Audio Drama: Dead or Alive?

 

Goodreads

Has audio/radio drama died? No way. With more people listening to iPods and iPhones than ever while on the move, there is a demand for audio content beyond Top 40 and political talk radio.  L.A. Theatre Works has Hollywood actors from George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Annette Benning to talented amateurs reading both original and Pulitzer Prize winning dramas for download and on CD format. I once met the producer and actress Marsha Mason at the Audie Awards in L.A.. Neil Patrick Harris, Paul Giamatti, and Hilary Swank are also in their fold, with a BBC4 partnership as well. And many audiobook producers are now stepping up to the microphone with multi-cast productions. The association with audiobook narrators like Barbara Rosenblat and Scott Brick is strong, and they contribute their efforts in spreading the word and offering master classes in the areas of creating characters and accents. I asked creative arts icon and technology expert Andrew Glassner recently if he listens to audiobooks, and what he personally enjoys—and is up to—and he responded: “I usually listen while walking my dog, and tend to prefer plot-driven fiction. Then each day I can back up a minute or two and pick up the thread, so I’m re-synchronized with the story.  I had the chance to write and direct a short animated film using computer graphics. That led to writing scripts and directing actors for a live-action internet game, which led to writing novels. Reading fiction is how I discover worlds that I don’t or can’t inhabit. I’ll never see the world personally through the eyes of a rock star, or a 16-year-old blind girl in rural Georgia, or a sailor lost at sea, or a star-eating creature from another planet. But books let me see the world as they do, or might. That’s both inherently rewarding, and a vital step towards deeper empathy.”  (In my own case, I knew radio drama icon Yuri Rasovsky, and Frank Muller, who were involved in two of my early novels, which is how I became interested in audiobooks: which listening on the job or traveling. Yuri and Frank are both gone now, but Yuri was a Grammy winner and  columnist for Audiofile magazine, while Frank was Stephen King’s favorite reader of his own books, and a friend of his.)

For a deeper look at those producers, and the state of radio and audio drama production today, I interviewed Sue Zizza once, and more recently asked about her for a statement, and she said, “I think the state of the audio drama community is very strong. Podcasting and technology are leading to an increased number of high quality productions which more audiences are finding thanks in part to their awareness of audio stories brought about by the growth of audiobooks. The community is so strong we now host an annual Festival celebrating the works of hundreds of artists is called HEAR Now. For example, you can get good listening with an event June 7-10, and come hear the newest audio drama.” She is Executive Director of what has become the National Audio Theatre Festival. It’s of interest to writers, too. Zizza also teaches a course on the subject of audio drama at New York University, and credits success to directors like Charlie Potter, Yuri Rasovsky and Tom Lopez, along with audio artists like Marjorie Van Haltern, David Ossman and others. Here’s my flashback interview with her:

“Back in 1979,” Zizza recalled, “when I was on staff at a community radio station in Missouri, we put feelers out across the country to other dramatists in the field. The intent was to see who was still doing what, and to form a new group of professionals, utilizing funds provided at the time by public radio, the NEA and CPB. Then when the suggestion was made to form a training event, the Midwest Radio Drama Workshop was born. Now, our week long workshops in Missouri introduce people at all skill levels to audio drama production.” As Zizza further explains it, “We believe that if you learn how to produce an audio play, where you’re blending voice and music and sound effects and silence, then you can take those skills and become a better documentary, film or music producer, because what you learn through telling your story as audio drama really hones your storytelling craft.”

In addition to week long workshops, the NATF also sponsors weekend events around the country, focused on one particular skill, and at the end an actual performance is staged so that these learned skills can be practiced. “Take Lindsay Ellison, for example,” Zizza points out, “who added audio production and direction to her stage direction and acting skills. Now she’s working with Tom Lopez on the post production of her play. Others take classes in voice acting, writing, producing, directing and technology. After learning the fundamentals, they mount a live show as an effects artist or technical assistant, and also network with others at meals and social events.”

In describing the unique challenges of audio drama, Zizza cites knowing how to make voices unique “because obviously there are no body types or hair colors as in stage acting,” and also knowing when and how often to utilize sound effects “because too much sound design only confuses the listener, and should only be used to support the action, identify locales, or move characters around a space.” In short, the listener must be clear at all moments about what is going on. And that rule has never changed.

But hasn’t the equipment changed since radio’s Golden Age? “Not really,” claims Zizza. “Many of the props I use today were inherited from my mentor Al Shaffer, who did sound effects for Bob & Ray, among others. He taught me how to do horses, walk down stairs, etc. The only thing that’s really changed is that the microphones are more sensitive now, so you can’t get away with using an old-time prop like cellophane to make fire. Although corn starch is still used for walking through snow.” Indeed, she is adamant that sound effects taken from CDs don’t work for the most part, even in our modern, high-tech era. “The acoustic space is not the same as the space where the actors record, and you can tell. With animals in a zoo, for example, there’s a reverb which can’t be corrected. So getting a sound effects artist to listen and add effects in real time actually saves time. Where the science has advanced is really in post production, with digital recording and editing. But if you don’t understand how the elements of writing and acting and sound design combine in the final product, it won’t matter if you’re producing it digitally, and Pro Tools won’t save you.”

Zizza says that part of her funding today comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, and part from the local arts councils where the festivals are held, and from individual contributors. The audio drama community as it exists today consists of “about two hundred independent companies or individuals producing mostly new material, although maybe half will produce both old time and new scripts.” For her own part, she produced The Radio Works, a sampler series which is heard on 70 public radio stations, and features a different producer each time, with all new work. Other audio drama companies currently active include the Full Cast Audio company, founded by Bruce Coville, a producer/publisher of teen and young adult titles primarily in the fantasy genre; the Atlanta Radio Theater, Great Northern Audio Theatre, ZBS Foundation, Firesign Theatre, Shoestring Radio Theater (an amateur San Francisco company), and the Radio Repertory Company of America. Seeing Ear Theatre, associated with the Scifi channel, produces original plays for publishers like Harper Audio, like the excellent “Two Plays for Voices,” featuring actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy performing Neil Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples” and “Murder Mysteries.”

What does the future hold by way of opportunities for actors, writers, directors and technicians in the full cast segment of the audiobook industry? Zizza is cautious, but optimistic. “Full cast audio is costly to produce, as you know, and so there are not as many titles available. This is also true for public radio stations, who find it more economical to produce news or talk shows. But I think the situation is improving over what it was just three years ago. Listeners are becoming more astute, and they enjoy hearing a story, and so after seeing something like Spider Man, which has an incredible sound track, you can’t expect them to listen to a dry audiobook with nothing but a voice. With all the webcasting and iPod downloading going on, and with the variety of Mp3 players that are starting to come standard in new cars, I think people will seek out audio drama, and already a new crop of directors and producers are studying the craft the same way as those who study stage acting. Our challenge is to produce better quality material, and take those interested to the next level of skills so that audio theater looks forward instead of backward.” 

Lorna Raver

Lorna Raver was married to Yuri Rasovsky until his death in 2012. She had a lead role in DRAG ME TO HELL, which also starred Alison Lohman, and Dileep Rao (who was in Avatar.) Lorna has performed on stage in New York, and has narrated many audiobooks, including CUJO. In real life, she’s a sweet lady! (It’s all about makeup…and great acting.) She was also in the films The Caller, and Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. Interview at this blog HERE. –Jonathan Lowe

Peter Berkrot Interview

Peter Berkrot

Jonathan Lowe) How did you come to voice acting? 

Peter Berkrot) I started acting and training in New York in 1973 when I was in 13 or 14, so how I came to voice acting is like how I came to Massachusetts or marriage. The longer the trail, the more paths there are. My focus then was theatre, of course. I was a theatre major at SUNY New Paltz but when I was cast in Caddyshack halfway through college, I began to see my career through a more expansive lens. The majority of voice work came when I left New York in 1989 and moved to New England. Very soon, I was doing VO work for documentaries, occasionally playing the American translation voice for the on camera speakers. That eventually translated into a great relationship at WGBH in Boston where I’ve been doing that type of work for FRONTLINE since 2004.

JL) Wow. A fav movie, and a fav PBS series! Bannon’s War? As a footnote, I once communicated with Frontline’s main narrator Will Lyman, who also did the voiceover for Jonathan Goldsmith, the World’s Most Interesting Man, who has a biography out titled Stay Interesting, which Goldsmith reads on audio. Interesting story, too. Jonathan says he was living out of his truck, and was killed on screen as an extra more than anyone, until that Dos Equis commercial. Lyman can’t talk about it, still under contract. Other formats? Commercials, games, documentaries?

PB) There was a ton of industrial work in the 90’s and 00’s so I did all sorts of on camera and VO work, often playing characters with a variety of dialects. Then I did a bunch of local games, creating a character called “I.M. Meen” at the end of the MS-DOS revolution. Google it. People have taken my song and twisted it around so I’m saying all sorts of nasty things. I started looking into audiobooks in 2006 and did my first in 2007.

JL) You recorded The Art of War, which is Trump’s favorite book, and a big seller. Any thoughts to share on the Machiavellian Sun Tzu philosophy, and if you think it relates in any way to Leadership and Self Deception, or maybe the stress levels described in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, both of which you’ve also narrated?

PB) I was lucky enough to come of age between wars so I never experienced the horrors of war either first or second hand. I actually always feel a bit like a fraud when I’m playing all the real life and fictitious Navy Seals and marines I do in books. For The ART OF WAR I found that I was most authentic after channelling my inner Klingon, giving context I could understand to experiences I could not. As for this being trump’s favorite book, an oxymoron if I ever heard (or met) one, I would be astonished if he ever read a book cover to cover that didn’t include instructions on connecting the dots. It is a favorite of some of the greatest warriors, generals and military strategists in history and that’s part of his delusion so no doubt he said that. I bet his other favorite is the Bible.

JL) Yes, but he couldn’t name a favorite verse.

PB) If he were somehow “clockwork oranged” and forced to read the whole book, there is no indication that he understood a single concept based on how he conducts himself. I’m sure his lawyer’s lawyer’s spokesman would agree. As for LEADERSHIP AND SELF DECEPTION, unlike many self-help books in the Business category which are about leveling the playing field and getting the edge on the competition, this is a much more spiritual approach to leadership, asking the listener to look within him or herself to deeply evaluate ones relationship to oneself, to others, to work and so forth. It is about growing and getting out of your own way and not blaming or undermining anyone else along the way. It’s tremendous popularity is probably attributed to the creative prose which is a series of scripted scenes and opportunities for self evaluation. There actually are some connections between THE ART OF WAR and WHY ZEBRAS DON’T GET ULCERS, although it may seem to be reaching. The ability to reduce stress will add years to your life. Planning for every contingency in battle and holding the better defensive position requires a calm and logical mind as well as strength and resolve. In Dr. Sapolsky’s book, he brilliantly illustrates through the explanation of his title why we can also live longer, though the war is internal. Stress is supposed to be a survival mechanism. If you’re a zebra running from a lion, you absolutely require the adrenaline and hormonal barrage that stress brings to make sure you’re not the slowest zebra in the herd. The moment the threat is gone, the stress levels drop to neutral and the zebra renews his strolling and grazing. A human being would lie there on the steppes and worry about the next lion until one came and he’s ‘run and worry and run and worry’ until eventually, he’d die of a heart attack or diabetes.

JL) We’d eat pizza too while worrying. Comfort food. What did you read as a teen that may have influenced you?

PB) I loved series books as most kids do. And Dr. Seuss. But I was 6 or 7 when the original STAR TREK hit the air and 12 or 13 when I saw my first Twilight Zone. Those were my major influences which drew me from the small screen to the small page. I started writing a lot of Horror and Science Fiction stories, big on time travel. Then the real reading kicked in. Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was huge for me and everything by Kurt Vonnegut. Then Catch-22 and Stephen King.

JL) You narrated a couple of Richard Matheson titles, who was a short story master, like Ray Bradbury. You’ve also done Philip K. Dick and Dean Koontz. That’s a lot of genres under the umbrella “speculative fiction.” Any preferred genre?  

PB) Yes! Time Travel! Anything related to time travel! Watching STAR TREK and TWILIGHT ZONE naturally led me to Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov. Of all the comic books I read as a kid I liked Legion of Super Heroes best because they were in the future. When I get to narrate anything by Philip K. Dick or the others in this genre, I feel it as an honor and a challenge, a thread connecting me to my past and my future.

JL) Another footnote, did you know Harlan Ellison is an audiobook narrator too, and he knows the scoop on both Star Trek and Scientology first hand? His tell-all is the audiobook The City on the Edge of Forever, the story behind the script he wrote. He actually saved Star Trek from cancellation, early on, by petitioning for it. Bradbury helped launch Playboy magazine, too. Fahrenheit 451 was first published in the first issues. What is next for you?

PB) In terms of books, “Caddyshack, The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story” by Chris Nashawaty is just released, certainly the most personal and bizarre narrating experience I had, especially quoting myself. Next I go into the booth to record BLOWN by Mark Haskell Smith, the sixth novel of his I have had the extraordinary pleasure of narrating. Funniest. Guy. Ever. Then, the opposite. The brilliantly crafted but emotionally shattering memoir THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT by Robert Goolrick for HighBridge Audio. And then I’ll be spending 46 hours with Dwight D. Eisenhower courtesy of Audible Studios. More books. More teaching! I haven’t talked about my teaching or private coaching but its one of my strengths and passions. More Skyping, and maybe one day I’ll save up enough money to do a play again. While I can still memorize. And walk.

JL) I once saw a woman walk into a tree while reading a print book. As I passed her with my iPod, I said one word: “Audiobooks.” Thanks for taking time for an interview.

Happy World Book Day

Ariana Grande

Reading list?

Playing with Fire

Audio Drama

Click on image above for link to the Radio Drama, which is downloadable for your local radio station or website. Produced for Sun Sounds Radio for the Blind (art museum related horror,) with a link to the charity. Free download; several others are there too. Full cast and sound. In news, my novel Awakening Storm has been released at Audible, narrated by ESPN horse racing producer and voiceover talent Barry Abrams. 

Barry Abrams

Hurricane Season

Never Judge a Narrator by their Cover

Horror movies

Lorna Raver is a film and stage actress who also has a career as an audiobook narrator. She records for many publishers, her next to be about the public school system titled “These Schools Belong to You and Me.” Her longtime companion was the late great Yuri Rasovsky, the Grammy winning radio drama icon. Lorna starred in a horror movie DRAG ME TO HELL, directed by Sam Raimi (very much out of character for her…she’s a sweet lady, whom I once met at the Audie awards in LA.)

JONATHAN LOWE: Which came first for you–stage acting or voice acting?

LORNA RAVER: I started as a stage actor and stage acting will always be closest to my heart. I love inhabiting another life. I love the discipline of stage work, the challenge of re-creating night after night while keeping it fresh, the interaction with other actors – and with the audience, the exercise of all your skills – mental, spiritual and physical. My first experience with voice acting came about when I was hired to do a play for Yuri Rasovsky’s prestigious National Radio Theatre in Chicago. As is the case with most stage actors who do audio drama, I had a ball! Learning how to convey vocally what one might express physically on stage was very exciting, and there’s no better teacher for that than Yuri.

Q: What are the difficulties and similarities involved?

A: Discovering the emotional resonance of your character and the play as a whole is not significantly different from stage acting, but the techniques required of the actor are different. For example, you may have an emotionally intense scene with another actor but because of a necessary mic set-up, you may not be able to make eye contact with that actor – you must convey all the interaction with your voice. You really learn how to listen! And you really learn how to mean what you say and say what you mean! Of course, voice acting broadens your casting opportunities, too. If you can realistically sound like an old person or a child, you can be hired to play one, even though you may be neither.

Q: I can’t think of any narrators who haven’t acted on stage or on TV at the very least, although I’m sure there must be some. What must a TV or film actor learn in order to make the transition to voice acting, given that he or she can’t be seen?

A: Audiobook narration, to me, is not as closely related to stage acting as is audio drama. Fiction narration certainly requires the ability to “act” the characters in the book and to honor the arc of the narrative, but audiobooks present other challenges different from stage, TV or film acting. Technically, there is the simple fact that you are restricted in movement for long stretches of time. You’re sitting in a booth and you need to be always aware of mic position. Audiobook narration can be grueling and requires mental and vocal stamina. It is incredibly focused work. I am blessed with vocal stamina so that after hours of recording, it is rarely my voice that goes, it is my brain!

Q: What about creating multiple character voices?

A: When it comes to creating different voices for different characters, I don’t feel that I have a good vocabulary for describing that process technically. It’s related to the same process one would use creating a character for stage, film or TV, except that an audiobook may require a dozen different characters not of the narrator’s age, gender or race, all of which need to be distinct, identifiable and consistent. Listening to and practicing voices and accents are useful, but you also need to apply them appropriately. If you really want a tutorial on how to broaden your “voice library,” go out for an evening with Barbara Rosenblat. She studies the sound of everyone she encounters from the cab driver to the waiter to the lady eating at the next table!

Q: What a great suggestion! Have interviewed her. She’s fantastic. Now, was it easier for you to transition to film acting than it might be for someone doing the reverse, do you think?

A: I didn’t really transition from audio to film since, while I had done audio drama before I worked in film, it was only after I had done a substantial amount of stage and TV and some film work that I began narrating audio books. However, the difficulty of audiobook narration is often underrated by those who haven’t done it. On more than one occasion while working on a film or TV show, I’ve had other actors tell me that they tried narrating audiobooks and it was just too hard! Episodic TV requires stamina, but the work flow is so different. You shoot a scene then break then shoot again then break and so on rather than spend an hour or more at a time in the booth recording.

Q: What types of audiobooks do you most enjoy narrating?

A: All types. I like the diversity of narrating both fiction and non-fiction. I think fiction is much more demanding and having the occasional non-fiction break is refreshing to me.

Q: Full cast must be a lot of fun, working with Yuri. I only met him once, after he produced one of my novels. Radio drama is the only acting I’ve tried myself, as solo narration is beyond me. As a medium, it is very time consuming and therefore rare. Any favorites there?

A: The kick you get from acting in audio drama is closest to the kick from working on stage! Yuri is such a skilled audio director, and always gets wonderful actors for his productions, so I’m ready to go whenever he has something he thinks I’m right for. I had a chance to do some “audio noir” or channel my inner Barbara Stanwyck! in his Hollywood Theatre of the Ear production of BLACK MASK AUDIO MAGAZINE for Blackstone Audio, and also had a good time playing a Brit in his Audie Award winning production of THE SHERLOCK HOLMES THEATRE, also for Blackstone Audio.

Q: In non-fiction, I see you’ve recently narrated CHEAP–The High Cost of Discount Culture. What was the research like?

A: My main goals in non-fiction narration are clarity and conveying the “mood” of the book. The research involved in preparing for a non-fiction read is often much more extensive and time-consuming than for fiction. For example, I read two books on ancient Egypt for Tantor: TEMPLES, TOMBS & HIEROGLYPHS and RED LAND, BLACK LAND both by Barbara Mertz, and which involved major research. It is of invaluable assistance when the author is available for consultation, as was the case with those two books, but you don’t always have an author contact. One thing I really like about non-fiction narration is that I learn so much – especially about topics I would not necessarily be drawn to otherwise.

Furman

Lorna Raver has narrated both Cujo by Stephen King and an audiobook about Mother Teresa.

Lorna Raver:

 

Acting & Listening Advice from Alan Alda

Alan Alda bookMost communication is nonverbal. We want to look at the faces of those testifying in Congress and detect lies or deceit. They try to keep their faces blank in order not to telegraph this, but subtle clues or reactions are there in their voices and tone, too. Their pauses, gestures. Alan Alda talks about how the face is judged, not for just beauty or ugliness, but for believability. Why paying attention to people’s reactions or expressions when they talk is most important in understanding WHAT THEY MEAN. Mostly we misunderstand what people say or mean, but by truly listening and observing we have a better chance of connecting (and resolving conflicts too.) Instead of waiting for people to stop speaking so we can make another point, Alda’s point is to LISTEN with all our senses with the objective to UNDERSTAND. Not to “win” an argument by demeaning or defeating anyone (or everyone) seen as an opponent. Great new audiobook upcoming June 6. Order at Tower Review. As James Garner once put it: “I don’t act. I react. Give me a reactor over an actor any time. It puts you there in the moment, and you’re less likely to flub the way you read your lines, too.” Alda was in the movies Bridge of Spies, The Aviator, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Crimes & Misdemeanors. On TV’s MASH, and Scientific American Frontiers. He has won 7 Emmys, and is a big fan of science. “At first I think they just wanted a famous face do the introduction, and then narrate off camera, but I wanted to be there and interview the scientists.” He’s read Scientific American magazine since a kid.

Ariana Grande

Romance Book Winners

 

Romance novels

The romance finalists in the Audie awards this year are: 

Dirty by Kylie Scott, narrated by Andi Arndt, published by Macmillan Audio
 
Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt, narrated by Ashford McNab, published by Hachette Audio
 
First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, narrated by Nicole Poole, published by HarperAudio
 
Glitterland: Spires, Book 1 by Alexis Hall, narrated by Nicholas Boulton, published by Hedgehog Inc Productions
 
The Obsession by Nora Roberts, narrated by Shannon McManus, published by Brilliance Publishing