You can find Beethoven in a basement in St. Louis Park.
There’s an Italian detective. And a murderer, too.
In fact, a cast of characters big enough to fill U.S. Bank Stadium have been brought to life in the closet-sized recording booth in Susan Ericksen and David Colacci’s home.
The couple, classically educated theater professionals, make their living reading aloud. They’re among the most prominent and most prolific of an emerging form of artist: the audiobook narrator.
They no longer keep a tally of the titles they’ve recorded, but they estimate that each of them has narrated more than 500 titles, a number that keeps growing.
“They are both highly sought after,” said Jane Love, a negotiator for audiobook contracts for SAG/AFTRA, the union that represents the couple and hundreds of other audiobook narrators. “Authors request them. They have a fan base with listeners, who consider them celebrities. They are rock stars in the audiobook world.”
Ericksen and Colacci are skilled at using their voices to capture an author’s tone, but they have a knack for slipping into the vocal cadences demanded by dialogue, including foreign accents and regional dialects. Using inflection, they can build a scene and create distinct characters who argue, cajole, converse, plot and sometimes fall in love.
Joe Flauto, a retired professor from Evansville, Ind., is an avid fan of Colacci, especially his work on the Commissario Brunetti mysteries by author Donna Leon, which are set in Venice.
“He reads the narrative parts in his American English but does the dialogue with an Italian accent. That adds a richness of texture that takes you to another place,” Flauto said. “He gives each character their voice but without doing anything hokey that distracts you from the story.”
If Colacci’s voice is velvet, then Ericksen’s is silk. Clear and well-modulated, she can smoothly shift her tone from girlish to seductive, steely to tender as the story requires.
Author Elizabeth Vaughan chose Ericksen to record her Chronicles of the Warlands trilogy.
“It’s very intense to listen to my words in her voice,” said Vaughan. “She really pulls me in. There’s a plot twist in one of my books when a character dies unexpectedly. When I listened, she made me cry like a baby even though I knew it was coming. That was very powerful.”
Ericksen and Colacci began narrating more than 20 years ago, when audiobooks were starting to expand from recordings aimed largely at the visually impaired to a broader audience. Released on cassette tapes, they were considered a poor relation to printed books.
Now audiobooks represent the fastest-growing sector of publishing. According to the Audio Publishers Association, U.S. sales jumped to $2.5 billion in 2017, a 23% hike over the previous year and the sixth year of double-digit growth. No longer an afterthought, audiobooks are ready to be downloaded the same day a book is published.
“Technology has played a huge role in why audiobooks are still growing in popularity, said Brandy Lawrence. A casting director, she hires narrators for audiobook producer Tantor Media, where Ericksen and Colacci are prized for their versatility.
“David and Susan have wonderful acting skills [that are] a great match for many of our projects,” she said. “Narrators bring books to life and put voices to many characters. It’s impressive when one person records an entire book. They’re a one-person show, juggling all the characters.”
‘An odd little niche’
On a recent summer day, husband and wife took turns behind the microphone inside their soundproof room, recording books scheduled for release later this year.
Ericksen, the duo’s early riser, usually takes first shift. Today, she’s narrating “Vendetta in Death,” the 49th thriller in the In Death bestsellers. Ericksen has been the voice for the entire series, penned by J.D. Robb, a pseudonym for publishing superstar Nora Roberts.
After an hour or so reading from the digital manuscript on her iPad, she takes a break to get a cup of coffee and greet the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. Soon it’s Colacci’s turn to settle in with “Beethoven, The Relentless Revolutionary,” a dense history about the famed composer.
Ericksen, who grew up in Illinois, came to Minnesota to attend Macalester College. She began her theatrical career here, acting at the Children’s Theatre, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and on other local stages. She went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas for her masters of fine arts in acting. That’s where she met fellow student Colacci, an Augsburg University graduate from Minneapolis.
When the couple graduated, they moved to New York City to pursue stage careers. They also found seasonal work at regional theaters, eventually landing a gig in Holland, Mich., where Colacci was artistic director and Ericksen was in the company.
In nearby Grand Haven, Mich., was Brilliance Audio, one of the first production houses producing recorded books. After seeing Colacci onstage, the company founder asked him to record a book. Soon Ericksen was also offered a slot.
“We didn’t think much of it when we started,” said Colacci. “We thought it was an odd little niche skill.”
But as more book work came their way, they began building their careers in an industry that quickly became more mobile.
From Minnesota with love
Recording equipment rapidly became less cumbersome and software editing programs allowed narrators to re-create the crisp sound of the professional studio in their homes. The internet allowed narrators to ship raw audio files back and forth to producers and publishers anywhere in the world.
That enabled the couple to move their children from an 800-square-foot New York City apartment to a three-bedroom, two-story house on a quiet street in St. Louis Park.
They’ve had to make only a few modest accommodations to work from home.
Because the studio sits directly under the entryway, they rigged up a doorbell contraption so they can remind family members to step lightly so creaks won’t be picked up on the audio track. And sometimes when looming deadlines require long hours of reading, Ericksen and Colacci communicate through nods and pantomime to preserve their voices.
“We’re both blessed with strong, resilient voices. I say we have cords of steel,” said Ericksen. “The hard part is to just shut up. We are naturally such blabby people. We call ourselves the loud family.”
The couple said they earn a comfortable living, one that’s likely more steady than what they could have gotten from the theater. Plus audio work has staying power.
“The voice doesn’t age like the body does,” said Colacci. “There are roles I can’t play on stage that I can do vocally.”
That means they have no plans to retire anytime soon.
“There’s the show business story about a veteran actress who died in her dressing room after the curtain and we say, “That will be us,’ ” said Ericksen. “One of us will walk down to the basement, say, ‘Oh, look what happened.’ We’ll push the body over and say, ‘Sorry, I have to record.’ ” At that, Ericksen laughed. “Oh, I’m terrible.”
“You are. You’re horrible,” Colacci agreed. Then he added, “but it could happen.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.