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.