Sitting back in her seat, Katie Leigh begins searching for the voices in her head.
Working as a voice actor for more than 30 years, there are plenty of them to sort through. It takes a few seconds for the characters to come back, but Leigh's naturally high-pitched voice transforms into a series of TV characters you might remember watching in your pajamas on a Saturday morning.
“One of the actors I work with, he always likes to say when he was a kid, he had all these voices in his head, and when he got older, he got them all jobs,” she says. “If you can't relate to that, then you probably have no business doing cartoons.”
Leigh is the self-titled “voice of your childhood.” She has voiced shows, movies and video games since the 1980s, putting a voice to Dumbo in “Dumbo's Circus,” Honker Muddlefoot in “Darkwing Duck,” Rowlf in “Muppet Babies,” Alex in “Totally Spies” and Sunni Gummi for “Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears.”
Her crowning achievement, however, is the 26 years she has spent playing Connie Kendall in the faith-based radio program “Adventures in Odyssey.” Based in the fictional Midwest town of Odyssey, Connie is a teenage girl from Los Angeles who works at local ice cream shop known as Whit's End, where she and the local patrons get into myriad situations.
Hailing from Los Angeles herself, Leigh traveled to Indiana this month to be a part of the theater faculty for the Masterworks Festival at Winona Lake. While in the area, she also paid a visit to her close friend, Roanoke author PeggySue Wells. The two met when Wells' daughter, Leilani, was invited to California to watch the cast record an episode she wrote for “Odyssey.”
Wells says the reach of the program has inspired fans, from Army veterans to astronauts, to get connected with Connie through Leigh.
“Her life uncannily parallels her fictional character,” Wells says. “It's like, where does Connie end and where does Katie begin? You can't tell anymore.”
Leigh began as a student in Carmel, California, with report cards that read, “Good student, but talks too much.”
It didn't click until she had dropped out of college that perhaps her gift of gab was actually a talent.
“I didn't know what I wanted to major in, so in the meantime, I sort of dropped out, and someone suggested I take up voice acting. They thought I had an unusual voice, which I didn't hear at the time,” Leigh says.
“I got an agent, started auditioning, and I thought I could make some extra money – but then I found out that I could get a degree in broadcasting. Couple years later, I graduated and said, now what?”
She moved to Los Angeles to try it out for a couple of years – if successful, she would stay.
Leigh never left.
Besides her work with Disney and Nickelodeon, “Adventures in Odyssey,” one of the longest-running radio dramas in history,is broadcast in 62 countries and has more than 1.2 million listeners in the U.S. Since the show started in 1987, the cast has gone through some changes, but Leigh remains a staple of the show.
“Well, I cannot not be Connie. I couldn't have anyone else do it, that's for sure,” she says. “For me to be a part of a ministry that is all over the world, it's pretty wonderful to have that influence and involvement. As long as they keep doing the show, I'll keep showing up.”
Leigh has also become a part of the Fort Blanket Revue, an interactive performance of classic scripts from “Adventures in Odyssey.” The show gives Leigh; actor Will Ryan, the voice of Eugene; and series creator Phil Lollar an opportunity to perform and meet fans in person. Leigh says that depending on their availability, the revue includes additional members from the show.
The cast is booking shows for next year.
“I think the characters were very believable. There's some crazy, funny things in there, but the core characters experience things that everybody experiences,” she says. “Most of the scripts aren't preachy – they're empathetic and practical.”
Leigh says she and Wells are working on a book about how Leigh's life has intertwined with her longest-living character. The two would like to release the book by the end of the year so that fans can buy it while the Fort Blanket Revue is on tour.
“Obviously, I put a lot of myself into Connie, so when I meet people, it just flows because I'm not that different from my character. I'm used to people calling me Connie, they are used to hearing me as Connie – I appreciate that,” she says.
“They share their stories with me, and that's a part that I want to share in the book. I hear these great stories about how they are in boot camp and the tapes made them feel like they were at home. I know about a guy in Indonesia who learned English by listening to ‘Adventures in Odyssey' because his teachers didn't always know how to pronounce a word,” she adds.
Leigh says it's a rarity as a voice actor to still be able to perform a character for more than 20 years. Like any other form of media, technology has changed children's entertainment. Networks have gone from three to more than 300, making animated shows more competitive and less viable when it comes to making a living; radio programs for children is a smaller market, although Leigh says “Odyssey” continues to be fully funded by advertisements.
Instead of going into a studio, Leigh says most voice actors audition and work from home, turning in audio files by email.
“Luckily, that broadcast degree came in handy because most people nowadays have to have their own home studio,” she says. “I have an agent, but I have clients on my own for apps for iPads, websites and toys. It's not the same when you had to go to Mattel to record your stuff.”
She also made her debut recently as a director for an AudibleScripts.com project. The website allows people to listen to screenplays in the same way as audio books. She is also featured on the new PBS show “Space Racers” and an upcoming project for Nickelodeon.
Leigh says she hasn't met many voice actors who actually retire, but if the day comes where her voices fade away, she's happy that Connie will be one who stays.
“I feel really thankful that I get to leave a mark by just being Connie in ‘Adventures in Odyssey.' I know it's going to last forever. As long as those recordings are out there, it goes way beyond me,” she says.
“My legacy is that I want to leave a body of work that is good, and it's good for people, and it's something that I want to be remembered by. I'm thankful that I feel like God answered my prayer by giving me something worth listening to when I pass away.”