While those outside of the industry generally think of acting work as appearing on stage or screen, those within it know that there are many other ways to make a living as an actor. From corporate work, to voiceover, to being a simulated patient, there are lots of acting jobs that, while less visible to most people are equally challenging and enjoyable ways for actors to practice their craft.

Another of these lesser known acting jobs (even amongst actors) is Loop Group. We recently spoke to one of Melbourne’s foremost Loop Group artists Steven Sheeran to get the scoop on all things Loop. A graduate of the Howard Fine Acting Studio Full Time course, you may recognise Steven as the stressed out fellow on the park bench in the WebJet TVC that’s currently airing across Australia and New Zealand. From corporates and presenting to short films and voiceovers, Steven boasts a diverse range of credits. But one of the things that he most enjoys is being in the sound booth. In fact, you’ve probably heard his voice without even knowing it!

Steven Sheeran Loop Group

Q. Hi Steve! Can you tell us what Loop Group is?

Loop Group is when a group of actors go into a recording booth to fill the landscape of sound for all the extras, crowd scenes and sometimes actors’ dialogue. Essentially we record the dialogue for everyone on screen, except the main actors. For instance, you might have a scene with two lead actors, and in the background there are a couple of extras. If those extras are moving their lips and no sound is being heard, it can be very jarring for an audience, so that’s the sort of thing we record. Anywhere from two to five voice artists will be in the booth (sometimes more). If we’re voicing a crowd scene, we might break up into pairs and talk as husband and wife, or a pair of mates or something like that. Often we’ll have to read lips, look at the context of the scene and fill in the words. So it’s a lot of improvisation and a lot of focus is required. But it’s also a lot of fun because you never know what you’re going in for. Some of the time, none of our dialogue is really heard and it just serves to create background ambience. But other times, when the lead actors aren’t saying much in a scene, we’re quite prominent. Either way, it’s really important for helping to tell the story and create the reality of the world of the show. 

Q. What kind of preparation is involved?

I’ve had anything from no script at all and very intense improvisation, to pages and pages of scripts that need to be perfect. When I worked on season 1 of Wanted, a lot of it was set in regional Australia and there were a lot of police radio calls, so I had to voice a lot of those, as well as radio announcers. Or you might get a cafe scene with a waiter that you have to provide a voice for - “here’s your drink madame,” - that sort of thing. Or in a pub scene, if there’s a television in the shot there might be horse race playing, so I’ve had to call horse races before which is really fun and challenging. 

It’s a good idea to get familiar with the setting of the show and the context. For instance, we might be going in for Dr. Blake and that’s a period piece set in the late ‘50s/‘60s, meaning I need to consider what the characters are going to be talking about. You need to do your research. For instance, the show is set in Ballarat, and it’s good to know some aspects of Ballarat because that helps with improvising dialogue.

It can be really challenging with period work to remember not to use modern terminology or references when you’re improvising, and to be aware of the way people speak. So you can’t say ‘like’ or ‘whatever’, or use Australian slang if the show’s not in Australia. Sometimes we’ll do a whole run and then get notes from the sound engineer -  “someone said ‘like’”, or “someone mentioned the internet, so we’ll have to go again.”

I also worked on The Warriors for ABC and there was a lot of yelling and cheering for that, so I really had to make sure my voice was warmed up. You also learn a lot from the other actors, because everyone has different strengths and you often have a range of different actors in the room for Loop Group. Theatre actors, TV actors, voiceover actors, people who are strong in improvisation or doing different voices. So you learn and play off each other.

Q. What’s the hardest thing about Loop Group? Does any of your HFAS training ever come in handy?

It is important to know the context for the scenes, because we don’t get to read the scripts, so we don’t always know what’s going on. Often because of time restraints the sound engineer won’t give you much context, so it’s important to ask. Why are we here? What time of day is it? Oh, there’s been an explosion, that’s why we’re all here in this hospital scene. Because that kind of thing can change the tone of our conversations. So don’t be afraid to ask questions for context so you can be a better actor in the booth and tell the story, because that’s what it’s about. Serving the story in a very gentle way and creating that landscape of story telling.

Because we’re having conversations, the challenge is to make it natural and real and the best way to do that is to be yourself and talk about your life. But of course, if it’s a period piece you have to make adjustments, and that is challenging because you’re trying to be free and creative, whilst also listening to yourself. When you’re working on a modern show it’s a lot easier to just talk about your life. But even then, you can’t talk about current issues because they might not be current by the time it airs, and you never know what will be heard. In terms of the HFAS training,  bringing yourself to your work is essential. If you’re trying to make up a monologue on the spot, you just can’t do that in Loop Group, it’s too hard. So, if I’ve been on a holiday somewhere and it works in the context of the show, I’ll use that. Suddenly, my character will have gone on this holiday and  have a breadth of stuff to share that is interesting and human, and appropriate for the show. 

Q. Any interesting or funny stories?

We’re always having a laugh in the booth. Sometimes, because we do have to improvise a lot, the sound engineer will say, “ok, I need a young boy,’” and various actors will give it a go. You might have a 35 year-old burly actor trying to voice a young boy and it’s just hilarious and doesn’t work. The sound engineer will have to say, “ok, we might have to try someone else for that one.” It’s fast paced, but you do have the license to explore. You’re encouraged to try stuff and sometimes that leads to absolute gold. 

I’ve worked on all three seasons of Rosehaven, and for the first season we’d obviously never seen the show before. For the first 15 - 20 minutes of the session we couldn’t record a thing, because we were just in hysterics watching the show. And nothing we’re doing is supposed to be comical, so you can’t be in fits of laughter when you’re recording the background voices. We had to do take after take. This was before the show had come out, and from what we saw we knew it was going to be a hit. That’s one of the thrills of Loop, to have these little insights about things before the rest of the world sees them. 

Q. What would you say to an actor wanting to get into Loop Group?

Ask your agent about it. I think it’s a wonderful entrance point for someone wanting to get into voiceover work. You’re working in a group of supportive actors, and if there’s someone new we all try and look after them. I really love it. There’s not a lot of recognition that comes with it, but it’s a real bread-and-butter job for me as an actor.