Mastering the Story with LeVar Burton

- Steve Blum
Banner of voice actor LeVar Burton

Mastering the Story was the title of our 47th Class in my Teaching Series, and how appropriate it was to have a true Master of the Story – LeVar Burton – join us in class that night. Below is an excerpt from that well- spent time with a man who’s inspired me for decades – one filled with wonder, gratitude and insight from a Master Storyteller and a magnificent Human Being.

Introducing…LeVar Burton

We know him from his amazing work as the host of Reading Rainbow, as Kunta Kinte in Roots, and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek the Next Generation.

He’s appeared on Big Bang Theory, Community, Gargoyles, Batman the Animated Series, Family Guy, Adventure Time, and Super Hero Squad. He’s played Martin Luther King Jr. in Ali, and Paul Haley in Perception. Kwame in Captain Planet, remember that one? And of course, as our very own beloved Doc Greene on Transformers Rescue Bots.

LeVar has done a ton of other super cool projects in film, tv and is a force of humanitarian awesomeness. Most recently we’ve had the pleasure of his superb podcast, Levar Burton Reads. He’s an Emmy, Grammy, Peabody and Image award winner. He has his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame and a park named after him in Sacramento, California. LeVar also happens to be a fantastic director, author, presenter and loving husband and father, and I am so grateful to say, my friend.

How LeVar Burton Learned to Master the Story

Steve: Tell us about the importance of reading in your life and how your love of reading has affected you personally and professionally, particularly in regard to voiceover? 

LeVar: My mother was an English teacher and I grew up in a house where reading was like breathing. She was an avid, voracious reader, who always had at least two, sometimes three books going for her own enjoyment. I learned from my mother that literature and the written word is an integral part of the human experience.

When I think of myself as a storyteller, and I do, whether I’m acting or directing, writing, producing, podcasting, no matter what it is, I’m a storyteller.

Stories are a critical part of human existence. When I’m telling stories, I draw on a tradition that is ancient. Even in my own life, my storytelling mentors were Alex Haley, Gene Roddenberry, Fred Rogers, (Mr. Rogers), and my Mother. These people shaped my storytelling sensibility. For all of them, and consequently for me, the Word is the foundation of everything we do.

How Mastering the Story helps with Cold Reading

Steve: Are there any books or exercises that you personally recommend for improving cold reading skills?

LeVar: Cold reading is something I’ve always had “a leg up” on, because I do so much reading aloud, and have for a good part of my life. It’s that reading aloud that’s given me a mechanism in terms of being able to see and interpret – almost simultaneously – sentences and paragraphs.

Really anything can be helpful, as long as you’re reading it aloud.

That’s the key to getting good at cold reading – read aloud. You’re going to be reading to people, so that’s a key component in terms of practicing and getting better at it. Read aloud, read aloud to kids, read aloud to animals, read aloud to adults, just read aloud. That’s a good practice.

Characters in Storytelling

Steve: In terms of voiceover specifically, what is your process when you receive a new animated character? Do you like to have time to cultivate it or do you prefer to go in cold and improvise?

LeVar: When I’m reading a story for the podcast, I’ll read it once, maybe twice.

I read it once when I first discover the story. Then I don’t read it again until the night before I record it. It’s very rare for me to actually put time into thinking about the voices of the characters.

There’s something in me that just loves being in the moment and seeing what comes. To see what I’m inspired by.

What voices come out of me: that’s all a function of just how much I love what I do, and how much I’ve been able to learn to trust my storyteller instincts. Coming to that moment is a sacred time for me.

The Importance of Diversity in Storytelling – and Acting

Steve: Diversity brings authenticity to every project. Not only offering something for everyone in terms of the consumer experience, but also offering jobs to everyone of every size, shape, color, gender and persuasion. Can you speak on the importance of diversity to you, particularly as it relates to this business?

LeVar: I’ve seen a lot in the last 43 years in this business in terms of efforts at diversity. Shifting opinions as to how valuable it is. Differing efforts in terms of making diversity a part of how we do what it is we do. Roots was my first job, at 19, and I think I was tuned from the very beginning of my career to expect a business that was open to stories from different points of view.

I remember when we were shooting on location in Savannah Georgia, and it was my very first day as a professional actor. Cicely Tyson played my mother and Maya Angelou played my grandmother. Here were these giants of the industry in the makeup trailer every morning. Moses Gunn, Harry Rhodes, people that I had loved and admired as a kid growing up. They were all expressing how at that point in their storied careers, it was the first time they’d had the chance to be in something that embraced not only them, but the history of us.

The story of the enslavement of African peoples in America has never been told from the point of view of Africans before. And so, in that Roots experience, I was steeped in that joy. In the satisfaction of being involved in telling a story that was so critically important to so many people.

Needless to say it was an education when I discovered that this is not normal. Of course growing up it was rare for me to see people on television who looked like me. I thought, like a lot of people did, that Roots was the harbinger of a real sea change, and what actually happened was, it opened the door for a moment, and then that door closed again.

It took another 20-25 years for enough critical mass of people who had come to this business and trained – people who finally kicked down the doors to bring different voices into the business.

First it was behind the camera, then slowly more in front of the camera. It’s been a journey, a continuum. Two steps forward and a step back. We’re in an interesting moment right now because it’s top of mind for everybody and I’m really optimistic. I’m really optimistic that we might get some real significant and lasting change this time.

Recording at Home

Steve: So you’ve said that you record in a closet in your master bedroom. That’s how I record most of my stuff too, in the closet. What is your setup? What kind of microphone do you use and do you manage that part of it yourself, or does your production team do that for you?

LeVar: I’m my own engineer these days. I’ve got a Shure mic and a lovely articulated floor stand. I’ve got a mixer and a backup recorder. All of that runs through my laptop. I do zoom sessions with my producer Julia Smith, the best in the business. I’ve got my stand with my iPad on it. I have contact with Julia, and contact with the text, and I read.

We’ve discovered that the quality of the recording has not suffered at all. I think it’s because of all of the clothes that my wife has!

Steve: So you didn’t treat the room – it literally is functioning as a closet.

LeVar: It’s a walk-in closet in my master bedroom. There’s great dampening in there and so it’s working. A chair, the microphone and my stand, the mixer, it’s all living next to my pants.

Mastering The Story Through The Breath

Steve: One of the things I love most about your podcast is that you actually take the time to have your listeners take a breath with you before you start. Is this also how you find balance?

LeVar: It’s one of the ways. I’ve exposed myself to a lot over the years. Yoga, meditation, fire walking, jumping out of airplanes. I’m kind of a energy junkie. I’m always looking for experiences that reaffirm my aliveness.

Breathing has a special meaning for me, where life is concerned. The word “Inspiration” comes from the Latin root. To inspire is to breathe in. When we’re in a creative space we’re actually co-creating with the divine element.

That breath is a doorway between the moment before the storytelling, and the first moment of storytelling.

It’s also an invitation for the divine to be present in this moment and a part of the activity. A part of what’s going on, a part of the storytelling. I can’t talk enough about the significance and the importance of breath. We all do it. We all need to do it, but we’re not always conscious of it. Conscious breathing, and being able to be aware and conscious of when we’re not breathing, is really, really important.

When we’re stressed and tense, when we’re fearful, the very first thing that starts to happen is we restrict our breath. But when we become aware of that, it’s easy to fix it. It’s easy to just breathe. Take a deep breath. It really helps. It works.

LeVar’s Warm Up and Cool Down Technique

Steve: Do you have any warm up or cool down exercises that you’d like to share?

LeVar:  My warm up begins with breathing. I make sure that my breath is not happening in my chest. That it’s happening down below. I make sure that I’m relaxing the jaw. Then I start working the neck – one side, then the other. Then I go forward, and eventually I drop the jaw.
After that I do my shoulders; forward, up, back and down. I do that a couple of times. And then a little massage – massaging the neck and throat. After about five to seven minutes of that, and I’m ready.

The Importance of Storytelling

Steve: What inspires you, and has that changed throughout the years?

LeVar: I’m really inspired by the possibilities that this human experience offers us. I’m inspired by the idea that we might resolve our differences. Our differences of class and race and gender and social status. It may sound corny but it’s not to me, I think the world that Gene Roddenberry created is really the world that I want to live in.

Growing up as a kid in Sacramento, California in the 60s, it was oftentimes unpleasant. I wanted to live in a world that embraced me. Seeing Michelle Nicholls on the Bridge of the original Enterprise meant the world to me.

What Gene as a storyteller was saying to me, is “When the future comes, there’s a place for you.”.

That was huge for me. I’m a big science fiction fan. I started reading science fiction when I was 9 or 10. Gene’s vision was rare back then, in terms of having heroes in the stories who looked like me. It meant a lot to me. I still want to live in that world, an Egalitarian society where everyone is valued for exactly who they are and what gifts they bring.

I want to live in a world where the effort is made to discover and make room and space for everybody. In that way we’re open to hearing one another’s stories.

When we hear each other’s stories, only then are we able to discover what gifts we have for each other. There’s a dynamic of energy being exchanged. I believe that if I can sit long enough with a person, even if I disagree vehemently with them, I can sit with an open heart long enough to hear their story and to share mine with them, and we will find commonality.

That’s what inspires me. We have the tools. We just need to practice more and get better at it.

What a brilliant night, with one of my favorite people on this or any other planet – and absolutely one of the best evenings we’ve had in our Special Guest Series so far. If you’re interested in becoming a student, where you can access the entire class with LeVar, plus over 100 hours of additional on-demand video content, click here for a special introductory offer.

To find LeVar’s Storytelling Series “LeVar Burton Reads” follow the link below.

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