Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

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.