Actress brings her dulcet voice to ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ to audiobooks and now to KC

06/17/2014 1:30 PM

06/18/2014 7:15 PM

If you watch “Orange Is the New Black,” you know Miss Rosa.

As played by Barbara Rosenblat, her presence is commanding. And Season 2, which launched on Netflix this month, has taught us that even though she’s dying of cancer in prison, Miss Rosa is still an adrenaline junkie of a bad-ass with lots of heart. If there’s one thing that sticks out about her character, it’s that husky and seductive voice that steals every conversation. You want to hear her speak, to cling to her words and let her paint the picture.

Rosenblat is known for delivering good dialogue. Decades before “Orange,” she was doing voice work in radio, commercials, documentaries and hundreds of audiobooks.

Her storytelling skills have earned Audie awards from the Audio Publishers Association. And her narration of “Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken,” the children’s favorite by Kate DiCamillo, helped producers Live Oak Media win the 2010 American Library Association’s Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production.

“Whimsical sound effects, playful background music and Barbara Rosenblat’s impressive repertoire of voices combine in this tour-de-force listening experience,” the award committee said.

This weekend, the narrator/actress is in town for Hear Now, a festival showcasing the art of audio storytelling. Rosenblat will participate in panels, performances and workshops alongside Simon Vance (he narrated “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens, among others), Scott Brick (the voice to Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” and more) and “Star Trek” game sound producer Michael Henry.

The London-born, New York-raised performer discovered her passion for storytelling as a third-grader.

“I was in social studies class at Hebrew school, and my teacher pointed to me to get up and read. I love picture books, but I was not a fast reader. I remember the graphic on the left-hand side of the big, heavy social studies book — a Douglas fir tree. I got up and read, and when I was finished I looked around and everyone was staring at me. That’s when I discovered show business. It was all uphill from there.”

An invitation to a family wedding in London led her to leave New York and explore her birthplace. It was there that she landed a role in “Godspell” and eventually dabbled in cabaret and more theater. Her voice was always a standout, so much so that her agent asked her about books on tape. She thought it sounded fun.

“It was a Scottish-Canadian logging romance,” she says. “It was terrible. Like my mother said, my first roast beef is still tough. I was schvitzing my guts out, but it was more fun than a bucket of bunnies.”

Eventually, she moved back to the States and got a Library of Congress gig recording books for the blind and then started doing mainstream audiobooks, too. She has narrated more than 400 titles and often teaches master classes on the subject.

She says it’s no different from acting in that at its core, it is about communicating a story. She has even written a book, “Audiobook Narrator — The Art of Narrating Audiobooks.”

“Each author has his or her own voice,” she says. “I read each book slowly so I can see the patterns they use to spread out the garden of earthly delights. As I read I start to form clear ideas of the characters and allow myself to be a proper conduit for this author’s voice so that you will feel you have been on a seductive audio journey.”

Her ability to truly evoke a character helped her land the role of Miss Rosa on “Orange Is the New Black.” When she auditioned, the writers hadn’t fully developed the character’s story beyond being an inmate with terminal cancer. There was no backstory, no future story. They weren’t even sure which crime she had committed.

“I just took it and ran with it,” Rosenblat says. “I fashioned this self-absorbed woman who had obviously been in prison for a long, long time, and the inmates had a lot of respect for her. I wanted to keep her classy and centered.

“When I saw the script for Season 2, I ran into the bathroom screaming. There was a much better idea of who Miss Rosa is and I could really sink my teeth into her.”

For fans wondering if Miss Rosa gets to have the blaze-of-glory ending she dreams of, Rosenblat swears she doesn’t know.

Whatever happens with her character, Rosenblat says her work on the show brings her joy.

“It might sound cliche, but believe me when I say I am happy,” she says. “I went to Disney World for the first time and I got an ice cream cone. The kid at the booth recognized me and started tweeting. … It was the first time in my life someone handed me ice cream for acting. He hadn’t even finished the season yet. It was such an important moment for me that this young man I never met felt the emotional tug of the show. It made me proud and happy.”

Jeneé Osterheldt’s column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

Barbara’s likes

What she likes about Kansas City: Bourbon and barbecue (Gates)

If she could play any other “Orange” character: Red

Shows she watches: “Suits,” “Downton Abbey” and “Jeopardy”

Book she’d like to narrate: Anything by M.F.K. Fisher because she’s a foodie

Follow her on Twitter: @rosenblat_actor

This weekend

The Hear Now Festival of storytelling runs Thursday through Sunday at various venues. Details at hearnowfestival.org. Tickets ($8-$200) can be purchased online and at events.

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