Formal training exists for pretty much every artistic discipline. Writing, painting, fashion design, and even taxidermy all have accredited institutions where students can perfect their skills and come away with certificates stating as such. Yet, there’s no program for voice acting.
This oversight is especially glaring, given that audiobooks recently exploded into a $1.2 billion industry. And it’s an oversight that Bob and Debra Deyan – and their colleagues – seek to rectify. It’s not a demand that was necessary just a few years ago. But, the times have changed and technology has democratized that which was once exclusive.
“The voiceover world and audiobook world used to be controlled by producers who could selectively choose Juilliard, Yale, and Carnegie Melon MFAs and actors with a lot of experience,” said Debra Deyan. “Today, anyone with a microphone can get into this type of work. And with the barrier to entry being so low, these people have a burden on themselves to study their craft, hone their skills, and compete in this new marketplace.”
In late April, the Deyan Institute officially opened its doors in Northridge, Calif. offering an array of courses around audio book production, sound engineering and, of course, voice acting and performance.
Those who haven’t heard of the Deyans have likely heard their work. The husband-and-wife team head Deyan Audio Services, an audiobook production house based in Tarzana, Calif. For the past 20 years, the Deyans have produced audiobooks with over 30 publishing houses and have racked up four Grammy awards and 11 nominations. In the summer of 2013, the Deyans became the first individuals to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Audio Publishers Association (all prior recipients were publishing houses).
However, it was a year of mixed blessings—Bob Deyan was also diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS. He is currently in its final stages, and it was for this reason that Debra Deyan ramped up her efforts to form the school. The expedited schedule accounts for the Institute’s soft opening, in which current registrants number in the twenties.
“I wanted to open the Institute in honor of my husband, while he was alive to see it,” she says. “Once Bob told me that he wanted this school for his legacy in the beginning of March, I knew I had only a couple of months to get it going so he could be here to see it. My team and I worked 18 hour days to make it happen.”
That team includes, among others, actors P.J. Ochlan, Coleen Marlo, Fran Tunno, and Bronson Pinchot.
“We wanted to make a difference because there are so many opportunities for narrators with zero experience to get into the business now,” says Ochlan, referring to the proliferation of audiobook-centric tools and services like the Amazon-owned Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). Ochlan, a dialect coach who’s worked as an actor and director since 1986, taught one of the Deyan Institute’s first classes: an audiobook introductory course. He worries that as more amateur voice actors attempt to break into the scene, they risk not being up to professional standards.
“[The Deyan Institute] wants to uphold the quality of audiobooks we hold so dear,” he says. “We love the audiobook industry and we want it to be full of seasoned professionals who are as good as possible at what they’re doing.”
During his six hour class, Ochlan flooded his students with information about the technical, business and performance aspects necessary to produce a professional audiobook.
“We talked about book prep,” Ochlan explains. “Understanding the author’s tone and voice. Techniques in the booth, working with the director and engineer, dealing with various aspects like mouth noise, breathing, what we do for character delineation, ways to change your voice, pitch, and so on.” Though introductory, Ochlan’s first class was populated by students with extensive performance backgrounds.
But, voice acting for audiobooks requires a different type of performance, one that Coleen Marlo describes as a “marathon.” Marlo has worked extensively as an actor and an audiobook performer and producer. She also taught for a decade at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City. In May, she headed an intermediate and advanced voice performance class (in which students put together a fully-produced demo) at the Deyan Institute.
“[Audiobook performance] is for people who have a love of literature,” she says. “You have to love reading. You have to have that kind of stamina, being able to keep 16 balls in the air for a sustained period of time. It takes a certain type of artistic temperament and discipline to do this, and you don’t find that out until you start recording.”
The discipline is also unique because it creates an unusually strong connection between the writer and the performer, says Pinchot, who’s teaching an audition-only master voice performance class at the Deyan Institute.
“In film and theater, performers are given really unfair latitude, really horrific latitude by directors and producers to change the words and to impose their own interpretation,” Pinchot explains. “To the point when you have a film opening, you don’t have the writer going up to the performer and saying ‘Thank you.’ Because they’re the enemy. And in theater also, you can bring so much personality to bear on the writing it stops being what the guy wrote.”
In audiobooks, producers and directors examine the performance across every syllable and bit of punctuation. “It’s so respectful to the writer and what you get as a result, it doesn’t happen in any other art form, is there’s a great dialog between the writer and the performer,” Pinchot says.
Although the founding members of the Deyan Institute had to rush to plan and execute the first round of classes (which as of this writing haven’t yet concluded), they’re thinking far into the future. Debra Deyan is working to get the Institute accredited. Her goal isn’t to just offer weekend classes, but to develop a nine-month certification program for audiobook performance.
“From there, we hope to get financial aid for students studying narration and voiceover,” she says. “We have a global vision.”
She’s currently working with nearby California State University Northridge-—Deyan Audio has an internship program with the university and Debra Deyan is exploring opportunities to host classes through the campus. She’s also considering making the Institute a nonprofit, in the hope that it will create opportunities for further collaboration with CSUN as well as generate more possibilities for donations that can be applied to scholarships.
“I want to see great, packed classes across all aspects of voice work,” Ochlan says. “We just want to see it grow. That will be a wonderful indication we’re doing something right.”