Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Figuring APAC

Today is APAC day. A perennial question related to the event seems to blossom around this time of year as well. I’ve heard it intimately murmured by conversing narrators, mostly as an unplanned aside loosely interjected and then loosely dismissed during conversations about other things that matter to them. The perennial question is, does APAC represent a worthwhile experience for narrators? Does its perceived value measure up against the registration fee, and for those attending from out of town, the additional travel and lodging expenses? (FYI, Aunt Mary has informed me that APAC is awesome if you know how to work it and she will be utilizing her unique “escalator” job acquisition strategy she conceived and has perfected. No gigs yet, she reported in her last missive, but her strategy is, she assured me, “foolproof.”).

Aside from AM, whose opinions appear to me to be reflexively triggered by something inherently unrefined, a more considered unpacking of APAC’s value might include asking narrators what they most desire from this event and then looking to the participants most capable of responding to that desire for their take on APAC. In lieu of a survey that specifically addresses narrator expectations, let’s invent a prototypical narrator and invite him (I’ll reverse the gender for my second prototype) to tell us what he’s most hopeful for upon entering the Javits Center.

Meet Pat. Pat has some pretty solid credits. Pat recently moved to Phoenix where he works out of a home studio. Before leaving New York, Pat recorded several audiobooks for major publishers at JMM and CDM. He was even once lucky enough to have worked with the awesome director, Paula Parker. He has an agent who, mercifully, gets audiobooks, but sadly, not Phoenix. Pat now seeks work independently.

PAT: Thanks, Paul, for this opportunity and for saying you’ll listen to my demooops, did you drop my card? Here’s another—and for references to other publishers and for telling me really useful stuff, like, there’s a lot of work out there for good storytellers. Totally inspiring. And did I tell you I just love reading stories to my kids? Later. Okay, so, what do I want from APAC? A JOB, A GIG. AN AUDITION. SHOWCASE MY STUFF. ASK HOW TO GET A RESPONSE FROM PUBLISHERS AND PRODUCERS I’VE EMAILED, CALLED AND REELED PROSTRATE IN FRONT OF, ALL TO NO AVAIL. Now, is there anything about what I want most from APAC that you don’t get? Oh yeah, I also like the panels. I’ve learned neat stuff over the years, like how to liquidate mouth bubbles with an apple and how to create a more boffo sound with more boffo equipment and of course, reuniting with friends, peers and fellow beseechers. But really, succinctly, categorically, I JUST WANT TO WORK!

Thanks, Pat. I hear you.

To be sure, Pat may not precisely represent every narrator’s outcome. But I’ll argue that if you’re a narrator attending APAC today, you will relate.

What about participating publishers and producers who do the hiring? Do they envision APAC as an employment “combine” (used as a noun, as in a place to scout talent)? I created a prototypical publisher who speaks unguardedly (my imagination was cranked up, eh!). She’s attending the conference for the umpteenth time and definitely hires talent. I asked, is hunting for narrators at APAC your priority?

Samantha: Well, funny you should put it that way. There are a few narrators my publisher has regrettably employed and I did feel like hunting them down when I got here, but I don’t think that’s capturing the spirit of your question. APAC provides me various opportunities, including the chance to meet new narrators, renew old acquaintances with those I already employ, and forget about others as soon as I can cordially relieve myself from yet another narrator palaver-fest I didn’t solicit but understand I must patiently endure. Except that out of control Aunt Mary who once got me on the escalator and then, I swear, had it turned off. The longest fifteen minutes of my life! Anyway, besides working with my colleagues and attending to various job-related directives issued by my superiors, am I actively seeking to employ narrators, even those with no experience? Sure. Will I retain the card or demo thrust into the palm I kindly opened for the sake of protocol rather than my sake? Absolutely! Would I hire a narrator I met for the first time at APAC? Why wouldn’t I! What are the chances I will? I once did. More than once, actually. Well, let me think on that.

Thanks, Samantha. I hear you.

Well, that’s Pat’s take on APAC and Samantha’s take on Pat, or APAC’s Pats. All to suggest that if securing the next gig (or first one) is a narrator’s priority, does APACalong with its ubiquitous panels, occasional mini-audition- and numerous schmooze-oppsmeet the narrator’s fundamental need? Let’s assume Pat and Samantha feel reliably close to attendees (including ourselves) we’ve all witnessed distractedly skittering nonstop around APAC. If they do, might reflecting on their commentary stimulate new insights that address whether forking over the bucks required to attend APAC should be regarded as de rigueur, or merely whimsy?

The eye of the beholder may be the location for life’s most salient truths. Through that lens, when assessing APAC as a value added proposition, might one argue that narrators should consider not only what’s in their eye but the eye of those they behold?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Care For The Storyteller-Self: Exercising Storytelling Muscles by Redefining the Purpose of Book Preparation

Whether I’m coaching emerging or experienced narrators, my outcome is to assist them in becoming compelling storytellers. My challenge is to suggest and then direct narrators to employ various performance tools that locate them in the storytelling ballpark.

In order to act like storytellers, I’d argue that narrators must become storytellers, not only while recording, but before, while prepping their book. Consistently and correctly narrating like a storyteller means: Prep the book like one, so that once the recording begins, narrators have become their storyteller selves.

How does the narrator prep as a storyteller? The question argues for a redefinition of book preparation’s purpose by moving away from focus on the words and towards focus on the words’ feelings. And what’s the larger implication of prepping this way? I’ll argue, care for the storyteller-self. And that care’s direct consequence: Compelling storytelling.

Whatever prepping the narrative may imply, for storytellers, it must be no less than caring for (or exercising) the storyteller-self. This care prioritizes identifying storytelling muscles and then creating a routine, or practice, that literally exercises (or strengthens) them.

I’ll argue that when book prep is envisioned as a storytelling practice, the result is powerful, reflexive responseswhile recordingto the narrative’s emotional demands, and a more consistently compelling and employable narrator as well.

I’m characterizing this book preparation process as: Care For the Storyteller-Self.

First, some definition. And then I’ll identify individual storytelling muscles and practices.

Let’s begin with care. And then unpack storyteller-self.

Care should be regarded in two fundamental ways: the first is from the dictionary; and the second is outside a traditional understanding. Care has numerous definitions. One (from my MacBook) that seems particularly applicable to narrators is: “Serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly.” The non-traditional definition I’d suggest is: Consistency.

In defining care I’m arguing that, along with the first definition, if whatever is practiced isn’t repeated consistently  it cannot be regarded as care. Working out at the gym, perfectly performing every routine you’ve learned, sometimes, or whenever, even if you’ve never missed a membership payment, isn’t qualification to say: Yeah, I work out.

For the purpose of this essay, care is defined as: Consistent, serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly.

What is the Storyteller-Self ?

First, what is self? Back to the dictionary: “A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” Place storyteller (the aesthetic narrator) before self, hyphenate it, and I’ll propose an added term to the lexicon.

My definition of Storyteller-Self: A performance consciousness (or soul) that committedly inhabits the narrative’s emotionality.

(And, FYI, we are officially above Aunt Mary’s performance pay-grade).

It is worth repeating that Care For the Storyteller-Self is a practice whose objective is to strengthen narrators’ sense memory so that they can reflexively, and committedly, respond to the subtext (or the narrative’s emotionality).

Prepping the Book, Caringly

From a performance point of view, the words’ intellectual meaning is secondary. Why? Meaning is not actable. Yes, you must understand fiction’s story and the characters. You must be familiar with non-fiction’s intellectual purpose. But content is the performer’s low hanging fruit. Connecting to the narrative’s emotional consequence is what transforms reader to storyteller. Therefore, the subtextall that’s actable, evermust be the narrator’s dominant concern.

1        1.   Feeling Lifts

Correctly prepping the book means imagining the feelings inside the words, intuiting them. Feeling lifts involves consistently hoisting each word to reveal its emotional consequence. (And parenthetically, feeling lifts include the title and chapter headings.)

THE PRACTICE: Notate feelings in the margins, rather than words you’ve pre-determined to emphasize or modulate (that’s Aunt Mary’s bailiwick). Stop when you’re uncertain about a section’s emotional consequence, hoist the words, and peek beneath them: Highlight what’s going on emotionally.

2. Discovery Reps

Like real life, the author’s story is about discovered feelings that occur in the moment. And discovery maintains the present. Axiomatically, no discovered feelings, no here and now, no storytelling! At best, indicated emotion. At worst, emphasis-fakery. (For more on how to successfully inspire non-organic emotion, you can sign up for Aunt Mary’s post-APAC seminar: Word Whacking).

THE PRACTICE: Highlight punctuation, not for a breath or a pause (don’t worry, nature will see to it you inhale and pauses without intent are merely dead air) but for the ah-hah moment when a new feelingfrom a significant to a subtle point of view shiftoccurs. Remember, while point of view shifts throughout the narrative, it always occurs after punctuation (a comma, semi-colon, colon, period, exclamation point, etc.). As you read the punctuation, do your reps: Discover, discover, discover.

3. Weight the Stakes-bar and Pump It Up

If I donated a nickel for the following interaction I routinely have with narrators, I’d put a dent in our national debt.
Paul: So, on a scale of 1 to 10, what are the emotional stakes in the line you just read?
Narrator: Oh, big. High.
Paul: Give it a number.
Narrator: A ten.
Paul: And how intense did you just sound?
Narrator: Oh, ah, a six.
Paul: The truth?
Narrator: Four? Three?

THE PRACTICE: Vocally match the narrative’s emotional stakes! While prepping, weight the feelings. Ask yourself: How intense is this scene? How intently does this non-fiction author want to educate or instruct me? And then, read aloud, a little or as much as is necessary to insure that your intensity is commensurate with the intensity embedded in the subtext.

Hint: Too often narrators err on the side of too little intensity (or energy) so weighting the stakes and then pumping them up should be their valued practice.

Pet Peeve: I’ve repeatedly heard: Well, see, I was actually saving myself for later, ya know, when the story really gets going. Note to storyteller-self: Make life easy and act what’s in front of you, what’s occurring now. Storytelling has no later; only now!

4.   Speak Nutritiously: Eschew Empty Emphasis

While prepping, narrators hear themselves speak. But what actually are they listening to? If it’s the sound of their own groovy voice, they’re likely ingesting the performance equivalent of empty calories. Writers always expect their words to be organically energized. How else can listeners become emotionally involved with them?

THE PRACTICE: Dramatic Fiction: While prepping drama, it is useful to literally flatten each word as you read it, as if it had died. This counter-intuitive practice deprives the narrator of vocal sugar (modulation). Flat permits the narrator to locate the word’s emotional consequence, intuit its import, and then emphasize it, organically. In dramatic fiction, flat, flat, flat nutritiously produces real, real, real.

Comedy: Organic exaggeration is comedy’s performance vitamin. It’s important to remember that exaggeration never means commentary. Why? Commentary (comedy’s empty calorie sugar high) deprives comedy its own reality that the actor must honor. Caring for the comedic storyteller-self is practiced by organically exaggerating what is felt and discovered, not commenting upon, or reporting, emotions.

To be sure, there are other performance muscles the narrator can prep in advance of their recording. I haven’t touched on dialogue, for example. But the themes I have explored seem central to addressing the narrator’s fundamental prepping obligation: Care for the storyteller-self.

I’ve addressed all these individual performance issues in the past. But I’ve never regarded them as muscles. And I’ve never thought of exercising or strengthening them by way of a correct and consistent practice. And I’ve never conflated this practice with something holistic: Care for the storyteller-self, as if it were a narrator’s wellness program.

I am grateful to my son, who introduced me to a philosopher named Michel Foucault. In his book, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Foucault discusses care for the self in several essays, including, Technologies of the Self and The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom. Foucault’s essays instruct me that by focusing on daily practices that literally care for our physical being, we actualize our potential as a human being.

As I apply Foucault to care for the storyteller-self, I realize the following possibility: The narrator (actor) who correctly and consistently practices engaging the subtext while prepping will organically actualize his or her storyteller-self.


With APAC a month away I’m looking forward to our pre-APAC, self-directing confab at John Marshall Media. And also to working with the talented (and this year’s Audie finalist) Nicola Barber.