Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Falling in Love and Other Resolutions for a Storyteller’s New Year

While any time is the right time to commit to becoming a more compelling audiobook narrator, the new year may be an especially appropriate occasion to do so. After all, the stroke of January 1 represents a recycling of sacred time that momentarily frees us from guilt over the past year’s failings, presents an unfettered opportunity to wipe our unfulfilled promises from the slate, and reimagine a renewed dedication to practices that we somehow couldn’t sustain, despite our implacable resolve to do so exactly one year ago.

Along with self-correction, year’s end also pauses time for introspection and reflection. In that palliating spirit, before itemizing resolutions that I regard as transformative—meaning storytelling notions that, when consistently practiced by talented actors, can elevate their performance from mundane (and worse) to sublime (and award-winning)—perhaps it’s worth briefly asking: Why should a narrator resolve to enhance their storytelling prowess in the first place? I’d suggest at least three reasons:

First, we humans identify with our occupations. The work we do is a significant indicator of who we are. We existentially conflate identification of the self (worthy, valued, etc.) with feelings about our professional endeavor (worthwhile, valuable, etc.). Wherever our identity is located—within our soul, or maybe science will someday discover the who we are gene—if it’s fair to argue that what we do is intrinsically indicative of who we are, it may be equally acceptable to rhetorically and forcefully assert: Why the hell wouldn’t we wish to do what we do well!

Second, and more prosaically, audiobooks are increasing in popularity, while at the same time being taken more seriously by mainstream media, including venerated publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, audiobook publishers appear to be increasing their lists and I can attest, albeit anecdotally, to an expanding pool of emerging and established narrators seeking coaching from me—all of which suggests more competition among more narrators.

Third, there’s a reason why publishers and producers audition narrators and listen to demos: They’re seeking to hire those on the desirable side of the talent bell curve.

So, maybe there really is no time like this New Year’s Eve (or sooner) for narrators to value consistent engagement of a process that places them in confident possession of the storytelling tools necessary to be considered a hirable, desirable and distinguished storyteller.

Clearly, there are numerous performance resolutions that narrators may rightly care to prioritize this coming year. But if there is a first among equals, it would be to fall in love with the process of being a great storyteller.

There are at least ten additional storytelling principles that warrant serious consideration from experienced professionals and aspirants. As a director and coach, and faithful trumpeter of the belief that the human voice remains the most powerful communicating instrument of all, I hope that at the stroke of 2014, narrators will resolutely resolve: I am committed to falling in love with:

1.    Acting. Storytelling is an acting proposition and I am a storyteller. Therefore, I am an actor. Therefore, I’m wedded to acting—not reading, not narrating, not emphasizing, and not my fabulous voice—only acting.
2.    The subtext. Henceforth, I say to the text’s words, feh! You mean nothing to me. To the author, yes. Words, listen up! I promise to pronounce every one of you as intended. But, since you aren’t actable, move along while I immerse myself in the storyteller’s preeminent calling: your emotional import.
3.     Feelings. I am a feeling conduit, primed to locate and then connect each word’s emotional consequence to the listener. I feel, therefore, I am a storyteller.
4.    Point of view. Every word’s feeling emanates from someone’s or something’s point of view and when I engage that point of view, so does the listener. I point of view.
5.    Here and now. I narrate in the present because the storyteller’s world has no past, no future. What occurs in the author’s story is happening right vavoom now!
6.    The stakes. I’m already salivating in anticipation of confidently embracing what’s oscillating beneath the emotional skin of my fictional narrative’s characters, and expressing that emotion exactly as they would! And I cannot wait to seize my non-fiction author’s need to tell his or her incredible story! Seriously, if my narration’s intensity isn’t commensurate with the emotions of my novel’s characters, or doesn’t match my non-fiction author’s demeanor, well, I’m just not in love. 
7.    Discovery. Introspectively speaking, suppose I knew what was going to occur in advance of every event. Other than becoming incredibly wealthy and the paparazzi’s most prized photo op, really? Seriously? No surprises in life because I already know what’s going to happen? How boring is that! I wonder how a consumer would respond while listening to me read fiction in a way that sounds as if the characters aren’t surprised by events and people they interact with. How boring is that, they might say. So, if I don’t discover, how will my characters!
8.    Less. Meaning, less voice and often, less voice than I think. Less, less, less. Why? Because I remember that in dramatic fiction, volume tends to negate intimacy, especially when the dramatic stakes are elevated, and an intimate storyteller is crucial to the scene’s believability. If I remember one thing this year, it will be: volume is dramatic fiction’s nemesis.
9.    More. Meaning, when narrating comedy—which demands I take my characters seriously, just in a big, presentational kind of way—I will up the volume, literally louder, and exaggerate the characters’ heightened sense of urgency, seriously.
10. Exorcising Aunt Mary. I realize that Aunt Mary is an agglomeration of emotionally disconnecting vocal habits. AM lives in me and in all narrators and thrives on non-organic affect. She is an emboldened manufacturer of indicated feeling whose devilish ways bamboozle me into modulating, into vocally pushing the words (as if they require help), and into forgetting that my wonderful voice adds nothing (as in zilch) to the listener’s enjoyment of the author’s story. Fie on you, AM! You may have snookered me in the past, but not this year. Not in 2014. Because I am no longer in love with you, you devotee of artificial inflection! I’m outa here. You’re yesterday’s kisses, get me, AM. I am in love with a process, one that promises to make me a great storyteller.


I’d previously written, “Next post: Non-fiction.” This time, I mean it.

This past month I had the pleasure of directing NICOLA BARBER (and will again in January), and FRED BERMAN; also RICK ADAMSON, who narrated, “The Underdog,” a short story of mine that will be published this January in Pennsylvania English /35.

I’m happy to announce that Audiofile Magazine will be sponsoring and coordinating my future Narrator’s Workshops. Upcoming will be in Seattle on March 16, 17. Details forthcoming.

This week I’ll be conducting an audiobook directing workshop with several participants,  including Juliana Rueda Gutierrez, who is in New York from Barcelona, Spain, where she directs bestselling audiobooks for major Spanish publishers.

Finally, I’m building a list of experienced and Earphone and/or Audie award-winning narrators who’ve discussed a master class workshop with me and I'm considering format as well. Interested narrators please let me know ( and I’ll pass your name to Audiofile, who will arrange dates and provide further information.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The VOICE: when a narrator’s trusted ally becomes the public’s enemy number one.

Arguably, there’s a reason for everything. However, this widely accepted cliché opens a dubious eye when one discovers that what lurks beneath its simple assertion—that all human experience is explainable—are problematic assumptions. That is, when a reason emanates from a non-sensible or invalid or even irrational pre-supposition, its acceptance may breed far more harm than good.

Lets fasten this reason for everything aphorism to a discussion of the audiobook narrator’s voice (more accurately, its particular sound). Let’s assume that, indeed, there are multiple explanations for why the sound of the voice has come to be venerated and regarded as a narrator’s most valuable asset. That said, (and what this post is primarily concerned with) there is at least one glaring non-sensible, invalid and irrational assumption about the voice that lurks uncomfortably beneath these various explanations. And belief in this wholly unfounded assumption is at best: the narrator’s Achilles’ heel. At worst: it is the listener’s worst nightmare.

The most inaccurate and deleterious assumption about the voice—and one that generates irrational explanations about its efficacy in performance—is that the voice can act. It can’t, period.

Inaccurately, it’s assumed that timbre and volume and presence and mellifluous fluidity are somehow conflated with genuine emotion. Once it’s erroneously assumed that the narrator’s voice has the capacity to generate even a scintilla of authentic feeling, explanations about the relationship between the voice and narration are simply wrong, especially those that equate vocal acuity with compelling storytelling. How so? Because when Aunt Mary uses the voice as an acting tool, it vanquishes any possibility that she’ll organically discover feeling and replaces that process with empty-calorie, facile delivery that’s devoid of real emotion: her specialty!

The voice can always phone it in; it can never connect. Said differently, when the voice acts on behalf of the narrator the way Brutus did Caesar, well, we know how that relationship ended.

Why do we (defined as modern, western society) pay such homage to the voice box? Often to the point of idolatry. It’s as if this relatively uncomplicated mechanism, this creator of audible noise, also possesses an emotive gland that, when activated by the fortunate few, imbues them with mesmerizing authority and preacher-like, persuasive power. (FYI, check out 5 Guys in a Limo on YouTube and hear what I mean). Interestingly, there is no 5 gals in a limo, but women’s voices are most certainly valued by society as well as men’s.

In contemplating the many hyperbolic attributions—e.g., he has the voice of God—to this tiny sound generator, I’m reminded of my son’s high school friend who, by age 16, was nearly six-feet-four inches tall. His mother bragged about his height with such pride, as if being tall endowed him with advantages that implicitly condemned my relatively shrimpy teenager to a life of average Joe-ness. And perhaps the sad truth was, she was right. After all, if one believes something to be true, isn’t it? All of which propels me to wonder further, what is so special about a gravelly or husky voice that propels employers to pay (sometimes a fortune) for its use?

As neither a social scientist nor a historian, I’m not capable of addressing the roots of our voice adoration or discussing why we seem to zealously fetishize certain vocal characteristics as if they were divinely acquired. But as an audiobook producer/director and coach, I can attest to our infatuation with the voice and our misconceptions about its relationship to performance.

The truth is that the voice—especially when it’s construed to be smooth, cool, resonant, powerful, sexy, etc., etc.—does palpably tap into our emotions. So, does the voice make us feel? Yes. But the salient question for the storyteller is: feel what? And for whose purpose? And to what end? In interrogating these questions, the operative notions are: convention, comfort, manipulation and organic.

When I listen to a film trailer, or a perfume voice-over, or a political ad, custom (convention) has conditioned me to expect a professional vocal rendition that attracts me, grabs my attention, seduces me, persuades me, and leads me to the promised land: spending money on whatever commodity is being advertised or aligning myself with someone’s cause or proposition. I’ve come to expect (and therefore will be dissatisfied when my expectation isn’t met) a particular vocal quality that’s commensurate with the experience it’s voicing. Conventionally speaking, that means: sultry female for perfume; macho man gravel for a movie thriller; authoritative for political ad, etc.

When my ears are infatuated by a vocal presence, I am, in effect, happily manipulated: I willingly gulp the smooth, articulate, commanding Kool-Aid. Yes, I feel something, but what’s necessary for the narrator to remember is that my aesthetic expectation is not to feel emotionally connected, but rather, comforted. I am comforted by a confident voice I conventionally expect to excite me about an enterprise whose bottom line is usually the exchange of my money for a product or my fealty to a given proposal. Offer me a voice I conventionally relate to (revisit 5 Guys in a Limo), I’m thrilled (aka, sold); conversely, eschew convention and proffer a voice that does not match my aesthetic expectation, I am uncomfortable and less likely to be interested in the bottom line.

Is the audiobook narrator’s outcome different than his so-called commercial voice-over counterpart? Totally! Ipso facto, the voice that works for the commercial isn’t relevant to book narration (fiction or non-fiction). The voice-over voice delves into and manipulates listeners’ feelings in order to satisfy someone else’s desired outcome. The storyteller’s voice is in the service business too, but its master is the subtext: feelings the author hopes to convey to readers and listeners. In order for the audiobook narrator’s voice to effectively serve the narrative, it cannot manipulate feeling, it cannot generate a call to action, it cannot act on behalf of the text. The storyteller’s voice can speak, but only when spoken to by the subtext. Then, the vocal emphasis that emerges is predicated on the narrator’s having organically connected to the story’s emotional consequence, not what the voice thinks it must indicate in order to represent a given feeling.

This post’s thesis bears repeating: the voice can’t act. Therefore, a narrator who desires to  interpret a book can logically assume that how the voice sounds should be as a result of how the narrator feels based on what the text demands.

To be sure, a narrator’s voice can enhance performance by varying pace, volume, pitch, etc. But only when those techniques serve the text. I often direct narrators who are working on dramatic fiction to, in effect, demote their voice: less volume—less, less, less. No emphasis, none—flat, flat, flat. (FYI, the opposite for comedy). These are very counter-intuitive directions for those who believe in the power of their voice. It’s as if I’m telling them to remove their winter coat in the middle of a blizzard. But when narrators relegate the voice to servant rather than boss, when they empower themselves to focus on the given feelings the text is begging them to connect to, they suddenly find themselves telling a story more powerfully; they reflexively discover and organically emphasize feelings that could not be directed by anyone other than their own intuition.

Is commercial voice-over work acting? Not if one characterizes acting as an effort to truthfully portray real emotion. Affecting a feeling with the voice is not acting; it’s imitating. Is audiobook narration acting? Yes. Otherwise, it’s voice-over acting. And that’s not acting.

Viewed through an acting lens, the audiobook narrator’s voice is incapable of creating real emotion. That’s perhaps its greatest limitation. For those who do regard audiobook narration as acting, the primal sound of one’s voice while engaging the story and then connecting those feelings to the listener is an asset beyond words. 


Next post: Non-fiction. I received an email from an award-winning narrator who has not yet recorded non-fiction and when she listened to a friend’s effort, she was mortified. “She's a good actress and she makes her living doing voiceovers and audiobooks. But she was absolutely terrible!” One person’s opinion, to be sure. But I’ll offer mine and how I think narrators can best serve the non-fiction author.

I recently directed Adam Grupper—a passionate and connected storyteller—in my first published short story. I look forward to working with Christian Baskous in another published story that’s included in the same collection as the one featuring Adam. Additionally, I look forward to working with Kate Udall next week, and conducting an audiobook webinar for John Florian’s VoiceOverXtra on Nov. 11th.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Lee Daniels’ The Butler Serves Audiobook Narrators

While observing Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, it occurred to me that each performance offers the audiobook narrator lessons that are applicable to storytelling. One performance is indicative of what works, the other a work in progress.

It is fair to argue that for as many people as have viewed this film there may be as many valid opinions about the quality of its co-stars’ performances. In proffering my clearly opinionated notions about these performances, my larger hope is that audiobook narrators will regard the notions (as opposed to my opinions) as viable lessons that can assist them in their effort to become more compelling storytellers.

For me, Forrest Whitaker’s performance worked; Oprah Winfrey’s worked sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t.

Actors and their show biz brethren are particularly prone to critique performance on the basis of what worked or didn’t, especially while conversing with their peers, as if only creative types really get what worked means. How do I define worked? My baseline definition—one that applies to audiobook narrators as well as all performers, whether its film, theatre, TV, dance, music, etc.—is: organically connected emotion. I’m certain this definition is no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog. Simply stated, when the actor (or storyteller) organically connects the subtext’s emotionality to the viewer or listener, the performance works. Conversely, when the actor fails to organically connect the subtext’s emotionality, the performance doesn’t work.

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forrest Whitaker organically connected the subtext to the viewer and Oprah Winfrey was far more challenged, and ultimately, not consistently successful in her effort. In focusing on why this was so, I again want to insist that whether one specifically agrees or disagrees with this assessment of performance, the larger lessons remain important for any narrator who regards him or herself as an actor and storyteller.

The three performance issues I’ll interrogate are: the stakes; less-less-less; indicating. Appreciating their impact on performance is central to appreciating why one of the film’s stars connected and the other misfired. Additionally, I’m hoping that as narrators consider these issues, they’ll appreciate why one audiobook performance is compelling and another is uninspired, boring.

I was engaged by (connected to) Forest Whitaker’s performance throughout the film. In terms of the three issues I’m raising, that’s because: his emotional response was always commensurate with the stakes; he vocally and physically matched the subtext’s demand (he never helped or pushed the words; never inappropriately physicalized a feeling); his response to the script’s words and the other characters appeared reflexive, suggesting that it emerged from his visceral connection to the subtext and therefore was organic, and real. He was, so to speak, plugged in.

Ms. Winfrey’s response to the stakes didn’t always satisfy their intensity; she seemed not quite as mad, not quite as sad, not quite as happy, not quite as frustrated: as if the stakes weren’t quite as high as I imagined the subtext was telling her they were. At times she seemed to vocally and physically overwhelm the words, as if we (the audience) might not get what she was feeling so she had to vocally jump-start or kick the words. And she had to over physicalize the feelings the language suggested as well. Finally, she sometimes appeared emotionally uncoupled from the words’ feelings (albeit impossible to know for sure) and that left her no choice but to, in effect, imitate or indicate an emotion because she simply wasn’t grasping it.

I am hesitant to offer too many examples of instances where what’s mentioned above occurred because that’s liable to create an argument that, in turn, forces the conversation towards who is right and who is wrong. How can Paul say this? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Or, I agree with Paul. He’s absolutely right. That said, it seems disingenuous to offer no examples, so here’s a couple:

Towards the end of the film, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) confronts his estranged son at an outdoor protest. It is, arguably, one of the most powerful, emotionally consequential scenes in the film. Having banished his son from his life, Cecil realizes he’s made a catastrophic error, and comes to make amends, to apologize, to re-connect to him. The stakes are through the roof! In that heightened moment when the two meet, the son asks, what are you doing here? Cecil speaks not much above a flat whisper; he is more subdued than overtly charged; his body and physical persona quiet, oddly weak. In this still moment, Mr. Whitaker had pulled me inside him (or perhaps the other way around) and it was as if I was that father, paralyzed by grief, yearning to be forgiven by my son. I was connected. The performance worked.

The scene between Howard (Terence Howard) and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in which she wards off her neighbor’s provocative sexual advances found Ms. Winfrey somewhat uncomfortable and unfocused, as if she was aware of herself trying to find the proper reaction to Mr. Howard, who, by the way, appeared laser-focused and confident. Specifically, when Howard physicalized his advances and made plain with his language that he wasn’t surrendering his sexual pursuit of Gloria, I asked myself while watching, what are the stakes on a scale of 1 – 10? While Mr. Howard pursued at a ten, Ms. Winfrey—whatever she may have been feeling—seemed to be waffling, unable to committedly attach herself to that feeling. And what exactly was that feeling? Was she insulted, aghast, tempted, angry, seduced, all or none of these? It just wasn’t clear moment to moment, at least to me. But what did emerge was a less than one hundred per cent, focused grasp of whatever state she was trying to evince. Ms. Winfrey seemed to be flailing about a bit, like an overwrought puppy digging for a bone, trying to unearth the subtext oscillating beneath the words, but just not discovering it. Unable to organically connect, she was left no choice but to manufacture the feelings, vocally and visually.

As I viewed this high stakes scene between Howard and Gloria, what appeared to be working fully for Mr. Howard wasn’t working for Ms. Winfrey.

It’s important to reiterate that my interpretation of these performances—informed or uninformed—is subjective and based on my perceptions, not immutable fact. But I hope that the larger performance issues that have been raised—the stakes, less-less-less, indicating—are not only applicable to audiobook narrators, but can act as takeaways the narrator can consider when thinking about what constitutes compelling storytelling.
Looking forward to recording tomorrow with Nicola Barber, whose performances work!