Sunday, January 27, 2002

Blind actress on 'Rugrats'

Voice of 'Kimi' to speak at dinner

        When Dionne Quan was a little girl, her parents gave her the greatest gift any parent can give a child: the gift of high expectations. Already, at age 24, her parents are seeing a high return for the investment of faith in a daughter who happened to be born with a disability.

        Born in San Francisco to Lori and Daryl Quan (who still hold conversations in Cantonese when they don't want their children to understand), Dionne knew at an early age that she wanted to be an actress. She would create voices for the characters in her storybooks, she recalls, and always loved to sing. When she was 10, her father heard a radio interview with a teacher who instructed students in voice-over acting, and he immediately enrolled Dionne for lessons.

  Dionne Quan, who provides the voice of Kimi Finster in Nickelodeon's Rugrats, will be the featured speaker at this year's Inclusion Network Awards dinner.
  The dinner is the largest event in the Tristate honoring businesses and organizations that exemplify inclusive environments and practices.
  The dinner is 5-8:30 p.m. Monday at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Tickets are $35 and must be purchased in advance. Call 345-1330.
        She got her first job at age 14, voicing a commercial for an HMO, and has been building a career steadily ever since. Last year, Ms. Quan landed the voice role of Kimi Finster, the spunky 2-year-old introduced to Nickelodeon's Rugrats gang in the feature film Rugrats in Paris. When her voice (one of about 150 who auditioned for the role) was selected for the part, she became the youngest of the Rugrats cast.

        She is also the only one reading her scripts from Braille.

        Born with a condition called optic hyperplasia, Ms. Quan has been a Braille reader since her days at a public elementary school in the Bay Area containing a resource classroom for blind children.

        “I have always loved to read,” she says. She loves her Braille magazines and books and says she will often read a novel in one day.

        But there is much more to fill her days than reading books.

        With the Rugrats job, she relocated from northern to southern California, where she now shares a condo with her younger brother, Daryl, a student at UCLA. Recording two Rugrats episodes weekly, she devotes the rest of her time to two to four daily auditions daily for other roles.

        “I have always been blessed to have parents who are so supportive of me,” she says. Indeed, her mother now commutes between the family's San Francisco home and Ms. Quan's Santa Monica condo every week to dictate scripts to her daughter. Although she uses assistive technology — a refreshable Braille display on a standard PC that enables her to surf the Web and exchange e-mail — the formatting of scripts has not lent itself well to electronic transmission.

        There are handwritten notes, for example, which cannot be translated by optical character recognition in scanning. For now, the most expedient method has been for her mother to dictate her lines and cue lines, which Ms. Quan then transcribes on a mechanical Braille typewriter called a Perkins Brailler.

        Timing in her business is everything. Since that first job 10 years ago, she has recorded commercials, cartoon roles and CD-ROM projects. For commercials, for instance, she needs to develop an internal sense of 30, 20 or 15 seconds. For new roles, the ability to conjure a character in short order is essential.

        And for her, there is the additional timing element of simply getting the written materials into her hands. Audition scripts are sometimes available the night before, and at other times 20 minutes before recording. In either case, her mother dictates the scripts, Ms. Quan types them in Braille and employs a rich imagination to develop the right character.

        Although she has tried “face acting,” she says that voice acting is her true niche. In a high school performance of Once Upon a Mattress, for example, where she played the Wizard, there was often unnecessary focus on how she would get on and off stage. “Someone would walk on and off the stage with me,” she recalls, “and when I did it myself, everyone was surprised.”

        With voice acting, the playing field is level. The only “accommodation” to her disability in the Rugrats job has been the adjustment of the microphone — raising it to avoid picking up the muffled sound of fingers swiftly sweeping over lines of Braille.

        Dionne Quan happens to be blind. She happens to be Asian-American. More importantly, she happens to be an ordinary young woman with an extraordinary talent.

        She became part of the Rugrats cast when she created exactly the right voice for Kimi. Her repertoire has many more voices to come.

        At the seventh annual Inclusion Network Awards Dinner, she will speak in her own confident voice when she delivers her keynote address. “I love what I do,” she says. “And I feel very fortunate to have found something I want to do for the rest of my life.”

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