Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Interview with Audiobook Narrator Christina Delaine

Today's blog is an interview with Christina Delaine, the narrator of Corporate Gunslinger. She is an accomplished stage and voice actor who has trod the boards of theaters from coast to coast. An 8-time AudioFile Earphones Award-winner, a SOVAS Voice Arts Award-winner (8-time nominee), an Odyssey Award Winner and an Audie Award nominated audiobook narrator, Delaine’s voice can also be heard in scores of commercials and video games. A faculty member of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts' Stonestreet Conservatory, she has a BA from Dartmouth College, an MFA from Brown University/Trinity Rep and a dog named Boo Radley.

How did you get interested in audiobook narration? Was it something you’ve “always wanted to do,” something that came up during your education, or something you picked up after you started acting? Or some other timeline? 

My mom has always been a huge audiobook fan. Back in the day, she was always telling me I should listen. I would say “I can read perfectly well. I like to read. Why do I need someone to do it for me?” Then she gifted me Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series, narrated by the fabulous Barbara Rosenblat, and I was immediately hooked. Up until that first listen, I had no idea of what an audiobook could be. Barbara just blew me away with her acting and character voices, and her outstanding skill as a storyteller. 

But, as much as I had become an audiobook fan, it was never an avenue I actively pursued as an actor. After grad school, I was doing theater and lots of commercial voice over, but it just never occurred to me that audiobooks were something I could do, maybe because I didn’t actually know any narrators.

Ultimately, it was a chance meeting with Paul Ruben, who directed Barbara in those Amelia Peabody books that I love so much, in an elevator at the Film Center Building in New York that opened the door to this part of the industry for me. Paul became my mentor and directed me in my first audiobook. The rest, as they say, is history.

How do you choose audiobook projects? Is it something you and your agent work out, are there other people you consult, or is it a completely independent decision? 

Whether the project is being pitched to me through producers or an author or my agent, ultimately it’s always an independent decision as to whether or not I take it on. 

What aspects of a book make it attractive to you as an audio project? What aspects of a book tend to make you pass on it as a project? Are the books you like to read different from the books you like to narrate? 

Anything that I’d love to read even if I’m not getting paid for it is extremely attractive! It’s like having your cake and eating it too! As an actor, I love anything that has emotional currency, and as a lover of literature, I appreciate well-written fiction of almost any genre, so if I’m offered a good story by a good writer, I’m very happy to say yes. 

Inhabiting a well-drawn character, settling into someone else’s bones, is one of the great joys and most rewarding parts of being an actor, so if there’s a character that particularly resonates or even someone who on the surface seems really different than me, I jump at that opportunity. You learn so much about yourself by playing other people. 

As far as fiction goes, Romance is really the only fiction genre I’ll give a blanket no to. It’s just not my thing. I’ll also say no to extremely esoteric non-fiction, because the research for such projects can be overwhelming. At the end of the day, I just want to spend most of my time acting, not looking things up. And, of course, anything or anyone that advocates hate, intolerance or misinformation is a solid no. 

Once you’ve selected a book to narrate, how do you prepare for the recording? Do you do some kind of analysis on the text or characters? Do you try out different voices for different characters and situations? Do you record and listen back, read aloud to yourself, try it out on friends or something else? 

The first thing I do is read the book. I know that seems obvious, but the number one question I get asked is if I read the books before I record them. YES. More than once if I can. I’ll note any accents or character descriptions, but on that first read, I’m mostly just trying to immerse myself in the world of the book and experience it as the author wants every reader to experience it. I let it be what is and see what it gives me. So much of an actor’s work is instinctual. It’s all a little mysterious and alchemical. On my best day, I’m only a conduit for what the author has written, so my approach is to try to get under the text and embody its emotional subtext, rather than add anything to it, so giving the book that first opportunity to speak to me without me engaging it with my own agenda or my actor ego is my first priority. 

I don’t really know if it’s the same for other actors, but when I read a book, if it’s even remotely well written, I actually hear the characters voices in my head and that’s how I’ll voice them. I will drop recordings of voice references directly onto my digital script if there are tons of characters in a book because it helps me maintain consistency, especially if there’s a large time gap between that character’s appearances in the book. 

The sheer scale of an audiobook and, sadly, the time constraints we’re often under during production, means micromanaging my performance to the degree I would in a theater production is just impossible. Usually I’d be playing one character in a show and I’d have 8 weeks of rehearsal for a production that’s only 2 hours long and where I don’t have all of the lines. An audiobook might be 15 hours long and I’m the whole show, sometimes playing dozens of distinct characters. 

I do prepare, ruminating about the characters, doing research where I need to, but at a certain point, you run the risk of not being able to see the forest for the trees. In theater, I’m just one tree. In audiobooks, I’ve got to be whole forest so I can’t get too precious over details, or it’d take me far too long to record any given book. I try to maintain flow while working, but I absolutely do stop and listen if I feel I’ve gotten off track or if I haven’t nailed a particular line or scene or voice, and then I’ll rerecord that bit.

What’s the actual process of recording like? How long are your sessions, and do you do anything to special when you start or stop a session? During a session, do you read most of the text straight through, or are there lots of breaks and re-takes? What do you focus on while you’re reading? 

A typical workday starts with me drinking a glass or two of water and then warming up my voice. Hydration is really important for vocal health as well as for taking care of any annoying mouth noise that would leave blemishes in the recording. 

Sessions are about 8 hours every day, but I take short breaks as needed. The goal is to achieve some flow and read the text straight through, and there are certainly times when that happens, but I have to stop every time I make a mistake and go back at least to the beginning of the sentence I goofed. I’ll also do retakes if I feel I didn’t quite nail something, either a voice, or an inflection or the emotional content. 

As for my focus, I try to stay engaged and let the story take me where it will. As for special rituals, whenever I play a role, before every performance, I say “I hope she lives,” sort of an actor’s prayer. I start every book adapting this slightly by saying “I hope it lives.” When I finish a book, I wipe the surface of my iPad clean, because, well, when you’re talking that much, spit happens.

The main character of Corporate Gunslinger is an actor who consciously uses her training when she interacts with other characters; did voicing a character who is also an actor present any special problems or opportunities for your performance? 

The fact that Kira is an actor gave me an immediate connection and point of entry into who she is. I loved her dedication to her craft. She’s willing to put in the sweat equity to do her job right, and I have the utmost respect for her discipline as a performer. 

Like Kira, I love to rehearse. It’s actually my favorite part of the process. So in the moments when she was working out her costume or refining her Death’s Angel persona, I could see myself in her so clearly. I also went to Drama school, which is perhaps the least practical thing in the world for anybody to do, and like Kira, I spent several years wondering if I would ever be able to pay off my student loans. Her background and her vocation put me pretty close to her bones. I grok her on so many levels, it made it easier for me to slip into her skin.

There are two scenes in Corporate Gunslinger where one character has been wounded on the dueling field and she's gasping for breath and is in great pain, while another character is remaining calm, cool and collected as she tries to talk the wounded character through the experience. When those characters talk, do you use a special technique to switch voices that quickly and completely, or do you do something like read all the wounded character’s dialog first, and then all the calm character’s dialog, and edit it back together? 

I don’t record each character’s lines separately and edit it together. I record the dialogue in the same sequence it’s written, just like having a regular conversation. At the risk of sidestepping your question, I’m not really sure I can tell you how I do it. It’s one of my stupid party tricks, I suppose. My voice is pretty flexible and there’s always a little micro-beat between lines where the character switches, where I can bounce into the next character. So, I’m one character at a time fully, and then I turn on a dime and become the next character fully and on and on. 

If I make a mistake of any kind, I do have the luxury of just stopping, and picking up again right before the line or voice I messed up, which is called “punch and roll” recording. It seems more seamless in the finished product than it is when I’m sitting in the booth making the inevitable mistakes, but while I’m working I do try to transition as smoothly as I can from character to character. I fail a lot, and when I do, punch and roll is my savior.

Your Twitter bio describes you as an “acrobat of the heart.” What does that mean? 

I love that you asked me this because no one ever has before. 

To give credit where credit is due, I’ve borrowed this phrase from Stephen Wangh’s book about acting, AN ACROBAT OF THE HEART. To me, that phrase captures so perfectly what I aspire to be in my work as a performing artist. Waugh gives the example of a trapeze artist, which is a wonderful metaphor for the actor. She rehearses for years and with tremendous precision so that she can defy the laws of gravity. But even after all that practice there is still that moment when she must let go of the bar and dare to fly. In that moment, we as an audience cannot know for sure what will happen, and neither can the trapeze artist. She can flip. She can twist. She can fall. A thousand things could go wrong. It’s literally life and death and endless possibility. That is the moment we all collectively thrill to. That moment of freedom, danger, uncertainly and potential. Yoshi Oida said, “A sense of danger is essential to all theater.” Antonin Artaud said, “The actor is an athlete of the heart.” 

While the trapeze artist is putting their body in mortal danger, the actor is opening up their heart to that same kind of risk. To be an actor is to be constantly training for that moment of letting go. You rehearse and prepare, but that moment itself is not under your control. The emotional life of the character is ultimately beyond your control. At that moment it’s not what you’re doing, it’s what is happening to you, which is you’re adrift, untethered in the unknown. Then you can make choices. You can be changed and enact change. That’s when things get really interesting. To take that leap requires courage. The audience doesn’t want to see you hold the trapeze. They want to see you fly. That’s the kind of acting I love.