March 24, 2013

Giving voice to books

Tavia Gilbert has recorded more than 200 audio books, learning along the way that sometimes it gets deeply personal.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Tavia Gilbert didn't know Rachel Corrie. She only learned Corrie's story after the young woman from Olympia, Wash., died a violent death in the Gaza Strip.

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Tavia Gilbert in the home studio in Portland where she records audio books, most recently “Let Me Stand Alone” by Rachel Corrie.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Tavia Gilbert

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Corrie was a peace activist protesting Israeli military tactics, and was crushed by an armored bulldozer that had targeted a civilian house. Corrie put herself between the bulldozer and the house.

But the bulldozer didn't stop.

Gilbert learned of Corrie's story from her own mother, who called one night after hearing Corrie's parents speak. "She reminded me so much of you," Gilbert's mom said.

With that, Gilbert's quest had begun. She read Corrie's writings, collected in a book titled "Let Me Stand Alone," and began researching the young woman's life. Their similarities struck her.

Both were from the Pacific Northwest -- Corrie from Washington and Gilbert from nearby northern Idaho. They were about the same age. They shared political leanings and were passionate about their beliefs.

"She was braver than I," said Gilbert, a Portland actor who makes her living doing voice work and recording audio books. "But she could have been anybody's daughter, sister, friend."

Last week, Gilbert put the final touches on her recording of Corrie's book. It's a project long in the works, and it required her to get to know Corrie's parents and win their approval. She also recruited actor Ed Asner, best known as Lou Grant on the TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant," to record the introduction, which was written by Corrie's father, Craig.

The audio book is scheduled for release in early May.

"It's been a labor of love," Gilbert said. "Rachel was killed 10 years ago on March 16, so it is deeply meaningful to spend some time with her words. She was a remarkable young woman -- a thinker and a writer far beyond her years. She was a lightning rod for Israeli-Palestinian relations because of her tragic death.

"But her work as a humanitarian and an activist began in her early childhood, and she certainly would have continued to do remarkable work had her life not been so unnecessarily cut short."

The Corrie project represents a personal highlight in the career of a Portland actress who has appeared on stages around the region many times but who has made her mark with the anonymity of her voice.

Over the past five years, Gilbert, 35, has recorded almost 200 books, including several by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard. She just earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing, and has begun focusing her sights on a career that includes both reading and writing as well as acting.

Her audio career is soaring. In 2012, the Audio Publishers Association nominated her for an Audies Award -- the highest honor in the business -- for her narration of "The Dirty Life." Other nominees in her category were Tina Fey and Michael Moore.

Overall, she's received three Audie nominations and two Earphone awards given by AudioFile for "exceptional presentations."

Because of her success, Gilbert is outgrowing Portland. As much as she loves living here, she plans to give up her cozy West End apartment and move to Brooklyn, N.Y., later this spring.

"I've been doing everything I can to develop my career from Maine, and I've been super fortunate. But if I want to take my career to another level, I have to go to New York," she said.

Her agent has been encouraging her to make the move for some time, teasing her with the promise of work in theater and film as a well as voice work. "There will just be more opportunities there," Gilbert said.

But she is not leaving gleefully. Gilbert came to Maine in 2001 to study at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and quickly fell into rhythm with the city. She was young, just starting out, and coming east for the first time in her life.

It was exciting, and she thrived.

She did a fair amount of work in theater, appearing at Portland Stage and several other companies, and began singing with Renaissance Voices, an a cappella chorus. She put down roots, and harbored no desire to leave.

Gilbert's voice work eventually allowed her to make a living as a full-time actor, something most people in her field in Portland cannot claim. And her timing was impeccable. Audio books have become hugely popular, and Gilbert's talents are in demand.

She loves the intimacy of audio books.

"That mic is like someone's ear," she said, adding that each time she reads she imagines she is reading for a friend seated in a nearby chair.

Gilbert records in a sound booth that she tucked into a corner of a second-story nook in her apartment. The WhisperRoom -- that's the trademarked name -- arrived last year on 17 pallets. It's a state-of-the-art recording studio that looks something like an oversized and overstuffed old-style phone booth.

She spends many hours each day in isolation in the booth, reading from an iPad. It's not easy work, she said, but it's rewarding when you can tackle a project you believe in.

That was certainly the case with Corrie's "Let Me Stand Alone." She feels strongly that Corrie's story has become politicized in the decade since she died, and that her work as a peace activist was overshadowed by controversy surrounding her death.

At age 23, Corrie arrived in Gaza early in 2003 as part of a sister-cities college assignment. She befriended peace activists, and worked to prevent the Israeli army's demolition of Palestinian homes -- work that resulted in her death. Her book collects many of her emails home from Gaza, as well as other writings.

Recording this book, Gilbert said, was difficult. She found herself beset by emotion many times, and had to work to control her tears.

"With other books, I can tell when the emotion is coming up, where the crescendos are," she said "With Rachel's book, it overwhelmed me. The grief comes at any moment without warning."

In some ways, Gilbert felt called to this project. Similarities with the author aside, she believes she was the right person at the right time to tell Corrie's story. She developed a rapport with Corrie's parents, and made a special effort to make sure she was capturing the author's spirit.

"I want every book to be the best it can be. But when I do vampire porn" she said, her voice trailing off to laughter.

"With Rachel, I want people to listen. I want people to give her a chance.

"She's been gone for 10 years. If I can be a small part in keeping her voice alive, it's a small thing and an honor." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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Among the books recorded by Tavia Gilbert is “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry” by Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard.

 


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