For the latest instalment of Five Minutes With…, I sat down for a virtual coffee with a man who is best described as a Swiss Army Knife in the studio - Actor, Casting Director and Voice Director Donald Pirie.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Donald's journey into acting began in high school after his dad spotted his talent and encouraged him to pursue drama. Accepted into LAMDA as the youngest in his year, Donald embarked on an acting career that would see him perform in productions at the Old Vic and star in the Scottish soap River City.
Fast forward to today and Donald is now one of the most recognisable voices in Scotland, however his foray into the world of voiceover was serendipitous. Donald’s acting agent had decided to start up her very own Voice Agency and ‘needed a young Scottish voice’ - enter Donald. His early career saw him voicing everything from weekly promos for the BBC World Service to the trails for Playboy TV!
THEATRE OF CONTINUITY
When Donald’s work in River City prompted a move back to Glasgow, he took on another role that saw his voice broadcast into millions of living rooms across Scotland! As STV’s continuity announcer, it was Donald’s voice which seamlessly and engagingly guided viewers through the station’s daily programming. Much like an actor on stage, a continuity announcer in the booth has an immediate, direct connection with their audience and the two roles have more in common than you might think.
Donald explains that the ‘subtle changes and nuances required by any great acting performance are also essential to delivering a great continuity performance’. You might be linking two very different shows to guide the viewer from a light-hearted sitcom into a harrowing drama or vice versa. The role also requires the announcer to adapt and think on their feet if things go awry, as they occasionally do, Donald tells me. ‘In continuity’, Donald states, ‘once you press that red button you can say anything’ and it’ll be broadcast live to the nation!
He suggests that his 14 years as a continuity announcer was a ‘brilliant training ground’ for working in the voiceover industry as ‘[he was] having to write [his] own links to perfect time’. To work in ‘voiceover, your sight reading has to be really good to get re-employed’ and he cites his experience in continuity as helping him master this skill.
FROM VO TO CD
Donald is not only at home behind the mic but behind the glass in the studio, casting and directing talent in huge gaming and animation projects. Some of his recent directing and casting work includes the AAA game Lords of the Fallen and Netflix’s animated series Ridley Jones. I was curious to find out how Donald found his way from continuity to casting; ‘It was partly luck’ he explains, ‘and maybe being in Scotland, where it’s smaller [and] where everyone knows each other a little more’.
Donald had been recording with Bigmouth Audio for some time, ‘back when they had a studio about the size of [his] booth’. Once they got a little bigger ‘they started gaining jobs that required casting and voice direction’ and they asked Donald, who had spent ‘years directing theatre and teaching acting and voice’, to join the team.
The Bigmouth team booked a ‘few huge dubbing jobs’ right off the bat, including a Danish drama with wall-to-wall speaking and Borgen, a 30 episode series, which made for a ‘brilliant way to cut our teeth’ Donald expresses. Donald fell in love with casting and when chatting to him, his passion for championing the actors he works with was clear. Being able to ‘employ 30 or 40 actors in Scotland’ during the pandemic, when theatres and film sets were shut down, was a real career highlight, he explains.
AN ACTOR'S DIRECTOR
Headquartered in Glasgow, with studios across the globe, one of Bigmouth’s selling points in that they can cast authentically and work with talent ‘from anywhere in the world’. Donald tells me that he doesn’t just send his casting calls to the ‘same small group of actors’ every time but is determined to seek out the perfect actor for each role. In fact, he explains, ‘sometimes [we have] hundreds of submissions for the same role and everyone is so good!’.
I wanted to know if Donald, who has heard thousands of auditions in his time, had any advice on what makes an audition stand out all the right reasons. He explains that when an actor provides two takes in an audition, it’s key to ‘change them up a little [and not] make them the same’. ‘If you do go off-piste and you are good’ Donald goes on to say, ‘it can be really good’, however, ‘sometimes people take a gamble, and it really doesn’t work’. Ultimately, an actor ‘has to trust their gut instinct’ he tells me, ‘that’s what I do with casting and it’s usually right’.
One of Donald’s strengths is that, as a fellow actor, he knows ‘exactly how scary it can be’ to be stood behind the mic in a session. Donald explains that his main job when directing is ‘to protect the actor and keep things on time…the moment the actor doesn’t feel good, they are not going to give a good performance’.
Having directed the likes of Phil LaMarr and Troy Baker, Donald tells me he’s had many ‘pinch me moments’ throughout his directing career so far. However, the most exciting sessions are always the ones when you get an actor ‘who has never done [animation or gaming work] before and they just knock it out of the park; you can see how excited they are!’. Donald recounts a time when he ‘worked with this wee boy on a cartoon series’ and the young actor ‘loved every second of it which made every session a total joy’. Donald tells me that instances like that are ‘maybe even more exciting than [directing] a celeb’! However, if he did have the chance to direct anyone, living or dead, it would have to be Richard Burton; ‘to get him in a huge, AAA franchise game as the narrator – that would be pretty amazing’.
FROM STUDIO TO CLASSROOM
With a career spanning decades and covering both sides of the studio glass, Donald has a unique insight into what it really takes to build a successful voiceover career. After teaching for years in conservatoires and schools, Donald now runs his own voiceover courses where he tells me his students get a ‘really intense’ learning experience. Donald explains that it was important to keep the course small, with just four people on each course, to be able to provide tailored advice and tips. Donald covers everything his students need to carve out their own voiceover careers – from finding their niche to building a killer home studio!
It was great chatting with Donald and learning more about his varied career and the ins and outs of casting and voice directing! If you want to find out more about Donald and his upcoming voiceover courses, you can check out his website here: http://donaldpirie.com/voice-directing-and-casting