Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

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.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, thank you for another great post. I was thinking about this very topic this week as I stepped into the booth on a new book. I had read it beforehand (of course) and enjoyed the writing and was looking forward to bringing it to life. As I started to read I wondered if my own enthusiasm for the material was missing, that my initial read had been my personal "Wow," and now seated here before the mic, I wasn't conveying that sense of wonder. Where was the "discovery" if I'd already discovered it the week before?

    What served me well was this: forgetting the story, odd as that may sound. My prep work had been done, I knew I'd devised a good road map for the book, I'd made my notes in the margins, but if I could re-capture that same sense of reading it for the first time, if I could put myself in a state of reading it for the first time, I'd be the enthusiastic guide for the listener, not the guy who's already read this one.

    Forgetting the story came easily enough. As you say, by paying rapt attention to what was happening in the moment, I found it pretty easy to forget that I knew what was coming next, and I think it brought the "Wow" back into the read.

    Thanks again for the post.