What Audible Looks for When Casting Voice Actors for New Projects

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Photo Source: Mahmoud Sami/Courtesy Audible

As head of scripted content at Audible and artistic director of the robust Audible Theater, Kate Navin has long heralded audio theater as an art form. Last March, when the performance world disintegrated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she and the company knew they had a chance—where many others didn’t—to keep actors and other artists employed. 

Can you describe your role as head of scripted content? 
I oversee all the creative execs that work to produce the different scripted content here at Audible. That includes all of our episodic [programming], as well as the theater initiative. We have a lot of large-scale partnerships, and we do a lot of individual projects with creatives directly. I lead on the creative development side, overseeing script development as well as the actual production. 

“Very quickly, we all put our heads together and said, ‘What are we going to do in response to this?’”

You’ve been with Audible for a number of years. When everything began shutting down in March, did you immediately think, What can Audible’s role be during this time? 
Absolutely. And really, the whole company snapped to it immediately. Audible has always prided itself on being a great resource for and employer of artists in the industry. Very quickly, we put our heads together and said, “What are we going to do in response to this, for those actors and writers and producers and sound designers we love so much?”

What we did is we pivoted; the theater initiative, specifically, pivoted. Obviously, we were invested in capturing existing stage productions; that has been our mission, making those performances available. So it became: What are we going to do when those performances are paused? Is it a mixture of getting those performances that were canceled as well as commissioning new work? Amping that up and being able to produce new things during this time? The rest of the company worked very quickly to light up home studios and figure out how to make that process seamless, which they did incredibly quickly, figuring those logistics out. We have just increased production since last March—which is great, but I’m tired! 

What, in your opinion, makes a great piece of audio content? 
Great writing is going to make great audio, so it’s got to start there. Specifically—and it’s why I think playwrights have been so successful in the medium—[audio] is a language-driven art form. Adaptations from film and television to audio are trickier, but when you’re going from stage to audio, it is a lighter lift. We do still meet with the playwrights to discuss: What are those visual cues [and] what are those pieces of that physical production that we still need to know, and how are we going to learn that information without a narrator or stage directions? But it’s really [about] strong characters, strong dialogue. The other thing that really continues to hold true is: When sound is part of the initial concept and the sound designer’s voice is brought in early on, and when the playwright is thinking about that sound language early on, that translates the best. 

At what point in the development of an audio production do actors become involved? 
They’re there for that initial reading, obviously, and then we do a workshop around that where we explore some of those [initial sound] conversations. It’s very much in everyone from the theater world’s muscles, that developmental process. And then they are a huge part of the recording. We really look to talk to our actors about the different ways to [relay] something. What I think is really fun about audio is that process in rehearsal of: Let me try this scene three different ways or 20 different ways or however many different ways. because we can preserve all of those and play with it. They don’t have to make a choice. Obviously, a choice eventually gets made, but it almost gets made in a different way. We really talk to the actors about that. The recording process is not just “page one, read, go, stop.” It is much more intense than that. 

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Some of these Audible projects have “name” actors attached, while others have a mix of working actors and unknowns. How does the casting process work? 
It’s project-to-project. There are some actors who are excited to work with certain writers, and there are relationships that certain directors bring with them—because we always work with a director on every project. We have used casting directors, of course. When we were preserving productions that had been live onstage, we [were doing] everything in our power to bring that cast in to do audio. When we’re talking truly original audio productions, though, it’s really project-to-project. Sometimes we sit around and the playwright or director knows who they want, and we go out and that person says yes. Sometimes it is lists from a casting director; we have an internal casting team. And we have worked with external casting directors and, on the theater projects in particular, with theatrical casting directors. 

Do you think the pandemic has shifted the conversation around audio content? 
I do. What I’m really excited about in the conversations I’m having with artists and producers is that this isn’t a medium they’re going to turn away from once they can go back to their theaters. The conversations have been, “What does this look like as part of our season?” That’s sort of what I’ve wanted all along! Obviously, it will be most exciting when it is in tandem with live productions, but I do think it has shifted a lot. Theaters, in particular, are thinking about how they can expand their audience and how they’re getting fans outside of the States, or [listeners] who may be more willing to buy a ticket to a show at a theater they’d never heard of before. 

And then for artists and for actors, I think people have been really surprised by how fulfilling it’s been. It’s a really specific process, and it is collaborative. The actors we’ve worked with over this past year have said, “It was so great to flex these muscles again. It is creatively fulfilling,” and I think that work will continue because they’re enjoying it and want to seek it out. I hope so! 

This story originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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