Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fear and Scolding: Why Narrators Buck the Text

         If it's fair to argue that the text is, in effect, the narrator’s most instructive guide, his co-director, what is it that nevertheless propels some storytellers to go it alone, as if they, not the narrative, should mediate their performance? That is, if narrators should be relying on the text for performance clues, what must they be thinking when they substitute the text’s performance instruction with their own?
          My short answer, which I’ll attempt to unpack, is that when the narrator replaces the text’s performance demand with her own, she isn’t thinking. She isn’t engaging the narrative; she isn’t immersed in its subtext. She is not hearing the narrative’s emotional calling. Instead she is bucking the text, misguiding herself, predicating her performance on fear or scolding, most likely, on both. She is not serving the narrative.   
         My experience suggests that too often these twin hellions - who, like inseparable, fire-breathing Lucifers - materialize from within the syntax, plant their devilishness on the narrator’s shoulder and spin their whispered heresy: Pssst!The narrative isn’t your friend. Beware the sub-text!  Besides, why interpret the text when you can declaim it your way, magnificently. All those acting classes, your voice – oohhh, so stylish, commanding. C’mon,  becoming you is soooo much more rewarding than becoming the story. Ha, ha, ha ha, ha ha, ha. 
         When fear and scolding appear, they deprive the narrative of the storyteller's consummate effort.
         So, what exactly are some narrators - even experienced ones - afraid of? What scolding-reflex propels them to prioritize themselves, rather than the text, as the primary performance-source for their approach to the story? 
         The narrator opens his new book. He begins reading. Lucifers materialize:
         Fear: So, you’re going to immerse yourself in the narrative’s emotional convulsions? The subtext? The white-space dyspepsia between each sentence? Righhht!  You know what’s imbedded in that narrative? Emotional choices you might have to chance in order to faithfully honor the author’s words. I don’t think you can do it, pilgrim!
         Scolding: You’re an actor, certified by a BA, MFA,  awards, accolades, blessed by instinct (meaning you got it), hundreds of hours studying with the best. You’ve learned how to interpret, you know how to modulate the voice - how loud, how soft – how to conjure vocal magic. Damn tootin’ you’re gonna take charge of the narrative, constrain the author’s voice by implanting these tried-and-true vocal skills into the text like my white-hot poker.  For God’s sake – sorry about the blasphemy – put those vocal skills to work, tout suite, and let’s see if the text can keep pace.

         In the final analysis, I hope it's fair to conclude that if a narrator believes he may impose his ‘timbre’ on the narrative, or that he may overlook the sub-text imbedded in the beats that vibrate between sentences, simply skimming by them, as though they were non-existent, or that, when in doubt, he can always rely on modulation because, obviously, modulation means variety, then the narrator has said: I prefer me to the narrative. Whether it's fear, scolding, or both, the narrative suffers.
         Though some actors may fairly be accused of egocentricity, it’s also important to remember that actors may also be far more passionate, more devoted than the rest of us to foregoing their story for the sake of someone else’s - in the case of audio book narrators, the author’s story. What a magnificently selfless attribute, a gift that – when it’s selflessly directed towards the text – becomes a celebration of the author’s voice, rather than the narrator’s.
        I recently directed a talented, albeit inexperienced, narrator. I asked her, employing all the performance vocabulary I possessed, to dismiss those inhibiting demons. Their admonishments to narrate ‘safely’ dampened her energy, forced her to blow through beats, to ‘report it’ instead of ‘live it,’ etc. I asked her to stop worrying about the mike, her articulation, plosives or me, and to permit the story – in this case, an intense drama – to direct her responses.
        Finally, she allowed the text to speed the plough. Finally, she was reacting, not reciting.

This past month I’ve directed first-time narrator Heather Corrigan, and a former workshop participant (When She Woke), Pete Larkin (Abuse of Power), and the sublime Barbara Caruso (I Married You For Happiness). I’m looking forward to the two-day LA narrator’s workshop (Sept. 17/18), coordinated by Denise Chamberlain and conducted at one of the west coast’s preeminent audio book facilities, The Media Staff. 


  1. You've hit the battle nail on the head again. In some ways it's almost a Buddhist approach -- getting out of one's own way to let what is "real" shine through.

    Just registered for your workshop Paul. It will be good to see you again after all these years away from NYC, the Sun Group, and Full House.

    Perry (Norton)

  2. "What a magnificently selfless attribute, a gift that – when it’s selflessly directed towards the text – becomes a celebration of the author’s voice, rather than the narrator’s."

    WOW. That's such a powerful truth. It may describe what I love most about audiobook narration. Thanks for another thought provoking, very relevant article.

    John McLain

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