Audiobooks: The Theatre of the Voice
Ever wonder about those voices in your head? The ones murmuring in your ear, telling tales of faraway lands and girls next door? Who are they, and where do they come from?
Well, one of them might just be me. And often they come from the theatre.
Audiobook narration is more than just reading books out loud. It’s a form of acting — as complex, demanding, and rewarding as acting in the theatre. So most of the people who narrate audiobooks are also professional actors. While there are many differences between performing onstage and recording in a studio, both jobs require discipline, training, and an in-depth knowledge of the art of acting.
The first step in audiobook recording is “booking” the book. The audition process is quite different for audiobooks than for theatre — in fact, experienced narrators rarely have to audition at all. Every audio producer keeps a roster of narrators whose work they know and like. When a book comes along, the producer chooses a narrator from his list and contacts her to see if she’s available to record the book. If so, the producer will send the book’s author a few samples of the narrator’s work (generally found on Audible or on the narrator’s website). Occasionally, the author will want to hear a sample from his own book, in which case the producer will ask the narrator to self-record a short section and submit the recording for review — the narrator’s equivalent of an audition. If the author approves the narrator, the recording session is scheduled and the producer emails an electronic copy of the book to the narrator for preparation.
Narrators prepare for recording entirely on their own, though they are permitted to ask questions of the producer and/or author. When preparing a fiction book for recording, a primary element that narrators have to consider is character. When I perform onstage, I portray one character — or occasionally a few — within the world of a given play, using my whole body to bring that character to life. But when I narrate a book, I create an entire world using only my voice. In a work of fiction, the narrator has to play all of the characters in the story, altering his or her voice to indicate which person is speaking. This can be done through changes in accent and pronunciation, as well as through shifts in pitch, rhythm, pace, and what I call “texture” — whether a voice sounds nasal, hoarse, breathy, etc. But it’s not about merely changing the sound of your voice. As narrator Caitlin Davies says: “You have to be able to paint the picture with just your words. You’re not just telling the story — you’re living the story.”
Living the stories of so many people at once is an exciting challenge. Narrator Robert Petkoff says: “I think the thing I enjoy most about narration is that I get to play so many different characters at one time, many of whom I’d never be able to play onstage.” Caitlin adds, “You have to have enough versatility to voice characters of different genders and ages and still make them sound believable. This doesn’t mean that if you’re female the listener will expect you to sound exactly like a male speaker, but you can use intonation, pitch, intention, and rhythm to make it sufficiently believable.” My personal specialty as a narrator is accents, so I love recording books that involve characters from different countries. (I’ve even played a few characters from outer space!)
How do we keep all those characters straight? Robert and I share the same technique: “When prepping a fiction title, I’ll read through the entire book and highlight characters with their own colors as I go along,” he says. “That way when I’m in the booth I can quickly switch from one voice to another with a heads-up as to which character is speaking.” Back when narrators read from paper copies, this had to be done with highlighter pens. But modern technology has yielded some positive changes. “I narrate from an iPad, which most narrators do now,” says Robert, “and I use a great app called iAnnotate. It lets me create as many highlighter colors as I need.” (That spectrum of colors has helped me narrate many a book in which numerous characters speak in a single scene!) iAnnotate also allows us to insert sound clips (so we can refer back to the character voices we chose) and written notes (to remind us of key elements in the text). Narrator John Keating says: “I am someone who makes MANY iAnnotate notes page to page. When I’m prepping a book, I will mark pages specifically for later in a day’s recording, often with a hundred and one notes such as ‘several jokes on this page’ or ‘build tension here.’ It’s amazing how helpful the most simple of notes are at 4:15 pm on a Wednesday after three straight days of recording!”
One reason why John has to write such notes is that, more often than not, an audiobook has no director. While the inclusion of a director in the recording process used to be standard, with the industry’s massive expansion in recent years, directors have become few and far between — so narrators frequently have to direct themselves. Yet, even when they’re present, audio directors play a less dominant role than theatre directors do. “In my experience, audiobook directors are very hands-off,” Robert reports. “They certainly interject when something isn’t clear or is read incorrectly, but mostly they let me do my thing.” In contrast, he says, “theatre directors have many other components to deal with and therefore must be very hands-on.” John has a different perspective: “I think for me there is a striking similarity between both, in that audio and stage directors are seeking to create a whole story, a whole world — but that makes audiobook direction uniquely challenging, as the director only has the narrator’s voice with which to create that world.” In my experience, a director is a very valuable resource who can help me excel in my performance of a book — but like most narrators nowadays, I’m accustomed to working on my own. (Though a good sound engineer can be a great help!)
The final step in the process is actually recording the book — and in contrast with theatre, in audio performance there are no rehearsals and no repetitions. People often ask me if I read a book out loud at home before I record it, but the answer is no: I often don’t receive an audiobook script until the week before I’m due to record, so there just isn’t time to rehearse it out loud. Likewise, in the theatre, we get to perform a show over and over again — but in the recording studio, once I complete a book, it’s finished. I might return in a few weeks’ time to record corrections (called “pickups”), but I’ll never get to perform that particular book again. This could be seen as a source of pressure: I only get one shot, so I’d better get it right! But I’ve learned how to let go of that anxiety and to be, instead, fully present in every moment of recording. As Caitlin said, you have to live the book — and if I’m truly living it, I’ll give a polished performance that won’t need to be repeated.
With the exception of solo shows, stage acting is a collaborative art, in which our energy is focused on connecting with our scene partners. Audiobook narrators, however, are quite isolated: we hardly ever get to perform alongside each other. Sometimes multiple narrators work on one book, but they rarely meet if each section of the book is recorded separately. (John and I narrated a book together in 2012 in which our characters ended up married…but we didn’t actually meet in person until four years later — in the theatre!)
Another significant difference between acting onstage and in audiobooks is the proximity of the audience. Even in the smallest theatre, an actor has to project her voice so that the audience can hear her. In contrast, audiobooks are recorded in small studios, with the narrator in close proximity to a microphone. When a listener hears the book, it’s as though the narrator is speaking directly into his ear. For John, this provides “a sense of one-on-one fireside storytelling, which is what I grew up with in Ireland [and] is what I most enjoy.” I personally enjoy the subtlety in performance that can be achieved when I’m reading into a microphone. A whisper can really be a whisper; an emotion can be conveyed in a single breath. And my goal is always to make the listener see and feel the story along with me.
So where does all this magic happen? Many narrators work in recording studios, where an engineer operates the equipment and the narrator sits (or stands) in a booth and reads into a microphone. Other narrators work primarily in home studios, which can be anything from a freestanding recording booth to a soundproofed closet. But wherever the space is located, it’s usually small — and since too much movement can cause noise that disrupts the recording, narrators have to be able to practice stillness. “I stand when narrating so I have a little more freedom of movement than when I used to sit,” says Robert. “That said, stillness in the theatre is a very powerful tool for an actor, so it can be used to good effect in both places.” But we don’t have to keep completely still all the time. Caitlin says, “You can’t rely on physical gesture to add meaning to what you’re saying, but that doesn’t mean that physicality can’t help you as a narrator. The raising of an eyebrow might help you deliver a line in a wry way, while smiling can help you add warmth to a phrase. Those small physical movements are reflected in the voice, and the listener can hear them.”
How long does this whole recording process take? It’s been said that it generally takes two hours in the studio to produce every hour of finished recording. Many of us work a bit faster than that — but we have to be careful to pace ourselves. I find it important to take breaks to refresh my focus. I generally take a five- to ten-minute break every hour or so, with a half-hour break for lunch. Next to me on the table is a glass of water, a tissue box, and a cup of tea. (When I’m recording, I drink herbal tea with honey all day long!) Some narrators work for seven hours or more each day, but I find that after about six hours, my voice is beginning to tire. This does not mean that I lose my voice, or that it becomes hoarse! Actors who have trained in voice and speech technique know how to keep our voices healthy. What does happen, however, is that the muscles I use while doing the work grow tired — just as a runner’s muscles tire while running a marathon. And sometimes a marathon is exactly what it feels like!
So if it’s so exhausting…why do we do it? The answer is the same as for any actor: love. “I love the challenge of audiobook work,” says John. “For me it never gets easier, and simultaneously never less rewarding. The feeling of reaching the end of a book, if you’ve given it your all and it’s given you back in kind, is very gratifying. I’ve always enjoyed it as much as stage work and feel very fortunate to be able to do both.” Robert says, “I love reading and have since I was a kid. Getting paid to read out loud is kind of amazing to me. I also enjoy getting introduced to authors and genres that I might not have found otherwise.” As for me, I have always loved reading and acting — and audiobook narration is the perfect combination of both.
What about actors who have to balance book narrating and theatre acting…at the same time? “I find it most challenging when I have to perform in a play after recording all day in the studio,” says John. “I finish recording, have a quiet dinner with no talking, and then sit at the theatre with a tea and hope there’s enough gas left in the pipes. It’s something that never gets easier and is unlikely to!” But sometimes that’s simply what we actors have to do. As John quips: “A book has a deadline and needs to be completed and you have an eight-show week and away you go!”
Finally: what’s the most important quality in a narrator? “You have to have a very powerful imagination,” says Caitlin. “In some ways, you have to make even more use of your imagination when narrating than when acting onstage or on camera, because the only tool you have is your voice.” And if we’re truly living the stories our voices tell, our listeners will feel as if they’re living those stories as well.
Barrie Kreinik is an actress, writer, and award-winning audiobook narrator based in New York City.