HEAR Now ONLINE Festival Celebrates the Power of the Human Voice

Above: Ed Asner will participate in a one-hour “Ask Ed!” Q & A as part of the HEAR Now ONLINE Festival in June. (photo: Quince Productions)

Creators in the diverse world of audio storytelling will coalesce to celebrate the distinctive appeal of the human voice when the HEAR Now Festival returns as the HEAR Now ONLINE Festival June 11 – 14. Originally scheduled to present live performances in Kansas City, the move to online was made in response to the COVID-19 threat to health and safety.

Highlighting the work of masterful audiobook narrators, audio-play actors, animated-character voice artists, videogame sound performers and other exceptional talents in the audio-fiction field, the eighth annual festival, despite its changed format, aims to deliver world-class entertainment in a wide-ranging and collaborative learning environment.

“The HEAR Now Festival is a unique opportunity . . . to get to know more about the kinds of audio storytelling that are happening in all the different entertainment industries,” said festival president Sue Zizza, who runs a full-service audio production company and teaches recording and sound design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Sound is the foundation, just like writing, for all these different industries,” Zizza said. “And at HEAR Now, just like at many film festivals, we try to celebrate the artists and the work being created at every level.”

The online festival will feature a full schedule of performances, including what organizers hope will be two high-profile kick-off events:

· “Innovations in Storytelling,” with electric violinist and singer/songwriter Valerie Vigoda. The star of the award-winning off-Broadway musical “Earnest Shackleton Loves Me” performs and talks about her sonic art at the intersection of technology and storytelling.

·“ASK ED!” — Everything you’ve wanted to know about acting for audio from a guy who works in television. A one-hour Q & A with actor, voice actor and Kansas City, Kansas, native Ed Asner, the former “Lou Grant” of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” fame. Audience members can submit questions from May 15 through June 1 at hearnowsubmissions2020@gmail.com; put “Ask Ed” in the subject line.

A concern of some audio storytellers is that it may only be a matter of time before their voices are replaced by artificial ones. Even if the growing science of synthetic speech is eventually able to persuasively emulate a human soul, an essential element of the storytelling experience would still be in peril, Zizza said.

“While the average listener might not recognize that it’s a computer version of a human voice, the reality is that understanding drops,” Zizza said. “Once we start to get to synthetic voices, we find that we don’t have the same level of instant comprehension.”

In agreement — and with a story to tell — is Peter Gregg, vice president of the HEAR Now Festival and assistant professor in the Department of Emerging Media at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“There currently is still plenty of space and a lot of importance in the contributions of actual human beings actually performing, actually speaking and actually acting,” Gregg said. “And we need to express the value and contribution of human speech in storytelling media.”

With that sound goal in mind, Gregg had his middle-school-age daughter accompany him to last year’s HEAR Now Festival of live performances in Kansas City.

“At first I thought she was going to be bored with me judging stories all day, but she got it right away,” he said. “She had crystal clear opinions about the pieces that she felt really strongly about. It was an amazing point in our relationship — just to be able to sit down and talk about what we heard and recalling sound.

“Later, we went to one of the big showcase evening events, and I laughed like crazy at a bunch of stuff, and it was just a great time. And she turned to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen you laugh so much.’ There’s something immediate and visceral, something wonderful and transcendent about finding a still place in yourself and focusing your attention on listening.”

For more information (including a schedule of performances), about the 2020 HEAR Now ONLINE Festival, go to www.hearnowfestival.org.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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