I remember watching the anime series Tenchi Muyo! when it aired on Cartoon Network’s Toonami slot in 2000. One of my favorite characters was the powerful and hilarious space pirate Ryoko, voiced by Petrea Burchard. Burchard has had a long career acting in commercials, television, and film, including roles in Death Becomes Her (1992) and Fracture (2007).
I invited Burchard to a Zoom call a few days ago to discuss voice acting and how lessons learned early on shaped her endeavors in two aspects of her current career: narrating audiobooks and writing her own books. She recorded audiobook versions of R.J. Jacobs’ new thriller Always the First to Die, Rickie Blair’s Leafy Hollow Mysteries, Susan Knilans and Jacqueline Freeman’s What Bees Want: Beekeeping as Nature Intended, and many more.
On Working on Tenchi Muyo!
Tenchi Muyo! consists of several series, including Tenchi Universe, Tenchi in Tokyo, and a few films. They were all dubbed and brought to English-speaking audiences during the 1990s, introducing more viewers to Tenchi, his family, and exciting space battles with his new friends.
Burchard reflected about the fan mail she received after doing Tenchi Muyo!, appreciating how the show caught on. “As these kids were growing up, they became anime fans, watched all the anime, and knew way more about it than I know. I never knew it was happening and as I discovered it, it’s such a wonderful surprise to realize what I was a part of.”
While she doesn’t fly in space herself, in real life Burchard’s natural speaking voice shares some similarities with her space pirate character. “It was really just my voice. That’s something I’ve carried through with me, not just my voice but putting myself into my characters, writing, and my work.”
What’s the Job of Every Audiobook Narrator?
However, don’t assume that one’s approach to voice acting transfers directly to audiobook narration. For Burchard, there’s a distinction between those jobs. “A lot of anime actors do a ton of voices and that’s not me. My job in audiobook narration is to differentiate the characters. They should be people: three-dimensional.”
Every audiobook presents a unique challenge. She begins by reading the book at home and dissecting it like a script, taking notes about the characters, their personalities and quirks. “I have a sort of library of voices in my head, but I don’t just plug them into a book, because each book has different characters. I use what I’ve got and then adapt to what I’m doing.”
Burchard also has leeway in how she uses her vocal skillset to meet the requirements of what she’s narrating. The parameters are usually apparent to her in the story’s genre. “If I’m doing a cozy mystery, those are usually funny and a little wacky. Then characters can have wacky voices. If it’s a straight drama, I want to make them clear and different from each other. They’re not cartoons.”
On Giving Listeners an Immersive Experience
Determining an appropriate tone for an audiobook involves other factors. For example, with nonfiction books, Burchard is mindful of the subject and the author’s purpose. With What Bees Want: Beekeeping as Nature Intended, authors Knilans and Freeman wanted readers to fall in love with bees and help save declining bee populations. And when authors write well, it’s even easier for audiobook narrators to get a sense of the subject and what the authors want to convey.
“It almost gives me chills how much they care about the bees. I almost couldn’t avoid getting that across. Every audiobook narrator’s job is to try to take on the passion of the author, whatever the subject,” said Burchard.
Sometimes an audiobook narrator may need to pass on a book. “If something comes across that I feel like I can’t get passionate about—maybe a subject I disagree with or I feel is wrong—I generally say no to that book because I don’t feel like I can do it justice.”
Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, Burchard pointed out how audiobook narrators should keep everything balanced. That’s especially important with books that have suspenseful scenes and high-stakes drama, such as R.J. Jacobs’ Always the First to Die, a thriller which puts the main character in the path of a hurricane. From her peaceful sound booth, Burchard needed to build an immersive experience with her voice that audiobook listeners would find realistic and compelling.
“It’s not a hurricane, but I have to put myself there emotionally and mentally. Not completely, because I still have to run the computer and keep the proper distance from the microphone. I can’t just lose it. I have to imagine the setting and what I would feel.”
Petrea Burchard, the Author
In addition to lending her voice to audiobooks, Burchard is a writer. She is the author of Camelot & Vine, a time-travel romance set in King Arthur’s war camp, and Act As If: Stumbling through Hollywood with Headshot in Hand, adapted from her humor column on the challenges of auditions and acting.
Burchard enjoyed writing Camelot & Vine because of her love for travel and archaeology. She visited Cadbury Hill, UK, where historian Leslie Alcock excavated the site believed to be King Arthur’s Camelot. “I read all of his books and other books by Arthurian scholars, and about post-Roman architecture. I was interested in what was going on in that part of the world that would give rise to this story, that is still with us today.”
After sharing advice in Act As If, Burchard continues to reflect about her career and her priorities. In her self-examination, she feels it’s important to carve out time for writing, hiking, and activities she loves. She also shared her thoughts about countering ageism. “I don’t lie about my age because I think ageism is a really bad thing. If we lie about our age, maybe we’re being ashamed of our age. I’m 67 years old and I’m not ashamed of it.”
On the Intersection of Writing and Narrating Books
Taking a quick look at Burchard’s website, I counted more than 40 audiobooks to her name. She’s found these recording experiences valuable in her approach to her writing. Being an audiobook narrator heightened her awareness of vocabulary, proper pronunciation, and sentence flow.
“There are all kinds of words you see in print all the time. You know what they mean, but when you think about it, you realize you’ve never heard anyone say those words. You need to look them up. My language has changed a little bit. I make my characters speak more the way people speak,” said Burchard.
She always aims to be a good writer, even if that means more time between projects. “I am not interested in churning out books fast to get them in the market. I want to write good books that people can savor and I can be proud of.”
Visit Petrea Burchard’s website for the latest news about her work.