Archive for October, 2011

Farewell To The Master


Norman Corwin (May 3, 1910 – October 18, 2011), pictured in 1973.

“Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.”  — Norman Corwin, 1945

     My friends often tell me I “kick myself” way more than I ought to.  And they’re right.  But one “kick” that’s still justifiable is the one I keep administering for not being able to find a way to get to California last year for the 100th Birthday Celebration of one of the most influential voices in Radio...Norman Corwin.  As it turned out, I would have been able to sit down with Mr. Corwin and my college friend, Richard Fish, for a private visit which stretched from a promised “few minutes” into nearly three hours.

     Note I capitalized Radio.  That’s to differentiate the state of Radio in what’s now so quaintly termed its Golden Age from what it’s degenerated into. 

     But lest you think Norman Corwin was some kind of extraordinary voice actor, perhaps I should clarify.  While he was an on-air voice and had a career on mic as well as off, his influence on what Radio was capable of doing lay in his imaginaton and his writing and his ability to instill in his various voice casts the spirit of what he created on the pages of his scripts.  He knew how to direct those actors, along with countless technicians, musicians, even composers as accomplished as Bernard Herrman, in bringing his imaginings to life on the air…and have them re-created in the imaginations of his audiences.

     Corwin could easily be dismissed by some as “high brow”.  His love and mastery of language was on display in everything he wrote.  But he could just as easily write in the voice of (pardon the over-used phrase) the common man.  And he did so with such regularity that his various Radio series and specials were highly acclaimed, even though they were mostly “sustaining”…meaning they did not rely on comercial sponsors.  Indeed, if you’ve read any of the current obituaries, you may note one his most famous broadcasts during the era of WWII was broadcast live on all three national networks.

     But Norman Corwin could just as easily turn out a touching fairy tale story…like “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones”, about a little boy’s journey through a hell of a heavenly bureaucratic maze as he tries to free his little dog, unjustly sentenced to “Currgatory”.  One of his first nationally broadcast plays was a pre-Dr. Seuss rhyming Christmas story, “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas”, with historical villains teaming up with the Devil to kidnap Santa and do away with him, long before Jack Skellington. 

     There was the uproarious (as least to me) show, “The Undecided Molecule”, where said molecule was put on trial for refusing to meekly be assigned his place in the universe.  That showcased many top stars who would always be glad to appear in a Norman Corwin production:  Vincent Price as the Prosecutor, Robert Benchley as the Defense Attorney, and as the wise-cracking Judge…Groucho Marx.  Corwin’s writing was so precise that in listening to a recording of the broadcast, I had to stop myself mid-chuckle at what I thought was a Marx ad-lib…when the next rhyming line proved conclusively it had been in the script all along!  And the Molecule itself was performed live by a sound effects man practially torturing a wave oscillator, decades before Ben Burtt came up with the sounds of R2-D2.

     It wasn’t all fun and games, though.  One program I rarely read about, but which chilled me when I first heard the recorded broadcast, was called “They Fly Through The Air With The Greatest of Ease”.  It starts out as what you’d expect from some standard glorification of daring aviators, taking to the skies in their bombing runs.  But part way through, there’s a horrifying shift of focus as the narrative suddenly follows the bombs down to the people they’re about to obliterate…not the ones you would have thought at the start of the program.

     Corwin defied catagorization in his work.  While it’s true he did some of his finest writing and producing in the truest flag-waving traditions of the 30s and 40s, he was sensitive to injustice no matter what its origin.  This week’s Los Angeles Times article cites a program in the late 40s in response to the House Committe On Un-American Activties (the McCarthy communist witch hunts which ruined so many lives).  In it, a narrator (actor Frederic March) spoke these words:  “Who comes after us?  Is it your minister who will be told what he can say in his pulpit?  Is it your children’s school teacher who will be told what she can say in a classroom?  Who are they after?  They are after more than Hollywood.  This reaches into every American city.”

    He was still writing, still producing, even as he approached 100 years of age…with projects involving actors such as Jack Lemmon, Jessica Tandy, Martin Landau, Ed Asner, (Firesign Theatre’s) Phil Proctor, even William Shatner.

     Norman Corwin understood media.  And not just radio.  While he is justly remembered for his Oscar-nominated work on the Kirk Douglas bio-pic on Vincent Van Gogh, “Lust for Life”, he was early on the director of a Radio play based on Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City”.  While it boasted a voice cast including Orson Welles and Burges Meredith, live orchestra (again) conducted by Bernard Herrman…it is said that Corwin, in order to get just the right feel of the raw power of the mindless crowds (the Masterless Men of MacLeish’s story), had various sized groups of actors set up in a remote location at a local armory, where he directed their “crowd responses” like a conductor throughout the show, rather than having to rely on stock recorded crowd sound effects.

     So, yeah.  I guess I can be forgiven for kicking myself just a little bit for missing the chance to sit down with this titan of imagination.  But, as I wrote last year when I told you to send him birthday card…I really sort of did meet the man, at least through his words and his work.

     If you’ve ever created something with voices or sounds or music…and their respective languages…you’ve built on foundations set down by Norman Corwin, whether you knew it or not.

     You can learn more about this man’s remarkable career in a book, written by one of my favorite college professors (and I only had a couple of good ones), R. Leroy Bannerman’s Norman Corwin and Radio: The Golden Years, plus Corwin’s own published works, still in print.

— over and out —

     I’ve done it before, but never to this extent, or in this particular way.

     ‘Ready for your close-up?  I’m Mr. DeMille.  (If you’re too young to get the reference, watch “Sunset Boulevard”)

RG (in blue shirt) directs Paul Garrett. It's ironic that at one point I was directing Paul to use his hands less. Look whose hands are blurred in this shot!!!

     This weekend I worked with a group of very talented actors on the first in a series of web-training videos for Firehorse Films…as a Director!

Today’s lesson:  expanding your income by being able to offer new services to established clients!

     Mind you, the mastermind behind the whole project was Firehorse’s Jean-Paul Dame (pronounced dam-MAY…I don’t know how to use the accent key).  But Jean-Paul and I have worked on various audio and video projects over the years.  Sometimes I’ve been his on-camera talent.  Sometimes he’s recorded me or another VO talent at my studio.

     During one session a few years ago, JP was trying to get a particular read from one of my talented VO friends.  After several takes failed to bring the desired result, I suggested something-or-other to help the talent get the idea of what he was being asked to convey.  Next take:  nailed it.  From that time on, JP declared I had a new talent:  I speak Jean-Paul-ese!

     It’s come in handy several times since, with him specifically bringing recording work to me so he can fall back on my ability to know what he wants, and “translate” it into something the actor can then use.  May sound strange, but it works.

     When this current video project came along, naturally I auditioned.  But the age, gender, and ethnicity requirements of the final script meant I was just not right for any of the parts.  Jean-Paul brought me in to direct the actors, freeing him up to concentrate on technical issues, and keeping performances consistent for smoother editing later (saving him and his client time and money in both instances).  Even I was a little skeptical I was bringing much value to the project.  JP is no slouch director himself.  But not only did he declare my input of value, the sentiment was echoed by his clients more than a few times.  Bottom line:  they got what they wanted on-camera…faster and more efficiently…through my “adapted” talent behind the camera.

     So…looks like I’ll be directing talent in a lot more of these.  And it will actually be much more lucrative for me, since it would be unrealistic to expect I’d show up as a character in project after project.  But, as it appears now, my behind-the-scenes work will allow me to be a part of the rest of the series!   …keeping fingers crossed on that.

     Meanwhile, as you can see from the photo, I’ll be “acting” vicariously through the professionals who are in front of the camera.

     …and it still feels good, knowing I’m filling a creative need with some part of my imagination!

     What other part of your own creativity might you be using to the benefit of your current clients…and yourself?

— over and out —

A Small Part of A Larger Effort

This week I received news from my friend and client Rick Gregory at Bluestone Media that our ongoing work for Susan B. Komen for the Cure and its online breast cancer awareness program got some major recognition.  Here’s the quote:

Our mobile site won…Best in show for the entire mobile site and a Silver award for the Breast Cancer 101 tool…The W³ Awards honors creative excellence on the web, and recognizes the creative and marketing professionals behind award winning sites, videos and marketing programs. Simply put, the W³ is the first major web competition to be accessible to the biggest agencies, the smallest firms, and everyone in between. Small firms are as likely to win as Fortune 500 companies and international agencies.

 The W³ is sanctioned and judged by the International Academy of the Visual Arts, an invitation-only body consisting of top-tier professionals from a “Who’s Who” of acclaimed media, interactive, advertising, and marketing firms. IAVA members include executives from organizations such as AvatarLabs, Big Spaceship, Block Media, Conde Nast, Coach, Disney, The Ellen Degeneres Show, Estee Lauder, Fry Hammond Barr, Microsoft, MTV Networks, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Victoria’s Secret, Wired, Yahoo! and many others.

Rick’s team at Bluestone creates the interactive material for the Komen websites, and for several years he has had me record and edit the voicetracks with talent, Nancy Stolfo-Corti and Yasmin Wurts Metivier.

As someone who’s lost a family member to breast cancer, it’s good to be part of such a project.  And it’s even better to see that work recognized for excellence.

— over and out —

Using the Space Between My Ears

Video producer friend Rod Rich once implored me to keep asking him for help (free or barter production), because every time he agreed to help me, paying work started coming in and he’d have to put me off for awhile.  (Note:  he always came through for me anyway!)

Some time ago, voiceover friend extraordinare Melissa Exelberth put out a call for volunteers to help provide recorded material for the blind and visually impaired on a scheduled weekly basis.  This was shortly after the first Faffcon, and I was feeling especially gifted with free help myself.  So I figured this might be a good way to give back.

Gail Starkey at Gatewave was very encouraging.  And she surprised me when, going over possible reading matter for me to record, she mentioned she’d thought of having a weekly hour of old science fiction short stories.  That appealed to my imagination far more than reading articles from Forbes (no offense, Forbes), so I pounced on that.

It’s been 26 weeks, not counting a few re-runs.  “Beyond The Universe” now runs multiple times in their Sunday schedule each week.

And while my choice means I have to spend more time editing and making sure my content fits the exact run-time of Gatewave’s hourly format (I can’t just cut off the end of a story the way a news editor can), it has been very rewarding.

Gail and company let me choose the writers and stories I want to read.  It’s been an excuse to pull out those dusty paperback compilations in my library…and search out free stories online which I remember from recordings of NBC’s series “Dimension X” and “X Minus One” from the 1950s. 

And while it was another instance of taking on more than I could initally handle, the experience (much like my volunteer stage work noted in previous posts) has helped me expand my narrative powers.  It’s fun, it’s good vocal exercise, and I have noted several times it’s helped my delivery on paid narration, e-learning, and commercial reads of late.

Plus, while I’m not in position to know if anyone besides Gail is actually listening, I have hope these readings are transporting someone somewhere into worlds of imagination they’ve been deprived of till now.

Heck, it may eventually be enough to get me into audiobooks before all is said and done (and recorded and edited!).

Gatewave can always use more volunteers, I’m told.

And while I make absolutely no guarantees…I did notice more paid jobs AND their deadlines coming in, shortly after I agreed to give my time away. 

— over and out. —

Not All That Is Scary Is Bad

You know those people who tell you “You need to get out of the studio more…”?  The ones who say, “You need to give yourself a different type of a challenge, break out of your routine…”?  The pesty people with only your best interests at heart who prod you to “get outside your Comfort Zone…”?

Chances are, they’re right.

And if they’ve said these things will improve the quality of what you’re already doing…they’re probably right about that, too.

Last night, for me, was the culmination of weeks of creeping dread.  I don’t get stage fright.  I’m never nervous about being on camera.  And as long as I know my subject, I have no fear of public speaking.  But that’s me, about me.  If I blow something, I can usually ad lib my way out of it easily.  But I do freely admit to a fear of Failure.

Add to that the risk of tripping up a fellow actor (who needs that key word or phrase to do his/her next lines), or a hard-working tech crew (who really has to hear that line delivered where it’s supposed to be in order to have the next light or sound cue ready), or indeed the audience (who shouldn’t have to puzzle out what happened in the story if you suddenly skip over a few pages of the script)………now that’s scary. 

RG and Clint Lienau . Photo by David Watts

Now mind you, none of those things are happening with my current foray back into stage performance (Raleigh Little Theatre’s excellent production of “The Woman In Black”).  At least not to any noticable degree.   So far, the worst we (and our audiences) have had to deal with is a fog machine with a mind of its own.

The show, which opened last night in front of its intended audience, has come together wonderfully, just as director Haskell Fitz-Simmons and everyone else assured me it would.  It has become the fun I had hoped it would be when I hesitantly accepted friend Jack Hall’s prompting to audition, after some 20 years off the “legitimate stage”.  And I’ve made a new friend in Clint Lienau.

But more than that, it has really helped my daily voiceover work.  The first thing I noticed was that the nightly rehearsals and readings, instead of causing further vocal fatigue as I’d feared, actually strengthened my voice and gave me more stamina.  Case in point:  for years my best times to record were late morning/early afternoon.  I could hear my voice “thin out” or grow strained if I had a session late in the afternoon or at night.  But in recent weeks, the addition of show prep has required me to sometimes come back to a voice recording job after three hours of rehearsal, in order to meet a job deadline.  Instead of being too worn out, the voice seemed to actually be stronger.  I also note the experience has refreshed my storytelling abilities and attention to written copy.

Another point:  as wonderful as having my own studio is…my own little world…there is something encouraging and re-affirming about being around other creative people.  That was a great discovery for many who attended the recent Faffcon 3 for voice talent, but even involving yourself in a local group, even one with no direct link to our business, can be absolutely refreshing and recharging.

Getting up on a stage after a long time and trying to remember pages of lines may not be the right thing for you (and if you DO decide to come back to live theatre after that long a time, take my advice and do NOT pick a two-person show to memorize!), but take a look around and find something

Whether or not it puts money in your pocket for the time spent…it’s a great investment in your own emotional well-being.

…even if you DO end up having a ghost, the fear of forgetting your lines, or a rogue fog machine to contend with.

— over and out —