Dawn Harvey is an actress, singer and voiceover artist. Dawn has narrated over 45 audiobooks and is the recipient of both Earphone and SOVAS Awards for her audiobook work. She has an insatiable appetite for story and a love of learning, which serves her well in both her fiction and non-fiction work. Dawn loves character and accent work and is continually adding to her arsenal of unique characters. She is “a woman of a certain age” and excels in fiction works dealing with these most interesting older women. Dawn is passionate about social justice and feminism. Dawn’s undergraduate work was concentrated in the areas of acting and psychology and she hold both Bachelors and Masters of Law degrees. Dawn has three adult children and one adorable rescue dog, Dani.
How did you get started narrating audiobooks?
I have been a performer for most of my life. Shortly after the turn of the century, I developed severe arthritis in both knees. Still being relatively young at the time, it threw me into a panic about losing the ability to walk, which would severely impact my ability to perform in the traditional sense. Whilst in the middle of this panic, I realized that I could continue to perform if I became a voice actor.
So, I started down the path of training to do voice work. There are a plethora of genres of voice work available, and I studied everything.
After a few years, it became clear to me that long-form narration suited me very well. And then I found audiobooks. I was always a prolific reader and loved reading out loud. I was the kid in the class who wanted to read the whole story to the class, not just my one paragraph or one page as we passed the book around the classroom. I was born to narrate audiobooks but it was only a career for persons in Chicago, NY, and LA until the Internet changed all that.
Since that initial panic, both of my knees have been replaced and I am able to continue to perform in whatever medium I find work. But now I’ll always have audiobooks too.
You narrate both fiction and non-fiction. Is there a difference in your approach to each?
There are some similarities and some differences. In both cases, you have to read the book first. I am always amazed at the people who ask the question, do you have to read the whole book first. Of course you do.
How can you possibly tell the story well if you don’t know where it’s going, what’s important, what’s a “red herring”, what the character’s back stories are, etc. In both cases I load the script into my iAnnotate application on my iPad and read the book, marking certain things up in the text and completing a spreadsheet at the same time. At the end of the read, these markings and the spreadsheet direct the work I then have to do. In the case of non-fiction, that work generally involves a lot of looking up of names, places and technical terms for understanding and pronunciation purposes. Fiction involves some of that as well, but non-fiction is generally a heavier load in that respect. Fiction takes more time in understanding characters and their relationships to each other and finding their personalities along with their speech patterns and characteristics. In both cases, there may be accent and dialect work that is required as well. It is only once all of that work is done that the recording can take place. Audiobook narration is not for the lazy or the feint of heart!
You have experience in music, theater, and film. How have those fields assisted your audiobook performance?
All of those experiences contribute to a general level of performance skill. Music explores emotion and pitch and pace and musicality. All of these can be called upon in defining characters and in developing a narrative read that matches the emotional experience you wish to convey to the listener. Theatre and film experience and training gets to the heart of character development and story telling. With an audiobook, you are charged with telling the story and being all of the characters. In most other acting work, you only need to be one character; they are collaborative works and you only bring your piece of the puzzle. In audiobooks, you are responsible for the entire experience, save for the words the author brought. It is the most difficult acting challenge of any of the performance genres but also the most rewarding, IMHO.
You say on your website, “I have a keen interest in and aptitude for accents and dialects and I am constantly adding to my repertoire of unique and diverse characters.” What process do you take to pick up new accents?
It depends on the accent and how well I need to know it. Some come to me easier than other. The first thing I do is go to http://www.dialectsarchive.com/.
This website has hundreds of mp3 files of native speakers from around the world. I listen and imitate. Sometimes that’s all it takes. If it is a difficult accent for me and I have only a few lines that require it, I will generally search out a native speaker or skilled dialect coach, record them saying the lines and then mimic them. Parroting skills are golden in this business!
If it is an accent that I will have to use a lot, I will make a recording from the dialects archive and listen/repeat for days and days whenever I am driving. I listen to native radio programs to get a feel for the musicality of the dialect and the sounds of the words while I’m otherwise working at my computer. I watch movies and/or YouTube videos featuring persons with that particular dialect (i.e. Trainspotting for learning Irish). I analyze the language to understand how they deal with vowels and consonants, where the sounds are placed, etc. And, I hire a dialect coach if all of that work does not get me to where I need to be.
Over time, my repertoire grows and grows, and once I have learned a particular accent, I have all the tools I need on hand to refresh my memory should I need to. I am currently refining my Southern US accents so that I can capture the nuances between different states. There is no end to the work that can be done in this area, should it be one that a narrator wishes to explore.
You have an undergraduate degree in Petroleum Land Management. That is such a contrast from performing that I wonder what influenced you to choose this field and then turn to performance arts.
I grew up in Calgary which is the oil capital of Canada. I spent many years trying to decide whether I wanted to be an actor or a lawyer. While this was going on, I needed to eat and put a roof over my head so I ended up in the oil industry, working in the land department. This led me to pursue a petroleum land management certificate. Land management is all very law related and I was enjoying the work so I decided to pursue a law degree, which leads us to your next question!
Then, after your degree in Petroleum Land Management, you got degrees in law. As a lawyer told me recently, to be successful, lawyers must be good storytellers. Have your law studies influenced your narration career in any way?
I would say that my law studies influenced my career as it drove me back to acting – LOL. When I got my LL.B, I wanted to practise family and criminal law. This is not a good idea for an actor who keeps her emotions so close to the surface.
There is so much pain and sorrow in both of these areas and I could only continue with that work if I allowed myself to become hardened to the human experience, the opposite of what an actor needs to do. I decided that was not a choice I wanted to make. I was living in Vancouver at that time, and for this and other reasons, my family moved backed to Calgary. I went back to the oil industry but decided I might like to teach at law school so pursued my masters of laws. I did teach some law classes after that at the University of Calgary and DeVry Institute and soon learned that teaching students for marks was not for me. Having students come to complain to me that they felt their 92% should have been a 93% on the morning of 9/11 finally did it for me. Did they really think that was the most important issue to discuss that day?????? Or ever???? I continued to teach for a professional organization for Petroleum Landman (adults, no marking) and enjoyed that much more. Now, I teach audiobook narration classes and that feels much more like home to me!
What kinds of preparations do you make to narrate a book? I.e. What kinds of notes do you take?
I covered a lot of this in the second question. I note words that I’m not sure I know how to pronounce, I note details of the storyline for fiction, I note any clues the author gives me as to the characters they have created such as age, class, background, vocal quality, place of origin, etc. Anything that will help me to draw a mental picture of the characters, their relationships to each other and to the story.
How do you decide what voices to use for each character in a book?
I pull everything I can from what the author and the story has given me. This will all be recorded under that character’s name on my spreadsheet. Also on my spreadsheet, I’ll know how many chapters each character is in and how much each character talks. This can be important in selecting voices. Some voices are harder on the vocal chords than others and might be fine for a very minor character but not the kind of thing you would want to do to yourself with a major character. However, you can get stung sometimes when an author makes a minor character more major in a sequel! Once I have all of the available information on all of the characters, I focus on each one in turn. I have a list of various vocal attributes that I will look to to help determine how the character will speak. An obvious example might be a character who has suffered a major stroke that has resulted in partial facial paralysis. This is a key consideration for that character’s voice. For character work, consistency across the entire piece is extremely important. John should sound the same in chapter 50 as he did in chapter 1, all things being equal. For me, that means tying each character to a person or actor that I am familiar with who can give me a very quick visual clue to the character’s attitude and voice. So I “cast” the book. Once the casting is complete, I hang pictures in my booth of the “actors” I have cast with their names and key words about them noted at the bottom of their picture.
As I work, the characters I am dealing with in each recording session are given a front and centre position above my copy. In this way, I can move from one voice to another when doing dialogue by simply glancing at that character’s picture on my wall. It may seem like a lot of work upfront to some, and it is, but the upfront work I do gives me a 1/1.5 recording ratio in the booth whereas the average is 1/2 so I make up a lot of that time in the actual recording (this means it takes me 1.5 hours to record one hour of audio whereas the average is 2 studio hours for each hour of audio).
What is your favorite part about narrating audiobooks?
My most favorite part is opening my inbox and finding that a publisher has sent me a book they want me to narrate for them at a reasonable rate without having to audition. I’m pretty sure that will never get old! After that, my first read of the text and the preparation involved is my favorite part. I usually set myself up in one of two places. Either on the deck in my reclining chair or in the family room in front of a roaring file, again in a comfy reclining chair. My tools are all within reach, along with a beverage. The other constants are having some music playing in the background and my adorable rescue dog, Dani, lying by my side. He likes this part best too as it’s the only part of the process where he can lie beside me and get petted! He is always on the floor near me when I record (where his snoring has occasionally been known to cause me to stop recording to wake him up!) and when I’m working on the files post recording. But it is only during prep that he gets to be petted through the entire process!