Even if Stig Wemyss doesn’t think he deserves the crown
If you’re into audiobooks (and these days, who isn’t?), then you’ll know the name Stig Wemyss.
As Australia’s most loved narrator of audiobooks for kids and young adults, Stig is a superstar. Author Trent Dalton, whose best-selling novel, Boy Swallows Universe was narrated by Stig and won Audiobook of the Year, describes the Melbourne-based talent as a “God-like genius narrator.”
Catching him at a vulnerable moment in his inner-city studio, I’ve managed to convince this “God-like genius” to share the secrets of his success with us mere mortals.
But first, I ask Stig why he loves his work as much as he does.
“I fell in love with audio as a medium,” he says. “I think of it as performing in the theatre of the mind. It’s like animation. The sky’s the limit! You know, we can start in Paris, and by the end of it, we’re on the moon! On the same day!”
“You can go wherever you like. You’re only limited by the scope of your imagination. And that’s always appealed to me.”
So if anyone’s ever told you that you’ve got a great voice and should get into audiobook narration, or if you just want to know what it is that makes him so good at what he does, here are the ten commandments of audiobook narrating according to Stig Wemyss.
“In many ways, narrating is the opposite of acting. I’ve heard really good actors who just don’t cut it as narrators. Maybe it’s because they don’t place as much weight on it as a medium, or apply the same thought processes they do when they’re acting in a film or a play. But sometimes it sounds as if they’re just thinking, ‘oh, it’s not a big deal… it’s just narrating a book.’ I think you have to give it the same weight you would any other performance.”
“But the skills you build up as an actor can go a long way towards helping you be a better narrator. There’s a phrase I borrow from Stephen King, and that’s to ‘fall through the page’ when I’m reading. What I mean by this is that your audience is going to be far more engaged if you’re genuinely immersed in the words.”
“There’s an old show biz saying I always try to remember… if you’re having good time, your audience is having a good time. When I’m on stage as an actor, I know the audience is really going to feel it if I’m living the scene. That also means that no matter what’s going on in your life, you can’t bring it into the booth with you, or it will convey in your voice. You have to stay in the moment.”
“When you’re acting on stage, or in front of a camera, you’ve got a huge tool-kit to draw from. But as a narrator, all you’ve got is your voice. So you have to compensate for the things you’re missing, like gestures and facial expressions.”
“People have said to me before, ‘I love watching you in the recording booth.’ That’s because I’ll use gestures even though I haven’t got an audience watching me. I do believe it helps me find the character. I take on physical characteristics… so if I’m playing a witch, then I’ll be hunched over and wiggling my fingers and suddenly the voice comes out the way I want it to sound. That makes it feel more real to me.”
“I don’t think every narrator gets physical the way I do. Some people just sit there and peel the words off the page. I suppose they come to a job thinking it’s audio, so the physical side of performance doesn’t come into it. But you shouldn’t be scared to go over the top. You’ve got a licence there to invent, so don’t edit yourself. I mean the producer will tell you if it’s too much, and you can always pull it back.”
“I’ve learned so much by listening to other narrators. And I read all the time. I was up in the Northern Territory on holiday recently, and I spent a lot of time reading by the pool. When I’d find an interesting bit, I’d read it out loud because I wanted to see how I’d approach it if I was narrating it. So yeah, I’m the guy lying on a banana lounge in his budgie smugglers reading books out loud to himself. It’s a terrible picture.”
“But you have to take every opportunity you can to practise. I started in the business because I was getting some voiceover work for television and radio, but I felt out of my depth in the recording studio. So I started volunteering as a narrator at the Institute for the Blind. I was so nervous the first time I went in. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to read fluently out loud. That that can be really daunting.”
“In those situations, your producer can be your best ally. They’ll help you through it. But that’s another thing you have to get used to, having this person sitting on the other side of the glass, listening as you read. You need to remember that the producer can be your test audience. If you can entertain them, and make them come on a journey with you, then there’s a good chance that’s coming through in the way you’re reading.”
“The narrator’s voice is the tree trunk you establish that’ll sprout branches as you go… it’s the place you start, and it’s where you find other characters and moods.”
“I think it’s best to keep the narrator’s voice as close to your own as possible. If you choose a voice that’s difficult to work with, or too extreme, there’s nowhere to go when the book undulates and takes on different moods. Otherwise, where do you go? And once you’re committed, there’s no going back.”
“My narrator’s voice is always just my voice. I’m lucky in the sense that I have a voice that lends itself to youthful enthusiasm, which works well for the books I narrate. It’s not a scary voice, it’s a voice you can relate to. But I do adapt the tone a bit. So if it’s a first-person narrative told by an older man, for example, I’ll make my voice sound older.”
“I talk about my ‘neutral narrator’s voice.’ So when I’m not reading dialogue, I’m not caught up in the character’s headspace. But I still maintain the energy of the scene. So, say it’s describing someone going to bed late at night… I’ll use a soft tone. Or if it’s describing a child frightened at night, that anxiety will creep into my narrator’s voice.”
“I think of it as a way of supporting the characters and helping the reader enter their world. You create a space and carry them into it.”
“It’s so important to come out of the character voice and step into a very stable narrator’s voice. So, if there’s a moment of hectic chaos, it’s reflected in what the characters are doing and saying. But then you need to come back into the narrator’s voice.”
“That way, you can carry the book along at a pace that’s comfortable for the listener, just like if they were reading the book themselves. You keep the same energy going, but it needs to be smoother… more even in tone. Otherwise, it’s overwhelming for the listener.”
“The same thing applies when there are four or five characters in the same scene. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Sometimes it’s just banter, but large groups of people having a conversation, say sitting around a table… mum, dad, three kids… that’s the hardest! You have to jump into the headspace of each character, and try to keep it flowing like a real conversation.”
“For scenes like that, I make notes in the margin to help me… so I can quickly think, okay, that’s John, and he speaks that way. If you have to stop and think for too long, you lose the flow, and your read can become a bit staccato.”
“Always play to your strengths. You don’t want to be trying something you’re uncomfortable with, so your headspace is occupied with that when you’re delivering the scene; you want to just be in the scene. Otherwise it will take away from what’s at the heart of the performance… and that’s the storytelling.”
“In my case, accents are the things I find most challenging. I’m not trained in that way. I’m just a copycat. To be able to have that ability to trust myself with accents… it would be such a relief for me. I try not to worry about it too much, but I’ll still get to the end of a scene with an accent and ask the producer ‘how was it?’ And the producer will say it’s fine. But I know it’s not 100% perfect.”
“[Narrator] Humphrey Bower is absolutely awesome at accents. I mean, you can say, ‘give me a character from this particular corner of the US,’ and he’ll be able to do it. He’ll jump between Jewish characters, to Indian ones, then English, and back again… all in the same scene. He just seamlessly switches from one to the other. I’m in awe of him.”
“I’m a big believer in getting it right. When I recorded my first book for Bolinda, [company founder] Rebecca Herrmann told me that a person’s first experience with an audio book will determine whether or not they become an audiobook user for the rest of their life. So every time I go into a studio to record, I know I have to deliver the best I can do, so that anybody listening for the first time has a great experience.”
“An actor I know has asked me to produce a book she’s narrating, and she hasn’t done it before. My message to her? It’s not live. If you make a mistake, we can fix it. If it takes extra time, that’s fine. If it’s OK with you, it’s OK with me. Because the most important thing is to just get it right.”
“Sometimes when I’m narrating, I find I’ve just dug myself into a little hole. It’s usually through fatigue. If I push through, usually I can get it back on track. But when all else fails, the best thing is to just stop for a minute. Then I’ll take some air, or have a tea… and usually that’s enough to reinvigorate me.”
“Sometimes a sensory pick up is enough to revive me. Bolinda always has lovely smelling hand-cream in the studios, for example. Even that can be enough.”
“As an actor on stage or in film, there’s a lovely latitude to make a part your own by tailoring it through adlibbing and things like that. But narration is a very different discipline. It’s not your place to add or change the words. The author has gone to great effort to get it exactly where they want it to be. Your job as narrator is to honour that.”
“A good writer gives the narrator everything they need. You’ll have a really strong image of what the characters are like… the way they speak, the way they dress, even the food they eat. It’s really hard to get it wrong.”
“The only time I’ve gone beyond the words on the page is with Andy Griffiths’ books. With his stories, I asked him if I could improvise between the text—so, between chapters and so forth. I thought of it as a way of working in the contributions Terry Denton’s drawings bring to the books. Andy asked me to show him what I meant, so I did it, and he said, ‘yeah, great! Do it!’”
“It’s not like I just walk in and start narrating. I always have to prepare.”
“I try to read the book twice before I record it. The first time, I let it wash over me. So I try to stop myself narrating in my head. Then the second read, I’ll make very specific notes about characters and voices in the margin. I used to do that in the book itself, but these days, I use iAnnotate on my iPad.”
“If I’ve got a big book ahead of me, the night before I won’t drink any alcohol, and I try not to use my voice much if I can avoid it… No yelling at the footy, or anything like that! Then I take lots of water into the studio with me. And I do like a herb tea. The thing that I find really works for my throat is manuka honey, so I use heaps of that.”
“On the drive into the Bolinda studios to record, I’ll usually do a bit of a warm-up in the car. Then when I first get into the booth, the producer’s setting levels, so that gives me a bit of time to settle into the space. So I’ll get my chair right… dim the lights—I always like the lighting a bit lower!”
“I think of it like a football match, where you run out on to the field ten minutes before the siren to get a feel for the turf. It’s a way of owning the space and feeling comfortable.”
“If you’re serious about it, try to get some advice from somebody who has done it. Then just start practising… get some books and record yourself until you start to feel more confident.”
“Then, you’ll need to record an audition tape. Pick a few different passages from books that show some variety. It’s just like a stage or TV audition. You want to include some character voices, as well as some straight narration and something a bit more emotional… plus something with a bit of humour. If you’re good at accents, then put that in the mix. You need to show range.”
“Just remember in your audition, you don’t have to challenge yourself… you’ve just got to be great. So find something that really suits your voice. That will get you in the door, then you can expand and test yourself. But first up, just work on being great.”
So, that’s it. Stig Wemyss’ ten-step program to narrating success.
As someone who has perfected the art of narrating and risen to the top of the game, I have to ask… Does Stig still enjoy turning up for work?
He answers without a moment’s hesitation. “Yeah, I do,” he says. “I love it. I don’t think everybody does, because—there’s no denying it—it is a taxing job. I think, for me, that’s overridden by the fact that it’s immensely rewarding in a creative sense.”
“I’ve no plans to stop anytime soon!”
And that will be welcome news to the millions of Stig Wemyss fans around the world.