Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not For Librarians Only: How to review an audio book

How often do we reflexively interrupt someone as they expose their traumatized soul over an especially vexing circumstance with: ‘Well, if it were me, here’s what I’d do…’ As if we had the slightest interest and were even listening in the first place. Pleading guilty to being among those who’ve redirected someone’s agony to my unsolicited remedy, I at least try to censor that reflex if I can catch it in time.
     All to say - as a sort of rationalized, apologetic prelude to this post and the following one – when I read audio book reviews, from newspapers to library to other book related trade publications, my initial response is to note that the reviewer’s lack of performance vocabulary disables their ability to critique the narrator they’re reviewing. Finishing a typical review, I long for a critique that possesses the language to unpack performance (the ‘audio’), rather than the text (the ‘book’) so that the listener is accurately advised about what they’re in for. Halfway through I imagine myself whispering in the reviewer’s ear: ‘You know, if I were you, here’s how I’d review it…’

If it’s fair to suggest that many audio book reviewers appear ill-equipped to actually review what distinguishes the ‘audio’ from the ‘book,’ it may be useful to propose an audio book reviewer’s template that provides a road map for performance critique.
      Given the chutzpah it requires to presume (a) reviewers have a problem and (b) I have the fix, it’s important for me to devote this initial post to the following: What precipitated this desire to advance a ‘how to critique performance’ methodology?  What qualifies me to proffer it?
     (Again, I’ll devote the following post to the specifics: how to evaluate performance; what listeners should expect from narrators, along with the performance language to verbalize that expectation, etc.)

Last month I responded to an interview request from Mary Burkey for her “Voices in My Head” column that will appear in January’s Booklist magazine (the issue that is provided free to all attendees of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference.)
     While corresponding via email with Mary, we briefly discussed audio book narrators in general (what distinguishes great performances from mediocre ones) and what critique (or characterization) tools librarians in particular employ to rate performance.
     As we sought to identify so-called performance markers that might be useful in evaluating the narrator (as opposed to the narrative) it became evident that at least some librarians could benefit from a kind of storytelling critique tool kit. I subsequently asked Mary if she thought it would help reviewers to have a concise understanding of the nature of audio book performance as well as how to critique it. She responded: “I think you'd have many different reactions from librarians when asked about a narrator's performance in an audio. In my experience, there is just a small, small group of librarians who actually think about evaluating audio books differently than a print title, and who have the number of hours under the headphones to discern the qualities of a good narrator.” She mentioned her effort to instruct librarians in narration critique vocabulary so they can better discern performance: “That's why I created an Audiobook Lexicon when I chaired the first Odyssey Award committee. I have found that my lexicon is now passed along to incoming members of ALA's audiobook award committees - as even the most accomplished children's & YA literature experts (those who've served on Newbery or Printz committees) are entering new territory when evaluating audio.”
     Presuming there’s a need, and that my thoughts on addressing that need will be useful to librarians and other reviewers, what credentials do I possess that might add credibility to my remarks?
     I could list multiple industry honors awarded to titles I’ve produced since 1990, including two Best Spoken Word Grammys. I would also feel comfortable asserting that many performers whom I’ve directed over the past two decades, coached privately, and who’ve participated in my narrator workshops, have benefited (i.e., become better storytellers) from the particular performance tools I’ve administered (like a storytelling doctor writing a prescription and saying, take this, it’ll make you act better) while working with them.
     Rather than reeling off the awards and charitable high-fives from talent (much of which can be viewed on my website: I’d prefer to define, generally, my role as director/teacher/coach with the purpose of suggesting a particular worldview regarding creativity and craft – the two pillars of performance that, when valued equally by narrators, assure them the possibility of rising above mediocre towards the sublime.

It is often said that if you really want to learn something, teach it. That axiom consistently reflects my two decades experience as a director/teacher/coach. I’ve learned that my worth to a narrator transcends mere instruction: ‘Louder, faster, bite an apple to reduce mouth clicks, c’mon, you can do it better’ isn’t really what stimulates sublime performance. Rather, the narrator stands to actualize her full potential when the act of directing/coaching is construed by me as a mutual discovery portal. Rarely have I witnessed an actor’s ‘discovery moment’ without simultaneously sensing that I, too, have achieved insight, that I now better understand the storytelling process as well.
     Briefly, what do I mean by ‘discovery?’ Why is it a prioritized element of performance?
     For me, job-one (whether coaching a workshop participant or directing an experienced narrator) is to encourage discovery - a repetitive process whose outcome translates into a performance that both inspires and propels the actor to emotionally engage the listener.
     Discovery, as I imagine how it particularizes audio book narration, describes an inflection or nexus, a visceral “ah ha” moment that transcends language or conscious thought. Ongoing discovery is the narrator actively engaging the emotions embedded in the author’s words (what’s called: sub-text) so that he can tell the story in the moment, as if it were happening right now! The result of that present-tense engagement is ignition of the listener’s willing suspension of disbelief and an emotionally powerful bond between text, narrator and listener.
     Said differently, when the narrator is continually discovering the feelings embedded in the author’s text, he is both committed and connected to those feelings, as if they were happening immediately. It is that inveterate discoverer who keeps the listener in his car, buckled up, riveted to the last CD, even though he pulled in front of his house an hour ago. If you’ve ever heard a narrator who reminds you of a kind of passive reporter, as if the feelings he’s recounting have all the urgency of yesterday’s kisses, it is certain that there is no discovery.

Having directed audio books for two decades, taught storytelling to dozens of aspiring and professional narrators, it is apparent to me that if the narrator is the body, storyteller is the soul. Storytelling is the narrator’s art, her aesthetic. Inhabiting her inner storyteller - blending craft (performance technique, such as discovery) with intuition - is how she seeks to engage and enthrall her listener. In the best of all worlds, this is the narrator that consumers want and hope will appear when they borrow, or purchase an audio book. 
     In the next post,  I’ll suggest a template with specific performance vocabulary that audio book reviewers might employ to assess performance. For now,  I’d implore all reviewers to focus not so much on what they think of a given performance, but how emotionally connected they were to the storyteller they just heard. Forget the narrative, disregard the writer’s effort and remember, that from the storyteller’s point of view, the quality of the writing has no effect on their performance – zero.  Think while gazing through this performance lens: here’s what connected me to that storyteller, here’s what didn’t.

I recently had the pleasure of working with three highly regarded and often praised storytellers: Oliver Wyman, Barbara Rosenblat and Yelena Shmulenson. I’ll be working with David Pittu in January.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interrogating A Narrator’s Nightmare: Oh, her! Every book she records sounds the same.

           Aunt Mary emailed yesterday, in a snit, her missive huffing incredulity, “Well, Paul, just received a reprehensibly unflattering response to my demo from a publisher I’ll name but you won’t. I quote, ‘Dear Aunt Mary, if you’re not sure why everything you narrate sounds the same, please listen to the following narrator. She is your competition.’
“So I listen. That’s my compeTITION? All her zillion-plus Audies, Earphones, even a Grammy. Gag me with a U-87! Flash! Every book sounded the same! Same tone, same male/female voices. You think I couldn’t recognize her from one book to the other. T-H-E S-A-M-E!  So, I call Robin Whitten who, hello!!! – understands AM. I play Robin me and the, ha! Audie winner. I says, Robin, I sound like me, and she sounds like her. So what’s the diff between us? Robin said, and I quote, politely, ‘I know this storyteller, Aunt Mary. I’ve heard her. And I’ve heard you. And believe me, she’s no Aunt Mary!’
“So, really, Paul, when someone says my samples all sound the same, I ask you, what narrator doesn’t always sound the same?”
          As I reached to delete her missive, recoiling more from AM’s grammar than her acrimony, I felt pinged by an injustice chord, correctly articulated by none other than herself. I thought, poor AM. Her ego has been caned by a variation of a commonly invoked performance pejorative (always the same) that glibly characterizes an actor who, at the end of the day, can’t act. The publisher simply particularized the epithet to suit the audio book narrator: every book you record sounds the same.
I wondered how any narrator subject to this criticism might feel if they were privy to it? While they might not regard ‘sounds the same’ as their worst nightmare, I am certain that this barb would stick in their head like an ice pick, howling, ‘I suck. Why would anyone hire me?’ It occurred to me that ‘sounds the same’ is particularly discouraging, existentially so, because it seems to attack the performer as well as the performance.
Worst nightmares aside, something disconcerting about that phrase needled me.  It doesn’t accurately describe a narrator’s real problem, including AM’s.  It’s also misleading. If interrogated, I thought, what might this put-down reveal about its accuracy and a narrator’s actual challenges.
           (Given that it’s meaningful for me to try and discover practical - that is, actable – performance portholes through which storytelling’s demands can be engaged, it’s worth examining ‘sounds the same’ through that practicality lens, along with trying to determine whether this phrase actually represents what we think it does).
          To begin with, I’d argue that all narrators do sound the same, always. If you’re a narrator, try this test (sorry AM, professionals only): listen to all your past work. Recognize your voice? Listen to multiple samples of other narrators’ work. Sound the same? Yes, of course. So, strictly speaking, ‘sound the same’ is a misnomer. Worse, this misleading critique implies that sounding different is a solution.
         ‘Sounds the same’ literally means identical vocal sound, as if that alone should condemn the actor, justify his disparagement for life. Given it’s impossible to speak definitively for others, I’m guessing that what people may actually mean when they cringe, Ugh! Every book sounds the same is: Every time I hear that voice I feel, well, nothing. I’m reminded of what I heard the last time; same-old boring same-old. I’m not moved and I don’t believe what I’m hearing, anyway. I’m disconnected not from the words, but rather, the narrator speaking them.
If, from a performance vantage, ‘sounds the same’ isn’t relevant, dissuades us from seeing the point, then can actors who fret over becoming the object of this nasty accusation stop fretting? Depends maybe on how neurotic they are, but I think ‘sounds the same’ shouldn’t frettin’ them!
In terms of assessing performance quality, ‘sounds the same’ is illogical syntax.  For example, imagine the opposite: If sounding different had anything to do with good acting then Sounding Different 101& 102, Advanced and Master Class Sounding Different would be de rigueur in every drama school curriculum. The plethora of Sounding Different books would all be downloadable from Audible.
           Ironically, I think narrators who attack the text by trying to sound different (that is, by imposing vocal variety) risk the very criticism they’re trying to avoid. Why? Because the text isn’t actable. All you can do with the words you see is vocally mismanage them, disingenuously. The actor can emphasize, modulate, accentuate the words ad nauseam, but he will still sound the same. The text (the author’s intellectual property) is merely syntax, that is, ordered black signifiers (letters, words, sentences, etc.) that, in turn, signify thought and emotion. Syntax isn’t actable, though it seduces the narrator, sneakily…c’mon, make me interesting!
          The sweet (authentic) fruit oscillates beneath the words, and in the white spaces between punctuation. It hangs there, daring the artist to pluck. When the actor - using his same voice, book after book - reaches for that fruit (i.e., plays the subtext) he reminds the listener that, no, it’s not my voice that matters to you, it’s me.  If I connect emotionally with you, guaranteed you won’t be thinking about my voice. In fact, you won’t be thinking at all. You’ll be feeling. And since this book is different than the last one I recorded, you’ll be feeling something different. So there. All better.
           I wish storytelling had as many moving parts as brain surgery (audio book narration doesn’t really measure up to medicine, does it. I mean, Tom Friedman will never write a book about America’s losing the storytelling race.)  Still, an authentic storyteller (as opposed to a reader) reaches out to the human experience differently than an authentic brain surgeon (presumably one who didn’t receive his MD online).  
If it were possible for a storyteller, one whose living finds him occupying a creative landscape, to momentarily extricate himself from the scourge of comparison, what might he conjure while experiencing that liberated space? How might he regard his work’s nature? He might say: When I’m on -  immersed in, not separated from the subtext – I am emotionally connected to the listener.  I, too, operate on the brain, on a location I may not comprehend medically, but can nevertheless feel.
Having been on vacation the past three weeks, I’m looking forward to working with two of my favorite narrators on upcoming books: Oliver Wyman and Yelena Schmulenson.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

‘As If:’ A Mantra For Mining the Subtext

“I make it sound as if I had no choice.”
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

“They put on thick white robes and sit side by side on chaise longues as if they are, in fact, on board a ship.”
I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck

It’s arguable that the words we think and speak are representations of abstract things. Once consciously formed and ordered syntactically, these abstractions appear before us, suddenly reified (that is, concrete, imbued with meaning). And yet, as we reflexively conjure more words, as we hear others’ words, our very engagement with these processes mediates language: concrete turns mushily transitory; meaning becomes what I meant, though not exactly, really.
Despite our inability to access the concrete from abstract, (Is there any word whose meaning all six billion of us can categorically agree to) we humans seem bent on trying: we deploy words and re-order our syntax in a Sisyphean-like effort to unpack and define ourselves, our nature, our existence.
Words, then, represent us to ourselves and others: who we are, how we feel, albeit vaguely, imprecisely, impossibly. (Duh! Any wonder words constantly fail us?)
During our endless sojourn through saying what we can’t possibly mean (or is it the reverse?) we humans have come to deploy an arsenal of linguistic tools - simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc. - to help us unpack, comprehend, make sense (impossibly) of our experience. Is it any wonder then, that an author’s words - replete with his particularized jargon, syntactic twists, linguistic black holes and potholes and whose meaning narrators are somehow supposed to magically transmit with their voice - are sometimes so confounding that they defy interpretation!
All to say, for a community of storytellers whose professional success is dependent on the ability to interpret words, as a director, I certainly feel narrators' pain. Trying to get a handle on what the author’s words really mean, what they’re actually purporting to say, can be a serious bitch!

If an author’s narrative – from the sublime to one whose vocabulary finds us questioning whether she (in the case of the Kardashian sisters, they) ever graduated elementary school – is merely the culmination of her foolishly intrepid peek, via language’s inherent limitations, into the human experience, how in the world does the humble audio book narrator psych herself up to decode 100,000 abstractions for their listener?
I’d argue: by committing herself, audaciously - not to the words, but what oscillates hotly beneath them, begging her to be taken. Or, As If  her professional life depended on her audacious commitment to subtext.
As a performer, a narrator’s As If challenge is – metaphorically – to grasp the listener’s hand, jump with him through the author’s syntax, burrow into the subtext, and emotionally connect him to the narrative’s journey.
Of course it’s imperative for the storyteller to understand the author’s intellectual intent. But remember, you can’t act intellectual understanding: from a performance perspective that’s the low hanging fruit. As a narrator, you’ll never wow the listener because you, like, really grasp the meaning or because you, like, totally understand romance or history or whatever your favorite genre happens to be.  
           As a performance mantra, As If  addresses the narrator’s fundamental acting challenge: mining the subtext. As If directs the performer to focus – not on what the words mean, but what they feel like – then to audaciously commit her performance to actualizing that feeling.
When As If dictates the performance, emotional connection between listener and narrator occurs. The outcome: organic storytelling.
Importantly, As If admonishes the narrator: Rather than importing vocal technique - whose sole purpose is to layer variety over the syntax, as if it were frosting on the cake - redirect your focus to the subtext, to your commitment to the words’ bubbling emotional core. Dig that subtext as if the life of those words depends on it. Because it does.
Referring to the fiction quotes above - both from books I recorded this year - note each one’s use of as if. I’d argue: As If  does to the narrative, what As If  does to the narrator.
         “I make it sound as if I had no choice.”  I couldn’t guess what as if contributes to the narrative, intellectually. But as if compels me to feel that something is up, emotionally: there’s more at stake than if the sentence read: “I had no choice.” 
As If - conjured with audacious abandon – is a narrator’s conscious commitment to prioritizing the narrative’s subtext. As If is a guidance mantra storytellers can point their intuitive creativity towards as they tremble their way through the impossibility of decoding the author’s words. As If is a results-oriented performance tool. (Close your eyes, Aunt Mary. Please don’t try this at home. Besides, remember your last harangue: “Subtext, shmubtext - all this subtext stuff gives me such a migraine-with my beauty-full voice, who needs it!”)
If I could, I’d request that publishers require their narrators to write As If on each book page. The suggestion: In each word there’s something at stake. So tell the story as if each word were imbued – not with meaning, but feeling - as if, when you completed the book, you’d willingly plead guilty to intent to commit emotional connection by audaciously digging into the subtext.

This past September I was privileged to conduct a workshop with LA narrators (some very experienced), most of whom record with an engineer or home alone. While working with these dedicated performers, it became apparent to me that as narrators employed ‘actable’ performance tools for the purpose of digging through the low hanging fruit (text) into the narrative’s marrow (subtext), their emotional commitment to the story soared commensurately, along with their creative satisfaction. When they discovered the subtext - relentlessly, audaciously - they empowered their storyteller’s intuition, zapped the listener with that creative energy, as if the pleasure listeners derived from their performance depended on it.

Finally, and not indirectly related to As If, a best friend of mine, whom I’ve known from our college days in South Dakota, recently visited us from that state, where he still lives. An avid audio book listener he mentioned, unsolicited: I listen to anything George Guidall reads; I lose myself in the way he tells a story.
I am aware that other narrators equally inspire that sort of listener devotion. For me, the meaningful takeaway from my friend’s remark is that it congratulates not the text, but rather, the storyteller’s devotion to the subtext. As my friend listens, he and George are connected, as if both were discovering, not the words, but what inhabits them, together.
This past month I had the pleasure of working with narrators Thérèse Plummer and Barbara Caruso.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Dialogue, Part II: Talking Points

         Assume that the following dialogue appeared in two books, identically titled: The Narrator’s Nightmare. The only difference between the books: one is fiction, the other non-fiction. Imagine narrating first as if from the novel, and then non-fiction.
       “Oh my God,” said Jane, “I just landed my first audio book – Not My Fortune, Cookie - about a semi-retired, Chinese detective living in Boston who’s been there so long she has an accent, except when she’s speaking on the cell phone to her brother, Ling, in flawless Mandarin. Anyway, she comes out of retirement when her best friend, Elka - you guessed it, from Sweden - calls from her new home in Yankton, South Dakota. There’s like, five major male suspects, and, I dunno, maybe four female. And, like, they’re all the same age, and work at the same hog farm. I mean, how am I supposed to distinguish these people? And then, this one suspect bolts, drives cross country, and - I can’t do this – there are these other characters: from west Texas, the south side of Chicago, north Baltimore, East Jesus, Arkansas, a Pakistani midget, a Russian tour group speaking real Russian, an Israeli rabbi barking dovining instructions to Long Island Jews, and a French geriatric nurse who mimics the home’s residents back in Boston. And, at the end, when the detective discovers the real crook – an unemployed Albanian clown – the other characters have a big reunion back in Yankton! And they all talk to each other fast and slurry, because Ling – who’s in for the reunion - spiked the fruit punch! Oh, and it’s virtually all dialogue.”
Embedded in Jane’s monologue (I’m sure many narrators can relate) are multiple dialogue related questions and challenges. First among them: Should Jane’s ‘fiction’ dialogue be performed differently when it appears in the ‘non-fiction’ narrative?
My short answer to this question is, yes! Fiction dialogue should be approached differently than non-fiction. Why? Because there is a fundamental difference between the performance-demand fiction and non-fiction place on the narrator. Therefore, the performance-approach to each form must differ, fundamentally.
After briefly explaining this notion, I’ll suggest some of the specific dialogue challenges I’ve encountered with narrators and my ‘how-to’ remedies for them.
         For the narrator, what singularly distinguishes narrative fiction from non-fiction is: point of view. Characters who speak in narrative fiction speak literally for themselves. They are, the moment they speak, the three dimensional star of their own show; they have an inner life; they are sentient.
Non-fiction characters are spoken for by the author. That is, non-fiction characters aren’t really real. They have no inner life, no soul. They exist to further the author’s intellectual purpose. Non-fiction characters speak on behalf of the author. 
When a non-fiction author, writing about the Civil War, quotes General Lee, he is saying to his audience, albeit enthusiastically, ‘Hey, check out what Lee said; understand this quote's salience.’ His intent, by way of his own enthusiasm for this story, is to emotionally connect the listener to his intellectual purpose, not to the actor’s rendition of Lee.


For me, authentically recreating non-fiction dialogue means the narrator speaks ‘as if’ she were the author because from the listener’s perspective, she is.
Remembering that the text reveals all, the non-fiction narrator’s primary performance obligation is to determine the author’s feeling about her subject, her overall emotional state. That is, does the book’s syntax reflect happy, sad, glib, prosaic, intellectual, wistful, sublime, etc.?
Having determined how the author feels (yes, the author’s words must embody her passion, her conviction, or why would this book have been written) the narrator affects a persona, intimately, that embodies the author’s feeling, then grasps the listener’s imagination as if she were the author.
When talent have difficulty replicating the author’s feeling, I often suggest they imagine this author (again, depending on the syntax) as a teacher, a company CEO, or some other authority figure – ‘authority’ is a common denominator for all non-fiction authors – and pretend they are speaking enthusiastically to a small class or group.
Adopting the appropriate performance persona is the key to unlocking non-fiction’s fundamental performance challenge: recreating the author’s emotional state. Once that’s known, all dialogue is spoken as if by the author, as opposed to the particular character or figure. So, when the narrator - imaging the author as, say, enthusiastic university professor – quotes General Lee, as if to her graduate students, as if she’s about to impart the meaning of the war, it is not Lee speaking but rather the author speaking for him.
Is it ever acceptable to imbue non-fiction’s characters with an identifiable voice? No. Never. Does that mean the dialogue should be flat, read unemotionally? Of course not. When the author’s enthusiasm for this amazing story – as opposed to showing off her southern accent – is exercised, the characters honor the text, vibrantly.
Finally, for talent who just can’t control the impulse to tweak Chairman Mao as he quotes the Little Red Book, it’s instructive to remember that your impulse opposes the author’s purpose: to assert an intellectually compelling proposition. Your Chinese accent, authentic as it may be, merely redirects the listener to your performance. At that point the storyteller has upstaged, rather than enhanced, the narrative. The stage belongs to the intellectual purpose, not characterization. And it’s worth remembering that the consumer hasn’t purchased Mao’s China to assess the narrator’s accent.


How to play the opposite sex? How to distinguish same-sex characters when they are assigned no distinguishing features? How to yell when you can’t yell? Cry when you can’t cry? (Or can you?). How to create a Japanese accent without it sounding like Saturday Night Live? Or a German accent when you haven’t a clue? And that dreaded Boston accent? Do they all sound like JFK?
For me, dialogue challenges (along with all performance related issues) are best addressed by combining useful performance rubrics with acquisition of concrete, result oriented vocal techniques that quickly assist in creating organic dialogue choices:
First: Stay connected! The listener’s willing suspension of disbelief is the narrator’s priority. A vocal choice - for a particular line or even word - that emotionally disconnects listeners from the narrative means the storyteller has failed to engage his audience.
Second: All dialogue – naturalistic, sci-fi, fantasy, whether or not the syntax appears comprehensible – is real. Dialogue is grounded in the character’s reality. Language emerges from inside the character. Speech (including non-verbal sounds) expresses a character’s given feeling at a given moment in time. Therefore, all dialogue is real.
Third: Act the subtext. To be sure some dialogue appears so over-the-top, melodramatic or nonsensical, one can only gasp, who wrote this? But the performance-truth must be that all characters are carbon based. All humans have an inner life. No matter how silly that life may appear to the narrator, it’s important to the character. That inner life is where the ‘eggs’ are, where the subtext resides. The more vocal tools a narrator possesses to discover the subtext, the closer she comes to speaking authentically.
Fourth: There is no bad dialogue, only speaking it badly. A final admonishment before discussing dialogue technique: So-called technique – that is, vocal choices imposed by the narrator to affect a given line – only achieves its purpose when the listener is aesthetically tricked into believing that the line’s emotional revelation has occurred ‘organically.’ That is exactly why modulation – or any vocal technique – that’s imposed merely to create vocal variety sounds phony or not quite right to the listener, bores him or simply has no emotional resonance. Humans are connected to emotion, not variety.
The Rest:
         General Drama Axiom: Less volume = more emotional connection. Less is more, almost always. Axiomatically, the more at emotionally, the less volume is needed to voice it. Why? I don’t know the psychology, but I would argue that when I stage whisper, “I will kill you,” I intimately connect the listener to my psyche, invite her in, to feel what I feel. Too much voice and I risk ‘indicating’ my feeling and disconnecting emotionally from the listener.
When in doubt, less voice is more, particularly in drama.
General Comedy Axiom: Bigger is better: More volume, more presentation, more ‘indicating.’
Why?” said Sadie.
Oy! Why not, bubela!” said Moishe.
Comedy is an intellectual experience, not an emotional one. We laugh at what we know (or reference), not what we feel. Understanding a reference can make us laugh. Empathy can make us cry. Never the reverse.
         Speaking-Real Tools
How does one believably say, “Next time Sarah, you won’t have your soldier boy to save you, so remember, I’m watching, Sarah, I’m watching." It ain’t easy because this dialogue screams phony-melo-drama-no-one-talks-this-way-except-authors-who-can’t-write-dialogue!
The narrator’s response to this – and all dialogue, really – must be to ferret out the subtext, to discover the character’s inner life, to assert the right tone. The ferreting tools: pace; pause; volume. Each tool is activated by what I’ve put in quotes and believe is an ‘actable’ direction:
Pace: “Don’t let the words come out quickly; hold back, hold back.” This simple, physical response – literally disallowing the words to simply stream out of the mouth - permits the actor time to intuit feeling, to connect to the character, rather than merely rattle off words or affect a pace disconnected from an inner reality.
Pause: “Remember, you have no idea what you’re going to say next.” Metaphorically, the subtext lives between the words, among or beneath them. When the actor literally pauses, as if to ‘work at discovering’ what she wants to say next, she intuitively stops – if for only a fraction of a second – to connect to the character’s inner world, to what propels the character to speak those words.
Volume: Drama: “Less voice, more stage whisper, less, no, even less.” As I mentioned earlier, less voice, particularly stage whisper, creates intimacy, is an emotional connector and heightens the stakes. Comedy: “More voice, more.” Trust that the danger is under-acting.
Voicing the Opposite Sex?
If you’re a woman, play the man, not the baritone. If you’re a man, remember, women have feelings all their own.
Yes, a woman can literally lower her voice a bit, a man can affect a slightly breathier quality, but at the risk of stereotyping, the actor’s preferred choice could be to play the traits that distinguish the opposite sex. My choice – especially when there are multiple opposite-sex characters that seem to sound alike – is to focus the talent on finding a distinguishing male or female cadence, tone, or overall attitude as well as changing the voice.
Play the intent, not the accent. And if you even think you can’t imitate a believable German accent, you’re right. Don’t go there. (Unless you’re Aunt Mary, who, after viewing one of the Republican debates, suggested to me that, like global warming, accents are a figment of our imagination).
For the accent challenged there’s more than one way to sound ‘foreign.’ For example, slightly formalizing your English might be enough to suffice as an Asian accent. Finding a particular vowel sound that replicates a geographical region may be enough to keep the listener in willing suspension of disbelief.
It’s worth considering that nothing disrupts a compelling story when a listener thinks, ‘She’s supposed to be from Ireland, not New Jersey.’

         Dialogue’s revelation is feeling, not information. What the words signify, what they mean, is the author’s responsibility. Besides, it’s impossible to ‘act’ meaning. What’s actable is the character’s feeling about whatever he’s speaking of, or shouting, crying or laughing about. Feeling is where the dialogue’s emotional form emerges from.
I sometimes encounter actors who fret about getting the line’s point across: Am I communicating the character’s thoughts? Fair concerns, yes. But really, any given line’s salient concern must be: Am I communicating the character’s feelings?


Recent recordings: Caitlin Davies – a former NY narrator’s workshop participant. I’ll be in LA Sept.17&18 to conduct a workshop with west coast narrators.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Dialogue, Part I: “Inside” the Quotation Marks, and Outside


    The performance background of most narrators includes theatre, perhaps film and television as well. Experience has trained them to reflexively adjust to these mediums’ particular performance demands (on stage they project; television and film require vocal choices be mediated by a myriad of external factors, such as location, etc.). It should follow that audio book narrators approach narrative fiction and non-fiction dialogue according to this medium’s unique demands - that is, differently than they would in a play or a film. In my experience what should follow sometimes doesn’t. Why? Perhaps because this medium’s demands aren’t fully recognized or appreciated.
    Two essential elements  - unique to audio book narration – not only impact dialogue choices but cause us to redefine ‘dialogue’ as well: the booth; and the narrative outside the quotation marks. Honoring these utterly unique elements permits the narrator the possibility of realizing his full storytelling potential. Ignore or defy them and, from my perspective, storytelling is an impossibility.
    For the purposes of this entry, let me try and unpack these critical elements by focusing on a slice of narrative fiction (more on non-fiction in Part II):

    Holly leaned into Ed. She studied his wavering smile. As if Holly could see them, she assessed his inner fears, where she knew Ed lived and where Holly had to reside if Ed were to…cooperate. That is, if he were to die accordingly: his way, he’ll believe - but in truth, hers. Ed did not fail to disappoint Holly.
    “Out,” bellowed Ed. “Or I will kill you.”
    “Kill me, then.” Holly smirked.
    “I swear it!” he cursed.
    Ed’s fingers gripped Holly’s throat. He began to shiver.
    Holly grimaced; her eyes bulged; she gasped, quick hiccup-like pleas for air. What she wanted, needed, begged silently for from Ed, this second, was for his fingers to squeeze harder.

    Literary merit way aside, an audio book’s fundamental performance demands dictate how the narrator must approach the above narrative’s dialogue within and outside the quotes.


     Audio books come to the listener via an intimate medium: the booth. Therefore, if the listener is to maintain her willing suspension-of-disbelief, the dialogue must be spoken intimately.
(For the moment, let me leave the practical ‘how-to’ challenge of speaking intimately - even when the character is like totally, raging pissed - for Part II.)
    Audio book narration is inherently intimate because the ‘booth’ - along with its microphone and other technical accoutrements – requires the storyteller to speak as if to one person and, therefore, express emotional choices intimately.
    In-the-booth (as opposed to on-stage or in-front-of-the-auditorium) is an intimate experience. The booth is solitary; silent: its sole purpose is to extinguish outside noise and assert a one-on-one relationship between narrator and listener.
    The ‘booth’ - where the narrator physically tells his story – compels him, regardless of a given line’s emotional import, to remember: hey, I better find a way to express myself that is respectful of its demand (intimacy). I must narrate intimately – less volume, less voice.
    When the narrator respects the booth’s intimacy she is, ironically, liberated to turbo charge her dialogue, to act her brains out. Additionally, she maintains her intimate contract with the listener – that vital connection that, once broken, compromises the listener’s willing suspension of disbelief.
    A book’s dialogue - as in a play or film – may require a whisper, violent screaming fit, and every vocalized decibel in between. Technically, lots can be done to permit the actor myriad decibel choices. Still, while the dialogue may instruct one way, the medium admonishes another. That is, the character’s line may end with, “he said loudly,” but the medium mediates ‘loudly’ by insisting that too much volume interrupts – even kills – intimacy. You can speak ‘loudly,’ but it must be done so, intimately, without volume.
    To achieve ‘loudly’ intimately (again, more on ‘how to’ in Part II), I’ll often admonish the narrator: Too presentational, too big. Less volume, more stage whisper. Okay, now – so long as you stay ‘down there,’ meaning intimately loud  – you can scream, yell, super-energize the line, give it all you got, blow your guts out.
    I often suggest to narrators: presentational acting defies the booth and disconnects the listener. For me, presentational means speaking as if to a crowd, as if the booth is a stage or a large set, as if in front of a throng, as if there’s a back row. Presentational doesn’t inherently diminish emotional import; it merely makes that emotional choice inaccessible when coming from a booth. In another venue – a stage, for example – the collective in attendance appreciate and respond to the presentational actor who kindly invites everyone to participate in that experience. But coming from the booth, presentation is overkill. What it kills, specifically, is the booth’s intimate nature.


    It is fair to assert, from a performer’s perspective, that the narrative is, in effect, all dialogue. The storyteller who treats the narrative outside the quotation marks, as if it exists within them, honors what is fundamental to both fiction and non-fiction: point-of view.
    Said differently, if it’s not a particular character speaking it’s the story’s narrator (or literally, the author). To be sure, some portions of the narrative outside the quotes act more like dialogue than others (look carefully at our fiction example) and therefore should be regarded more like dialogue.
    It’s important to remember that for the author, words on a page don’t exist as if they had no purpose (just like we humans). Because the narrative, by definition, expresses ‘point-of-view,’ (whether it’s a laundry list, accounting of a grizzly murder, or description of a sunset), the narrator must embody the point of view of whom or what he is speaking about – almost as if that person, place or thing is speaking.
    Should the entire narrative sound like dialogue? No. Dialogue inside the quotes is the character actually speaking. Outside the quotes must feel ‘as though’ the character (or place or thing being described) were speaking. Inside the quotes is the character feeling; outside embodies the character’s feeling.
    The easiest, if not the most rigorous, way for me to discriminate between dialogue within and outside the quotation marks is by example.
    Can you tolerate this slice again?

    Holly leaned into Ed. She studied his wavering smile. As if Holly could see them, she assessed his inner fears, where she knew Ed lived and where Holly had to reside if Ed were to…cooperate. That is, if he were to die accordingly: his way, he’ll believe - but in truth, hers. Ed did not fail to disappoint Holly.
    “Out,” bellowed Ed. “Or I will kill you.”
    “Kill me, then.” Holly smirked.
    “I swear it!” he cursed.
    Ed’s fingers gripped Holly’s throat. He began to shiver.
    Holly grimaced; her eyes bulged; she gasped, quick hiccup-like pleas for air. What she wanted, needed, begged silently for from Ed, this second, was for his fingers to squeeze harder.

    Read the following line merely as outside-the-quotes narrative (Yes, you try, too, Aunt Mary. I can’t wait to hear the mp3): What she wanted, needed, begged silently for from Ed, this second, was for his fingers to squeeze harder.
    Now, read a second time, as if there were quotation marks, as though cadence, tone, and volume shift matter to embody Holly’s pov, as though you are Holly: “What she wanted, needed, begged silently for from Ed, this second, was for his fingers to squeeze harder.”
    When the storyteller recalls that all the narrative’s dialogue must respect the medium’s ‘intimacy’ demand and that point-of-view, the narrative’s heart and soul, appears not only inside the quotes but outside as well, only then can the author’s intent erupt, be fully realized by the narrator and inhabited by the listener.

Next: Performing the Dialogue, Part II: How To Talk Real in Fiction and Non-Fiction, Even If the Author Can’t


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fear and Scolding: Why Narrators Buck the Text

         If it's fair to argue that the text is, in effect, the narrator’s most instructive guide, his co-director, what is it that nevertheless propels some storytellers to go it alone, as if they, not the narrative, should mediate their performance? That is, if narrators should be relying on the text for performance clues, what must they be thinking when they substitute the text’s performance instruction with their own?
          My short answer, which I’ll attempt to unpack, is that when the narrator replaces the text’s performance demand with her own, she isn’t thinking. She isn’t engaging the narrative; she isn’t immersed in its subtext. She is not hearing the narrative’s emotional calling. Instead she is bucking the text, misguiding herself, predicating her performance on fear or scolding, most likely, on both. She is not serving the narrative.   
         My experience suggests that too often these twin hellions - who, like inseparable, fire-breathing Lucifers - materialize from within the syntax, plant their devilishness on the narrator’s shoulder and spin their whispered heresy: Pssst!The narrative isn’t your friend. Beware the sub-text!  Besides, why interpret the text when you can declaim it your way, magnificently. All those acting classes, your voice – oohhh, so stylish, commanding. C’mon,  becoming you is soooo much more rewarding than becoming the story. Ha, ha, ha ha, ha ha, ha. 
         When fear and scolding appear, they deprive the narrative of the storyteller's consummate effort.
         So, what exactly are some narrators - even experienced ones - afraid of? What scolding-reflex propels them to prioritize themselves, rather than the text, as the primary performance-source for their approach to the story? 
         The narrator opens his new book. He begins reading. Lucifers materialize:
         Fear: So, you’re going to immerse yourself in the narrative’s emotional convulsions? The subtext? The white-space dyspepsia between each sentence? Righhht!  You know what’s imbedded in that narrative? Emotional choices you might have to chance in order to faithfully honor the author’s words. I don’t think you can do it, pilgrim!
         Scolding: You’re an actor, certified by a BA, MFA,  awards, accolades, blessed by instinct (meaning you got it), hundreds of hours studying with the best. You’ve learned how to interpret, you know how to modulate the voice - how loud, how soft – how to conjure vocal magic. Damn tootin’ you’re gonna take charge of the narrative, constrain the author’s voice by implanting these tried-and-true vocal skills into the text like my white-hot poker.  For God’s sake – sorry about the blasphemy – put those vocal skills to work, tout suite, and let’s see if the text can keep pace.

         In the final analysis, I hope it's fair to conclude that if a narrator believes he may impose his ‘timbre’ on the narrative, or that he may overlook the sub-text imbedded in the beats that vibrate between sentences, simply skimming by them, as though they were non-existent, or that, when in doubt, he can always rely on modulation because, obviously, modulation means variety, then the narrator has said: I prefer me to the narrative. Whether it's fear, scolding, or both, the narrative suffers.
         Though some actors may fairly be accused of egocentricity, it’s also important to remember that actors may also be far more passionate, more devoted than the rest of us to foregoing their story for the sake of someone else’s - in the case of audio book narrators, the author’s story. What a magnificently selfless attribute, a gift that – when it’s selflessly directed towards the text – becomes a celebration of the author’s voice, rather than the narrator’s.
        I recently directed a talented, albeit inexperienced, narrator. I asked her, employing all the performance vocabulary I possessed, to dismiss those inhibiting demons. Their admonishments to narrate ‘safely’ dampened her energy, forced her to blow through beats, to ‘report it’ instead of ‘live it,’ etc. I asked her to stop worrying about the mike, her articulation, plosives or me, and to permit the story – in this case, an intense drama – to direct her responses.
        Finally, she allowed the text to speed the plough. Finally, she was reacting, not reciting.

This past month I’ve directed first-time narrator Heather Corrigan, and a former workshop participant (When She Woke), Pete Larkin (Abuse of Power), and the sublime Barbara Caruso (I Married You For Happiness). I’m looking forward to the two-day LA narrator’s workshop (Sept. 17/18), coordinated by Denise Chamberlain and conducted at one of the west coast’s preeminent audio book facilities, The Media Staff. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Simplicity Complicated: The Non-Fiction Irony

Perhaps prophetically, definitely pathetically, I recently received an updated demo from Aunt Mary – her thirty-fifth she informed me, tersely. AM’s accompanying email indicated that while she wasn’t giving up on fiction (“No way, Mr. P”) she was lowering the bar. AM was prepared to accept a non-fiction gig. “Take a listen. I dare you not to hire me!”
After thirteen seconds of Aunt Mary’s first selection - from a self-published e-book titled: Jellybean Recipes By Aficionados Who Stick To Their Gums - I clicked off her sputter-speed, troglodyte-like rendition. Preparing to delete her email I noticed the rhetorical P.S. below her name: “Am I making this author sparkle, or what!”
Aunt Mary’s self-congratulatory whimsy caused me to consider non-fiction’s ironic performance challenges.
From my producer/director portal, narrating non-fiction should be, if not a snap, less problematic than fiction. Though it possesses fewer moving parts than fiction, many narrators nevertheless have difficulty accessing non-fiction’s relatively uncomplicated performance demands. Ironically, the challenges that bedevil these narrators are largely self-induced.
I don’t know why narrating non-fiction vexes talent. My suspicion is that this genre may not be considered by narrators from a perspective that prioritizes their responsibility to the author and the needs of the listener.
Said differently, when an actor employs vocal technique as if it were the key to narrating non-fiction he finds himself speaking for the author rather than serving the narrative as if he were the author. His cure (vocal technique) kills the patient (the author).
While actors regard unpacking fiction’s narrative (including all the characters) as the key to an outstanding performance, when prepping non-fiction, they often bypass this genre’s heart and soul: the author’s point-of view. It’s as if there is none. Instead, they may incorrectly presume their vocal technique will 'tell' the author’s story.
There are, I think, at least two fundamental issues that may suggest how easy it is for narrators to complicate non-fiction with unproductive choices that serve neither the author nor the listener:
Fundamental Issue One: Non-fiction’s singular performance demand.
Fundamental Issue Two: Self-inflicted technique that at best wounds the narrative by diminishing its singularity, traumatizing its vitality, and reducing its syntax to a kind of mealy blandness. At worst, self-inflicted technique renders the author’s words emotionally pointless, as though the only reason the author slaved over this story was to have it disseminated by a disinterested reporter.
Additionally, once these issues are identified and addressed, a pathway towards more authentic storytelling evinces itself (And this is the case for all non-fiction - from how-to-be-happy to physics-for-physicists. It’s important to stress that from a performance perspective all non-fiction possesses identical DNA).
Finally, there are a couple of non-fiction-only points that are worth mentioning.
When I direct a narrator who may not be hearing non-fiction's so-called singular performance demand, I ask rhetorically: Do you think this narrative is the author’s baby? Of course you do. So, beneath every word, oscillating inside the white space separating sentences, if you listen, you can hear the author prompting enthusiastically: Everyone, wait till you hear this. Isn’t my story exciting! Can you believe I’m going to tell you about x, y and then, check this about z!
The non-fiction narrator’s job-one is: speak as if you are the author, as if you worked years so the world can go gaga over all that you proffer. Let the syntax speak for it itself; let the author’s enthusiasm for that syntax speak from within you.
Does anyone think, rhetorically speaking, there is a non-fiction author on the planet who is less excited about his baby than his fiction counterpart? No. So, why would a narrator not want to immerse herself into that author’s soul and tell it like the author would, only better, because the narrator is a professional storyteller!
Is there a preferred vocal technique that particularly suits non-fiction? My short answer is no. Longer answer: vocal technique is the wrong priority.
If a narrator considers non-fiction by first looking at what the text is giving her, she will surmise how the author feels about his subject. The author may ooze attitude or point-of-view; or he may beg for a more thoughtful approach. He will always be thrilled to tell his story.
Once the narrator determines the author’s emotional state her job is to replicate that state throughout then narrative.
Believing always that the narrator’s responsibility is connecting emotionally with the listener, imposition of vocal technique (from modulation to emphasizing words and phrases rather than the author’s feeling about those words and phrases) remakes the writer’s pride and joy into a sort of dispassionate lecture, symposium, or endless commercial devoid of heart, vitality and, most importantly, the author’s voice.
I would argue that the benefits of highlighting various words and phrases in a given non-fiction book are not meaningful unless the narrator speaks as if he were the author underlining those words and phrases.
Employing vocal technique to speak for the author is, to steal from golf’s detractors, a long talk spoiled.
There are a couple of related non-fiction issues worth mentioning: how to play various characters; and just how emotionally involved should the narrator become with the author’s point-of-view?
My short answer to these questions is: non-fiction is not the venue to demonstrate character voice acuity. Non-fiction means: No accent necessary - even when the author writes, “he said in Brooklynese.” And if “I said angrily” appears? Less is more. The narrator may effectively suggest the author’s feeling but not act it as if she was portraying a character.
I’d argue that listeners will not willingly suspend their disbelief when a non-fiction performance imitates fiction. The listener’s disconnect may have to do with her expectation: She is prepped for a story, not a performance. Additionally, non-fiction isn’t about character. Quoting French President Sarkozy in an accent (even if it is magnifique) suddenly turns our attention to Sarkozy-the-dramatized-character, and away from the story about Sarkozy that the author wants to tell us.
If narrating non-fiction is ultimately about sharing the author’s enthusiasm for his baby, then the performance fuss should properly be over encouraging the listener to say: Does this guy love his baby or what? 
So, how do you represent the author with something as mundane as: Fundamental Issue One? The answer: How would the author say it?