The Face Behind The Voice

The Face Behind The Voice

Susan Ericksen is a classically trained actor with a master of fine arts in acting from the Meadows School for the Arts at Southern Methodist University. So when asked about the joy of voicing audio books, she hauls out a line from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In the comedy, Nick Bottom, a weaver by trade and an actor by serendipity, says: “Let me play the lion too. I’ll roar so well that it’ll be an inspiration to anyone who hears me. I’ll roar so well that the duke will say, ‘Let him roar again. Let him roar again.’”

“I get to do it all,” she says with a smile in her voice.

But, she adds, it’s nice to get out and meet fans as she will May 20 at Books in Bloom, part of the May Festival of the Arts in Eureka Springs. “You spend a lot of time in a little dark room reading to yourself. Sometimes you wonder if there’s anybody out there listening.”

Although she has given voice to more than 500 titles across nonfiction and fiction genres, Ericksen does most of her work at her home in Minneapolis. She explains that with today’s technology, all but a handful of the “A list” voice actors — the current preferred term for narrators of audio books — do. It’s good for publishers, who don’t have to rent a studio in New York, hire a sound engineer and send in a director and producer, as they did in the past. It’s good for the actors, who don’t have to live in New York City and, as in Ericksen’s case, can juggle husband and family around their work. But it presents several challenges, she admits, not just getting dressed every day — which she promised herself she would always do.

For instance, she says, voicing a book about New Orleans, she discovered that no street names there are pronounced the way you’d expect. She listed some other examples in a story in AudioFile Magazine, among them “Leeway Cottage” by Beth Gutcheon:

“Most of the book takes place amid the Danish Resistance during World War II. Danish is a very hard language to pronounce. You can’t just hear it and read it phonetically. There was so much Danish and Swedish and German in that book. I ended up talking to this wonderful receptionist at the Danish consulate who happened to have an American mother, so she could tell me how a Danish person might say certain words if they still had an accent even if they spoke English well.”

She also voiced “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Alberto Urrea:

“I’d had high school Spanish, but I hadn’t spoken Spanish in many years,” she told AudioFile. “There’s this dialogue they speak there called Churro, which is this ‘Spanglishy’ amalgamation of all kinds of stuff. And it’s just not on the Internet! So I had to find somebody who was from there, who could not only translate it but could speak it in such a way that I’d be able to sound like these ‘coyotes’ who take people across the border. It was a great experience. Plus, it got my Spanish back up and going.”

That passion to constantly be learning is part of Ericksen’s desire to be a “Renaissance woman.” When she enrolled for her undergrad studies at Macalester College, a private liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minn., she intended to pursue a quadruple major — theater, music, English and biology. Reality, she admits, set in quickly, and she managed only a double. But reading the variety of books she does now allows her to pursue many of her interests, along with many things she’d never considered. And, she adds, it makes her a great cocktail party guest. “I can talk about anything.”

Working without a director, Ericksen puts herself through all the steps she’d take if she has been cast in a play. She studies the characters, both in what the author says about them overtly and in clues that come from context. And she finds the physical characterization, which she says informs her narration.

“I always start feeling it first in my body — the visual image I get,” she says. “So if I’m imagining myself as kind of a little troll-like guy, then the voice will follow.”

That strong sense of identity also brings Ericksen back to her characters when she returns to a new novel in a series. But, she admits, she’s made some “really stupid choices early on because I thought they’d be fun and interesting and evocative. Forty-nine books later…” Now, she says, she tries to suss out the future of a character to make sure her characterization is sustainable.

Of course, she admits, she does have an advantage over many voice actors. Her husband, David Colacci — whom she met at SMU — is also a voice actor and a director.

“I trust him implicitly,” she says. “But I also trust my judgment. I’ve done a lot of books!”



Books in Bloom:

A Literary Festival

WHEN — Noon-5 p.m. May 20

WHERE — Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs

COST — Free; books will be available for purchase


BONUS — Among other speakers are Kent Bonar, Mohja Kahf, Martin Philip, Anita Paddock, Lisa See and Lisa Wingate.

Categories: Cover Story