Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 12

Tom Dheere, voice over professional and The VO Strategist.

Tom Dheere

Welcome to a special college edition of Changed for the Better. A special treat this week: I’m taking a little detour from my usual Spring Valley alumni peeps to chat with an “old friend” of mine. In this episode, my guest is voiceover professional Tom Dheere. Tom and I went to Montclair State College (now University) and studied together in the BFA theater program. We graduated in 1993 – almost 30 years ago!

Tom is quite the prolific voice artist: he has narrated thousands of projects from commercials to video games to corporate and educational media, recording in his professional home studio. He also shares his vast knowledge of the ins and outs of the voiceover business at professional conferences like VO Atlanta and eVOcation. I enjoyed reconnecting with Tom and delving into what happened in his life after we tossed our mortarboards.

A little background

After graduation, Tom spent a year at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in Manhattan. Though he learned a lot, he realized it wasn’t quite the right fit for him and moved back home, working at Bennigans restaurant, and paying the bills. His mom happened to catch an ad in the local paper for a voiceover coach in the area. Though he had no idea what “voice over” was, at that point he had been feeling quite lost as an actor, and decided to pursue the coaching; maybe that would be the spark he needed to open a new door.

After six months of intensive lessons, Tom made a voice-over demo; basically, it’s a set of recordings of his voice to submit for job auditions. This was before the digital boom, so it was all done on a cassette tape. I was getting them mass-duplicated from a company in New Jersey then bringing bags of padded mailers with demos to the post office. It was a huge pain but there was no other way to do it back then.

The work finally paid off and he landed his first job in 1996, about a year after he started taking lessons, and it was a PSA for…(wait for it)…herpes awareness. Listen, a paycheck is a paycheck, and that was the beginning of a long, very successful career.

Of course, that success did not come easily. His quest to find his niche in the performing arts continued to be fraught with obstacles, mostly centered around his personal mental health issues. Tom, like so many creatives, was fraught with untreated anxiety. It seemed like he couldn’t get out of his own way so the “real Tom” could emerge. He recalled how, for nine years, all of the decisions that I made were out of ego, insecurity, ignorance or fear as a voice actor.

When one door closes, build another door

In 2005, he got fired from the last non-acting job he ever had. While that seems like a downer, he actually made the best of the situation. I’ve always said, when one door closes, another door opens. In this case, Tom took out the jigsaw, cut a hole in the wall, and made his own door. He decided it was time to make the commitment to being a full-time voice-over artist. Using the unemployment checks he received, he invested in himself and built a professional in-home recording studio. That was in 2006, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Even while fully committed to his career, Tom still struggled. At the root of the problem was the fact that deep down, he didn’t feel he deserved to be successful. This is such a common and difficult area in mental health; our deeply-held insecurities are fed by our brain’s apparent need to lie to us. Because we believe those terrible things we often think about ourselves, we end up standing in our own way and succumb to self-sabotage. For him, it was the nagging thorn of imposter syndrome. I Googled that term and found a great definition: the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. (KQED, 2022)

I am well aware of that persistent feeling that you don’t have the authority, knowledge or experience to move into a new, unexplored arena. I’ve written about it in Embracing the Unknown and Geriatric Gymnastics 5: Maintaining a positive self-concept at the gym. That is something that artists must grapple with all of the time, because there are so many talented, hard-working people who seem more skilled than us, have a better resume, are smarter than us, etc. It seems their grass is always greener, but what we often forget is what they don’t have is what we have to offer.

Thankfully, for Tom, there was an antidote to his case of imposter syndrome. Years ago, he attended his first voiceover professional conference, a gathering of 100 attendees who were selected to participate. Deciding that he needed to prove to himself and everyone else that he belonged at that event, he created a presentation about the business-end of the voiceover business. At the time, this was an area that was severely under-represented in the education of artists. I remember, in our college theater program, we learned so much about the creative and performance skills necessary to be a “good actor,” but scant little about how to actually succeed in the theater business. In this respect, Tom struck gold at this conference. Of the 100 attendees, 50 showed up to watch his presentation; the small conference room was packed to the gills. He had arrived.

From that Monday forward, the flow of voice-over work started pouring in, and has not stopped since.

Another boon from that conference presentation: Tom was offered a position to teach the business end of the industry and has since become known as the VO Strategist.

All of those years of screwing up and bad business decisions (I didn’t know what I didn’t know), I take all that information and I teach people who are trying to get into the voice-over industry what the reality of the industry is; all of the “grownup stuff” that you didn’t know you need to know.

Paying it forward, indeed.

Growing pains of adolescence

Looking back to high school, Tom characterized himself as the biggest under-achiever ever; spending his time playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to Metallica, with no real direction in life. His guidance counselor constantly pressed him to try harder, live up to his academic potential, and focus on what he wanted for his future. Tom’s entry into the drama world was as a high school senior; he took drama for extra credit and auditioned for the fall play on a dare. As these experiences usually go in high school, particularly for the guys, he landed a role as Christopher Wren in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and a new door opened: Oh! Okay! This is what I want to do. There was an audible ‘click.’ He continued on to perform in the spring musical, Grease (what high school kid hasn’t done Grease?), and decided to audition for college theater programs, landed on Montclair State, and started a new path.

The transition to college can go in one of two directions. For some, it can be an enlightening, uplifting experience where you can study and play while developing personal autonomy. For others, it can be an exercise in enhancing the personal struggles you already have, only in a much bigger pond, which can make you feel further lost.

I can comfortably say I squandered the entire four-year experience. I was not prepared on an emotional, psychological, interpersonal level. I struggled mightily. I just didn’t know how to be…human. I didn’t know how to ‘be.’

I do remember Tom’s awkwardness. He worked very hard, and probably took himself and everything we did too seriously. I think we were all hoping he would relax, take a breath, appreciate his gifts, and enjoy the ride. Of course, when you are in a competitive sea of just barely post-adolescent creatives, many of whom were dealing with their own insecurities and anxieties in the early 1990’s, that’s hard to do. It was also hard to find the therapeutic interventions needed to manage the inner turmoil. How does a young man with a really anxious brain work to regulate himself? What were things that actually worked, before therapy entered the picture?

Focusing on the craft was a big part of it; getting absorbed in that. But the problem for me was, if you’re going to be exploring acting, there’s a level of transparency that you have to have with your partner and yourself, which for the most part I was incapable of doing. I depended on my talent to ‘muscle through’ the work I did.

Though there is a laundry list of things he’d rather leave behind regarding his college experience, there is one thing he really appreciated: the creative process. Doing the work in rehearsals to create whatever the end result would become was more interesting to him than the performance of the show itself. There was a communal sense that we both enjoyed immensely during classes and rehearsals. The process is where you breathe life into a project.

After graduating from Montclair and moving to the Shakespeare Conservatory, Tom presented himself as a serious actor, driven and passionate about his craft. As in Montclair, he loved the courses, the professors, the process-driven work. Unfortunately, his struggles with interpersonal relations continued to be a problem. The two-year program was not a Masters level one. It was full of 18-year-olds who were years behind him in their own personal development, which presented a frustrating dissonance in his ability to learn there. Since he was still struggling with his own emotional development, he did not have the patience to continue in the program with kids who were just starting down that path.

My adolescent self was my adolescent self in many ways until I got some good, deep, hard-core therapy and unpacking a lot of things.

That was in 2014. With that admission, we had a long conversation about the benefits, and oftentimes necessity of, seeking therapy. He puts it this way:

You go to the gym to work out your muscles, you eat right to be healthy, go to therapy to get and stay healthy up here [points to head] and in here [points to heart]. Our generation was stigmatized and shamed and that was so counter-productive and clearly damaging.

In therapy, he was finally able to identify and address the burgeoning anxiety that was constantly getting in his way of knowing how to “be human.” After five years of doing the hard work, he finally came to be in a good place:

I could actually fall asleep within a few minutes, as opposed to being up until two in the morning yelling at myself, having monkey-brain.

Anxiety is an awful beast that gets in the way of truly embracing your life. I am so glad he had the courage to seek it out and do the hard work that it takes to heal.

How has Tom changed as an adult?

Therapy was the real trigger for Tom’s personal evolution. Before that, the cycle of self-sabotage, fueled by poor support due to bad relationships kept holding him back.

I had achieved various levels of success and notoriety in the voice-over industry, but I wasn’t quite ‘me.’ Now, I understand that I deserve to be successful as a person and as a professional. I didn’t think I did for a very long time because of internal and external forces. I was constantly surrounding myself with people that didn’t support my self-image, that refused to let me be the best version of myself; family, friends and co-workers.

Since he did the therapeutic work, he is more comfortable with himself. He understands the dynamics of his anxiety now:

It’s not who you are and it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you react that determines what your life is going to be like.

Five years of intensive therapy helped teach him how to have a successful relationship. Now, he’s a happily married man to a woman who adores him. He has learned to get out of his own way.

I just got tired at sucking at life. It was getting boring!

I asked Tom what his adult self would tell his adolescent self. In a heartbeat, he said, after the beatings or before? We laughed, understanding just how much that poor kid struggled with himself, and he became a bit more serious and loving:

Tom, you’re okay. You’re a good kid. Just relax. Just be you. Learn your craft, enjoy your time, the moments that you’re having with everybody. It’s okay to be you, warts and all. You’re judging yourself way too much and adjusting your behavior based on your self-judgement, which is grossly inaccurate.

If only we all had that kind of 20/20 hindsight for our adolescent selves.

The VO Strategist

Turning our attention back to the present, Tom reflected on his career focus. Like other trades, he explained that the arts – theatre, voiceovers, modeling, music, dance, visual arts, etc – are a vocation, a trade, and should be treated as such.

There’s your raw talent, and the ability to realize that talent through skill and, now in the 21st century, business acumen, marketing savvy, understanding social media, how to file your taxes, all that “grownup stuff” that our “agents who are going to make us a star” [did] for us back in the day. Now, for the most part, we’re on our own.

Using a bucket full of that 20/20 hindsight, he has developed a parallel identity in addition to being a voiceover actor. Since that first presentation that effectively canceled the sinister imposter syndrome logic, he has become known in the industry as the VO Strategist. He understands and teaches others the skills and the business aspects required to craft and maintain a career with longevity, without the guesswork.

Success in that business is not simply about luck, or being at the right place at the right time. He was critical of performing arts preparatory programs, at least for our generation, in how they did not adequately prepare us for “the business.”

We’re not set up for success at that level. It’s getting better, and that’s one of the reasons I have as many students as I do. They have to be effective in applying their trade.

Aside from the hard business skills that are required knowledge, he shared a strategy for success that he came to learn after college, after therapy started to help him recognize the person who he wanted to be: developing the ability to get mentally and emotionally centered. In order to get ready for your day, what are the things you need to do to prepare yourself to be open to direction from the teachers; to know how to self-direct; to receive opportunities offered by a creative partner; to listen and take in information. This is the stuff that makes you an effective performer, and a significant part of his focus as the VO Strategist.

What does Tom still grapple with?

Like so many of us, Tom still grapples with a touch of that nefarious imposter syndrome. At this point, in our 50-year old lives, it is definitely hard to believe we are where we are: gray hairs, almost 30 years out of college, well-established adult humans. I know I can speak for both of us when I say that I often still feel like I am that kid in college, exploring who I am and what I want to be when I grow up.

Part of Tom’s anxiety package comes with the need to be in control, which is often expressed through his “anal-retentive” tendencies. He manages this by being is hyper-organized: spreadsheets, compartmentalizing and labels is his way of navigating the universe. He admits that there are positives and negatives aspects to this:

It’s a bad thing if you engage inadministriviaand are doing things for the sake of anxiety management.

However, Tom prefers to turn this idea around and use it to develop systems to run his business, an inherently positive use of those things in his nature that can easily turn south. As a person who is naturally more rigid in the unpredictable, chaotic, creative voice-over business, he has made good use of the anxiety-provoking qualities that once plagued him. He anchors himself in the discipline and structure of his organizational management strategies, applying them to every aspect of his creative career.

Tom’s sage advice

If you want to be an effective artist on the stage, you need to learn how to be an effective business off the stage.

No matter what you do, do it with both hands and on a flat surface. Give yourself every opportunity to succeed. (watch the interview for that story)

If you want to ‘get there,’ you need to have your eyes open, understand what’s going on around you, and that nobody is responsible for your career except for yourself. Unless your mom’s a casting director, you’re on your own. Nobody will care about your career as much as you do.

A few self-care strategies that he threw in there: Get a good night’s sleep. Fuel yourself. Advocate for yourself.

There was a lot more wisdom, but you’ll have to watch the podcast for that. Oh, look at that! You can watch it right here!

Check out Tom’s VO Strategist Blog post about our interview and some of the thoughts he had regarding theater vs voice-over training. He has some great ideas and insight for actors.

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