Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Directing You in The Here and Now

 Audio book narrators are finding themselves facing a peculiar challenge, perhaps unique when measured against other performers.

It is axiomatic that most actors – including narrators – would prefer to work with a director they believe can assist them. While many talent professionals may argue the merits of their director most actors who perform in plays, film and television do, in fact, have a director. For whatever reason, I’ve not yet heard of a professional theatre company whose management has notified its actors: hey guys, we just can’t afford a director this season so, ya know, do your best, and we’re gonna have the sound designer run lines with you.

While it may be true that audio book narrators value a director, many publishers appear to have determined that directors aren’t an essential component to audio book production. Over the past five years or so there’s been an accelerated director-exodus from the control room. Increasingly, publishers are asking narrators to either work from a home studio or with an engineer at a recording studio.

The particular contribution a director makes to a narrator’s performance might be an instructive conversation. Do narrators really require a director? I don’t know. Do they prefer a director? Most narrators I know say, yes.

 So, realistically, from my point of view, the more meaningful issue for talent is, since you’re less and less likely to have a director, and are thus compelled to work alone, the more important question might be: If I believe I could use a second opinion, how do I direct myself?

 I would argue that working alone not only eliminates the possibility of discovering more dramatically interesting choices, it promotes BAHBU (Bad Acting-Habit Build-up). It allows BAHBU to grow and become embedded in every performance. To be sure, working with a director doesn’t guarantee a great performance. But recording solo does guarantee one less party to suggest, guide, react to, cheerlead, arbitrate, and otherwise collaborate with the actor for the purpose of improving the performance.

 If it’s fair to argue that directors are an endangered species, how should talent regard going it alone? My short-answer rejoinder is: create tools that will quickly double-check that you’re staying emotionally connected to the text.

 It is easy to become complacent and to rely on voice and on other vocal techniques to create a facile read, if you will - one that sounds pretty good but isn’t particularly connected to the text.

What are those tools?

I’m certain there are many. I’m sure there are lots I’ve never considered. But having worked with talent since 1990, I’ve discovered some tools that work for me and I think can work for the director-less.

 Since the narrative – whether first or third person – tends to challenge actors more than dialogue, the tool that I’d argue should be first among equals is what I’d euphemistically call the “Here And Now.”

Here and Now acts to remind the narrator that they are never – absolutely never – reporting what’s happening, they are living it. I often remind talent, let’s try that line again. And remember, you are living that line through the point of view of whom or what you are talking about.

 So, if you’re saying, ”The sky was bright blue,” you’re not reporting this information to the listener. Anyone can report. You don’t need an actor for that, just a reader. That simple description (given its narrative context, of course) comes from somewhere, emotionally. A storyteller – in opposition to a reader – emotionally connects the listener to that syntax by extrapolating its subtext (however subtle) and living it as though they just now discovered, yes, the sky was, indeed, bright blue. Or maybe, indeed, the sky was bright blue. Or maybe, the sky, indeed, was bright blue. Whatever the permutation, the feeling about this line is ‘felt’ by the narrator from the point of view of whom or what the narrator is talking about. And most importantly, right now!

The ‘feeling’ is actively represented to the listener, as if the storyteller just discovered it.
I’d suggest that home-studio narrators or those working only with an engineer periodically remind themselves that storytelling isn’t reportage. Each line, each word, each series of events is effectively happening in the Here and Now. Making a conscious note that everything is occurring this second reminds the narrator of his or her job-one: staying emotionally connected to the listener.

More tools to come.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Energy: Acting Like You're Committed

I spent an hour coaching a talented actress the other day. She came for a make-up session after missing the previous week’s workshop. She hasn’t recorded an audio book, yet. I think she possesses all the tools to be a working narrator. Upon finishing our work, I advised her to focus on what I perceived as her greatest performance challenge: energy.  I suggested that, to be a successful storyteller, you must commit yourself, by way of performance energy, 100%.  Axiomatically, the less commitment, the less interesting your performance.

So, what is ‘energy?’ Why is it so necessary? And why do narrators have difficulty engaging this commitment?

I think I can take a stab at defining ‘energy.’ I can offer an opinion about why it’s so critical to excellent storytelling.  Why narrators have trouble with this concept is inexplicable. I don’t know, and wouldn’t hazard a guess.

‘Energy’ is a term I’ve been familiar with since I was an apprentice at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, many decades ago.  Though I’ve never attempted to arrive at a particular definition, ‘energy,’ from my perspecttive, is a characterization that can be used to measure professionalism, even to suggest the difference between amateur and professional.  I think it’s fair to argue that professionals have it; amateurs don’t.

‘Energy,’ as I understand it, is an effect, not a cause.  It’s a result. ‘Energy’ is a reflection of an actor’s emotional investment, not in the author’s words but rather, in the feelings they reveal.  Great energy is achieved when an actor determines that they will be as emotionally involved in the story as the author. And I’ve never met a detached or semi-interested author.

‘Energy’ is critical because it cues the listener – even if they can’t articulate what it is that’s affecting them – that the narrator is just dying to take them along on this exhilarating journey, and can’t wait to get them to feel what the characters feel. Listeners may not know why they can’t get excited about a performer’s rendition of a story, but often, I think, it’s because the actor isn’t giving them anything to get excited about.

It sounds like common sense, yet I find that many narrators – particularly beginners and less experienced talent – seem to possess a self-imposed limiter, as if there’s an inner voice whispering to them while they narrate: “Not too much now; you don’t want to embarrass yourself; say the words like you mean them, but only like you 78% mean them?" So many times I’ve said to actors, c’mon, you can go further; overact. Trust me, you won’t be too big. I won’t let you embarrasses yourself. Okay, okay, says the narrator. But the result is virtually the same as before I began cajoling them.

One reason talent have difficulty with ‘energy’ may be technique. If it is, then there are quick fixes that can be suggested. For example, I find that many actors use too much voice in the booth. They are literally too big, too loud, too presentational. Ironically, too much volume makes it impossible for an actor to commit emotionally. It deprives them of their ability to maintain the performance energy they need for a compelling narration.

Audio book narration is an intimate medium. You can’t fight the booth. Excessive volume fights the booth. It’s anti-intimacy. Given that you can’t scream, or even talk loudly, how do you address, let’s say, an emotionally heightened scene? Narrating in a stage whisper - literally using less voice - not only creates intimacy between storyteller and listener, it allows for maximum emotional impact. Because this is an intimate experience and because the listener intuitively understands the narrator can’t shout, they will buy into you screaming, so long as it’s done intimately, that is, at the top of your stage-whispery range. The result: great energy. Unlimited emotional commitment.

For me less voice, less volume, more stage-whispery delivery, especially if the story is dramatic, as opposed to humorous, the more opportunity to commit emotionally.  Yes, the exception proves the rule, but from my vantage in the control-room, not very often.