years.“I missed the town so much.”
Her other life is spent in Sausalito where, for 25 years, she’s run Voicetrax, teaching people how to do what she’s done for 37 years – voiceover.
Paris, 53, grew up in Los Angeles. “I wanted to be an actress,” she said. “When I was five I was taking singing and dancing lessons.”
At age 15, her parents told her she’d be doing a voiceover. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ and they explained it was when you put your voice to a commercial or a cartoon.
“I was shocked. It never occurred to me Fred Flintstone wasn’t Fred Flintstone. Besides, I was going to be a famous actress. So I didn’t want to go. I slumped in the back seat of the car,” and here Paris mimics her sulky teen self, pouting, crossing her arms, rolling her eyes.
“I walked into the recording studio and the instructor gave me a script for Little Friskies and I panicked. I had no training. How does a kitten talk? But then, I got behind the microphone and my life forever changed.”
The basis of voiceover, Paris said, has nothing to do with voice. “You just become your six-year-old self. I’m six years old all day and I encourage others to do that as well.
“I don’t come here to work,” she said, “I come here to play.”
Born Roberta Block, she acted for 12 years as Bobbie, or Bobbi, Block, but “I really hated my name,” she said. In 1990, “When I moved to the Bay Area and married Andre Paris, I said ‘That’s it,’ went before a judge and legally changed my name to Samantha Paris.”
About 10 years ago, she went on, “I began finding it so much more rewarding to teach.” And now, though she still gets job offers, “I have absolutely zero desire to perform. There is nothing better than paving the way for others, know I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”
Students come for different reasons. About half are considering a career in the field. But others come to “build confidence, read a better bedtime story, become a more engaging trial attorney.
“One sweet woman had agoraphobia. She hadn’t left her house in five years. Her therapist encouraged her to come.” The classes, Paris said proudly, changed the woman’s life. “I’ve gotten hundreds of letters saying the classes are life changing – they’re the best form of therapy.”
What she always starts with is going back to that 6-year-old. “We spend our lives,” she said, “masking our true selves, afraid to be honest and vulnerable.” As a result, “students are nervous about making mistakes. They feel they have to be perfect.” She points out if they were studying to be accountants, they’d realize it would take time. Why should voiceover be different?
There are, of course, techniques, such as speaking through your nose, dropping way down in your throat, accents, raising and lowering your voice, being squeaky or growly, slowing down or speeding up your lines.
And then there’s the microphone. “It’s the most amazing instrument,” Paris said. “If there’s one syllable that’s not genuine, the microphone picks it up.” By listening to yourself, she continued, “you learn to be your true, genuine self whether you’re doing a cartoon, narration for a history or nature channel.” Once more she comes back to remembering how to be a child, how to play.
Paris talked about difficulties in her early years: being told she was too fat (she wasn’t) or that she was a terrible actress who would never get anywhere in show business (“I worked my entire life; paid the mortgage as an actress.”)
So she understood when she began teaching what it was like for students. “It’s amazing how we believe everything negative thing we’re told, but brush off the positive things. I think that’s what makes me a good teacher. The people who come in are vulnerable, they have pain, and then they find such beauty in creating an environment where they feel comfortable. What these classes are about is this exchange we’re having: in this place of creativity and acceptance, people learn to not just accept themselves, but embrace themselves.”
She referred again to being told she wasn’t good enough, although she’d done “over 1,000 commercials, a ton of episodic television and cartoons. But I finally gave up – until I got a call from Michael Landon.” He offered her a starring role in a two-part episode of his series, “Highway to Heaven.”
“At one point he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever give up again.’
“That’s why I don’t let my students give up. In their deep, dark moments I sense it, and I come up to them and say, ‘You can’t give up. I won’t let you.’”
Students come from around the country, she said. One class has people from Oregon, Nevada, Texas and Utah. “It’s become an institution. I have students who come back after 20 years.”
Watching her work, it’s clear why. She’s a hands-on instructor, greeting class members with hugs, asking how they’re doing and, in classes, emphasizing the positive.
Sitting in on a beginning voiceover animation class is like enjoying a series of 60-second radio cartoons. Students are given visual cartoons on which to base vocal characters but for a listener it’s radio – the theater of the mind.
Paris explains that with voiceover, “you have the words, but you have to see beyond the words. In voiceover we learn to act with our ears, not our eyes. It is one hundred percent about listening.
“To me the most important part of being a great communicator is being a great listener, and in voice acting, you have to be in the moment every second. In voiceover, I can play anything from a baby spider to a wicked witch; I can do and be anything my imagination tells me to be.”