Sunday Spotlight: Curt Simmons



Curt Simmons happens to be one of the most congenial, approachable individuals I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know through The Audiobookworm. He so expertly narrated Omari and the People that I had to know more about his experiences in narration and audiobook production. Curt was generous enough to give us some insight into his profession and discuss how it intertwines with his personal life.

About Narration and Audiobooks:

How did you wind up narrating audiobooks? Was it always your goal or was it something you stumbled into by chance?

First, thank you for having me in your spotlight, Jess. It’s great to talk with you. Yes, I definitely stumbled into audiobooks. I had no idea what to do with myself after I retired from managing projects, but I knew it had to be something I would enjoy. So I took some time off and eventually decided to get back into Theatre as a stage manager, capitalizing on my project management experience and my previous career as an actor and director. Then, several longtime actor friends convinced me to audition for acting roles; “if you’re going to be in Theatre, you might as well do everything you can do.” So I went to one audition and was cast.

A few months later I found myself on stage again after a thirty-plus year absence, nervous as a cat boat in a hurricane. But it was a comedy, and as soon as I got my first laugh I knew I was home. Then, knowing how few and far between stage roles can be, I started looking for other performance opportunities and discovered that voice overs and audiobook narration had evolved into a cottage industry. I had also produced some radio and tv back in the day and I love storytelling. So I  I built a home recording studio, joined ACX, and started auditioning for audiobooks.

A lot of narrators seem to have a background in theatre. Is that something you think is essential to a successful narration career?

Oh no, I don’t think a theatre background is essential at all. It can help though. I think stage acting and audiobook narration are two different muscles. What I do think is essential though is being a good storyteller. The top three storytelling influences in my life were my fourth grade teacher, my high school World History teacher, and my grandfather, who was a carpenter and a hunter. If you can read a story to classroom full of students, or tell a hunting story in a way that engrosses and even enthralls your audience, then there’s a good chance you would be good at audiobook narration. I think the most essential thing is to “tell” the story and not sound like you’re reading it.

Having a home studio, you have to assume several roles: Narrator, director, producer, audio technician, etc. Can you give us a little insight into what goes into of each of them? How do you so effectively juggle multiple roles?

Great question. And thank you for asking it because it’s helpful to me to break it down since everything is happening simultaneously most of the time and all in only one little brain. 

The Producer is of course responsible for enabling and supporting the entire process, all the resources and technologies used in production, scheduling and pacing the recording, editing, signal processing, and mastering functions, as well as making sure the whole crew, so to speak, gets enough rest and the voice is well cared for. The Producer also promotes the finished product. 

The Director is in charge of managing all the creative elements that contribute to the overall effect of the work, riding the arc of the story, and ensuring that the heart and spirit of the story are well-served and the experience is as satisfying to the listener as possible. Pacing, tone, character voice decisions, editorial choices like which take to use and which breaths to take out or leave in and why, advising the Narrator on interpretation, characterization, and vocal delivery, shaping the dramatic dynamics, and approving the final product from an artistic standpoint. 

The Audio Technician is responsible for physically recording, editing, signal processing, and mastering the production. The Audio Tech uses equipment and software to make the voice and vocal atmosphere sound as pleasing to the ear as possible and to ensure the production meets all technical standards and requirements for distribution. 

The Narrator must be entirely focused on the story, and the narrative and character voices. The objective is to tell a story that enthralls, or captivates the listener. This is the part that some do naturally. Others need actor training. Having both is best I think. Having a great story to tell also helps. In my experience, the only chance I have to enthrall the listener is to be enthralled myself and that’s why the story is so important. When I’m captivated by the story as I tell it, everything else in the telling is easy and works. Tone, pacing, breathing, voices, dramatic dynamics are all there. Then, it’s up to the Director and the Audio Tech to maintain and enhance all of these elements in the course of editing and processing. When I’m not enthralled, to my ear, I sound tentative, fake, and I either overact or sound like I’m reading, probably both. And it’s fairly impossible for the Director and Audio Tech to create an enthralling performance when the foundation is not there.

Juggling the multiple roles is the real challenge and, for me, only comes with experience. I learn a ton with every production. Often I’m compelled to re-produce chapter one because of the improvement I’ve gained getting to chapter thirty. My biggest struggle is turning off the Director and Technician so the Narrator can focus on his job. Experience. Practice, practice, practice.

Working at home, how do you manage to avoid burn-out? What do you do to maintain your enthusiasm for narrating?

The best thing I can do to avoid burn-out is to choose captivating stories, written by authors whose craftsmanship is evident. If I love the story and the writing, my batteries seem to stay charged. If not, it’s ultimately debilitating both physically and mentally. Omari energized me. Second best thing I can do is get good sleep, eat healthy, and take plenty of breaks. It’s also important to get outside when I can.

What do you say to those who view listening to audiobooks as “cheating” or as inferior to “real reading”?

Now, this is a fascinating discussion. I think I get how strongly the “real readers” feel about literary tradition and achievement and how indescribably satisfying absorbing great works from the page can be. There’s something almost sacred in it. It’s art, for crying out loud. But remember, oral tradition came first. Story came first and storytelling is art, too. For those who hold oral tradition sacred, perhaps it’s cheating to write it down. Actually, neither is cheating. To say that one is cheating is almost like asking, “if you had to choose one of these two senses to lose which one would it be, sight or sound?” A sick question that I refuse to answer. Oral storytelling and reading are two different channels by which humans experience story. Neither is better nor more artful. I do believe our oral tradition is in decline, however, and I’m hopeful that audiobooks can help bring it back.

About Omari and the People :

What about Omari and the People compelled you to audition as narrator?

I received Stephen’s email inviting me to audition while my wife was in ICU recovering from emergency surgery after a very bad car accident in February of this year. She’s doing fine now and almost back to normal life. But at the time, life had suddenly and dramatically changed and proven so precious and precarious once again. I explained the situation to Stephen and told him the timing was not right for me to be working on an audiobook. He completely understood, conveyed his heartfelt concern and said to contact him if I changed my mind. Then, I read Omari.

After a few days decided I could do the book if the production timeline was flexible. Since I produce in my home studio, it was really the only work I could do under the circumstances. I auditioned and Stephen agreed to be as flexible as I needed and hired me. To answer your question, it was the story, his beautiful writing, and I think the fact that I knew I needed both. The story of an arduous journey into an unknown desert helped me navigate my own personal journey mentally and spiritually as I cared for my wife at home while she slowly recovered. It was my refuge, my emotional outlet, and my therapy quite frankly. 

How closely did you work with Stephen Whitfield on the project? Did he give you much direction?

Other than character and character voice notes, Stephen really left the project up to me. I had a few minor questions along the way that he always addressed promptly and thoroughly, but the main thing Stephen gave me was emotional support. He made me feel comfortable that he really was not concerned about the timeline. Interesting to think what a major theme time is in Omari. It’s like Stephen embodied the spirit of that theme. He always asked how the recovery was going and sent well wishes and healing thoughts which I delivered to my wife. He really took the pressure off and let me explore the desert with Omari and the People.

The audiobook’s runtime is 11 hours and 17 minutes, but how much time really went into producing Omari and the People

It took me a little more than twice as long as it would have under normal circumstances. I finished it in roughly four months. Most of the work was done late at night after long days, and some nights I was too tired to work. But it was definitely the right thing to do.

The accents used in Omari and the People are very distinct, yet still hard to place. What inspirations did you have when finding Omari’s voice? Were some characters easier to voice than others?

You know, I just fell into the accent when I did the audition. Stephen didn’t have a strong preference, but said he would consider a light Middle Eastern accent. Something about the mysterious and romantic setting combined with his storytelling style and characterization resulted in a sort of Middle Eastern/Russian/Italian/Hispanic/Scottish sound that was just there all of a sudden. I didn’t think about it, it just came out. Then, when I listened to it I could hear strains of Yul Brynner, Yakov Smirnoff, and Father Guido Sarducci to name a few. The minor characters were more difficult to find since they are somewhat less defined and appear less frequently. I think my favorite voice is the Old Mother. I can listen to her and forget that it’s me.

How difficult was it to hold that accent for so long? Did you ever find yourself accidentally slipping into it outside of the studio?

Ha. Well, I am known for flipping into different accents in my normal, everyday interactions with people, so if I did, it was just business as usual. It wasn’t difficult to maintain, but I did find myself getting so comfortable with it that I would have to check to make sure it was still there. 

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m considering doing a classic that’s in the public domain. No better way to find a great story to tell and phenomenal writing. Maybe The Call of the Wild by Jack London. I’ll also continue to audition and send out my demo. I’m also open to any suggestions you or your readers may have, after listening to Omari, for authors whose works you think might be a good fit for me. Although, I realize it may be difficult to imagine what I sound like without the accent. 

Thank you, Curt, for sharing such personal details of your life.

Hear more samples of Curt’s vocal abilities on SoundCloud and check out his website for bio and contact information!

? @authors: Curt Simmons officially has The Audiobookworm’s approval. Someone better nab him to narrate another audiobook before I hire him to read me the phonebook!

Omari and the People is available on Audible.

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