Voices in your head

Meet the ac­tors spe­cial­iz­ing in au­dio­books

The Prince George Citizen - - A&E - Travis DESHONG

David McKeel pauses.

The ro­mance genre is un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for him.

He’s reading a se­lec­tion from Cheris Hodges’s steamy novel, Recipe for De­sire.

Where McKeel picks up, the pro­tag­o­nist, Marie, has sprained her an­kle, and a mil­lion­aire hunk named Devon is driving her to Pres­by­te­rian Hos­pi­tal in his red Ford Mus­tang.

A per­fect time for some flirt­ing. “I will say one thing,” McKeel says, as Marie, “I never took you for a Ford man.”

He keeps his voice near its nor­mal pitch; in the world of au­dio­book nar­ra­tion, mod­u­lat­ing too much from one char­ac­ter to an­other is bad prac­tice.

His coach, Johnny Heller, cuts him off.

He wants McKeel to put the em­pha­sis on “you” in­stead of “Ford.”

“You can’t dance around what’s go­ing on,” Heller urges him. “There’s an elec­tric­ity we’re miss­ing right now!”

McKeel re­peats the line, this time with the in­flec­tion in the proper place.

“Yes!” Johnny whis­pers as he fol­lows McKeel down the script.

The two men are in the mid­dle of a Thurs­day af­ter­noon les­son in Stu­dio A in the Edge Stu­dio of­fices, perched on the eighth floor of 115 Eighth Ave. in New York City.

The green-and-gray stu­dio is part lounge, part con­trol cen­tre.

Cream-col­ored arm­chairs and a glass-topped cof­fee ta­ble are ar­ranged be­hind a metal desk with two speak­ers, two key­boards and two com­puter mon­i­tors.

Heller, sport­ing a red bowl­ing shirt with stripes and check­ers, is sta­tioned at the desk, pen and note­book at the ready.

McKeel sits in the record­ing booth, a tight, green cube.

His script is on a stand.

The mi­cro­phone ap­pa­ra­tus cranes over his head.

McKeel, a Brook­lyn-based 42-year-old work­ing for an in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian aid or­ga­ni­za­tion by day, is try­ing to get his break in an in­dus­try that’s been on an up­swing.

Rev­enue for down­loaded au­dio­books has nearly tripled over the last five years, as recorded by the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers.

Au­di­ble, Ap­ple, Google Player, and ma­jor pub­lish­ing houses are bat­tling it out for access to cus­tomers’ eardrums.

Ear buds are a rou­tine ac­ces­sory. Peo­ple shop, they com­mute, they travel – and, while they do, they listen to the voices of strangers.

Strangers who are get­ting paid.

To read.

It seems like a dream, but in fact it’s a grind.

Peo­ple like McKeel train at Edge in hopes of be­com­ing an au­dio­book all-star – like Dion Gra­ham, who has nar­rated the work of James Bald­win, Dave Eg­gers and James Pat­ter­son; or Jan­uary LaVoy, who has lent her voice to books by Ni­cholas Sparks, Mar­cia Clark and... well, James Pat­ter­son.

Be­ing cho­sen to con­sis­tently nar­rate pop­u­lar ti­tles puts voice ac­tors into a privileged po­si­tion be­tween the beloved au­thor and their fans.

Yet the real­ity of the in­dus­try is not glam­ourous.

Many work­ing nar­ra­tors can barely eke out a liv­ing un­less they’re hold­ing down other jobs.

In New York City and Los An­ge­les, the coun­try’s two capi­tols for au­dio­book work, nar­ra­tors an­nu­ally earn around $40,000 on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to Voices.com.

A large pub­lisher might pay as much as $350 per hour, but smaller pub­lish­ers might pay $50 or less per hour, with the rate tied to how long they say it should take to read a cer­tain num­ber of pages.

To make a de­cent re­turn on your labour, you have to be good.

And if reading for au­dio­books sounds easy, a few hours in the booth can be hum­bling.

“The anal­ogy would be singing,”says David Gold­berg, chief of­fi­cer at Edge Stu­dio.”Just be­cause they have a good voice doesn’t mean they could sell you a tune.”

You need to speak un­ac­cented Amer­i­can English flu­ently.

You need to be able to read a new script com­fort­ably, no time for mem­o­riza­tion.

Can you an­a­lyze the text in real time to know which words mat­ter more?

Can you stay still for many hours at a time?

Can you read in a way that shows you re­mem­ber what hap­pened twenty pages ago?

McKeel, who goes by the trade name David Sadzin when he nar­rates, has been in the game since late 2017.

He nar­rated pri­mar­ily non­fic­tion works, in­clud­ing Craig Sey­mour’s Luther, Dave Tell’s Re­mem­ber­ing Em­mett Till and Daniel Brook’s The Ac­ci­dent of Color.

A for­mer the­ater actor and comic, he draws on the skills he honed as a live en­ter­tainer to in­form how he per­forms when he’s alone in the booth.

“One of the tricks is to imag­ine that you’re talk­ing to peo­ple,” he said the day be­fore. “Hav­ing a sense of what it feels like to stand in front of a group of peo­ple and talk, that’s fa­mil­iar. It comes in handy.”

But not ev­ery stage skill trans­lates to nar­ra­tion.

And so McKeel comes here, to an eighth-floor stu­dio in Man­hat­tan, to learn.

Heller, his coach, is an in­dus­try legend.

He’s nar­rated more than 800 books.

He’s dis­tin­guished as one of Au­dioFile Mag­a­zine’s Golden Voices.

He has three Audie awards and ten nom­i­na­tions (ba­si­cally the Os­cars of the voice-over world).

His copy of the Recipe for De­sire passage is cov­ered with carets, cross-outs and char­ac­ter notes in the mar­gins.

As McKeel reads, Heller oc­ca­sion­ally mut­ters phrases like “Look at her!” un­der his breath, as if to com­mu­ni­cate tele­path­i­cally how McKeel should in­habit a char­ac­ter’s mind and see what they see.

Marie and Devon – the would-be lovers – ar­rive at the hos­pi­tal to treat Marie’s bum an­kle.

There they meet a name­less nurse.

McKeel de­liv­ers the nurse’s line too flatly.

Heller stops him, again. “Let’s cast the nurse,” Heller says, wav­ing his hands like he’s con­jur­ing a spirit. “Even though she’s a bit part, she’s still some­body. Is she old? She fat? Mid­dleaged? A mom?”

McKeel is quiet, cal­i­brat­ing. Back to the story.

“‘Aren’t you Devon Har­ris?’” he says as the nurse, now more nasally and star-struck. Heller cracks up and nods. Stop and start, then re­peat. McKeel barely makes it through a few para­graphs at a time be­fore Heller walks over to reel off his thoughts.

Their dy­namic is some­where be­tween friendly ban­ter and of­fice hours.

“Be care­ful with prepo­si­tional phrases,” Heller warns. “We nor­mally say them too quickly and lose them.”

In the en­tire ses­sion, they dig into just two pages over two prac­tice demos.

When McKeel’s on the job, he’ll fly through hun­dreds of pages with Heller’s notes on his mind.

Down the hall a few hours later, a bunch of voice-over first-timers crowd into Stu­dio B.

A teenager, young adults, guys push­ing 50, they’re all tense, arms crossed, fid­get­ing thumbs and bounc­ing legs.

These are the begin­ners for In­ves­ti­gate Voice-Over Class, Edge Stu­dio’s in­tro­duc­tory course that de­ter­mines whether your voice can go places.

Paolo Ful­gen­cio, a 31-year-old from Long Is­land, listed au­dio­book nar­ra­tion as one of his de­sired voice-over gen­res (Edge Stu­dio coaches for more than twenty). His prepa­ra­tion?

“I’ve been picking up reading a lot re­cently,” he said. “I’ve been reading aloud, prac­tic­ing.”

It’s a start.

McKeel started out in that be­gin­ner’s class.

He has work now, and he’s made progress on the road to­ward that ca­reer break­through.

“I was afraid I wasn’t go­ing to be able to tell you any­thing to­day,” Heller jokes to McKeel as their les­son ends. “Be­cause you were good. You were so good.”

WAHSINGTON POST PHOTO

Voice actor and in­struc­tor Johnny Heller, left, of­fers rec­om­men­da­tions to voice actor David Sadzin dur­ing a record­ing ses­sion at Edge Stu­dio in New York.

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