Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Narrator’s Quick Fix Cheat Sheet. Part 2: Co-Director Interview with The Text

In order to satisfy the increasing consumer demand for audio books, audio publishers have accelerated their search for more competent narrators. This trend may explain why, as a producer/director, I’ve received a rising number of narration demos the past few years as well.

For me, the quality of performance isn’t keeping pace with the increased solicitations. Sometimes, after briefly listening to a voice-overish demo, I’ll think: Hmmm, not in the ballpark. And I’ll wonder: Who directed this narrator? The lingering impression is that no one did. Though I’m mindful of the fact that many experienced and aspiring narrators, especially those residing outside New York and LA, may have little or no access to credible supervision, I also wonder: Why haven’t these narrators collaborated with the two directors that are always with them? Are they even aware of their presence? If not, would an introduction be beneficial?

Introducing: The Text

Speaking from within my aesthetic location – storytelling – I’d argue that even without a traditional director, narrators can and must – if the intent is to emotionally connect the listener to the narrative – employ the two directors to whom they are inextricably linked: The Text and You (the narrator).

This post will focus on The Text. I’d planned to unpack the narrative’s directorial function myself, but on a whim I thought, why not query the source. So, I channeled The Text and to my surprise received an immediate reply. The Text happened to be recovering from EDS (Editorial Deletion Surgery). The author was on break, but the patient was conscious, albeit woozy from word loss. The Text explained it would soon be consumed with rewrites, so I figured best to jump on this opportunity in case of additional surgery, or worse, contract termination.

And now, direct and in writing, my interview with: The Text.

PAUL: Welcome. How are you feeling?
THE TEXT: Long winded.
PAUL: Still?
THE TEXT: I’m afraid I’m in for additional red penning.
PAUL: Hurts, huh.
THE TEXT: Ah, well, the pain caused by my author’s expansion of me from novella to tome was more excruciating. Oh, my aching paragraphs.
PAUL: I see. So, how’s the revision going?
THE TEXT: Don’t ask. The publisher still hates me. She canned the author. The ghost writer is howling, ‘It needs a page one rewrite.’ But, hey, you’re not here to talk about my literary nightmares. Proceed.
PAUL: Right. Well, let me first mention that I’d like to consider you, The Text, strictly through a performance lens. I’m specifically asking how The Text directs audio book narrators to bring its words to life.
THE TEXT: Glad you asked because, and I hope it’s okay for me to speak for all my fellow Texts, fiction and non-fiction, and say that we love it when professional talent narrate us.
PAUL: Not the authors?
THE TEXT: Fie on them, especially my ex. Vocally, his readings are strictly from Planet NPR, like he’s on a mega dose of Sominex. But I also have a pet peeve.
PAUL: Which is?
THE TEXT: Some narrators use their voice to speak for the words rather than just react to the feelings we’ve injected into them. Know what I mean?
PAUL: I do. In fact, let’s begin by translating this pet peeve into your fundamental directorial mission.
THE TEXT: Okay. The Text’s Direction Number One-
PAUL: And this applies to fiction and non-fiction?
THE TEXT: Of course. Here it is: The Text directs the narrator towards feeling and away from meaning.
PAUL: Really. Why?
THE TEXT: Because inhabiting The Text’s feeling, its emotionality, and then connecting that feeling to the listener, is the actor’s primary responsibility.
PAUL: And that feeling is located-
THE TEXT: Inside my words, where the subtext breathes its life into them.
PAUL: That’s it?
THE TEXT: Yeah. But I could go on.
PAUL: No, I’ll go on. Please suggest more specific directorial clues that you reveal to narrators.
THE TEXT: First, value actable clues.
PAUL: Meaning?
THE TEXT: Can we concentrate on Brother Fiction. I’ll get to Brother Non-Fiction’s unique challenge later.
PAUL: Okay.
THE TEXT: Woo-hoo!  First, let’s imagine the narrator learns she’s got the job.
PAUL: Time to prep.
THE TEXT: Yup. Reading me, she focuses on the characters and plot, and highlights questionable pronunciations.
PAUL: So far so good.
THE TEXT: Actually, not so good.
PAUL: Why?
THE TEXT: Because that’s not PP!
THE TEXT: Priority Prep.
PAUL: Explain.
THE TEXT: May I address narrators in first person?
PAUL: Why not. They know the mode.
THE TEXT: Narrators, The Text here. Okay, Priority Prep. Read me thoroughly. Best you’re not surprised on p.120 that Katie has a thick Irish accent, right. So definitely know my story. Look up words you can’t pronounce. But as you prep, remember, intellectual familiarity with me is the low hanging performance fruit. Your PP is to discover my emotional directions, my actable clues, as we Texts prefer to call them. And they’re ubiquitous.
PAUL: Ubiquitous.
THE TEXT: Like that word?
PAUL: I do. Where’d you learn it?
THE TEXT: From my author’s best friend, the thesaurus.
PAUL: Right. So, let’s enumerate these ubiquitous directorial clues.
THE TEXT: Point of view, The Stakes, The Now, I’m Only Human, Punctuation, Word Choice, Word Order-
Paul: Wo! Can you explain each-
THE TEXT: One more. Duh!
PAUL: Duh?
THE TEXT: Like, yeaaahh!!
PAUL: I don’t get it.
THE TEXT: You will when I explain how these clues direct the narrator.
PAUL: Let’s start with Point of View.
THE TEXT: Narrators, as you’re prepping me, notice that each word you see, each sentence, phrase, dangling participle, run on sentence, reflects someone’s or something’s point of view! As you’re recording me, I need you to inhabit that point of view and connect it to the listener. It’s essential to understand my words’ meaning. But remember: Emotion injects meaning with an actable point of view. Meaning alone isn’t actable.
PAUL: How about an example.
THE TEXT: Take this line from my author’s upcoming novel, Four Star Peccadillo, about a wayward CIA director: “At the water cooler, he whispered to please call him Dave.” Until the narrator imbues those words with feeling, they are emotionally fallow. Only when the narrator recognizes the author intends the character to be a flirtatious CIA director can the narrator inhabit and then emotionally connect flirtatious to the listener. Flirtatious is inhabitable point of view, and therefore, actable.
PAUL: Great, now-
THE TEXT: And that brings me to The Stakes. And, excuse me. Ah…
PAUL: You seem distraught.
THE TEXT: I feel an oncoming peeve.
PAUL: Okay, about what?
THE TEXT: Some narrators don’t fully commit themselves to The Stakes.
PAUL: You mean to a particular heightened moment?
THE TEXT: Right. Or their emotionality doesn’t match the scene’s intensity.
PAUL: So, The Stakes are the intensity of feeling and you’re telling narrators-
THE TEXT: When you prep and then record, visualize the SS.
THE TEXT: The Stakes Scale. Narrators, as you prep and record, first ask what's emotionally at stake here? Say it’s danger. Then, how intense is the danger? Is it a 2, a 5, a 10? If it’s foreboding, love, or hate, or anger or sadness, what’s the intensity number? I once had this torrid sex scene, a middle aged couple, and the narrator gave it a 2.
PAUL: Maybe he was thinking pre Viagra?
THE TEXT: Can I continue!
PAUL: My bad.
THE TEXT: Here’s my point: Narrators, you may understand The Stakes, but when the author and I hear the recording we don’t always feel them. Sounds sometimes like you swallowed a phlegmatic pill. 
PAUL: A phlegmatic pill? Really!
THE TEXT: You buy that?
PAUL: No. Just give me problem/solution, succinctly.
THE TEXT: Gotchya. Problem: Not acknowledging a scene’s stakes. Solution: Engaging the emotional stakes and then committing to them. And fyi, authors are all about heightened emotions.
PAUL: Right.
THE TEXT: Imagine a chill author writing a chill narrative. 
PAUL: There’s always stakes!
THE TEXT: And they’re often higher than the number narrators assign them.
PAUL: Why do you suppose some narrators don’t see that?
THE TEXT: Because they’re too focused on performing the non-actable words. The Stakes are in the subtext, where they can be acted, or engaged, and then emotionally connected to the listener.
PAUL: How does the narrator actually engage The Stakes?
THE TEXT: Isn’t that your next post.
PAUL: Oh, yeah.
THE TEXT: Jeesh!
PAUL: Excuse me. Let’s move on to The Now.
THE TEXT: I’m in it.
PAUL: Huh? 
THE TEXT: I’m peeved.
PAUL: Again?
THE TEXT: That’s my point. I’m peeved now. I’ll explain.
PAUL: Succinctly.
THE TEXT: Narrators, as you prep and record me, think: The Text is all present tense. No past, no future, only The Now, this moment. As you narrate, I need you to experience The Text’s emotional consequence as if that feeling is affecting you right now. Succinct?
PAUL: For you, yes. So, where is The Now?
THE TEXT: My subtext. Where else!
PAUL: I assume that engaging The Now is critical to storytelling.
THE TEXT: No Now, no Storytelling.
PAUL: Just reading or reporting.
THE TEXT: Ahhh. Reporting. My worst nightmare. Red pen me! Plagiarize me. Mispronounce me. But report me? A fate worse than abridgment. Next question.
PAUL: Sorry, I’m having a moment.
THE TEXT: Good! Are you in it?
PAUL: Yeah. See, I’m confused.
THE TEXT: Nice. You sound it. About what?
PAUL: Well, when you said earlier, “I’m Only Human.”
PAUL: Why is that a ubiquitous text direction?
THE TEXT: Has this been bothering you the whole time?
PAUL: Kind of.
THE TEXT: Poor guy. Do you need a hug?
PAUL: Maybe later.
THE TEXT: Deal. Well, follow my logic. Who is speaking in my novel? Who are the first, second or third person narrators?
PAUL: Humans.
THE TEXT: Congratulations.
PAUL: And your point?
THE TEXT: If my author’s human, and my characters are human, and my narrator is human…
PAUL: Yeah.
THE TEXT: Then why don’t all narrators talk like humans?
PAUL: Uh-oh. You’re peeved.
THE TEXT: Ya’ think! Look, some narrators read like a metronome voice-over unit, in a rhythmic pitter-patter, or lickety-split, like they’re in a race, or sing-song like I’m a musical. And what really burns my semi-colon is when their dialogue sounds like reading.
PAUL: They are reading.
THE TEXT: Brilliant. But guess what? The listener doesn’t think so. Listeners – and this jargon I know – willingly suspend their disbelief-
PAUL: Impressive.
THE TEXT: Can I finish here?
PAUL: Succinctly.
THE TEXT: Okay! Meaning, the listener imagines the narrator is speaking off the cuff, like us.
PAUL: In fairness to narrators, what about authors who can’t write dialogue the way people speak? Like yours.
THE TEXT: That’s hitting below the syntax.
PAUL: Unfair. Continue, please.
THE TEXT: With all due respect to narrators, get over it. You’re actors. As you prep, hear yourself speaking my words like a human, then record them like one.
PAUL: So, relate this to ubiquitous clues.
THE TEXT: Narrators, above each of my words is this invisible thought bubble: Pretend you never saw me.
PAUL: I’m lost.
THE TEXT: All my words supply this single word emotional direction: Surprise! Meaning, speak me like it’s the first time we’ve met, as if you (as storyteller and characters) have no idea what emotional revelation is coming next.
PAUL: Instead of?
THE TEXT: Succumbing to an artificial cadence that aesthetically implies you already know what’s coming. Just like real life, words don’t necessarily emerge easily, quickly, or in predictable rhythms. Discover the thought and feeling before you say it, please.
PAUL: Good direction.
THE TEXT: And that brings me to The Text’s related performance clues. Think of them as cousins.
PAUL: You mean Word Choice, Word Order and Punctuation.
THE TEXT: Yahtzee!
THE TEXT: First, cousin Word Choice. Here’s an example. My author wrote this line: “Jenny was saddened by her mother’s death.” So, Jenny’s pov: She’s sad. The Stakes are maybe a 5. But then my author re-wrote the line: “Jenny was devastated by her mother’s death.”
PAUL: “Saddened” was changed to “devastated.” And your point.
THE TEXT: Those words conjure a different feeling, and in this case, higher stakes, like a 10, right.
THE TEXT: The word itself, often a verb or adverb, is a performance clue that directs narrators to organically alter their volume, pitch, and pace, etc.
PAUL: Okay.
THE TEXT: Consider another rewrite; you know authors, never satisfied: “Jenny was inconsolable, devastated by her mother’s death.”
PAUL: “Inconsolable” ups the stakes, huh!
THE TEXT: Yes, and notice the punctuation. A comma. What does that comma portend?
PAUL: Portend?
THE TEXT: Just tell me.
PAUL: You tell me.
THE TEXT: That comma, viewed through a performance lens, portends the birth of a new thought and simultaneously directs the narrator to discover that new feeling.
PAUL: The comma will also alter the pace, pitch, etc.
THE TEXT: A+. And that’s why, narrators, when you're prepping me, if you highlight anything, choose the punctuation. Why? Because the periods, commas, colons, exclamation points, etc. direct you to a new feeling that, if storytelling is to occur, must be discovered by you in that moment. And once that feeling is discovered, ipso facto, your pace, rhythm, tone, volume will be altered, organically.
PAUL: And you say Word Order also directs the performance?
THE TEXT: Here’s yet another change my author made. From: “Jenny was inconsolable, devastated by her mother’s death.” To: “Devastated by her mother’s death, Jenny was inconsolable.”
PAUL: Still one comma, same words, ordered differently. Changes the meaning slightly.
THE TEXT: And therefore the emotional consequence of the line.
PAUL: The first version focuses on “inconsolable” and the second, “devastated.” And since that shift in word order indicates an altered feeling, it requires an altered vocal attack.
THE TEXT: Bravo! You get The Text. Now, before I forget, Brother non-fiction. The only directorial issue unique to this sibling is point of view.
PAUL: Why?
THE TEXT: Non-fiction directs the narrator to engage only the author’s point of view, her enthusiasm, her desire to tell her story.
PAUL: What about characters that have dialogue?
THE TEXT: Non-fiction does not intend for listeners to hear fully drawn characterizations, accents, etc.
PAUL: Surely a character’s intention may be reflected.
THE TEXT: Yes, but only the intention. Non-fiction’s performance vision is about the author’s desire to enthusiastically tell his story.
PAUL: And not portray its characters.
THE TEXT: Spot on. Oh, I almost forgot, Duh! My unsubtle reminder to play the obvious.
PAUL: You mean, The Text’s clearly revealed emotional direction that narrators can still miss?
THE TEXT: Duh! Yes.
PAUL: We’re waiting.
THE TEXT: “‘I hate you,’ she said angrily!” How am I directing the narrator to play that line?
PAUL: Um, angrily?
PAUL: Well, you have been illuminating, if not wordy.
THE TEXT: Hey, my author is king of the run-on page!
PAUL: It just occurred to me. I produced his last book. Twenty-one hours.
THE TEXT: Oh, the short story.
PAUL: Right, well, let’s recap the The Text’s directorial role.
THE TEXT: I’ll summarize.
PAUL: Succinctly!
PAUL: You’re limited to a tweet count. 
THE TEXT: The text directs narrators to engage Point of view, The Stakes, The Now, Punctuation, Word Choice, Word Order, I'm Only Human, Duh!
PAUL: Well said. Thank you. Next post is my Interview with The Self-directing Narrator: You.
Happy holidays and I’m eager to begin December by recording with Barbara Rosenblat

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Narrator’s Quick Fix Guide to Improving Performance - Part 1: The Ballpark

"I've found when I don't live in the moment, it doesn't work out for me.”
R.A. Dickey: Pitcher, New York Mets

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes--ah, that is where the art resides!”
-Arthur Schnabel, composer & pianist (1882 - 1951)  
(Kindly sent to me by Kathe Mazur)

Like all creative artists, storytellers intuitively sense when they’re in the moment, between the notes, or in the zone. Palpably centered, as if on a copasetic high, their performance clicks along powerfully, confidently. They are, as I’d describe it, in The Ballpark.

Conversely, when their performance cylinders sputter, they’re out of it, unhinged, as if their groove has been derailed. Unable to get on track, they are frustrated by the irrefutable awareness that they’re performing outside of themselves and just can’t find their way into the ballpark.

Every creative person’s DNA is susceptible to a kind of bedeviling performance irritation that inexplicably subverts their best intentions. It happens. The vexation for storytellers is exacerbated by their particularized fact of life: Unlike most performers who, when they misstep, can rely on a director to identify their errant choices, then collaboratively guide them through the turnstile and back in the ballpark, today’s narrators are increasingly on their own - home alone or in front of an aesthetically non-reactive engineer.

Perhaps, as our lifetime’s future nears, narrators will be able to summon an advisory voice merely by flicking the feedback lever: “Computer! You think I made Marla selfish enough?” Or, “Okay, okay, my Russian accent’s not working, but can you just, ya know, mention it once and be more encouraging!” 

For now, if narrators desire another ‘ear,’ more than likely it’ll be their own. And that current reality is the progenitor of this quick fix guide to improving performance, or accessing The Ballpark.

The obvious and most detrimental ill resulting from this director-less new normal is CDS: Critique Deprivation Syndrome. With no trustworthy third party to consult, it is, at best, difficult to address creative concerns in a way that serves the author’s intent. Perhaps more troubling: Without corrective guidance narrators rely on unchallenged performance habits that, aesthetically speaking, may be the moral equivalent of self-inflicted wounds. Or worse: When these performance habits (egregiously favoring vocal acuity rather than the text as the primary acting vehicle, for example) aren’t interrogated by an outside source, they come to be viewed as not just acceptable but preferable, even valued. And why not. If there’s no authoritative party to suggest an alternative, these vocal habits calcify and become the mojo standard, as if they’re deified performance commandments to be aspired to. And finally, there’s always the most understandable reality, divined from the publisher, that insistently blocks reevaluation: “Hey, you’re hired, get it done, got a problem you figure it out, do a good job and you’ll get another book.”

Given the new normal, do narrators merely do their best, and willingly (or unwittingly) accept the concomitant risk of codifying habit merely because it’s unchallenged? Or are there alternate feedback possibilities - albeit less immediately recognizable - that are accessible when working solo? I think the latter.

My experience as a director, storytelling coach and teacher, suggests to me that there are at least two directors present during every recording session: The text (the following post’s focus) and you, the narrator (object of the third post and where I’ll detail a variety of ‘how to,’ ‘quick fix’ performance techniques called Emotional Connectors, whose purpose is to rapidly place performance where it belongs, the ballpark).

Because the ballpark is the narrator’s destination point - where the text and you are headed to, where listeners await, huddled beside their ‘money’s worth’ – it’s important for me to decode the metaphor with the hope of asserting its aesthetic authenticity.


Metaphorically, storytellers pass through the ballpark’s turnstile, where they organically work and where ‘indicated,’ non-organic narration propels hasty egress. Readers (sorry Aunt Mary) disseminate syntax - rhythmically, mechanically expelling words they may know but do not feel - often blissfully unaware they’re outside the ballpark and looking in.

The ballpark is a sentience zone that tightly embraces text, actor and listener as they actively engage one another in the moment, as if their interaction was just conceived and in a perpetual state of happening to them right now.

The ballpark is that Zen-like, dissonant free zone actors inhabit when the story they’re telling occurs from the point of view of whom or what they’re talking about. It is the performance locale narrators are directing themselves towards when they intuitively get that their performance is off site.

The ballpark is a communion, really, between text (the author’s words), narrator (the text’s voice), and listener (whose emotional connection to the words is the sole responsibility of the narrator).

SUBTEXT: Turnstile to The Ballpark

Narrators enter the ballpark through the subtext. When they inhabit it, the welcoming turnstile moves frictionless, as if on its own, needing no external (vocal) push.

No subtext, no ticket. Entry denied. Regardless of how beautifully the words are expressed, or how emphatically iterated or pronounced, whether they’re delicately lilted, joyfully fashioned, effusively modulated or spoken in streaming cadences whose tick-tock sing-song liberates each word from any resemblance to how people actually speak, when the object of the narrator’s attention is the words rather than the feeling, (you hate, AM, I know) the turnstile jams, the ballpark darkens, game over.

Simply argued, storytellers play the subtext (the feeling or emotional consequence embedded in the narrative’s every word). Storytellers connect that feeling to the listener. That’s the ballpark.

Aunt Mary (Oy!, am I going to hear it from her), who cannot resist speaking from the outside in – inorganically singing or swatting the words as if they required a vocal whack to wake up – reports feeling without locating feeling (hint AM, feeling is the turnstile). AM deprives listeners of the very experience they crave from the storyteller: An authentically performed journey beneath the author’s words where the emotional life that invigorates them oscillates.

NEXT POST: How To Gain Entry to The Ballpark

Earlier, I mentioned that two directors are on call 24/7 to every narrator whether or not they’re home alone, with an engineer, or even a director (yes, everyone needs help, including the helper). So the purpose of the next post and the following one is to describe specific performance techniques that are designed to organically actualize that turnstile so that it permits fast, alluring entry into the ballpark, the authentic performance ground that rewards honest creativity with a genuine, nuanced emotional connection between listener, author and narrator, the sort they all richly deserve.


I’m grateful to John Florian for providing me the opportunity to participate in my first VoiceOverXtra webinar on Oct. 16th.  
Since mid summer I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kate Udall, Caitlin Davies, John Keating, Pete Larkin, Xe Sands, David Pittu, Scott Brick and several authors, including Chris Elliot, Tony Danza and Andrew McCarthy, along with participants in my San Francisco, Atlanta and New York narrator’s workshops. And finally, my first day (Nov. 9th) as an MFA candidate in Spalding University’s low residency (meaning I’ll mostly be working from home) fiction writing program nears. And I’m counting on Tavia Gilbert’s inspirational accomplishments to keep me focused.