Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

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.


  1. Welcome to the world of blogging. Am looking forward to more.

  2. Hi, I'm Aunt Mary and I take great offense at your snide remarks about me. I will tell my friend, George Guidall, to send you hate mail.

  3. Hey Paul,

    Thanks for doing this. Much appreciated. I was thinking of you the other day during an audition session in which I was repeatedly pushed towards simply being louder. All I could think was, "How is this storytelling? The poor listener is just going to feel like somebody's yelling at them."


  4. Great advice as ever, Paul!

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how to deal with Directors that steer you in the direction of Aunt Mary.