When you go through life with a voice like Seth Brown’s, people tend to notice.
Physically, there’s little to distinguish the Philadelphia International Airport ticket agent from his peers. But when he opens his mouth, the Ving Rhames rumble that emerges immediately gives pause to those around him. A few months ago, he’d never thought such a sound could generate an income and potentially create an entirely new professional path.
That was before Sandy Stefanowicz checked in at the airport departure gate for a trip to Italy in the summer of 2017. The former high school acting teacher and one-time casting director for local talent agent Mike Lemon knew that Brown’s preternatural pipes could prove useful. Then Stefanowicz did something she admits she rarely does: She offered the young man her card from Voice Box LLC, suggesting he contact the company’s founder, Rob Holt, and consider taking a class.
Now, on a rainy winter evening, Brown is inside the tiny “whisper box,” essentially a jerry-rigged sound booth tucked in the corner of a Narberth office just steps from SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale rail line. Everything he’s learned in Voice Box’s eight-week beginners’ class—the breathing, meditation and visualization led by Stefanowicz to the in-studio etiquette and technique taught by Holt—culminates in this moment. The challenge? Rapidly switch from an high-energy radio commercial for Dorney Park to a low-key read for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The Dorney spot explodes from the monitor speakers set up in the classroom area where Holt—wiry and goateed, with a shaved head—mans the audio control panel. But the basso profundo is missing, replaced by an uncharacteristically cartoonish voice that sounds as if it’s coming from a totally different person.
The rest of the class sits in awe—Holt included. Indicative of his generous teaching style, Holt doesn’t critique, providing instead a gentle nudge in the direction that
he and potential clients or casting directors might prefer. He calls it “working in the millimeters,” negotiating the nuances of tone, inflection, character and pacing to get the best performance out of his students.
“The voice was great, but your translation—what that character said and how he said it—was really great,” Holt says. “Now, here’s my challenge for you, sir: Can you be Seth, young dad, doing this? The same kind of feel, but you. You can’t hide behind that little gremlin guy. It’s the same feel, but you just have to sell it in your own voice now. And have fun, man. Laughing and smiling will help you enormously through this.”
The coaching works. Brown’s voice erupts again—this time in his own more natural tone, but with the same energy and enthusiasm he produced with the character voice. The results are palpable. The other students listen, amazed.
Rob Holt admits that he never intended to be Philadelphia’s go-to guy in teaching the voice-over talent of tomorrow. “It wasn’t even on my radar up until I was about 30 years old,” he says.
Before embarking on the journey to create Voice Box, Holt was—like many of us—simply working. He had stints in food service and another on the security crew for the Electric Factory live music venue. He also had a job as a low-level office drone at a King of Prussia marketing firm.
Meanwhile, he attended night school to get trained in information technology. So when two marketing employees broke away to start a web development company, they kept Holt in mind. “I was the guy back at the ad agency who wasn’t in the IT department but would end up fixing everyone’s computers,” he says.
It just so happened that one of the new firm’s first projects was designing the website for Mike Lemon Casting, which was providing talent for big-name productions in the Philly area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though complete, the new website would need ongoing maintenance, so they got Holt an interview. He landed the job.
“Looking back, I came right at this sort of golden age in [Mike Lemon Casting’s] existence,” he says. “They’d just finished doing casting for Signs for M. Night Shyamalan, and Diane Heery was there.”
Heery remains one of the region’s busiest casting directors—now with her own agency, Heery Loftus Casting. Due to her proximity, she unwittingly provided Holt with daily lessons in the casting process. “[Mike Lemon] had nowhere to stick me, which was cool, because I ended up being plunked in front of the top film and TV casting director’s office every day and saw the ins and outs,” Holt says.
Proximity led to familiarity, and co-workers began to recognize that Holt’s voice skewed younger than much of the talent they were auditioning. Here and there, he was called on to add an extra “teen” or “young adult” voice to auditions. His experience as a musician made him comfortable with the studio environment, and he chalked up two or three years of occasional jobs. Eventually, he even became a stand-in for the voice-over casting director.
Then, in 2005, another unexpected opportunity presented itself. “I was offered the job as casting director—the voice-over casting director,” Holt says. “I had to bumble my way through the first 10 years, for sure. It was a huge leap of faith, taking that casting director job. As Sandy always says, ‘Jump and grow wings on the way down,’ and that’s what I had to do. I loved it. I had a great ear, and I knew that at the time.”
He also had a talent for teaching, says Stefanowicz, who is the acting coach half of Voice Box. After 30 years as a Ridley High School drama teacher, Stefanowicz retired and joined Mike Lemon as a casting director in 1999. When Holt came on board and his casting responsibilities increased, Stefanowicz recognized that his skills would translate well into instructing classes for acting students and agency clients. Holt initially begged off, but she eventually talked him into an acting workshop where he taught voice-over for one day. “He was just a natural, with his enthusiasm, his knowledge of musicality, his discerning ear, his friendly nature,” she says. “And he turned out to be just a wonderful, wonderful teacher.”
At the time, Mike Lemon Casting—still at its 7th and Callowhill location in Center City—reigned supreme in local TV and film casting, and neither Holt nor Stefanowicz saw the need for an exit strategy. “I really thought that this was it, and that we were going to stay there,” she says.
But it wasn’t to be. Diane Heery had left to start Heery Loftus Casting a few years earlier, putting her in direct competition with her old agency. By 2011, Mike Lemon Casting phased out its voice-over casting operations and began its move to new offices in King of Prussia, leaving Holt without a role. “I was left with Leap of Faith No. 2: Do I turn tail and start at the bottom of the corporate ladder somewhere, or do I take what I spent 10 years building and put my name on it?” Holt says. “I’d gotten Mike’s blessing to do so, because at that time he was just kind of getting out of the game. He was like, ‘Take it. Do what you want with it.’”
And so he did, incorporating as Voice Box LLC and booking clients and talent himself from home, then returning to the Mike Lemon offices with duffel bags full of gear to record sessions. Soon enough, he needed his own space—one in which he could exercise both creative and business control. In the absence of anything else, that space became his sister-in-law’s finished basement in Havertown. There, Holt and a musician friend spent a few weeks building a studio. At that point, though, he had yet to build something else he would certainly need: a curriculum.
With Stefanowicz’s background in creating acting classes for Mike Lemon Casting, Holt naturally turned to her. What emerged was the eight-week class “Voice Over: The Total Experience,” the structure of which remains the core of Voice Box’s curriculum. In it, students—some with professional experience—learn how to be successful voice-over artists in today’s market.
No longer in his sister-in-law’s basement, Holt now splits class time between the Narberth location and, for his advanced classes, the Bala Cynwyd studio of master engineer Chris Zurzolo. Stefanowicz and Holt form the nucleus of the beginners’ class, teaching two and three nights, respectively. Instructors Neill Hartley, a theater professor at the University of the Arts, and working actor and voice-over artist Sharon Geller fill out the faculty.
Each instructor offers something different. Stefanowicz stresses the elements of relaxation, visualization and effectively interpreting commercial scripts and other copy. Hartley, also a working actor and voice-over artist, focuses on the acting itself, using his signature phrase, “I don’t believe you!” to draw out performances that get to the emotional heart of the scripts.
Also an acting coach and a corporate trainer, Geller uses a variety of improv exercises, encouraging students to play off each other in game-like scenarios. These loosen up the individual and also build camaraderie between classmates. Students learn about themselves, what they can accomplish, and how to cooperate and collaborate—a skill that comes in handy when working with new directors and other actors, Geller says. This approach also helps new voice actors project the confidence directors want to see when they walk into the studio. “It’s really just about owning and taking control over your physical space, being calm, and knowing you can do it,” she says.
Voice Box student Chris Evans (not to be confused with the Captain America star) knows just what Geller means. After 20 years as a professional DJ, Evans was confident in his ability to speak when he first stepped into the beginners’ class. But with a limited acting background and a personality that’s actually more introverted, he knew he needed some work. What he found was an environment where he could develop skills he didn’t know he had. “It was not anything I anticipated voice acting to be,” Evans admits. “The acting side of it was kind of a surprise. There were so many styles and ways to read. There was real acting behind it, and I fell in love with it.”
Knowing you can do something isn’t the same as being successful at it. That’s what Holt tells his students. And while his classes hone an array of skills, students must have the motivation, work ethic and follow-through. “He’s instilling in you the confidence you need, but not overpromising in such a way that he’s going to provide it for you,” says student Jennie Yost. “He’s saying, ‘You can do this, and I will help you as much as I can.”
Voice acting is, after all, acting. Consider the ongoing search for new opportunities, nonstop networking and auditioning for roles you won’t get. A surprising amount of energy and emotion is invested in those radio commercials you might be tuning out.
Voice actor Scott Smith understands that voice-over won’t immediately allow him to quit his day job. He’s been doing it on-and-off since 1990, while other ambitions——like training to be an acupuncturist—have beckoned. After returning to the Delaware Valley, he was looking to get back into the business. He found Voice Box and enrolled. “I went in open-minded, but I was actually quite nervous about it,” says Smith. “I thought it was very well done because you’re getting different perspectives.”
And there are some big breakthroughs. Former Voice Box student Enrique Josephs Jr. can now be heard as the intro announcer for Harry Connick Jr.’s nationally syndicated daytime talk show, Harry. A graduate of Bayard Rustin High School, Josephs came to Voice Box having already done voice-over as a producer with NFL Films. With some work under his belt, he figured he was destined for bigger things, hoping to head to Los Angeles and get a demo reel. But all the agents he contacted said he could use more polish. So he went to Holt. “Rob picks up the phone, and he basically convinced me not to get a demo done right away and to come in and take the class,” Josephs says. “I was the only person in the class who was doing active voice work—but that being said, the things I learned about the fundamentals of the work, I got from Voice Box.”
For other students, it’s less about polishing and more about finding the right path. Phoenixville’s Yost was, for much of her life, self-conscious about the deeper range of her voice. Experience on stage and in college radio helped her appreciate its power. But her pursuit of voice-over training took a back seat to her career as assistant director of new student programs at West Chester University and the birth of her son in 2014. Not long after, Yost was referred to Voice Box, which she says was rewarding both educationally and professionally.
But what really makes a difference, Yost says, is the care Holt puts into his students, past and present. “With Rob, it’s just about always helping and always building rapport and trust. He’s just one of the most earnest professionals I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “With everyone who takes his classes, he’s always about helping further their careers.”
And it’s this role—not just as a teacher, but as a working casting director—that sets Holt apart. He tells of a two-day audition where the client was directing the sessions by phone, leaving him, as casting director, in what he jokingly calls the intern’s role—essentially managing the audition rather than providing input for voice actors. The first-day roster consisted of his usual suspects—pros with whom he’d worked since he started casting. On the second day, however, about half the list was made up of former students, one of whom ended up booking the gig. The night before, Holt had made sure he phoned her with a pep talk.
“The only way I’m going to put those former students in front of a client is if I believe in them enough to know they’re going to do great,” Holt says. “And just for her to have me be able to call her the night before her recording session and say, ‘Here’s what it’s going to feel like. There’s going to be a time about 15 minutes in when you’re going to realize you really do have this and they’re really not suspicious of you, and you’re going to hit this rhythm, and it’s all going to be good.’ To have someone in your camp like that when you’re just starting out—I don’t know if that exists somewhere else.”
Back in class, Seth Brown has brought the energy down, leaning into the mic to build the intimacy of a doctor speaking to a parent about their cancer-stricken child. After a couple of passes at the copy, with slight tweaks directed by Holt, Brown exits the booth, and there are high-fives all around.
“See, man,” Holt says. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the millimeters.”