A performing artist finds her true passion off camera 00:00

Women at Work Stepping up to the mic

A performing artist finds her true passion off camera

Taj Ruler found her calling in voice-over work when she returned home to Minnesota after college. With a background in improvisation, she talks about her successes and the challenges faced as a scripted voice actor specializing in animation, narration and commercial projects.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
The number of postings for female voices is growing faster (24%) than the rate of new jobs posted for males (16%). This trend has been developing for at least the last four years. Source: Voices.com, 2018 study

Clip “Introductions Part 2: Featuring Otto and Ada”

Krysta Rayford

For the past 12 years, Taj Ruler has been making her mark as an actor. Specializing in improvisation, Taj’s skills took her across the country, where she worked and trained at a number of legendary venues including Second City in Chicago and The Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. Allowing her to take more risks, she says that improv helped her growth as a scripted actor, until a unique opportunity presented itself for her to start her journey as voice-over talent.

Taj Ruler   

What led me into voice work? When I moved back to the Twin Cities after college, I really wanted to just kind of expand my options on what I could do as a performing artist. I was working at the Science Museum of Minnesota as one of their like, science, live actors. And a fellow actor there was like, Hey, I have a friend who is putting together a project that is looking for some voice actors. And I had been thinking about, you know, wanting to do that anyway. And they were like, could you put together a demo? And so, like in a wide open room with not a good mic that had, it was so echoey, I just like kind of, you know, threw together this piece.

And then I sent it to them and they contacted me, and then I went in for like a proper audition for this animated project that I worked on for actually, I think like, oh, gosh, six, seven years, I think at the end of it. 

Clip: “Manners: Featuring Otto and Tot”

Taj Ruler  

I think I do have a very bright voice. I think those kind of like more resonant, serious like, which I really love to do, they’re harder for me because my voice just happens to be a little bit higher pitched and brighter, than you know, somebody who can really like hone in on that like resonant kind of like impactful, soulful voice kind of thing that I really have to like work for that. 

I feel like sometimes I’ve had a couple of projects where they’ve been really micromanaged. It’s usually the producer, or the director has a very specific idea of what they’re looking for. And my voice is what they’re looking for, but they want it in a certain way. So I’m one of those actors that like, if somebody wants to give me a line read, this is their project. At the end of the day, I want to be able to present them with the project that they want. I know some actors that don’t feel that way. They’re like, I hate a line read, I don’t want to do it. And I honestly, I very much understand that. But for me, I really, I don’t mind it. It’s just hard, because it feels like there’s not a lot of flexibility. It feels like they don’t want to deviate. If I give them something that everyone else might be saying is great, but they have something very clear in their mind. They’re like, I want you to read it just like this. And so I will read it just like that. And they will get the read that they want. But I do find that to be challenging. It feels like I don’t get to be as creative and it kind of stifles the fun.

I think voice-overs can be so creative. And I’m very grateful that I have a background in improv, because I think that’s really contributed to a lot of the creativity that I get to have on mic when I’m doing voice-overs. I feel like voices can be really powerful and can share so many messages. Even if it’s you know, for something more generic, like a commercial. I think you can still make it expressive in you, you know, and make it unique. 

I always like to think of every project that I do as a character. Oftentimes, I’ll tell people that because people will say, People tell me I have a really good voice, I have a good voice, I have a good, you know, phone voice or whatever. And I was like, That’s huge. You also need to perform. It is, it is acting. Voice-over work is acting, at least in my opinion. And so I love to go in and being like, Who am I talking to right now? What is my motivation for saying these lines? You know, if I’m talking about LaCroix, why am I so excited about LaCroix like, I love hydration, everybody should be hydrated, I want people to feel more, you know, alive in their bodies. I try to be really specific talking to one person and who is that person? Is it my best friend? Is it my mom? Is it, you know, a loved one? It doesn’t matter who it is, I get to decide. And that’s just, that’s personal. And that’s fun for me. I try to make it personal, always.

Taj Ruler voices the character of Otto, left, in the animated video series, “Whirl: Ada & Friends,” about kids who attend Sunday school together and help each other with the challenges of growing up and growing in faith.

Clip: “Target: 6 More Ways to Enjoy LaCroix”

Taj Ruler  

I think the challenge is that people think it’s easy. Like if you have a certain voice, oh how easy, you’re making money just by talking at something, like at a microphone. Like, how lucky. And I feel very fortunate, and I do feel lucky. And also I work. While I feel so grateful and honored to be able to be part of the voice-over community in the Twin Cities, I had to work to get here and I love the work. But it wasn’t just like, oh, I showed up to a microphone one day.

So I think that’s the thing that often comes up is people think that it’s like fun little side project, like, Oh, how cute, I think is sometimes how people think about it. And that really makes me frustrated because in general, I think as an artist, if anybody says something is cute without it actually being like genuinely like, like a dog or a puppy, Oh, how cute! I don’t want to be called that way. Like it feels, you know, patronizing. It feels like, like a pat on the head, like, good job, do your little art. 

When it comes to voice-over work, I think or even in like, again, I’m broadening out to the arts in general, there’s a mentality sometimes of it being competitive, that there’s not enough. And I feel like that leads to scarcity. And I don’t think that’s, that’s true. I think everybody’s voice is unique and brings a perspective. And there’s no competition for me anyway. If somebody I’m up against gets it, amazing. That’s the voice they needed for this project. That’s huge. I want to celebrate that. I really love to champion others. I’m a big supporter in like collaborative work. 

Most of the people that I’ve looked up to are women. I didn’t even honestly, this is maybe terrible, but I didn’t even think about any men. Like, I was like, I don’t think any men have really inspired me. Those are the ones that have usually negated my dreams or aspirations, or goals. Or be like, You’re really gonna have to work super hard, little lady. Again, it’s that patronizing tone, you know. “How cute” it comes back down to. 

I do believe that we have made a huge stride. In the last few years alone, I can see that there has been change, and more. Those like brand voices, the voice of a network or whatever, I feel like they are shifting more. But there’s so much work to be done still. I mean, there’s so much work to be done still. And I’m wanting to be able to, you know, contribute my voice to that change in movement as well. 

My hope is that there’s going to be a huge shift in that. And I think, for women, and also I want to include non-binary, you know, people like in that, and allowing that to branch out and to not have it be so like, quote, unquote, feminine or masculine; it’s what is going to represent us. 

Because I listen to voices all the time, or, like, I listen to commercials, and different online ads and things like that, to hear what the tone is that people are listening for, and looking for. And noticing that like, most, you know, kind of, quote, unquote, smart devices, like Alexa or Siri are all women and women voices because they’re doing a task for you. And it’s really interesting that it’s women’s voices that are represented as the person that’s just kind of, quote unquote, serving you in a way. 

Clip: Man speaking to Siri

Taj Ruler

And I’d be really interested to see if that would ever to shift. I mean, and at the same time, I’m so grateful that women are getting work. Do you know what I mean? Like that they’re getting these huge gigs, that they’re all you know, being able to do that, but it’s also that same tone of like, let me serve you, let me mother you, let me, you know, comfort you, and I’m ready for the day where they can have those more authoritative work as well. And I do think it’s happening. It’s a slow burn, but it does feel like it’s moving that way. And I, I’m, again, wanting that more for women, non-binary individuals, women of color in particular. I feel like, and I want that also for not even just in front of the mic, I want it behind the mic. I will say, that’s been an experience that’s been really interesting. And no, I can count on one hand the number of like women, like directors that I’ve had, or women engineers that I’ve worked with, when it comes to voice-over work. And I just take note of that. So anytime I see a woman behind the mic in that way, I’m like very excited, I’m like, Yay, hello, we’re doing it, we’re doing the thing. 

I think there’s so much of my time where I would just be holding my breath waiting for, you know, if I was in the booth, like, what, what am I doing wrong? As opposed to like, what are, look at all the things you’re doing right and to lean into that. And also, what is right and wrong, right? Like you’re making strong choices, and that’s what’s important. 

I think with improv often, there’s a quote that’s like ‘fall and figure out what to do on the way down,’ like, but just to take the leap. And I think there were, there were some times when I was younger where I just didn’t do that, I was too scared. So I would invite myself to fall a little bit more and you know, you’ll figure out what to do on the way down.

Krysta Rayford

For iPondr, I’m Krysta Rayford. 

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Digital Media Producer and Program Host

Krysta Rayford

Krysta Rayford is an audio producer and voice actor based in Minneapolis, MN. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Krysta also performs as K.Raydio, a musician whose work has been featured internationally on VH1, BBC Radio and Okayplayer. Krysta was a two-time featured performer at Soundset Music Festival in 2014 and 2019, one of the largest hip-hop festivals in the United States. In 2020, Krysta was named faculty at MacPhail Center for Music in the new Electronic Music and Recording Arts (EMRA) department. In addition to her work as a musician, Krysta is a Digital Media Producer and Program Host for iPondr. Her background in audio production is rooted in her work as Voiceover Talent in Audio Description narration. Her credits include: Empire (FOX), A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO), Independent Lens (PBS), Barbie’s Dreamhouse Adventures (Netflix) and more.

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Episode Stepping up to the mic