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.


  1. Excellent tool suggestion. Tattoo forthcoming that reads "here and now".

    Thanks Paul.

  2. I thank you, Paul, here and now... and later!

  3. Very sage advice indeed. Thank you Paul. I shall add those words to the "reminder notes" up on my studio wall!

  4. Beautifully articulated - and why I've always justified writing off my yoga and meditation classes on my taxes - if I'm not fully present, what's the point?

  5. This post would be much more informative with actual audio excepts as example. Why not include small segments of both inept and excellent narration? What is the harm in embarrassing those who clutter the industry with poor performance? Is it politically incorrect or rude? I would argue they are doing serious damage to audiobooks. The business hardly needs more buffoons.

    Shouldn't excellent narration deserve the accolade of being used as an example of what is required to elevate the audiobook to a true art form?

    Anyone who has listened to more than a few dozen audiobooks already knows the difference between a reader busy gazing in the mirror and a narrator serving the story and the author.

    It's really long past time we tiptoe around the truth. As there are only a small number of gifted actors, there are a precious few truly excellent narrators. The rest couldn't get hired at a third rate AM radio station to read a weather forecast.

  6. A wonderful and appropriate reminder for all actors. I really enjoyed reading this - thanks so much for sharing, Paul.

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