An Embodied Voice

Adriana Colón forges aural connections.

Adriana Colón, a casually dressed, smiling young woman with curly brown hair, sits in a doorway.
Adriana Colón
Photograph courtesy of Adriana Colón

A Latin American immigrant living in Los Angeles listens to the radio on her way home. She hears a familiar public-service announcement in Spanish: a rapid and caring voice, the kind that might belong to a concerned aunt, reminding LA Metro commuters to follow COVID-19 health guidelines. Arriving home, she sits down to help her child, whose English is limited, with a virtual science lesson narrated in Spanish. They listen to a slightly sugary but still firm voice—a teacher instructing a group of young children—explaining the concept of friction. The mother doesn’t know it, but actor Adriana Colón ’12 voiced both roles.

Colón, whose voice in normal conversation is bright and melodic, is a prolific voice actor in both English and Spanish. Her portfolio includes public-service announcements for the New York State Department of Health and the internet radio station Pandora, roles in the award-winning video game Just Cause 4, and voiceovers for PBS digital education programs. “In terms of being an artist, so much has just been the precipitation of who I am as a person into the things that I do,” Colón says. She records in the languages she grew up speaking in Puerto Rico. Trained as a classical singer, she understands breath control and resonance; her experience in theater—acting, directing, stage managing, and more—helps bring humanity to her performances. She loves recording educational materials, perhaps in part because she first picked up English by watching cartoons. For a time, she spoke like Daffy Duck, calling her sister “dethpicable.”

During a Harvard arts residency last fall, Colón sat down with the cast of  West Side Story to discuss the play’s challenging cultural legacy.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Office for the Arts

To an outsider, voice acting might seem disembodied. But for each script, Colón considers the message, speaker, and audience. “That’s what makes the difference between just a voice that’s reading something out loud, and someone who’s trying to connect those dots for you,” she says. A coronavirus spot might call for improvisation, and so she envisions different interlocutors. “For my grandma, I might say, ‘I just hope you understand that I’m saying this because I care about you, and not because I want to keep you inside,’” she demonstrates, modulating her voice to become soft and affectionate. Then, seamlessly, she shifts to a parental timbre, sharper, but still loving: “To a child I’d be like, ‘I really appreciate that you’re staying indoors. I think that’s so patient of you.’” Making these connections, she says, is especially important for Spanish-speaking audiences in a country dominated by English: “I’m making people feel welcome in spaces where they might otherwise feel ignored.”

Colón entered high school feeling “divorced from my body,” she recalls. “I felt like I didn’t really understand my own voice very well.” She attended a rigid Catholic school that was girls-only from the seventh grade onward, sending the message, she says, that her body couldn’t be trusted. Touring the world with the San Juan Children’s Choir, she was taught discipline, to be still and blend in with the group. Her parents’ divorce compounded her anxieties.

One summer, she attended a theater camp. Expecting Romeo and Juliet, she was thrown instead into a theatrical approach styled after Brazilian dramatist and activist Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed,” which involves audience interaction as a way of inspiring social and political activism. She went on to participate in an activist street-theater troupe, Jóvenes del 98 (“Youths of [18]98”), run by the camp’s director. Originally founded to create a play about the 1898 Spanish-American War, the troupe translated historical and literary texts and current events into impromptu performances in public spaces. For instance, in 2006 Colón helped perform “Cuando vinieron por mí,” a theatrical piece based on German pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came,” which condemns political apathy and identity-based persecution. “[The camp] was revolutionary for me,” Colón says: she was told to express images with her body, which “just started tickling that part of my brain that’s like, ‘Actually, your body is a vehicle for whatever you want it to be.’”

At Harvard, Colón directed and acted in multiple theater groups and successfully created a special concentration, “Performance and the Body.” She was interested not only in theater as a text, but in what she calls “the anthropology of theater, why we have a cultural impulse to enact things and to perform things.” After graduating, she worked as an assistant for a Broadway writer. But she felt trapped—perpetually viewed as an assistant, rather than as an artist in her own right—and fell into depression. “I’m not engaging with art in the way that I want to be, I’m not really creating,” Colón recalls thinking. She quit her job and began auditioning for voice roles almost on a whim, a new experience for her; six months later, she had an agent. “I felt a kind of immediate traction with voiceover,” she says: clients wanted not only her performance talents, but her person and perspective.

Movement continues to be central to her craft—the voice, for Colón, is corporeal. For a military scene in a video game, she will tense her body as if for battle; when reading a list, she might count the items on her fingers. She sometimes traces an infinity symbol in the air while reading long sentences to keep herself moving, and though nobody will see, she winks and shrugs and smiles. “The more confident I feel with voiceover,” she says, “the more connected I feel to my experiences in real life, because that’s the kind of intangible that you’re trying to bring to a performance.”

And voice acting immerses her in every part of the artistic process, from marketing to acting to reviewing scripts. On her website, Colón represents herself as giving “a voice to the contemporary American Latinx experience.” She means, in part, her actual voice and identity. She reviews scripts, correcting translation errors or giving advice about when a bilingual character should or shouldn’t code-switch (alternate between languages in a single conversation). If the role is Puerto Rican, she offers suggestions about how a Puerto Rican would phrase something. “That’s an actor’s dream,’ she says, “to actually be able to inform the story of the character.”

Yet Colón also means “give a voice” in the sense of empowerment—speaking to, and speaking up for, those who might not otherwise be addressed or heard. “When I say ‘contemporary,’ part of it means that, by being Latina in America, I’ve expanded my Latin identity,” Colón explains: she’s been exposed to immigrants and communities from different Latin American countries and has sought to understand their unique but interconnected struggles. Her ability to navigate the world in Spanish and English, she believes, comes with responsibility, so she cherishes opportunities to record audiobooks, public-service announcements, and educational materials in Spanish as a way to make public spaces, education, and online resources more accessible. The ability not only to translate, but to perform, Spanish voice roles with care and empathy, she says, is sorely needed. “There are people who are new to this country, and they don’t speak English,” Colón says. “It would be so much more comfortable for them to get that coronavirus message in Spanish, and make sure that the message not only comes across clearly, but comes across in a way that lets them know that they are important and they are being spoken to.”

Read more articles by: Matteo Wong

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