In House: In the Director’s Chair – Playwrights Canada Press Makes An Audiobook
It probably surprises few that audiobooks have seen a huge surge in popularity and availability in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of listening technology (that’d be your smartphones, folks) as well as a huge demand for audio content (audiobooks, yes, and podcasts, too!). But what goes into making an audiobook? Annie Gibson, the publisher of Playwrights Canada Press, tells us about her on-the-fly learning of casting and directing an audiobook version of Jordan Tannahill’s Governor General’s Award-winning play collection, Age of Minority.
Playwrights Canada Press publishes hundreds of plays that are meant to be performed, so when the opportunity arose to make an audiobook, we jumped right in. It’s something we’d been wanting to do for a while but weren’t sure whether it made sense for our publishing program: we’ve always been on the written side of theatre, leaving the more performative aspects to others. We participated in the 100 Ontario Audiobooks project, spearheaded by the fine folks at ECW Press and Coach House Books. We followed the path put forward through the project for casting, creating, editing, and distributing our audiobook and are ever grateful to our colleagues for sharing their experiences. The first challenge: picking a book to turn into an audiobook! Most of our books are meant to be performed so we had a wealth of options. We ultimately decided to go with Jordan Tannahill’s Age of Minority. This GG-winning book houses three one-person plays so we’d get a chance to showcase a few different styles. The first play, Get Yourself Home Skyler James, is a fairly straightforward one-woman show, rihannaboi95 was originally performed as an online livestream, and Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, while acted by one person, incorporates multiple voices – so the narrator was going to have their work cut out for them. We decided that instead of hiring a single narrator to read the whole book we would use a different actor for each play. The characters are so distinct that they’d each be better served by a dedicated voice. I imagine this would be different with a novel where the narrator has to not only voice multiple characters but descriptive passages as well; you’d want the narrator to disappear a bit so that the experience of listening was no different than reading to yourself. While we work adjacent to the theatre industry we didn’t really know how to find the best actors, so at the suggestion of David Caron at ECW Press we hired a casting agent, Kim Hurdon of Kim Hurdon Casting. Because we were looking to hire three different actors for very specific roles, each with their own sound, Kim didn’t think that actors would have existing demos of the voices we were looking for already recorded. She suggested that she put out a call for actors to submit tapes of themselves reading passages from the plays so we could get a good idea of how each would sound, and we readily agreed. We provided Kim with descriptions of our ideal narration voices. It got us thinking about what the characters sounded like, and what we wanted listeners to hear. Here’s an example of some of the notes I provided for Peter Fechter:
The play is set in 1962 and Peter is 18.
When the play was performed an actor portrayed Peter and the voices of the other characters were pre-recorded. Here, the narrator will need to do all the voices himself.
While still young, given the time period Peter has a more formal way of speaking.
He doesn’t have a German accent but would know how to correctly pronounce German names (Helmut, Rolf, etc.).
His speech is not clipped, though, this is a passionate man with big dreams and that comes across in his voice.
Interestingly, Kim followed up to ask how we saw his physical shape. At first, I wasn’t sure how that related, but I now realize that size and shape can have an impact on the tone of someone’s voice, so it comes into play when an actor creates the character. Kim then sent the book and character descriptions out to actors who recorded a brief passage from the appropriate play and Kim forwarded those self-tapes to us for review. We all gathered around to hear how different actors tackled the voices. Listening to the tapes for the first time was a little magical; we may see our books performed on stage all the time but this was something different. The recordings were done in such a way that they were meant for listeners rather than viewers and it was exciting to see the work brought to life in that way. It took some time, and multiple rounds of listening to each of the self-tapes, but we finally narrowed it down to our first choice for each character: Pip Dwyer as Skyler James, Rividu Mendis as Sunny, and Christo Graham as Peter Fechter. Kim then put us in touch with the actors’ agents to make contract arrangements and to book dates with the engineer at the recording studio. One of the most important things we did in preparation for recording was to go through the book to make sure we knew how to properly pronounce every word in there. Working with text on the page all the time I’d never given too much thought to having to read the words aloud — that would be left up to actors and the director when they staged the play. But now Playwrights Canada Press was the director, working with actors who might need guidance! It was especially important for us to be able to relay how to pronounce the Hindi and German terms and exclamations that appear in two of the plays in Age of Minority. The actors should go through the script before recording and take note of questions they have but it’s up to the publisher or editor who’s creating the audiobook to have the answer. We also decided that stage directions that could be acted out should be: if the text indicated a sigh, the actor should sigh. But other stage directions would need to be read aloud for listeners and it was up to us as the director to determine the difference. Following the sage advice of our fellow publishers we engaged the services of Kevin Bonnici at Drift Under Balance as our sound engineer. Kevin and his team put the actors in a recording studio and they started to read. The engineers had all sorts of wonderful advice as they knew their craft so well. They were careful to point out common pitfalls like popping the “p” sound — in normal conversation we wouldn’t notice it at all, but in your headphones while listening to an audiobook it can be disruptive. And the thing that surprised me the most was that rather than have the actor re-record an entire paragraph of text if there was a mistake, the engineer could back up the recording just a bit and have the actor start at the beginning — or even in the middle — of a sentence for a seamless sound! We sat in on the recording sessions, available to answer questions and give direction if needed, but for the most part we were listening in while the engineers did their thing and guided the actors through the recording process. Once recording was complete Kevin and his staff edited together all the pieces of the audiobook (the three different plays, the front and end matter, credits etc.) and sent it to us for a final listen-through — or proofing! It was an opportunity to make sure everything was in the right order and correct any glaring errors. That likely would involve re-recording but we were extremely pleased with the finished product. From there the audiobook was distributed to various channels by ECW Press and is now available all over the place, including many local libraries.
It’s been so exciting to share our audiobook with listeners and readers alike, and it was a thrill to be part of its creation. The audiobook is a valuable tool for exploring a facet of a character: their voice. We learned a lot about the differences between reading a book and listening to one, and ultimately those lessons will inform our publishing program, even for print books.* * *Our thanks to Annie at Playwrights Canada Press for sharing this behind-the-scenes look at how to cast and direct an audiobook narrator! You can listen to a sample of Pip Dwyer reading from Get Yourself Home Skyler James at Audible.ca.