Home / Entertainment / Catapult editor Tajja Isen: On ‘The Berenstain Bears,’ sounding like Snow White and the terror of visibility

Catapult editor Tajja Isen: On ‘The Berenstain Bears,’ sounding like Snow White and the terror of visibility

Tajja Isen, author of Some Of My Best Friends: Essays On Lip Service, Doubleday Canada

  • Tajja Isen, author of Some Of My Best Friends: Essays On Lip Service, Doubleday Canada
  • Some Of My Best Friends: Essays On Lip Service, by Tajja Isen, Doubleday Canada, 240 pages, $32
In the early 2000s, the North American voice-over industry lowered its entry requirements. Icons of the nineties, like the “Rugrats” toddlers or the tweens from “Doug”, had been played by actors far beyond those ages. Being able to sound younger, or like anything you’re not — animal, vegetable, mineral, conservative, ginger — has long been part of animation’s magic. But as the millennium turned, trends changed. If the nineties sounded worldly, a little wry, then the coveted tone of the aughts was innocence. The authenticity boom had begun: Young characters on an animated show, the rule went, should be played by young people

At nine years old, I was suddenly tall enough to ride the roller coaster. It was a good time to be young and fame-hungry, though I assumed my face would be the thing that got me on TV, not my voice. I loved to do impressions, but I considered them a practical skill, like doing the Heimlich or starting a fire with two sticks — sure, it can save your life, but it’s not exactly the thing you plan to be known for. I mostly used my voice to manipulate people. When I dialed my dad’s office and an assistant answered, I’d ask, in a British accent, for her to “put Dr. Isen on the line.” When family friends called and thought I was my mom, I didn’t correct them right away. Other times, the stakes were higher: when talking to the white girls that filled my Toronto suburb, I’d emulate their upspeak to deflect from our more visible differences. The voice, I was learning, could be both play and power. When I told my parents I wanted to be an actor just as cartoons were becoming a kids’ market, I found the perfect outlet — and probably dodged a future conviction for vocal fraud.

My first voice audition was for a reboot of “The Berenstain Bears”, the classic children’s series about a bear family, whose name the internet regularly freaks out over the spelling of. The studio was in one of Toronto’s former industrial neighborhoods, just beyond where the railway tracks start slicing off the city’s western edge. Sitting in the waiting room with my dad, I felt the hum of collective anxiety, like a pediatrician’s office full of better-dressed kids. The young crowd sat, our feet swinging from bucket seats, grim with anxiety but still gleaming with the odd professionalized sheen of the child actor.

At that point, I’d only been on the audition circuit for a few months. I’d gone for a handful of on-camera casting calls and struck out every time, but I took it on the chin. My parents made sure I knew it was a numbers game and not simply a talent one; that, when you go out for a role, you’re more likely to lose it than land it. At the same time, I was starting to wonder if my luck was spoiled by more than the usual odds. When I stepped in front of a camera and the casting team got a good look at me, it wasn’t about numbers or talent, but something else entirely: I’d stand on the little taped X, emote like I was gunning for the Emmy, and hear as if on cue, “Could you do that a little more street?” Casting directors tossed off the phrase as casually as asking me to play it more natural or desperate or sexy. They never modeled or explained what they meant by it because, while that would have been helpful, it also would have been a human rights violation. But this feedback — if you can call it that — was a beat-cop sentiment buried in a polite liberal ask. It assumed I was fluent in white fantasies of how Black people really are, and that I was game to act out those fantasies for money.

Sitting at the “Berenstain” casting call, I hoped voice work would be different. A production assistant came to fetch me from the waiting room and walked me through a network of offices and editing suites. In the studio, it was dark and close. I could see the production team through a double-paned window, and they could see me, but I still felt invisible in a way that I liked. I remember not knowing what to do with my body, but also intuiting that that worry was pointless. After the eye of the camera, standing in front of the mic felt like getting away with something — a way to harness authority with none of the terror of visibility. Like impersonating your mother on the phone.

As with most people, I don’t think I could have told you what my voice sounded like until I heard it played back to me. Apparently, when I opened my mouth, it gave way to some “Snow White” s — t. Birds chirped and brooks babbled. It was a voice that chimed with the innocence newly in style. After a round or two of callback auditions, I booked the gig. Not long after, I left screen work behind altogether and surrendered, in joyful relief, to cartoons. That acoustic space of chirping birds and babbling brooks became my calling card — I’ve voiced a lot of squeaky, wide-eyed animals, and a generous serving of Strong Female Lead. Two decades later, I still work in the field, though I can only approach the purity of my sonic youth asymptotically. But every time I’m on the mic, I still thrill with the sense of invisibility like it’s my first session.

I got into animation at an objectively good time, but that timing was also very personal. The idea of cartoons as a refuge from show-biz racism is part of my origin story. It also made certain facts easy to get invested in: that voice work was more about talent and less about looks or numbers. That reading for a wider array of characters meant I could more fairly prove my worth. While these things are true, if you believe in them too hard, you’ll miss other truths about the industry’s evolving relationship to equity that are equally valid. In cartoons, the offenses were less egregious than what I saw elsewhere, but they were still present, embedded not just in who gets cast, but who gets to write, direct, run the show, or get in the door at all. Naming the flaws in a world that’s nurtured me is part of growing with and within it, of loving something vigorously and well. It can’t all be the masochistic thrill of taking direction and the obliviating play of pretending I’m a bear.

Excerpted from Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Isen. Copyright © 2022 Tajja Isen. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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