Narrator Spotlight: Topher Payne

This Narrator Spotlight features Topher Payne! Topher has been named Best Local Playwright by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Sunday Paper, Creative Loafing, David Magazine, and The GA Voice. He won the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award at the 2013 Suzi Bass Awards and he one of our newest narrators.

How long have you been narrating audiobooks?
Just started last year.

Of the books that you’ve narrated, which is your favorite?
Well, that’s just an evil unfair question. See, a funny thing happens when you’re given the responsibility of being the voice of a book- you can’t help but take a certain ownership of it. So I’ve got a great deal of affection for each one, and I spend more time than I probably should afterwards hoping that I’ve honored the author’s intent.

That said, my favorite experience of recording a book was Edward Swift’s Splendora. It takes place in a small Texas town, with nearly fifty characters- male, female, young, old, and all points in between, but they all have the same accent. I sat around the house talking to myself for a couple days, finding new places my voice could go. It was like Narrator Boot Camp, and I think I came out of it better at my job.

What do you do to prepare before narrating an audiobook?
I read it, and make notes as I go along, vital statistics for each of the characters, clues which would inform the performance. If there’s more than a handful of speaking roles, I use PDF Annotator to highlight each one in a different color, so they don’t sneak up on me. Group scenes end up looking like rainbow sprinkles on a birthday cake. If this all sounds really nerdy and detail-obsessed, it’s because it is. And then I get a good night’s sleep. If you don’t rest your voice the night before, you will absolutely regret it in the studio.

How do you create different character voices?
Oh, it’s very simple. You talk to yourself like a lunatic. I read aloud and keep testing the water ‘til eventually something emerges that makes me say, “Oh, there you are.” For shorthand, I’ll form a distinct mental image, of someone I’ve known, or somebody famous. Make no mistake, my impressions are shockingly bad. What I call “Katharine Hepburn” sounds absolutely nothing like Katharine Hepburn, but it helps me stay consistent.

What is the funniest thing to happen while recording a book?
Occasionally there’ll be a typo in a book that wasn’t caught in the editing process, and we’ll correct it in the audio version. So, I was recording a love scene in a romance novel. The line was something like, “He felt the hot steam on his face, and he loved it.” Only it didn’t say “steam.” It said “steak.” “He felt the hot steak on his face.” We had to take a break from recording because I could not stop laughing. I just kept picturing this guy getting slapped in the face with a Porterhouse.
And loving it.

What is something people might be surprised to know about the job of an audiobook narrator?
The variety of noises your stomach and mouth make, independently of your influence. Your growling belly quickly becomes your mortal enemy, because the microphones are very sensitive, and it’ll sound like there’s a bulldog having a very vivid dream nearby.

If you could narrate any book, what would be your dream audiobook?
Something Southern and funny and weird. Eudora Welty, Truman Capote. Sheri Joseph’s Bear Me Safely Over would be amazing. But Mark Childress’s Crazy in Alabama would probably be my dream book. If you only know that title from the Melanie Griffith movie, do yourself a favor and seek out the book. And then maybe picture me reading it to you.

Make sure to check out Topher’s play Lakebottom Prime, which has its Atlanta premiere in April, produced by The Process Theatre Company. As an actor, he can be seen this month on HBO in the film Identity Theif.
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