I do voiceovers for a living. I got a call from my agent. From the tone in her voice, I thought she was about to apologize for something. “We had this audition”¦” (The word had got me right away.) “”¦And they wanted younger narrators.”
“Aha,” I demurred, “Maybe they should all be sent to the principal’s office.”
“No, no,” she protested, “They want to audition you.” It was for a cable TV show called Behind Mansion Walls — a reality show where actors recreate brutal murders, stake-outs, and take-downs from real-life cases, but this one involved rich people killing rich people.
Great! I love to read about this kind of stuff in Vanity Fair. I got the gig. I was elated. Each week I narrated a story about in-bred billionaires murdering one another. This was perfect for me. Then came the flood. In everything there’s a zeitgeist, and the spirit of these times is murder. A raft of cable TV disaster programs flowed down the pike. I scored one show after another.
In one particularly grueling script, over a hundred people died in a plane crash in England. When the narration involved listing the names of the children, I lost it. In front of the microphone I began to sob out loud. This had never happened to me in a voiceover session. I stood in my 7’x7’ birch plywood/polyurethane foam booth, hidden away from the world — the producer in her office in Century City. She couldn’t see me, but she was listening and directing the narration over the phone. As tears dripped onto my script, the producer asked, “Bill, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I gulped and sniffed, “No problem, just catching my breath.” A number of thoughts went through my head.
1) Male menopause has finally kicked in.
2) Maybe I can’t do this work anymore, I’m too sensitive.
3Â I have the gift, I feel their pain, this is the work I was meant to do!”¦But why do I relish these tragic stories — gory and dark, filled with ill-intent and dead bodies? How am I able to bring to the job a genuine sense of tragic loss, dashed hopes, and grief — all the elements that make for a good cable TV disaster show?
By the time I turned 14, I was a middle-class orphan. Lucky for me my dearly departed were sane, had good genes, and left me with an ability to survive. Plus I had aunts and uncles, friends and teachers. I got through. But how did I survive? And after enough therapy to cure the 101st Airborne, why did I decide to do a one-man show? At a Valentine’s Day supper with friends the conversation turned to family. I told my family story, and my friend Kate squeezed my wrist so hard the blood left my fingers, “You have to do a one-man show about your life,” she said.
Recently I studied with Barbara H. Clark, the doyen of storytelling in South Central L.A. (www.imalosangeles.com)Â “Do you want to do a one-man show?” she asked. My life flashed jerkily before my eyes, and I stammered, “Yeah, yes, sure.” And so it began. I pieced together my first solo show, Voices In My Head: A Life. It’s about what happens when you have a dad in advertising, an uncle on I Love Lucy, and a lifetime of memories and misadventures — comic and tragic. I had spent my whole life remembering voices, worshiping voice heroes (Orson Welles, Lucille Bliss, Don La Fontaine.) It was my job to tell other people’s stories in documentaries, movie trailers, cartoons. Now it was time to tell my story.
The challenges were many: how to impose a coherent narrative, find some redemption, good characters, a beginning, middle, and end, from fragments of a life. And once I was satisfied with the text, every performance seemed to vary wildly. Even though my director Sydney Walsh was magnificent, my getting the right pacing and feeling some consistency in the performance has been a challenge. Every evening has been different. From pretty good, to excellent, to just okay. That’s the storyteller’s challenge. To stay in it, make it fresh, do it in the moment, tell the story.
These days my life is far from tragic — my 30-year voiceover career continues apace, I’m on stage nearly every week in nightclubs, theaters, and storytelling conferences, my wife and I are celebrating our twenty-seventh year of marriage while still sharing sizzling sexual bliss. My experiences weren’t always like this. But it’s a life, and I’m honored to tell my story.
Voices In My Head: A Life, August 4 and 18, 7:30 pm at Theatre Asylum Lab, 6320 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood 90038.Â http://www.hff12.org/674
***All Production Photos by Ryan Stephenson
Bill Ratner is an eight-time winner of The Moth StorytellingSLAMS. His stories have been featured on NPR. His solo stage show Voices In My Head was selected Best of the Hollywood Fringe 2012 and has been extended into August at Theatre Asylum. You hear his voice on movie trailers, disaster shows, and he’s the original voice of “Flint” on G.I. Joe, Robot Chicken and Family Guy.