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TO VOICE OR NOT TO VOICE

Dear Sagacious Uncle Yuri: No matter what I do, people complain about the way I read dialogue in the audio books I narrate. Some listeners want me to act out - what they call "voice" - each character as if I were a one-man band. But, when I do, other people complain that I go too far. When I pull back, the first group starts griping again. What should I do? 

Your worshipful niece, 
Jejune

Dear Jejune,

When it comes to voicing, ignore the complaints. Your job as narrator is to communicate the values of the text in an interesting and dynamic way, not to meet what may be unreasonable or uninformed expectations. Thatís why YOU are behind the mike and not your detractors. Youíre supposed to be the expert. If a patient tells a surgeon, "Cut here, not there," should the surgeon obey, or should the surgeon weigh the symptoms, consult the x-rays and draw on training and experience to determine the incision point?

Youíre an actress. Narrating is not acting. In a play you portray a character, his nervous ticks and inner life. The performances of all the actors, the lighting, sound, costumes and sets collectively do the job that the narrator of a story has to accomplish with one human voice. In an audio book you represent the author, not his characters. Your voice alone reflects the tone, atmosphere, world view, themes, style, tensions and personality of the work without benefit of all those production values. You may or may not be called upon to act, or, as you put it, Ďvoice.í

It seems to your all-wise uncle that the answers to three questions guide how you handle dialogue. Letís take them one by one.

1. What is the most appropriate and dynamic way to approach the work?

Would you play a Homeric hero the way youíd play a character in Fielding or Hemingway or Lorraine Hansberry or Judith Krantz or Dr. Seuse? Say youíre reading a non-fiction account of recent events: would you de lifelike impressions of Nixon, Haldeman or Janet Reno? Or would doing so be a breach of taste? If the work is written in the first person, the narrator is a character and if you do any acting at all, you portray this character. When dialogue appears, its comes from the narratorís perspective; how would you portray the narrating character characterizing the speech of the other characters? Whatís most important to the author, the superficial colorations of accent and vocal mannerism or the charactersí inner lives?

On stage, you should try to take a character into yourself. You canít afford to assume an attitude, to like or dislike or pity or look down upon the character youíre playing. But the important thing in narration is the narratorís attitude about the characters - objective, subjective, realistic, superficial, nightmarish, cartoonish, low, elevated, etc. It is the narrator you canít assume an attitude about, whether that narrator is a character, the author or some fictive omniscient presence.

2. What do you have to contribute?

Maybe you just canít do character voices; so what else can you bring to bear? If you CAN do dialects or character voices, great! Just be careful that you donít show off with them at the expense of the text. Have you ever heard Hemingway characters played as if they were out of Melrose Place? I have. It isnít pretty. On the other hand, what do you have in your own emotional make-up, your own storehouse of technique, your own personal experience to bring to bear on the characterization?

3. Whoís Listening and Why?

If youíre reading to facilitate study, say, for the sight-impaired, donít interpret the work for them; deliver it to them simply so that THEY can do the interpreting. Thatís why theyíre studying it. Clarity is your only concern, even if that means you sound flat and the characters sound lifeless. Some audio books are Cliff Notes for cocktail parties; your listener is boning up on a bestseller during the daily commute. How would you bring the characters home over the din of traffic? On the other hand, those listening for pleasure deserve the fullest performance you can give them, one that neither overwhelms or replaces or upstages the work, but that enhances it.

And, if you err, err on the side of resonance, of richness, of personality and depth.


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