From AudioBook Reviewer: Narrator Interview – Steven Jay Cohen

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and began my professional life on New York’s Theatre Row. In addition to acting, i have also written, produced, designed, and directed both staged plays and internet radio dramas. I’ve studied acting and writing with people including F. Murray Abraham, Alan Ginsberg, and Frank McCourt. After spending time as an accent coach, and a few years as a more traditional educator, i left the city for western Massachusetts. While raising a family here, I have continued to teach everything from British Literature to Physics, as well as write, produce, perform, and even develop an occasional bit of geeky software when I can find the time.

How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?

I came to audiobooks from radio drama (both for broadcast and online) and before that, the stage. Over the years I have written, produced, and performed in many productions. I was doing it as a creative sideline — in short, it balanced out my day job. Friends in the business kept asking me the same question time and again, “Why aren’t you recording audiobooks?” Eventually, I decided to take the leap.

What do you do when you are not narrating?

In addition to narrating, I write, produce, and act in audio dramas from time to time. Beyond the booth, my wife (a painter) and I are raising a family here in western Massachusetts. In addition to audio endeavors I teach, write software, and design web sites. We share our home with 2 teenagers, 5 cats, and a dog.

Many audiobook narrators do other voice over work, where else could we hear your work? Do you find there to any big hurdles to jump when going from audiobooks to something else or vise versa?

If you dug deeply enough into the Symphony Space archives, you could hear me as part of their annual Bloomsday on Broadway event. More recently, my dramatic work can be found on a variety of Audio Drama sites. I have links on my website. Most of my commercial and narration work has been local or regional and is not available online.

Audiobook narration is closer to directing an audio drama than to acting in one. The director needs to have a solid concept of voice/tone for all characters and an idea of what other FX might be used to set the stage.In an audiobook, the reader is all of the characters, the narrator, and the sound effects as well. An audiobook is akin to a 1 man show on a bare stage — it’s all about the acting.

An audio drama is about being part of an ensemble, and working together to produce something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Do you have the luxury of picking and choosing the projects that you work on or do you take as many as you have time for?

I pick and choose. Each project needs to push a boundary somehow. Am I going to grow as an actor? Am I going to learn something new? Am I going to expose myself to a new audience? Am I going to help a writer extend their reach?

For those of us that are unfamiliar with your work. How would you describe your narration style and voice? What would the one audiobook you would suggest for people to listen to your best work?

I have always had a hard time answering this question for myself. Others tend to say that I establish character well. This goes beyond accents. It includes subtle intonation that help differentiate not only character voices, but include depicting the various intentions that multiple characters may have in a single conversation.

Recently, I recorded the Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage. And, by all measures so far, its doing well. While I was working on it, I was listening to Bryan Cranston’s reading of The Things They Carried, which is about the Vietnam War. Having that awareness while working on The Red Badge of Courage helped me to bring a stronger emotional presence to the fore.

I have been in contact with a few teachers looking to bring my reading of the novel into their classroom to enhance the curriculum and reach more students by leveraging a different learning modality with the audiobook. Being a former educator, that means a lot to me.

As a narrator, do you get compensated in a set amount or do you also receive royalties from the individual sales? Do you like one more than the other?

I do both Per Finished Hour and Royalty Share titles. I try only to take Royalty Share titles if the rights holder seems like they are going to invest serious time and energy into promotion. I have also turned down Royalty Shares where the writing seemed weak.

I don’t think I prefer one to the other, what I prefer is to get paid. And, there are times that gambling on a Royalty Share can pay off. But, I always go into it think of it as a gamble.

What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?

My favorite moment was connected to my first classic title — Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In years passed, I used to teach that story to High School students. While I was editing the recording, my wife stood at her easel — painting. When I was finished with my edits, she showed me her canvas. That painting is the cover art for the audiobook.

My most difficult moment was connected to cancelling a project. Each project presents a learning moment, and sometimes what I learn is that not every project is meant for me, even if I have been offered the job. I have gotten better about reviewing scripts, assessing how involved the rights holder plans to be, and setting expectations.

Do you have a list of your own favorite narrators, who inspires you? Do you have a list of favorite audiobook that you have listened to?

Scott Brick and Johnny Heller are both incredibly talented at using subtle vocal variations to establish character. And, they both have an amazing capacity to get you to care about a story.

Jim Dale is anything but subtle in his characterizations, but he is amazingly fun to listen to. And, for someone like me, with a background in accent acquisition/reduction, he can be especially fun. When I want to curl up under a blanket and hear anything from Peter Pan to Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, Jim Dale is who I turn to.

My favorite audiobook of all time, a performance of which I am still in awe, is Primary Colors performed by the amazing Peter Francis James. He nails all of the voices. He makes you care about every decision. He brings the world of that book to life.

Do you ever get specific notes or ideas from the writer about how something should be read? What is a helpful note, and what is, shall we say, less helpful?

Because of my vocal flexibility I tend to get notes about what famous actors an author hears for a character. If an author is amenable to using this as a jumping off point for me to build a character, it works. If they are looking for a slavish copy of a sound, it doesn’t work nearly as well.

Do you have an initial process or routine by which you get to know the book you’re going to be reading? Do you mark them up, for example?

I read the book, I look for reactions/reviews to the printed book online, I record short examples of character voices during my first read. I notate what words I will need to research. Then, after my first read, I follow up on all of those notes. I check whether my initial thoughts on character voices still work now that I know the ending. Sometimes, I will color code dialogue in a scene to help me keep track of who is speaking.

How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?

I record my initial thoughts on a character during my initial read. I play those back after reading the whole book. I adjust for details that I found out later in the text. I check whether my regionalisms fit the socio-economic situation of the character. And, I check to make sure that any characters that have scenes together have at least some notable differences in speech.

Is your studio in your home? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Do you have something that you would consider unique in your setup? What is it?

I have a StudioBricks booth in my home studio. Being a residential neighborhood, it is pretty quiet during the day. But, living with 2 teenagers, 5 cats, and a dog, we generate a fair bit of noise all on our own. Luckily, the booth can handle it.That said, when I take breaks from recording, it’s nice to get some laundry done or walk the dog to clear my head. And, the commute can’t be beat!

What is the atmosphere like in your studio when you record. What’s it like, and are things very serious or not very serious?
The atmosphere reflects the text. Since I am my own engineer, I am alone in the studio. So, the story dominates the mood. That’s why I am picky about material. It’s got to be something that I can live with 😉

How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?

I leave the studio between chapters and tend to record for a couple of hours at a time. An emotionally difficult subject will shorten it, and a compelling concept might lengthen it.

What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?

I love a good mystery. And, I love a good period piece. So, my love of noir should be no great surprise. Even newer cyberpunk noir tends to allow for older, disappearing New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia accents. And, as writers like Clifford Odets and John Patrick Shanley could attest, these accents have a music that few modern writers tend to explore.

What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?

Characters that give me grief tend to be my favorite characters. Anything that needs me to stretch as an actor takes more work, causes more frustration, and in the end results in a more satisfying performance.

How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?

I never stop myself. I take the time to have an honest emotional reaction. Then, I put that into my read. Hopefully, it comes through so the listener can experience that as well.

Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?

I’m not sure there is a perfect audiobook experience. When people sit in a theater, you have control over their environs. When people watch a show on a screen, you can also make some assumptions about your viewer. By its nature, audio can only assume that you have someone’s ear — nothing else.

Do you have a preference for reading fiction or nonfiction for pleasure? And is what you read for pleasure what you’d prefer to read for audiobooks?

I always read for pleasure. Reading is a commitment, and I take it seriously. I’ll read anything that feels like it will feed my imagination — be it a book on String Theory or a Spy Novel.

If something I read makes me want to share it with others, that’s a title that I’d love to record.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?

Read the works of Sanford Meisner and Robert Edmond Jones. Meisner’s views on acting seem to fit well with what I hear from many VO coaches out there today. And, Jones’ views on set design seem to fit well with creating the sound stage of an audiobook.

What has been your favorite project and why?

I don’t have a favorite project. Whatever I am working on in the moment tends to dominate my outlook on things. I try not to put any of my previous work on a pedestal. That would make it harder to determine what I need to improve in the moment.

Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?

I prefer being read to than reading something to myself. That said, I prefer reading aloud to reading silently. If I read a book aloud, is that still considered reading? I get more out of a book if my ears are involved when digesting its content.

Listening is a different learning modality than reading. It activates different parts of the brain. The information is stored differently. We should respect the learning differences that exist and realize that for a story to reach its full audience some will consume with their eyes and some with their ears. Some will even consume the book in braille and have a tactile experience of the words.

Are you working on any special projects?

I am working on a Walt Whitman project that will probably take a year or two to finish. I wish that I could say more about it, but until a few more details are ironed out, that’s really all that I can say.

2 Replies to “From AudioBook Reviewer: Narrator Interview – Steven Jay Cohen”

  1. Superb, Steven, thanks for sharing. That’s of deep value to beginners through to seasoned pros. Among your many quotables “An audiobook is akin to a one man show on a bare stage”.
    Looking forward to your WW – he has a considerable following in UK too.

    1. Thank you Howard. I’m glad you liked it.

      “There will come a time, here in Brooklyn and all over America, when nothing will be of more interest than authentic reminiscences of the past.” – Walt Whitman

      If this project goes well, it will feel like part narration, part introspection, and part performance art. The project both excites me and fills me with trepidation.

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