Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Aunt Mary Modulates

      Aunt Mary resides inside every narrator I’ve ever worked with (though the good ones keep her at bay). She is the anti-storyteller. She is the sum total of every vocal affectation, whose outcome (unintended, to be sure) emotionally disconnects the narrator from the listener. Aunt Mary seeks to ‘sell’ the author’s story, rather than ‘inhabit’ it. She ‘reports’ a character’s feeling rather than lives it in the moment.
Aunt Mary ‘phones it in.’ 
Aunt Mary is a listener’s worst nightmare. Consumers can’t always identify or articulate Aunt Mary’s various flaws. But they result in the same consequence: disconnecting them emotionally from the author’s voice.
Aunt Mary, at least for this blog, is merely a euphemism for the sum-total of every vocal technique that reduces storytelling to reading. And from my perspective, if all that’s required of talent is reading, why not simply have non-professionals narrate audio books? Or better yet, get Aunt Mary! Believe me, she’s available. In droves. I know.
Assuming that consumers would prefer storytelling to reading, I’d like to spend some time ‘un-constructing’ Aunt Mary with the hope of seeing if what we discover makes sense to talent and consumers alike.
Modulating Mary is the worst of my worst narrator-nightmares.
During the audio book narration workshops that I conduct for professional talent, I spend more time coaching actors out of modulation (what I call ‘singing’) than any other issue. Let me try to explain modulation (it’s a nasty, multi-headed hydra) then suggest why I think it’s so difficult for some actors to divest themselves of this anti-storytelling habit.
Simply stated, vocal modulation is an actor’s attempt to literally alter their pace, volume, rhythm and emphasis in order to make the story more interesting. You can’t read in a monotone, right. So, you find words or phrases that beg for emphasis. Can’t read at the same pace or volume, right. So, you alter those things to create a more dynamic performance.
The problem with modulation is that it insists that emotional connection doesn’t matter. It’s an emotion-killer. Axiomatically, the more an actor modulates her voice, the less connected, the less interesting her performance.
Because modulation is a vocal technique whose only purpose is to represent emotion that we may understand but never feel. Meaning, instead of the actor ‘organically’ reacting to the author’s text, he feigns emotion by ‘reporting’ it rather than ‘living’ it.
For example, when a newscaster tells us that numerous civilians in Libya have been killed, why exactly don’t we fall on the floor in front of our TV and start wailing? How can we listen nightly to what’s occurring in Japan without crying? The newscaster's job is to 'report' feeling, not to assist us in 'living' it.
When an actor is hired to ‘voice’ a radio or TV commercial, who (from the client’s point of view) is the main character? Their product. Not the talent. Voice-over actors properly employ vocal modulation to ‘sell’ products, not reveal themselves. Modulation works because it helps the actor create interest in the product and tells the listener that whatever ‘feeling’ may be embedded in the copy, it’s not something they’re going to emotionally attach to the voice-over talent.
Though it may seem very counter-intuitive, modulation’s purpose is to disconnect the listener emotionally, so they can focus on the information and NOT the actor!
Audio book narration (or storytelling) is opposite in almost every way from voice-over announcing. But because storytelling is a counter-intuitive experience, it’s hard sometimes to get voice-over talent to believe that.
The audio book narrator IS the star of the show (the author’s book). Yes, the narrator must be faithful to the author’s intent, but the storyteller’s job-one is to emotionally connect the story they are telling to the person who is listening. To be connected to the story you must be connected to the storyteller. In order to connect, organic (or ‘lived’) technique must be summoned.
What are some of those techniques? More on that next time.
Ironically, from my perspective, as the actor ‘intimately lives the story,’ with less voice, and no modulation, they emotionally connect to the listener. They discover, particularly with drama, their capacity to be utterly compelling and affecting.
For me, the above represents the tip of the modulation iceberg. It is, as I suggested, the most disconnecting weapon in Aunt Mary’s nightmarish arsenal.
Modulation is part of every narrator’s vocal DNA. The question for narrators is, I think, can I recognize that when modulation becomes a purposefully used tool or technique to somehow create authenticity, it produces inauthenticity. It’s really just being Aunt Mary.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Talking Books? Bite your tongue!

            I begin with what I hope will be a series of thoughts on what  performance characteristics distinguish those narrators I'd refer to as storytellers from those I’d characterize as readers, or more pejoratively, as your Aunt Mary? Said differently, what qualities create a performance I’d prefer to listen to from one I’d likely turn off?
 This blog, if it’s successful, will encourage a conversation between talent, industry professionals and consumers as well. Even Aunt Mary, so long as she promises to stick to reading to her kids at night while keeping her day job.
My blog’s devotion is to discovering, and subsequently discussing, the discrete performance elements that, when blended together, create a compelling narrator. And to looking at the other side of the coin as well: What it is about that performance that can turn the best book sour?
Since 1990 I’ve directed numerous talented working actors and celebrities. My particular feelings about them – which range from fond remembrances of beguiling performances to, I wouldn’t wish sitting with this person on my worst enemy – don’t seem relevant to this blog’s intent. So I’m going to try and disabuse myself from spending significant time discussing a specific performer or offering up a top narrator list. That said, I’m looking forward to mentioning by name the narrators I think imbue their performances with qualities that distinguish them as wonderful storytellers.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve recorded several audio books and, as always, as I work with the talent I am reminded of what I believe separates the storyteller from the reader: Connection. When the listener feels emotionally connected to the narrator, that’s storytelling. When the listener is disconnected – that is, aware that someone is talking at them rather then metaphorically taking them on the author's magic carpet ride - well, that’s reading. And for me, if reading is what’s desired, why hire an actor? Why not simply hire the author’s Aunt Mary who, despite the fact that everyone tells her she has a great voice, gives somnolence new meaning.
I would argue that, axiomatically, when the narrator stays connected, the listener stay involved. End of story (so to speak). I would also argue that staying connected is easier said then done. Some actors, despite their best intentions, routinely employ techniques that I’d characterize as connection killers. Why? I don’t know. But I have witnessed those habits, and tried to persuade talent that they are antithetical to connecting with the listener. Habits, by virtue of their nature, are hard to break, often despite an actor’s best effort.
Having begun with a notion that, from my point of view, deserves additional conversation, let me pause here. Next time, I’ll introduce a term that I think suggests the first among many connection killers: modulation, or what I call singing.
Finally, I need to clearly outline what I mean when I argue that unless ‘narrator’ is properly conflated with ‘storyteller,’ then you might as well get Aunt Mary to read everything.
More on that next time.
This past couple of weeks I directed first-time narrator Phoebe Strole, who, along with Fred Berman, narrated the unabridged version of Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. I finished working with Richard Ferrone, who  narrated Eric Van Lustbader’s Blood Trust. And also finished recording with Carol Monda, who narrated a book by Sara Gran called Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.