Interview: Peter Stern

Peter Stern and Brandon Broll (Photo credit: A.J. Adler)

British voice-over and voice actor Peter Stern narrated the audiobook 'Still-life of a Pandemic'. With a background in music, acting and improvisation, and wide experience in voice-over (VO) projects including commercials, TV documentaries and film animated characters, Peter was the perfect fit to read this challenging poem. In north London in early July 2020, as the peak of the pandemic was subsiding (a two metre social distancing rule was in place and entry barred into others' homes), I met up with Peter in his back garden to sip coffee and chat.

  • Peter, what is your background and how did you get into voice-over and voice acting ?

While working in the IT industry as a software developer and database consultant, I enjoyed plenty of acting in my spare time as an amateur. An agent approached me after seeing me perform but at the time I was too committed to my work and frankly, too afraid to give up the steady income. However, the seed was planted. In 2001 after quitting IT, I started formal training as an actor. While training I went to a studio to record voice-overs which is often a companion career to acting. I really enjoyed the experience, decided to train more and set up a space in my flat to practise. When marriage and a child came along, I became the stay-at-home dad and VO work became the job I could do while taking care of my daughter. It grew from there.

  • Can you give us an idea of some of the voice-over work you’ve done ?

There are many different types of VO work out there and I haven’t covered all of them by any means. Most is corporate narration where an organisation needs a voice to narrate a video to describe or promote a product or service. I also record ‘explainer videos’ which are usually on a company web site. Education and e-learning is another big one, especially in the medical industry. It helps if you can pronounce medical jargon. Other work is for TV or radio commercials, voicing animated characters for film or TV, dubbing foreign languages into English, documentaries, audio guides, telephone on-hold messages, sat nav systems, museum exhibits and video game characters. A recent string to my bow was discovering I could do a decent impression of C-3PO from Star Wars. I’ve had a few jobs as him!

  • Is there any particular type of voice-over work you prefer ?

As an actor, I always prefer character work. I can get my teeth into that.

  • Can you give us some of your career highlights ? 

Things stand out for different reasons:

  • Reading my very first commercial made a big impact on me because it was my first. It was for a car dealership in Manchester.
  • My longest commute was memorable. It was the day I travelled all the way to Norway and back to spend five hours in a studio.
  • Once I spent two weeks cooped up in a voice booth being a purple weasel for an animated series.
  • Playing multiple characters for an independent animator in a comedy crime series.
  • Narrating a ten episode documentary on American National Parks for Discovery Channel.
  • Still hearing my voice at Ripley’s Museum whenever I’m at the Trocadero in London.
  • In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, during lockdown in London, I asked if you would like to read Still-life of a Pandemic. What made you decide to do it ?

I don’t get to record poetry very often and certainly not of this length so it was a challenge I knew I’d enjoy.

  • A poem often is not easy to read well, especially a long poem. But you managed to pace the rhythm well, keep the rhyming structure subtle, as well as instil emotion in the right places. Was it difficult to do ?

There were several layers of difficulty in this project: conveying the intended meaning while giving myself the freedom to apply my own meaning where allowed; conveying emotion without going overboard and keeping the sizeable text fresh to hold attention. To help me, I asked you what certain sections meant to you. It’s so important to understand the intentions of the author and what was going through your mind when you wrote it. You also highlighted patterns in the writing that I hadn’t spotted. The poem is quite repetitive so it was important that it didn’t sound monotonous. I tried to make sure that no two refrains were delivered the same way and they needed to reflect the mood of the preceding stanza. I decided that lines like ‘yet still you are alive’ could be read as second person but also as first person, as if the father is talking to himself. The added complication here is that this poem is being read by someone who has already died. How do you put yourself in that position?

  • Do you think your background in music, acting and improvisation helped ?

Rhythm is certainly used. This poem has no hard rhythm all the way through but where there is one, hopefully, I was able to make it count. I didn’t want to turn this into a drama by acting the part too much but there are sections that need a little more emotion. The text needs to be delivered rather than simply read out so intonation and diction are important.

  • The scenario in the poem involves a father who catches the virus, and you see the effect on his family and the neighbourhood around him. How did you get into character ?

I think the pandemic has made all of us more aware of the people around us and our immediate neighbourhoods in particular. Many neighbourhoods have been brought closer together and ours is no different. My wife had symptoms of Covid-19 and had to isolate. This obviously had an effect on me and my daughter. You do start to think about what could happen given all the unknowns so it wasn’t difficult to recall the feelings of that time.

  • It’s obviously a poem which stirs a whole range of emotions: fear of the pandemic itself, a father contracting Covid-19, the family and healthcare workers reacting, his death, funeral and memorial. How did you deal with this ? Did you share it with your family ?

I tend to deal with this much as I would with any book. I can get emotionally involved without this spilling out into real life. My family were aware I was recording this but I didn’t share much information. My daughter in particular has some anxiety issues so discussing this with her was out of the question.

  • Lastly, Peter, how has the Covid-19 pandemic personally affected you ? With regard both to family and work ?

The way I work hasn’t changed as I work from home anyway although the work dried up a little. Our home naturally became busier and more distracting as my wife and daughter were at home with me. Being a department head at a university, my wife has been under a lot of pressure trying to deal with the structural changes necessary for staff and students alike. My daughter, of course, needs extra attention. She really misses school and struggles with motivation being stuck at home. She’s looking forward to going back to school.

For more about Peter Stern

site logo

Published by Riols Quarter Ltd, 85 Great Portland Street,
London W1W 7LT. Company: 12673832.
Copyright © 2020