What's my line? Has Black Lives Matter changed the rules?
Let me share a dilemma with you. As an audiobook narrator I have to create voices to reflect all the characters in the book. That's straight forward enough for the majority of the work I receive, as I tend to deal with UK authors so it's simply a question of picking the right accent, class and vocal tics and away I go. The issue is far more complicated when dealing with international character voices. It's easy to slip into 'Allo 'Allo territory if the text calls for a German voice for instance - and that would be death for the narration as a whole.
But imagine the additional difficulty of pitching a character who is not caucasian as I am. That opens not only technical challenges, but a whole world of moral and ethical questions too. Remember, authors tend to hire a single narrator to bring their work to audio, rather than hiring different performers for each character. That would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming. It's really a non-starter, save for the well-funded full cast productions that occasionally get commissioned.
So here's the issue. I've narrated around twenty fiction books at the time of writing, and roughly half have had at least one character of a different ethnicity to my own. I've always been super-conscious of the sensitivity of the issue, having grown up in 70's Britain where shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Mind Your Language, and Mind Your Neighbour featured actors in black face make-up or characters who used frighteningly racist language. Equally, I remember wincing when I first saw Lawrence Olivier's Othello, complete with black face make-up and a Caribbean accent that verged on parody.
Yet here I am in 2020, creating character voices with urban 'black' accents or middle-eastern inflections. Am I justified in taking this approach, or have recent global events made this inappropriate and unjustifiable? Similarly, I have to voice women characters - should I now stop doing that given I am a white anglo male? In short, where's my line? What is justified and what is not?
There's a school of thought that narrators should simply play it straight, regardless of character. It's one I often hear from narrators who cannot 'do accents', so chose to avoid trying. I pride myself on my character voices. I spend hours developing them until they become second nature, and yes that does include the voices of characters of different backgrounds and ethnicities. Should I stop?
I've wrestled with this conundrum for months now, and I've concluded that I won't stop. If we extend the logic that only performers who share the background and experience of the characters they're creating, then no audiobooks would be created at all. Simple economics determine that. Narration is about interpreting the author's words and intentions as faithfully as possible and creating an immersive experience for the listener. If I felt that my character work were affecting those two key aims, I would stop.
In case there is any ambiguity, I am a supporter of Black Lives Matter, and in my previous career in broadcasting did more than many to discover and encourage broadcasters and producers from diverse backgrounds. I'm prepared for people to disagree with me - but for now I will continue to use my craft and skills to represent all the characters I have the privilege of bringing to audio.