I spent the next two weeks alternating between flying high living off all the endorphins and happy brain chemicals that had jammed all the wiring in my brain and the fear and worry that I hadn’t done a good enough job which is why they had wanted to switch me off the lead character.
Wondering what were the forces beyond my control that determined these factors, but also not caring and endlessly replaying every moment I could cobble together from memory. Again and again and again.
Nobody at school knew or cared and I didn’t have many friends in my new school anyway. Nobody at my new church knew or cared. None of my neighborhood friends were churchy or into Acting.
It was something I couldn’t really share with anybody. Not because it was taboo, but because nobody knew what Focus on the Family was. Nobody knew what audio theater was. It was this thing that happened in a suspended place and time where I got to have this amazing adventure… but afterwards it mostly just existed in my own mind.
Even my parents weren’t there to witness it.
And me trying to recall every last ounce of it to my parents.
It’s like throwing a birthday party for yourself that no one but you are invited to. All this excitement and nobody to enjoy it with.
But the memory of having done it made the drudgery of school better.
And there was a new play being prepped and rehearsed at the christian theater which helped… but it wasn’t the same.
It’s hard being a grizzled Entertainment Industry Veteran at the age of 10. Seen too much. Nothing impresses any more. The cynicism and jaded thinking of a boy who had 1 whole studio session and nothing will ever deliver happiness ever again.
The thing about addiction is that it’s never really the first time that hooks you.
It’s the second time. The time that reminds you that the bliss of the first high wasn’t a fluke.
How, oh how, will I ever exist again with this new boring life that I find mysel–
“Focus called. They want you again!”
Now keep in mind.
If I may.
I was a kid who was literally having nightmares at night every night for the first year we lived in California.
Oh. Wait. Did I forget to tell you all about The Nightmares? Always had ’em. After we moved they got worse.
I would have these recurring dreams about living in Texas. I’d be on my bike with my friends. Playing in the woods and building forts. It was so real. I was back home. And then… my alarm would go off. And I’d wake up in California, my friends 2,000 miles away 20 years before internet chat rooms and smart phones when long distance phone calls cost $20. When you moved away it was like you died.
And then the next hour of my morning would be spent trying to make that lump in my throat disappear.
NOW I HAD SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO AGAIN THAT MADE THE NIGHTMARES IRRELEVANT.
I get to do it AGAIN?!?
I get to get out of school again?
“Actually, they want you for the whole day. 2 episodes!”
Did I win the lottery? Did I die? Is this heaven? I mean the only thing better than getting to leave school and do one episode surely has to be not going to school at all and doing two episodes.
I’m really glad those old guys in the mysterious sound booth realized the error of their ways by not letting me be in episode 001. Rookie mistake, but they’ll learn.
And for the next week or so I got the joy of anticipation again. The misery of existence offset by the knowledge that I might get to see that old guy Hal. And Walker. And Will. I wonder if they’ll be there. I sure would like to get to have fun across the table from them again.
Lucky for me…. they were.
This time we drove back to the same building that I auditioned in. The Pomona facility.
Except this time it had furniture in it!
It still was… new.
You’d walk through the front doors. And up this big staircase that wound up the right side of the wall. For now… those walls were empty.
And I walked into the area where I’d auditioned before. The stacks of chairs were gone replaced with employees and some empty rooms and some full offices and a mish-mash of various states of moving in.
I barely registered any of it. WHERE’S THE STUDIO?
And I was led down a hallway, past the room where I had originally auditioned to a solid door. Did there used to be a button we pressed to get into that door? I feel like there was some access granted kinda thing. Red lights showing that recording is happening. Maybe that all came later. Hard to recall 35 years later. But going thru that door and walking next to a wall of windows looking down onto the parking lot would become a place of quiet retreat for me in the years to come.
Another door. And as soon as that door is opened there are doors immediately to the left and right. On the right… a recording studio with the spider table set up I’d seen at the first location.
To my left, two doors. One for the booth. One for the recording artists. I was brought into the booth and given the morning script:
Odyssey USA: Episode 003- Light’s Out at Whit’s End
“You’re Bobby this time.”
Now, for those who don’t understand what this show is it probably doesn’t mean much to you that I’m declaring I did episodes 002 and 003 and 004.
This is a series that is still being recorded. My colleagues posted pictures from the studio last week. They’re on episode 950something after 35 years.
This is me flexing on the OG fans. I was there at the start. It’s also me attempting to explain to the world, I was there before this became a thing. I was there at the beginning when they could never imagine the future success this show would have. It’s my OG bonafides/credentials.
I don’t brag often. But sometimes, I gotta let folks know I’m an OG too.
The notable thing(s) about this session was it was the first full day of recording I ever got to do. Two- count ’em- TWO whole episodes!
It would be my new recording home for the next 3 years? 4 years?
It would create the expectation that I would play a different character each time.
It was also… the first time I ever experienced Hal Smith and Walker Edmiston trying to rap.
Perhaps the greatest creative bomb in the history of the show.
I learned many things in every session through the course of my tenure on the show. But here, in the sound booth, watching through the window during my 2nd recording session ever, as some of the finest voice over talent ever assembled in the history of audio theater were being taught how to rap so the show could be more relevant to kids is a memory of such devastating trauma that I’ve never recovered.
I want to go on record as saying that I knew this would be a terrible idea at the time. It occurred to me to maybe say something like, “I don’t think that’s working as well as you think it is.” But, I’m 10. Who’s gonna listen to me? Also, I dunno… maybe it will get better in post production? Add reverb??? Iunno….
I learned that day that The Large People sometimes didn’t know what Us Small People liked but they sure as hell were gonna try to pander to my generation as best they can- although I’m certain this experiment killed that concept and they quickly got back to what they do best which was: everything else other than rapping.
I remember thinking while watching that train wreck attempt to be recorded for a solid hour, “No matter how bad I ever mess up in the studio it will never be as bad as this.”
And that was the moment I never feared blowing a take or mucking up a line ever again. No matter how bad I ever screwed up… it could never hold a candle to watching the over-40 crowd trying to rap and. failing. miserably. Even The Large People mess up! That was a relief to discover.
This episode was so bad it was later sent to Episode Jail- a very dark place for episodes that would never be allowed to be rerun again. We don’t speak of these episodes under penalty of severe punishment. But I was there. I saw it. I saw what they did in the studio that day. No amount of therapy can ever erase that from my memory. The walls remember, too. And microphones never forget the abuse they’ve suffered.
Those poor, poor microphones… they didn’t deserve that.
It was also the first time working in this new seating arrangement. Instead of a spider table lookin’ thing, there were half a dozen chairs arranged in a semi circle facing the control booth. A large microphone stand with a boom arm. The engineers would come in and set the mic placement for everyone’s customized needs and then wrap the cord up the boom and coil the excess at the base. Very neat and tidy every time thankyouverymuch.
Before each chair was a music stand covered in carpet for the pages of script to be laid out– this is one of the more critical skillsets and a true art within the art.
Paper. It’s a handy thing. You can do many things with paper including making weapons and eating it. It’s also very handy for taking ink and making shapes that represent words so that people can read and then recite the words.
Paper has a notable downside though. If a scene runs longer than two pages… you’re gonna need a third page. So? No big deal. Get back to the studio story, Dave.
Listen SHEEP! These things matter. See, a music stand, as any musician will tell you, is just wide enough for precisely TWO pages. And Audio Theater is a word heavy form of writing. What do I mean by that?
In filmmaking, you are using the cinematic camera and moving picture to SHOW people moving images. Moving images do not always need sound. In fact, MOST shots in films have no dialogue. Character A runs from that door and smashes through the plate glass window. No dialogue needed. Character gets up covered in glass having jumped through the window and now runs up the street. No dialogue needed. Bad guys jump through window and chase glass covered guy/gal/robot up the street. No. Dialogue. Needed.
That little 5-6 shot sequence will take a full day to shoot and not one body mic or boom mic will be needed to capture sound.
But in Audio Theater… sound effects and music can only do so much. You really have to rely on the voice actors to fill out as much of the audio spacetime continuum as possible. Dialogue in audio theater is VERY different than film.
In film, I just need one word. The rest I can convey with facial expressions, an eyebrow raised, a nostril flared, my body language, my wardrobe and prop interactions… so much can be done without speaking. And the job of the actors in audio theater is to convey all those things that you do in body language, but we have to channel all of it thru the voice box.
And so sometimes performance has to be a bit exaggerated in a way that film and tv can’t get away with.
But, you also need things to say to make the process work. You can only grunt and groan and breathe into the mic so much before it gets… uhhh… uncomfortable for everyone involved.
And so the challenge for the writing staff is how to write a LOT of words. Words that sound natural. Words that describe things. But they also have to not SEEM like they’re trying to describe or be an intentional vehicle for actor expressions or story exposition or conveying visual information. It’s an incredibly difficult form of script writing if not the most difficult. Because you’re using actors to really do 98% of the heavy lifting of story telling.
Which is why this work is so dialogue intensive. Because the nature and limitations of the art form demand that in order to achieve complete buy-in from the audience you have to manipulate dialogue and words in ways that other theatrical mediums don’t allow or need. The biggest and most obvious of these is sound. On stage. On film. Before a camera…
I (as a character) can enter a room…
cross to a seat…
open an envelope…
and quietly read it.
I can do that without ever saying a word.
And without ever saying a word, when I open that envelope I can have you- in the audience- sobbing. For realsies. I can do a 10 minute silent improvised performance of that.
Or I can have you laughing your ass off in 30 seconds.
Whatever the moment demands, that’s what the artist must deliver.
It’s not easy to do. It’s even harder in an audio-only medium. A magnitude of difficulty far beyond any other form of acting, IMO. I had no knowledge of this and wouldn’t really figure it out until I’d get into film work a decade later.
So, the nature of this medium requires it to be dialogue heavy. Which means lots of words. Pages of an audio script will usually be denser than a film script. In film scripts there’s more descriptive text regarding the action in each shot with very little dialogue. In audio scripts it’s blocks of text in the dialogue with very little description. And depending on rhythm and flow a scene can extend to 4-5 or even 6 or 7 pages.
Which brings us back to paper.
And paper makes noise when you turn the pages 6 inches underneath a $1,000 microphone with a diaphragm sensor the size of my head. (wonder whatever happened to those mics)
And so it becomes this delicate dance to get your pages laid out and overlapping just soooooooo.
You DON’T want to be the person responsible for blowing a take 6 pages into a 4 person scene, right as it’s at it’s most poignant and delicate moment of human expression where the background music will swell to a minor key… *crinkle*
WHO MOVED THE DAMN PAPER?!?
I want to be clear that I never ever heard any of the crew swear ever in the whole time I was ever there. Ever. Not ever. Ever. NEVER. NOT ONE TIME.
WHO MOVED THE FUCKING PAPER?!?
I would also learn as time went on that as long as I wasn’t the one ruining these takes then that meant… I WASN’T THE ONE RUINING THE TAKES AND MAYBE THEY’LL KEEP ME AROUND.
As an Effin’ Evangie Kid™ I was terrified of getting into trouble. This extended to pretty much everything. Baseball practice. School. Grades. Room cleaning. Paper sounding. Take Ruining.
You learn to survive by being a Silent Paperer™. This takes much training. Surely a montage is needed to show you how the hero learns this skill…
Also, this was the session where I was first able to really see what was happening in the control booth. And I would become well acquainted with a facet of the recording process long gone: The Reel-to-Reel Machine of Dwindling Time3000.
Ah, how many takes were ruined, how much fine human art was destroyed half way into a scene because no one was watching and the tape ran out– or we’d have maybe 10 seconds to say the sentence on a wild take. Or maybe 30 seconds to knock the scene out. Can you do it again, but… slightly faster?
A long lost art form within the art form.
I also learned that day that I was really digging hanging out with these old folks. They all wore button up shirts with breast pockets where they keep all their writing implements and reading glasses and
They wear soft clothes so they don’t make noise. No jangly watches or jewelry.
They could do so much with their voice. And the performance technique. Proximity of mouth to microphone. The summoning of energy from a reservoir within at moment’s notice.
Watching Walker Edmiston (a guy who had his own self-named puppet show on TV 10 years before Jim Henson would make Sesame Street) as he would take a direction from the booth, he’d make his note on the page or in his head, they’d spool up the tape deck… everyone in the room doesn’t move a muscle and *snap* starts performing the character and working the dialogue and dancing his head around the mic to avoid popping p’s and backing on and off the mic with the body as a way to control volume.
Every session a master class with half a dozen pros with hundreds of years of collective experience.
I learned that a full day of voice acting would tire me out in a way that no other work I would do in my life ever would. Still holds true 35 years later. It’s exhausting. Only film acting wipes me out more. Maybe.
I also learned that there was something… happening.
A collective energy. Something bigger than the moment that was a through-line throughout the whole process during those first months. I wouldn’t realize the rarity of the feeling until later in life but it’s the bubbling excitement of a massive project where the wheels are finally getting rolling, everybody has something to prove to each other, everyone’s also kind of terrified it may not work… it’s that first run of an original play, first season of a tv show energy. Before people are tired and ragged and stressed and comfortable. It’s that first love energy.
It’s a rare thing to get to experience. And it was palpable. I just assumed this was how it always is.
I also understood very well that all of these old guys and gals knew each other well and loved working together. And that joy and friendship they had fed the whole experience. It was endless… joy. Happiness. Never a sour moment.
It was lightning in a bottle.
Maybe I was part of that lightning striking. I’m content to say I was allowed to ride on their coattails so long as I didn’t ruin the takes.
Odyssey USA: Episode 004- Connie Comes to Town
“Dave, this is Katie.”
I think it’s fair at this point to take a moment and talk about an aspect of this project that has concerned me and made me hesitant to do this whole thing.
Many of these people are still living. And I love them all dearly.
And I think for the time being, for the purposes of what I’m doing and trying to accomplish, I’m going to try to keep living people out of this by name as much as possible. Folks have a right to their privacy to a certain degree.
And there are two groups of folks in this situation: the Cast & the Crew.
I have very different relationships to both groups.
I also learned at this session, that I wouldn’t figure out that distinction for a very, very, VERY long time.
Thought we were all a part of the same team. I was 10. Wtf did I know? They were all The Large People. To me at the time the two groups were The Large People and The Small People.
Anyway. Katie. She’s every bit as amazing as you think she would be. And she deserves to be mentioned in talking about this project because she was the primary star of the show. Katie. Will. Hal. And Chris Anthony narrating every episode. It’s impossible to mention this show without crediting the titans of it. Can’t remember when I first met Chris (she played Barbie for a decade to the uninitiated of you)… whether it was this session or later. There were a number of people and they kept changing every episode. A bit of a blur.
But this session was notable in that I finally got to meet the rest of the main players. (There were more people than I’m mentioning, btw. Not meaning to leave folks out for the record, but my focus… ahem… is rather narrow.)
I’m also learning that I’m starting to get the hang of this thing called audio theater.
And I don’t seem to be mucking it up too much.
In fact, I seem to be pretty good at it.
And I don’t have to be in school.