Every year since I’ve moved to D.C., I’ve had some kind of funky holiday gig. The coolest one by far was playing an Angel at the White House Christmas Party and getting to shake Obama’s hand. Last year I was an elf in the Air Force Band’s Christmas concert. This year was different and unexpected. No silly holiday characters. In fact, this year I got to wear sneakers and yoga pants as my role was to be heard and not seen. I got to narrate my first (and quite possibly my last) book.
A little background on this: Book narration is one of those actor gigs that is both highly desired and esoteric. It’s a subset of voiceover work that gets very competitive because unlike film or theater, you can do it from anywhere, and if you are good at it you can get paid very well. I am not good at it.
What do you do in a situation when you are hired for your dream job, and midway through you realize you’re really bad at it?
I submitted a voice reel to this company three years ago. A reel, for those of you who don’t know, is a collection of short clippings that showcase your voice in different styles. At the time, the company was only hiring voiceover artists to do recordings for the Library of Congress, which is notoriously particular about the sound of their narrators. I was told that though my voice was trained and I had good sound, I slightly hiss my ‘s’ too much and was therefore unusable. Sigh.
This year, out of the blue, the company landed a huge, last-minute, “get ‘er done by Christmas” contract through Audible Books. Audible is Amazon’s downloadable books-on-tape service, for those of you not familiar with it; so the company was looking for extra hands and somehow remembered me.
I was thrilled. I do a lot of Shakespeare so I figured reading a book would be fairly easy for me, and I’d be good at it. Boy, was I wrong. I totally sucked at it. The human mind, it turns out, has a way of interpreting things how it wants to, and not necessarily how they are written. Almost every other sentence I found myself flipping words, paraphrasing, correcting grammar, and abbreviating things. For example, I’d read “It’s” as “It is” and vice versa. Why was my brain so completely incapable of just reading what was on the page? I was also incapable of breathing correctly because I’ve been trained to breathe like a stage actor, which is completely the opposite, it turns out, from how to breathe in front of a microphone. Then there is the phonetic alphabet, which I vaguely remember learning in my acting program. It’s a way to look up and properly pronounce words and names unknown to you. Do you know what a diphthong is? Do you know the symbol for it and how to pronounce it? Yeah, neither do I. I’ve always been so good at picking up accents that I never really bothered to get good at using phonetics. Big mistake, it turns out.
I got the book on a Friday and started recording on a Tuesday, which left me little time to read and prep the book. They put me in a recording studio with a sound engineer whose job was not only to record my voice but also to catch when I’d make a mistake. The experienced narrators could talk for paragraphs without making a mistake. I could go a couple sentences before I’d mumble or jumble, and after a couple hours when I began to get tired, both my brain and mouth rebelled, exacerbating the problem. All said and done, even with the monitor catching mistakes, once the book was recorded I had 23 pages of corrections to re-record. From what I understand, that’s really, really bad. Geez.
This has been an exercise in humility. A reminder that new skills take time to learn, and the type of work I do takes immense attention, practice, and preparation. Though I struggled immensely I truly loved doing it, and I get to repair my ego a bit by saying that you will soon be able to download my reading on Amazon.
Which brings me back again to the question: What do you do in a situation when you are hired for your dream job, and midway through you realize you’re really bad at it?
I did my best to get through it patiently and try to learn how to do better next time, if I’m lucky enough ever to get hired again. But actors often only catch one “break,” if any at all. Quite possibly this was mine, and I’m trying to figure out if I totally blew it. In addition to being an exercise in humility, it turns out this was an exercise in letting go. In teaching myself how to say “oh, well” and move on. And being able to hold onto the positive and to know one day I’ll look back and say I recorded a book, even if it’s not the career changer I thought it would be.