interview with voice artist
Are you curious to learn how a voice artist goes about his craft? I know I am! Unlike in the movies, where an actor is often type-cast and must adhere to the outline of a particular character, here he can truly become a 'shape-shifter', live in the skin of one character only to leap into the skin of another at the drop of a hat. It takes talent, but also discipline.
Don Warrick is a natural. I find it wonderful to hear the voices of my characters--young and old, male and female--not just playing in my imagination but resonating out loud, with full presence, in the air. Don has just finished recording my latest novel, The Music of Us. I invited him to share his creative process with me.
How do you ‘channel’ characters when you read a story? Do you find a friend--or enemy--whom you connect in your head to the character, so you can get into their skin and use their accent?
When my son was a teenager, he came into the house one afternoon and exclaimed to his mom and I, that “the voices inside my head; have voices in their heads”. This is the essence of it. The characters that live with me are an amalgam of my life experience, which may extend way beyond this life I am currently living. It’s kind of like when you hold a mirror up to another mirror, and you get an image of an endless number of mirrors. The longer you work as an actor…the more images you have in reflection.
The audition script was set up as a challenge. It included three distinct voices: Lenny in his fifties, Lenny as a young soldier, and Natasha, writing in her diary. When you first saw the audition script, what was your impression, and did it change once you read more of the story?
For me, first impressions are powerful. When I read a script, or a story, I connect with it pretty quickly. Or, conversely, disconnect from it. Sometimes in a very few words I know that I am going to inhabit this place easily. I got that from the first few sentences. I just knew that I was going to want to live in this story.
When you gave voice to Natasha, you evoked her fears and confusion as a woman losing herself to early onset Alzheimer’s. Then you took her back to her years of glamour, when she was a rising star, a pianist. How did you come up with her voice, and how did you let it go through these incredible changes?
Being a man, portraying a woman is only slightly less difficult than its opposite. Much of this has to do with the physiology of the vocal instrument. When I am narrating in my natural vocal range, the pallet that I can choose from for color and timbre is pretty broad. When I am speaking a female part, the pallet is greatly reduced. This also has to do with my life experience. I have been a guy most of the time. So finding the “voice” isn’t really the question for me. Finding the character, and the emotional center opens the door to the voice. You, as a writer provide the words. My job as an actor is to access the emotional content that those words evoke. The voice is simply the output of the equasion.
When you gave voice to Lenny, you evoked his mixed emotions having to take care of his wife, who often forgets who he is, and then you took him
back to the moment he first fell in love with her, at the beginning of WWII. In what ways did you change your voice to reflect what Lenny is going through?
When I was a young actor one of my favorite plays was “On Golden Pond”. I fell in love with the Hank Fonda character of Norman. In my 30’s I had no business auditioning for this show, but loved the play so much that I thought “what the hell” and auditioned despite the obvious obstacle of own age. To my surprise, I was cast as Norman, a man in his 70’s and it was in the rehearsal process that I discovered the path. I found Norman in the checkout line at the grocery store. As I was struggling to discover what it felt like to be old, I found myself in line at a grocery store one day behind an elderly gentleman. I watched him very carefully and took detailed mental notes on how he inhabited his space. It wasn’t until I put myself inside his skin that I discovered Norman. I built the character from the outside – in. I found Norman when I began to feel his pain.
Finding the character of Lenny in his 50’s is pretty easy. Cause, well, I am him. Finding him in his 20’s takes a little bit of regression, but the process is the same. I find him in my body first. I remember what it was like to inhabit the body of a 20 year old. The rest follows. Again, I have a tendency to build characters from the outside – in.
As a young man, you had a vision of becoming an opera singer. You studied with a very well know voice teacher for several years at Cal State Northridge. In what ways did you approach singing the lyrics in this book, to evoke the feel of an era gone by?
Back in the early 80’s a young composer approached me to collaborate on a musical he was writing called “The Midnight Cruise ship”. I listened to a huge body of music from the early days of music pre-WWII to be able to capture the style of the crooners. So I have put in a lot of time in being able to sing the music of the period. Beyond that, I have a real affinity for the time period and always have. It was my mom’s music so I guess I grew up with it. Learning to sing the classical repertoire invests you with some great tools that allow you to sing across a wide variety of genres.
Give us a glimpse into how you narrate. Do you stand or sit? Read from paper or from the screen? In a dialogue, do you change your voice on the fly from one character to the next, or do you go back later to highlight a distinct voice of one of them?
I think everyone’s process is unique. Mine is for sure. I really do record in a tiny box in my basement (I may have the only home in Cali with a basement) where I have built my sound booth. It is rather like being locked in a tiny crate…or coffin for those of you of a darker bent. It’s just me, and a mic and a computer screen. There is a kind of sensory deprivation vibe to being inside and I have designed it this way. My goal is to immerse myself as thoroughly as I can in the script.
The beauty of producing audio books from start to finish myself, is that I control the whole process. Since I perform the editing and post-production work I have the luxury of discovery. When I encounter a character I have a pretty good idea of what they feel like, but I may play with their sound until I really discover them. The real trick is to lock it in so that the character maintains continuity throughout the many months it may take to complete a finished product.
Every actor has a unique set of skills. I have always been great at cold reading and I like to approach my work this way. I think when I discover characters in the instant I encounter them, they are more authentic, more genuine. If I spend a lot of time trying to research them, trying to effect them, they become contrived, and that can come across in my reading.
That’s the real beauty of recording in the digital world. If I don’t like it (or more importantly if the author doesn’t) I can change it in a matter of minutes.