Out of the Closet

In her 1965 award winning performance of The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews crooned to the Von Trapp children, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” Indeed, that’s a very good place to start if you’re singing a Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Or writing a novel. But what if you’re a first-time narrator, steering through the auditory straits of a sound booth?

For me, Chapter 13 seemed a very good place to start.

The extent of my acting career began and ended in high school. A supporting role in Carousel and then Guys & Dolls, followed by a part in the play My Three Angels, taught me how to lose my inhibitions in front of a crowd. By the time I graduated, though, my acting days had ended.

Once I decided to narrate Control Group and completed my narration courses, I had to decide the best way to execute the task. I started with three immutable facts:

  1. I am not a trained voice talent.
  2. What I love most about reading aloud is creating characters.
  3. I had 42 characters that needed a voice.

Where to begin?

I soon realized that like any production, certain characters would take center stage. They would need fully realized voices and personalities. Mackie, of course, is the protagonist, and his voice—in my head and in my ear—was always going to be my own, even if his actions were not. Red Pescatelli, the antagonist, sounded like the Muppet’s “Rowlf the Dog” on a bad day: a little bit deeper, a little more gravely, and a lot more manipulative.

Forty voices to go.

My southern soul is steeped in the sweet sounds of an Alabama drawl, so I could tweak my mom’s accent or raise the pitch of voices I heard around town and call forth the words of Donnie and Loretta Sims, the Sheriff, and Earl, the night security guard. While I’m sure the dialect denizens would bust me on my west Texas interpretation of Douglas Schofield, I had so much fun playing the big man from BioloGen that his words rolled off my tongue.

Several characters simply had to be different from the others in the scene. When Meredith and her sister, Frances, are talking over the oxygen tubing in the labor and delivery ward, one voice came out bright while the other sounded weary. No one would mistake me for a female, but their motivations made them stand apart from one another…and from the rest of the cast.

For my crew at the National Institutes of Health, I drew upon Seinfeld and A Cricket in Time Square. To my ear, no one said “worried female New Yorker” like George Costanza’s mom, so I tried on a version of her voice for that of Scott Hoffman’s secretary, Yolanda. A few years ago, when I read the part of “Harry the Cat” to my youngest daughter for her installment of “Dad’s Summer Book Club”, I went all out to try on a goofy Brooklyn accent. I reprised that role for Control Group, but tried to spruce up the Brooklyn with the sound of a stocking cap and a cigarette for the part of Eddie Fackler, the bad guy’s bad guy.

After a few isolated lines for computer prompts, waitresses, nurses, and reporters, and I was just about ready. That still left me negotiating the writing choices I had made twelve years ago: I had told a story by weaving together two alternating storylines—which happened to take place in two distinct locations of the country.

Which brings me back to Chapter 13.

My solution was to do it right by doing it once. I printed the book in separate chapters and then divided the chapters by characters. For my first day in the booth, I would read the minor characters first, starting with Meredith in Chapter 13. In essence, I found myself acting like BioloGen Pharmaceuticals, warming up with the little guys. If I messed up on the minor roles, it at least served as training for the greater good of the larger story.

Days two and three of recording, I would move on to my southern voices, lumping together most of my Alabama (and Texas) accents into two separate sessions. Of course, Mackie was heavily involved in those chapters. Since he entered onstage with my own voice, I didn’t have to worry as much about consistency. On my fourth and fifth days of recording, I would move up north, tackling flat New England accents and harsh New Jersey jargon. No one would listen and mistake me for a native, but my hope was the consistency in recording would ring true. Even if not accurate, I could offer some authenticity.

With pages in hand, now segregated by region and clipped according to character, I went to the quietest closet in our house and began to practice. Surrounded by wool suits and cotton dresses, I perched my phone on a shoe box and read aloud. I toggled back and forth between a dying victim of Anginex and the perpetrator who made it happen. For many hours after work, I would record my muffled mistakes, making notations about how to do it better in the booth. My wife would come home and find me talking to myself, alone in a dimly lit room. Wisely, she shut the door.

It’s hard to effectively parent sitting cross-legged on the floor of a carpeted closet.

With a measure of grace and patience from all involved, though, I got through the 44 chapters and 42 characters in the time allowed to prepare. When I finally came out of the closet, I was as ready as I could be.

It took 20 hours over 5 days to give voice to the 42 characters.

Not to mention bottles of water and a whole lot of apples.