In the Studio
AudioFile magazine talks with Jim Meskimen Senior Director of the Golden Age Stories
AF: What are some of the challenges in directing a cast of actors in audio theater productions?
JM: In the 150 stories that I directed for Galaxy Audio that made use of a cast of five or six or so, the primary challenge was casting: first, casting the most versatile and professional talent we could find. That was accomplished by just throwing a wide net out and determining who was willing and available. As it turned out, a lot of actors were dying to do our books since we were evoking the style of old radio, which many of them had experience with.
Second, once we had a cast, the challenge was then to distribute the parts in such a way that we took advantage of each actor’s expertise while also creating a good variety for the listener. We tried whenever possible to distribute parts so that an actor wasn’t talking to himself. That wasn’t always possible, but with our little “rep company,” I don’t think we created many distractions to the listener. Familiarity with the sound of each actor and what was in their repertoire of accents and characters made this easier as we went along.
Directing the talent wasn’t too difficult, actually. I like to direct like my friend film director Ron Howard directs—like the coach of a basketball team, with a lot of encouragement and validation. I’m an actor myself, so I know what’s useful advice that I can quickly assimilate and work with to improve my performance. After a while, we had a growing ensemble that would meet sometimes three or four times a week, delighted to be with one another and excited by the challenges of each story.
AF: Is it hard to be both director and narrator?
JM: Well, in some ways it’s faster! I won’t say it’s the perfect situation, because one benefits from an external ear on what one is doing, but I suppose the best judge of this will be the listeners. I hope I’ve had enough time behind the mike to know when I’m not doing service to the book. But I actually did have a whole assembly line of people at Galaxy Audio who were listening carefully to each recording for quality-control purposes, and they weren’t shy about letting me know when they thought I could improve on my own reads to better convey the story and integrate stylistically with the other performers.
The best circumstance, of course, is to have a professional narrator who is very familiar with the author’s work, with that story in particular, and who has the ability to make strong choices that help to paint the picture and the mood that the author has worked so hard to create. As R.F. Daley (the narrator of 95% of the Stories from the Golden Age) and I discovered, the narrator sort of disappears in a well-done audiobook; the words are there, but the connection to the images of the writer is more vibrant and present in some ways than the spoken words, and one forgets all about the guy reading.
AF: How much are you involved with other aspects of the production—sound effects, music, etc.?
JM: In cases when I had a strong feeling one way or the other about a given effect, I would make a note of it ahead of time. Luckily, the talented people at Galaxy quickly developed a strong understanding of what to include and what not to, and either found or created such an incredible library of sound effects that I barely had say anything.
I would listen to each production and make notes on it, and just try and polish a bit what had been done, but by and large everything was in extraordinary shape by the time I got it. On occasion, there would be a funny kind of misinterpretation, like one time a character in a story went to have a doctor stitch up his hand after a car wreck, and the nurse in the story put iodine on the wound, and “it burned.” The young person laying in effects didn’t know about iodine particularly and inserted a sizzling sound of something burning under the dialogue! I thought that was hilarious—it sounded like the nurse was frying the hand!
AF: What’s it like to perform audio theater live in front of an audience?
JM: I know for a fact that all actors who get a chance to perform the pulp stories by L. Ron Hubbard in front of a live audience think it’s a special and fun experience; there’s nothing like it. The audience response is always strong—they’re creating it along with you, and the stories are colorful and exciting. I’ve been doing these stories for live crowds regularly since the mid ’80s, and it’s never failed to be a blast. It’s a forgotten art form, but in its simplicity and immediacy it has a lot of power to entertain.
AF: Do you have a particular favorite of the Golden Age Stories?
JM: I hesitate to say it, since they’re all so unique and many of them are just sensational, but the one that comes to mind is Orders Is Orders. That was actually the longest of the titles we recorded, but the story, a war saga about getting through war-torn Asia to deliver supplies and gold, was a lot of fun to do. Corey Burton, Michael Yurchak, Brooke Bloom, R.F. Daley and I had a long, fun day of recording and I think the story is pretty matchless.
There’s another short one called Mister Tidwell, Gunner about a schoolmaster aboard one of the English vessel in Nelson’s flotilla, which is charming indeed, and I still listen to it for pleasure. The incomparable Enn Reitel plays the eponymous Mister Tidwell, and Christina Huntington, who was quite often our go-to actress for heroines, plays some of the young English midshipmen in the story. I got to play Nelson in a little scene, and that was a great pleasure. Oh, and The Iron Duke, which is also fantastic. Oh, and…
—Jennifer M. Dowell