Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hire The Text: Digging Your Director

If a passerby caught a snippet of audio book narrators confabbing over their directors, they could be forgiven for assuming the conversation was about some endangered species. It is by now axiomatic that while a qualified director’s assistance is valued by talent, this special relationship is in decline and not likely to rebound.
 Since working alone is the trend, how can a narrator – particularly when a book they’re prepping offers them vexing performance questions – compensate for either no-director-and-an-engineer or home (studio) alone?
The short answer might be: Hire the text! And given the diminishing herd of directors, the text may eventually be the only place to turn when there’s a performance-related concern.
This doable proposition may yield some very positive results, assuming the narrator knows what to look for.
Though the book’s author (and this includes non-fiction as well) never intended her story to include a director’s manual, ironically, it does. And this applies to every book, regardless of its perceived literary merit. In terms of performance, all books are the same: They are imbued with feeling and point-of-view.
Upon hiring the text to, in effect, direct you, one immediately notices some obvious emotional indicators, and perhaps some subtle, less visible ones, as well. There may be dozens of insights strewn about the text that, properly decoded, stimulate the creative process and assist the narrator in producing a compelling audio program.
Before looking at textual clues I’ve discovered since I began directing audio books, let me first assert that authors are working overtime to direct narrators. Believe me, they’ve got your back. A brief, supportive anecdote:
In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest (July/August 2011) author Adair Lara says in her instructional article, Make Your Tone Pitch-Perfect, “Often when we feel something is missing from a piece of writing, the key lies in examining the tone.” Before suggesting ways writers can make their work “resonate,” she provides her inclusive definition of tone: “…conflict, surprise, imagery, details, the words [the author] chooses and the way [the author] arranges them in sentences.”
Suffice to say, Ms. Lara is talking feeling, “wow!”, not informational blah, blah, blah.
For the narrator, the performance issue is, how do I unpack what is emotionally at stake in this narrative, because I know it’s there? 
When I observe the actor missing what the text is directing him to do, I mention it. I direct the actor to see what the text is telling you. (That’s also my truncated definition of directing).
When the narrator is working alone, how can she direct herself to see what she’s missed? If she digs the text, it will direct her.
Obviously when the author writes, “he said petulantly,” we understand what to do. But what about when there isn’t a clear emotional notation?
Whether fiction or non-fiction it’s important to remember that sub-text rules: it is beneath every single word’s skin. No exception. And sub-text is purely emotional: all feeling.
Whether a narrator is describing the character’s dress or rattling off the ingredients of a cake, these words count emotionally. From a performance point-of-view, a list is a feeling about that list; a character’s clothes represent a feeling about those clothes. Always. No exception. Sub-text – the word’s spirit - is never not present.
When the storyteller accepts that he is absolutely never emotionally uninvolved, that there’s no such thing as a spiritless word, he begins to see the syntax as an inextricably linked duel proposition: information and feeling. Can’t have one without the other.
How then does the storyteller feel a list, much less act it? How does he act the clothes a character is wearing?
The short answer (this may be worth fleshing out later) is that the narrator imbues these things with point-of-view. The list of clothes, for example, was purchased by someone, or someone chose to wear this apparel because it means something to that person, etc.
Said differently, when the narrator reels off the litany of people and things occupying a park, someone (the author or a particular character) feels something about those things. It’s the narrator’s job not only to inform the listener about the park, but also to visit its inhabitants from the author’s or character’s point-of-view. Emotionally, there’s always something at stake (see sub-text).
Syntax (word order) provides performance clues, along with the particular words. As does punctuation.
The very order of a sentence or paragraph is indicative of point-of-view. Word order, as Adair Lara alludes to, may provide numerous emotional clues, what she refers to as, tone.
For example, the text may say: “I opened my front door, stood a minute, really tired and next minute, splish splash, I’m taking a bath.”
Or it may read: “I opened my front door. Really tired! Stood a minute. And, next minute: I’m taking a bath. Splish. Splash.”
Read both sentences aloud (Aunt Mary: don’t try this at home, you won’t get it). It is fair to suggest that the alternate punctuation and word order create a different - though maybe subtle, maybe not - feeling or tone.
Finally, it is important, I think, to emphasize the text’s ‘beats,’ the white space I mentioned last post that reverberates with point-of-view, that is inhabited by the “Wow!” Between each comma, colon, semi-colon, dash and sentence, there exists not merely another thought but a point-of-view about that thought.
When a professional narrator (sorry, auntie) allows that he must, as he pre-reads the book, immerse himself in the syntax's point-of-view, react to the undulating white (beats) between punctuation, he is hiring the author to guide his performance. He’s digging his director.


This week I’ll be working with Peter Berkrot on the novel, The Accident, by Linwood Barclay.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Discovery: Conjuring the ‘Wow!’

Discovery is a marker that, for me,  distinguishes storyteller from reader, professional from Aunt Mary. Perhaps most importantly, Discovery is a vital performance tool that, when metaphorically conjured, and subsequently applied by the storyteller, emotionally connects narrator to listener and thrusts the narrative experience into the here and now.
Discovery is not actable. That is, it’s not an emotion. You can’t feel Discovery; you can’t emote it. How then does the storyteller translate Discovery into something performable, palpable? How is it conjured?
Working with talent my goal must always be to provide an ‘actable’ (thus, "louder, faster, please make it better," doesn’t cut it) pathway between a direction and performance. So, to an actor who has reported an event as though what’s being described occurred yesterday, or a feeling as though she’s inured to it, I request: conjure the ‘Wow!’
Conjuring the ‘Wow!’ insists that if the actor doesn’t address the emotional consequence embedded in what they’ve just spoken they aren’t faithfully living the subtext; they aren’t acting, merely reading the words.
(Parenthetically, in my experience, once made aware of the ‘Wow!’ actors intuitively conjure it. Non-professionals don’t possess the emotional IQ to translate ‘Wow!’ into performance. That’s one reason Aunt Mary will remain a perpetual minor-leaguer, and why, no matter how many performance workshops she takes, she’ll fail.)
What is Discovery? And how does conjuring the ‘Wow!’ invoke it?
Unpacking Discovery - that is, attempting to wrestle this nomenclature open in an effort to surmise what it might symbolize and represent – assists me, as director/teacher/coach, in understanding what makes an actor’s work compelling and finding actable vocabulary (the ‘Wow!’) to inculcate this notion into the performance.
Before dismantling Discovery let me bounce precariously on the long end of a limb and assert: Discovery locates the listener in the moment (the here and now). Conversely, lack of Discovery disconnects listeners from the narrative’s emotional import; it removes them from the experience; they’re hearing about it but not involved in it.
Discovery is the narrator’s hand gripping the listener’s, leading him intimately through a journey. No Discovery? No hand-holding, no journey, just reportage, as if to suggest the writer may be interested in what the listener thinks, but not in what she feels. Not playing Discovery is a disservice to the text. I doubt there’s an author on the planet (fiction and non-fiction) that believes there’s nothing emotionally compelling about their story, no emotional stakes, regardless of its so-called literary merit.
As a performance metaphor, Discovery electrifies an event, as if what’s happening is important precisely because it’s happening this second. Discovery as a narrative metaphor is the  nexus (a silent, impossible-to-articulate space – a ‘beat’ in acting parlance) located between the end of one moment and the beginning of another, where the unanticipated interrupts train-of-thought: Huh? Huh! Oh! Oh? Hmmm. Hmmm? Well, well. Holy mother******. Etc, etc. Or, in a word, so the actor can make intuitive sense of it: the place where ‘Wow!’ resides.
It is fair to argue that Discovery is a part of the narrative’s DNA: it is a component of the syntax’s emotional information. And since Discovery, by definition, is emotion, and since emotion is all the actor can play (Can you act green? No. Only a feeling about green) playing Discovery should be to the storyteller what devouring raw meat is to the tiger.
Discovery is, as I’ve suggested, where the storyteller meets the road and where Aunt Mary skids off into a ditch.
I often advise talent, imagine that you’re looking through a telescope with your hand on the listener’s shoulder, rattling her half silly, offering her the blow-by-blow: Oh, my God! Oh, look. Look what’s about to happen. Oh, so this is how it feels! Wow!
Below is a section from Lisa Scottoline’s novel, Think Twice.

Bennie tried to remember.  Had she heard that?  Had Alice said that?  What the hell?  Where was she?  The only sound was her own breathing.  She raised her arms, cautiously, and hit the thing on top of her.  She felt along its surface with her fingertips.  It was solid.  Coarse.  She pressed but it didn’t move.  She knocked it and heard a rap, like wood.  It felt like a top.
A lid
She didn’t get it.  She couldn’t process it.  Her arms were at an angle.  The wood was less than a foot from her face.  She flattened her arms against her sides.  There was another surface under her fingertips, behind her.  She spread her arms, running them along the surface behind her.  More wood?  She shifted her weight down, shimmying on her back.  Her toes hit something.  Her feet were bare, her shoes gone.  She pointed her toes against whatever she had reached.  It seemed like a bottom. 
It’s a box.  Am I in a box?

 If I report the narrative, one sentence follows the other, as if the space between sentences is fallow. But, if I conjure what pulsates between each sentence  – whether it’s a millisecond or a so-called long moment –  “Wow!” Hands are held, as storyteller and listener journey through the here and now.
This past week I directed Caitlin Davies (whom I met in one of my narrator’s workshops) in the latest House of Night installment and James Clamp, who narrated the Dragonology Chronicles.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Aunt Mary’s Marketing Miasma: The Schmooze Blues

An atypical email arrived from Aunt Mary yesterday. Oddly, Mary’s missive avoided her usual self-serving importuning (“C’mon, reading is reading, voice-over is voice-over,” she tersely insists at the close of every email, signing off with: so how many times does she have to mp3 her nobody-does-it-better “Buy one, Get One Free” before she’s awarded a job, for God’s sake?). Replete with, for her, a kind of self-effacing, albeit hyperbolic, desperation, her concerns resonated with me.
“You see,” she wrote, “I registered for this APAC [Audio Publishers Association Conference] thing, and, like, my just, really, super-traumatic angst, Paul, just flew out of me – heweeee – if you know what I mean, when I thought, Oh…My…God, am I really going to sell myself to all those publishers, producers, directors who I know don’t care about me, do they? Do they?”
Mary’s email spun from desperation to resolution: “Dammit, Paul, I’ve avoided those mixers, too, like the plague. Well, dammit again, I’m going to the next APA mixer. I’m going to glom on to anyone - male, female, whatever - who can jump-start my narration career. Or bust, Paul.”
After outlining her marketing game-plan (it didn’t seem transferable to the majority of talent I know), Mary concluded with several questions that persuaded me she might, perhaps might, find commonality with a number of narrators (many experienced) I do know and whose talents I admire: “Paul,” she said, “I’m just so unbelievably not-even-passably good at selling myself! Here’s my quicksand pit, IN A NUTSHELL [CAPS Mary’s]: You won’t hire me. Unfair! But fair enough! So please, can I humbaly (sic) ask, how do I develop the chutzpah to market myself? And, do I really even have to? Is schmoozing me a waste? Oh the thought of approaching those publishers and  producers – though some are yummy, like totally  **** - just makes me, ya know, a basket case. Help.”
Responding at length to Aunt Mary would unfairly encourage a relationship, so I passed. But many narrators I’ve spoken to share her marketing-me quandary.
Though I have no marketing/sales advice – these aren’t my specialties - like talent, I’ve always been self-employed, so selling me is a permanent option. Like Mary, I’ve experienced the clenched-fist that erupts inside my stomach each time I’m on the verge of soliciting a potential employer. I’ve questioned, as well, not only the need to sell me, but the nature of that need. This said, I am a producer/director and I am routinely approached by beginners as well as experienced narrators. I have hired talent who’ve solicited me (as well as talent I’ve met through auditions, sought out, came by through referral, etc.).  So I can speak as one who has, on numerous occasions, been approached (sometimes tracked down).
While I know as much or little about sales as the next freelancer, I do feel comfortable, as a layperson, trying to unpack two ‘marketing-me’ issues that seem to bedevil many narrators I’ve spoken with: defining what a potential employer values in a narrator; and wrestling with the question, why market publishers, directors, producers anyway?
What do I value in a narrator? What do I hope to hear from someone soliciting me for employment? I’ll bet the same things (though the order of importance may differ, even significantly) as most publishers, producers and directors.
 My concerns (in order of my priorities) would be addressed by the following: I’m a storyteller (Yeah, I do great characters, but I “get” the narrative); I’m a facile narrator; I’m a prepared narrator (having read the book I’ve got my pronunciation questions and come in with performance choices); I’m not a lazy narrator (when I hear a mistake I’ll go back, fix it, without waiting to get caught); I’m a cooperative narrator (my focus is on collaborating, creating the best possible performance, not kvetching, or devoting time to my interests that might not be yours, period); I can direct myself (even with a director, I’m able to intuit what might not work and redo it, without having to be told); Yes, I can do anything but here’s what genre I should be hired for, right now (said differently, I know that what may personally appeal to me has zero to do with what I’m most suited to narrate); Yes, I’ll listen to a demo (mp3, please); Yes, keep in touch from time-to-time (email is my preference).
When narrators I speak with express reticence about marketing themselves I wonder: what’s causing the conflict? Of course I don’t know. A multiplicity of psychological issues? Probably. The nagging feeling that, well, I should market myself, but then, why should I? Again, I don’t know.  I would argue that a way of addressing this quandary could be: Market yourself if you even think you should; don’t if you’re sure you shouldn’t.
I have never recoiled at a narrator who approached me to be considered for employment. If marketing’s salience could be construed to mean “meeting a need,” then at least to me, marketing makes sense conceptually. I don’t whisper to a colleague, oy, look at that dork marketing himself!
Of course, it’s all in the execution. Nevertheless, reducing an activity to a simple rubric may transform an abstraction fraught with layers of anxious projections (marketing) into a less threatening call-to-action (meeting a need, as in: I need a job). Once reduced, I can then relocate the import of this experience from, I’m either rejected or accepted, to measuring it against my perceived self-interest (that is, what’s in it for me?)
I like to think that, when approached by talent, when it’s all said and done, I’m hearing: Hey, Paul, I’m meeting a need for me. I don’t have to worry about what you’re thinking. As long as I believe I’m doing what’s in my self-interest, I’ll market me.
Marketing, as I see it, doesn’t have many moving parts, in terms of need or value. In my single-sentence reply to Aunt Mary I suggested she read this blog. And, if I see her at APAC -remembering I am, after all, a potential employer – I will be okay with Aunt Mary’s solicitations (up to a point) as I’ll assume, rightly, she’s merely operating according to what’s in Aunt Mary’s self-interest.

This past month I had the privilege to work with a number of talented narrators, including Jenna Lamia, Dan Lauria and Emily Bauer. I’ll be conducting a workshop in Chicago on June 28th. My next narrator’s workshop begins May 17th.  I’ll be participating in the narrator track at this year’s APAC.