Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Friday, October 31, 2014

Never Try To Teach THE VOICE to Act. Doing so wastes the narrator’s time, and annoys the text

More than other creative artists, audiobook narrators seem beset by the most downright unfair paradox: The most obvious performance tool at their disposal—their voice—is of no use to them.

With few exceptions, audiobooks are performed by a single narrator. Successful storytelling rests solely with the narrator’s vocal proficiency. There is no visual, no music, no other performers to compliment, or enhance the voice. Or, so it might seem.

But, as I’d argue, if reliance on the voice to affect performance is anathema to storytelling, and the surest way to disconnect the listener from the book’s emotional import, what can the narrator rely on to create a compelling story?

The short answer is: Acting.

A longer answer is: Leave the voice outside the booth. Don’t let it in, despite its protestations. No matter how vociferous and convincing its plea—I’m so smooth, so resonant, so, so sexy, everyone loves me, you know that, so please, trust me, I can help you—do not vainly succumb! Concentrate! Concentrate on mining the subtext.

A more precise, efficacious answer—and what I’ll attempt to enumerate on—is: First, relegate the voice to its primary function—a sound-delivery instrument. Second, remember that a voice isn’t sentient; it doesn’t possess cognition; it doesn’t house feeling, and therefore has none to offer. It can be trained to imitate (or indicate) feeling, echo what seems like acting, but then, seems like isn’t acting. Unfortunately for some narrators, seems like suffices for acting. 

Narrators who reflexively (i.e. unwittingly) employ so-called vocal techniques (I’ll identify the most troubling to me shortly) to tell the author’s story only exacerbate seems like, and the outcome is detrimental to themselves and consumers. And for narrators who consciously insist on their voice’s veracity, the paradox transmutes to paroxysm, and their resoluteness becomes like a virulent plague on the emotionality embedded in the author’s syntax.

Ironically, the more narrators vocally manage the words, the fewer vocal choices they have at their disposal to shade the story with nuance, the more distant and uninterested they sound, the less likely they are to connect the listener to the text’s emotional consequence.

Given what to me is an immutable rubric—the voice can’t tell a story, only an actor can—why do many narrators continually send in THE VOICE to do the actor’s job? Additionally, if narrators can agree that the voice is little more than a sound system (to be sure, some are more ear-pleasing than others), how can they disabuse themselves of putting their faith in what amounts to a false-note prophet?

Unpacking the first question, I’d speculate that many narrators secretly understand that the voice can sell, but can’t tell, a story. Especially if they’re trained actors. But, for whatever reason, they keep this secret comprehension in the vault, as they say. Perhaps it's due to the fact that they’ve been rewarded by publishers and commercial professionals precisely because of their exceptional articulation and timbre.

Despite my speculation that many narrators know the voice is not their ally, when I listen carefully to their narration, I sense they’ve accepted a kind of performance-doctrine that equates voice quality with talent. And when they prep a book, I wonder what those narrators are thinking (perhaps subconsciously). I wonder if they focus too heavily on, how will I sound, rather than, how will I feel? How will I vocally distinguish these characters, rather than—to coin a phrase I heard recently from Nicola Barberhow will I “dial in” to what these characters are feeling? How will I make this terrible book sound interesting to the listener, rather than, how will I connect this terrible book’s subtext to the listener.

Ultimately, I’m more confident about discussing a few specific voice habits narrators employ to affect the syntax, and what they can do if they choose to tell, rather than sell, the story.

Prioritizing the Words

How emphatically should I render the sound of this adjective, or that verb? How do I authentically mimic a Mexican accent? What does a nineteenth century Dakota territory Sioux sound like? The book says, Jane has a throaty voice. How do I realistically portray that quality?

If narrators' hierarchical eyes are primarily focused on word and phrase emphasis, a foreign or regional American accent’s authenticity, or how to match an author’s vocal attribution, then by definition, they are less likely to take seriously the feeling inside these words. And when authentic emotion takes a back seat to authentic vocalization, the text, the narrator, and the listener, suffer. At best, narrators who prioritize what sounds right over what feels good, divert their attention from the subtext (where all the performance eggs rest). At best, they risk imitating, and indicating feeling; at worst, they one-dimensionalize their characters, as well as their performance.

Pimping the Words

A pimp finds customers for prostitutes whose behavior he controls. Narrators who pimp the words (albeit graciously and with honorable intentions) are effectively controlling them, vocally gussying them up and selling them to the listener. They sing the words, modulate them, accentuate and emphasize them; their vocal mastery shows off their words (and them) to the impressed listener.

When the narrator vocally takes charge of the words, the rightful boss (the subtext) is deprived of the opportunity to direct them, to cause them to organically react to its emotionality, and the opportunity for authentic interpretation is lost.

Pushing the Words

Push asserts itself as a result of the misinformed dictate: more is more. When the story, or the characters, just aren’t big enough, present enough, the way to sell them is to activate what sounds to my ear like some glottal, thrusting-lever that literally pushes out more air, more volume, that growls, grunts, heaves, and gasps, all to make the point: I’m really mad, really hostile, really happy, really in love, really a Chinese bad ass, really gonna kill you dead.

The Voice Antidote: Acting

It may not be easy (though I’d argue it’s a lot more fun and aesthetically rewarding for consumer and narrator), but when narrators treat storytelling as an acting process, only then do they have the opportunity to build an organic connection-pathway between themselves and their listener. Only then do they encounter an acting lens that asserts: The actor, not the voice, acts; the subtext, not the voice, controls the words; when the narrator acts, there is no push, because the actor, not the voice, is running the show.

Summarizing this essay’s theme, Aunt Mary does a mean Australian accent; actors connect that Australian’s meanness to the listener.


I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s NY Master Class, and the next NY Narrator’s Workshop (Jan. 10-11), as well as Chicago’s (Feb. 7-8). (For information and to register, contact Michele Cobb: And, with some trepidation, looking forward to being Johnny Heller's quiescent guest at his narrator’s workshop on Nov. 9th. And finally, to the upcoming publication of my short story, “An Actress Prepares,” that will be narrated by Kathleen McInerney at the end of November.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bob and Debra

I am thinking about Bob and Debra Deyan. Bob lost his struggle with ALS yesterday. I wish for Debra, and for their families and friends, as much peace and comfort as is possible while they mourn Bob's passing.

I am also thinking now of my time with these wonderful friends and colleagues, and how I've felt being among them over the years, especially when we met in New York or LA.

There are people in my life—particular people—I feel as if I’ve known forever, kind of like a forever presence by my side. Bob and Debra fit that forever-presence bill. Since I met them twenty years ago, or maybe a zillion—can’t recall now—I have always regarded the Deyans as a kind of forever presence in my life. That forever presence is enriching, and rewarding; it’s a comforting feeling born of a shared connection and shared empathy for each other’s experience as producers trying to navigate the vicissitudes endemic to our tiny audiobook universe.

This forever presence that simmers beneath my skin now is similar to how I’d imagine perpetually sitting in front of an ingratiating fire on a winter night, in the midst of a howling blizzard, the flames’ palliating heat binding, and bonding, a salve for what ails you. Hmmm, what a glorious feeling!

Where I think I am going with this is an effort to express not only the meaning of this forever presence, not only how it feels, but from where it emanates.

In the past, I mostly saw Bob and Debra in New York, when they were attending an audiobook related function, and hunting up work (like me). Often, we’d get together at the cavernous Westway Diner on 44th and Ninth Avenue, near JMM Studios, where I worked. Three themes repeated themselves almost each time we met. Them complimenting me: Oh, Paul, one or both said, with the identical avuncular intonation, which made sense to me, as I regarded them as a kind of collective spirit, you know the narrators all like you, all speak highly of you; me complimenting them: I want to be as successful as you both when I grow up; and then industry chat focused on our common experience as audiobook producers, including requisite gossip about what publisher is hiring what producer, what narrators we liked, which ones drove us nuts (don’t worry, it was mostly celebrities). And all this palaver as congenial competitors.

Routinely, I’d walk from these informal confabs and always, always feel, well, really good. The Deyans accepted and valued me, and respected me, as I did them. Just how specifically good did that make me feel? Special-good, and happy-good; proud-of-myself-good; welcomed-good, and included-good. Sharing the gossip, the ups and downs we encountered as producers, with them, was, in a sense, a kind of breaking bread, though at Westway, the bread was occasionally unbreakable.

I remember now those silent, recognition-moments after one of us said something about something or someone that equally disgruntled us: usually a comment that hit some gnarly or vexing nail on the head. And we’d gaze at one another quite wordlessly and nod in a way that said,Yeah, tell me about it, or, I know, I know; or, me, too.

I found those silences connecting and bonding and warmly transcending. As professionals engaged in the same enterprise, we were, as Kipling’s Mowgli said, “of one blood.” Acquaintances, yes. Friends, yes. And also empathetic compatriots—respectful of one another—who traversed the same rutted path.

More than anything, right now, if you asked me, how long have I known the Deyans, still I’d have to say, “You kidding? I’ve known them forever.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Commitment-of-the-Self: How Elizabeth Ashley Greets the Subtext and Why Narrators Benefit From Engaging This Essential Storytelling Process.

If Elizabeth Ashley’s commitment-of-the-self–a transformative, all-in embrace of the narrative’s emotional import—could be liquefied in a science lab, I’d request they bottle it, and then insist as mandatory that narrators guzzle multiple swigs before uttering word one of the book they’re about to perform.

I recently directed Ms. Ashley, who recorded the abridged and unabridged version of the biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr. Within the first several seconds, it was evident that I was in the presence of an actress for whom devoting even 99.9% of her aesthetic temperament to the text is not an option. And when that temperament was unleashed on the story’s emotional consequence, I sensed that her very survival depended on decoding and connecting those feelings to the listener. While telling the story, Elizabeth Ashley never negotiated with the emotional stakes, as if not awarding each scintilla of feeling its due was debatable. Her rather forward-gear-only approach to the subtext was simple and unabashed: Plunge in; consume it; no leftovers.

Returning home that first night, I thought a bit about Ms. Ashley’s career as an award-winning actress, notably her stellar performance in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (considered by many the definitive portrayal of Maggie the Cat), for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Obviously, her aggregate performance attributes propelled admiring critics and the public to favor her work with lavish praise. Further contemplating those attributes, while fresh from having spent a day in the studio with her, it occurred to me that among the most outstanding—whether or not specifically articulated by her admirers—had to have been this actress’s penchant for consistently plunging every iota of her self into the text’s actable marrow.

From my perspective, it is precisely because of the causal relationship between  commitment-of-the-self and the listener’s visceral experience of the story, that this fundamental acting process deserves the narrator’s serious attention.

I hope that—beyond encouraging narrators to visualize an essential storytelling obligation in 3-D—these metaphorical characterizations of Ms. Ashley’s approach to the subtext (complimented by immense talent, to be sure) will illuminate a prickly, and sometimes unrecognized, challenge that confronts emerging and even experienced narrators: valuing the need to commit, and then prioritizing a process that encourages them to actably translate that value into compelling storytelling.

Before interrogating this storytelling obligation, some perspective on the recording with Ms. Ashley that might be distilled to: every narrator’s dream! John Lahr’s erudition, the fact that the book’s unimaginably conflicted—perhaps tragically flawed—subject is one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights, that Tennessee Williams was a southerner, and that Ms. Ashley is a southerner who understands every nuance that particular sensibility implies, that Ms. Ashley performed in many of Williams’s plays and knew him well, and that she is also a good friend of John Lahr, no doubt fueled her enthusiasm for the narration. Mercifully, she did not have to endure inept writing, an obfuscating storyline that moves with the deliberate speed of a cadaver, or worse.

John Lahr’s immensely engaging biography (due on audio this fall from Brilliance) observes the life of its subject with compulsive objectivity. Equally, Mr. Lahr locates the reader (or listener) inside the head of Tennessee Williams. Throughout the story, we remain inextricably connected to, and palpably feeling for, this deeply troubled man. For Ms. Ashley, this biography was a seductive gift that, with each bite into the narrative’s emotional core, kept on giving.

How then do we understand commitment-of-the-self? And why is this special commitment so important to narrators, especially those who aspire to elevate their craft, and move from reader to storyteller?

When viewed through a storytelling lens, we can define commitment-of-the-self as: the immersion of the actor’s temperament in the narrative’s subtext. Note that I’m essentially regarding self and the actor’s temperament as identical.

The first assertion narrators should deduce from this definition is that if they don’t feel comfortable identifying themselves as actors, they aren’t storytellers. And if they aren’t storytellers, the commitment-of the-self  process will elude them, as it eludes all non-actor narrators, who may sound good, but are not intuitively wired to connect feelings to the listener.

Axiomatically, a narrator who is unable to commit the self is incapable of creating a compelling performance. Always, and forever! (Certainly a compelling performance requires multiple storytelling acuities.). In fiction, without commitment-of-the-self, the emotional stakes that motivate the characters cannot be internalized by the narrator, much less actualized, and subsequently, the listener cannot be fully engaged by those stakes. In non-fiction, without commitment-of-the-self, the emotional stakes that implore the narrator (the author’s surrogate, if you will) to grab listeners’ attention with this fantastic story cannot be internalized by the narrator, much less actualized, and subsequently, as with fiction, the listener cannot be fully engaged by those stakes.

While a facile, or smooth, or beautifully-voiced performance may sound good, or good enough, if the narrator’s self retreats from the subtext, or ignores it (the moral equivalent of a parent abandoning a child) then by definition, the opportunity for emotional fruition is lost.

Commitment-of-the-self is an essential constituent of the storyteller’s (actor’s) ethos. Commitment-of-the-self wills the actor to authentically engage (rather than in-authentically indicate), and then respond to, the subtext, because it is in commitment’s nature to revel in every emotional nuance that can possibly be felt. When I hear a committed performance—and I enjoy demonstrating this when playing back a portion of what’s just been recorded during a session or in workshop—I’ll suggest to the storyteller, or class participants, listen very carefully to the subtle inflections, and intensely flavored pauses that heighten discovered feeling. These interpretative moments cannot be directed by me, or consciously by you, because they emanate from a far, far more instructive director: the moment (aka, the here and now). And because you are committed, all-in connected to the narrative’s emotionality, you are, ipso facto, in the zone, and intuitively open and available to the emotions that scintillate the story.

Commitment-of-the-self is oddly problematic for some narrators. I often wonder, what’s preventing them from diving into the subtext? Isn’t the immersion of self into fantasy what actors do? What’s causing this half-baked, phoned-in narration that is often attributable, not to lack of talent, but lack of commitment? There may be numerous reasons why. I’d argue the following is applicable in some cases, if not many:

For the artist, actor, and storyteller, commitment is an especially high-risk, high reward proposition that is particularized by its relationship to this sensation: vulnerability. When commitment—along with myriad performance attributes and circumstances—produces applause, huzzahs, and awards, the self is acknowledged and celebrated. When this commitment is critically (as in bad review, etc.) received, the attendant feeling is somewhat akin to root canal sans Novocain. When the actor’s performance fails, the actor’s self fails (as opposed to a misfiring rocket, where culpability and blame may find many co-owners, and even then, those responsible don’t equate their being with the errant rocket). All to say, commitment-of-the-self may not be easy; it is, however, imperative!

So, exactly why is commitment-of-the-self such a crucial storytelling muscle? Simply, commitment-of-the-self induces emotional connection. Unpacking this rubric immediately reveals the narrator’s fundamental obligation to listeners: connecting the self to the narrative’s emotional consequence. And if the storyteller fails by one percent to engage the subtext, then full realization of the words’ feelings is, by definition, impossible.

To be sure, compelling storytelling requires more than commitment-of-the-self. That said, when—and only when—actors consistently commit their emotional (rather than vocal) selves to the subtext, do they, like Elizabeth Ashley, encounter the possibility of authentically and completely engaging the narrative’s feelings, and satisfying listeners’ expectations, one-hundred-percent.


What to Expect From Upcoming LA, NY, NY Master Class, and Houston Narrator’s Workshops When You’re Expecting

I’m looking forward to working with narrators in upcoming LA, NY, and Houston workshops. In preparing for them, I continue to recognize this fact of audiobook life: Increasing numbers of narrators are competing for increasing employment opportunities. Many of those narrators (especially people with home studios) have never worked with a director, and likely never will. Therefore, my primary obligation is advocating actable techniques that assist talent to direct themselves, and then practicing them.

Upcoming Narrator’s Workshops: LA-Sept. 13/14; NYC-Sept 27/28; Houston-Oct. 25/26. NYC Master Class Workshop-Saturday, Nov. 1.

At this posting there is one slot available in the NY and LA workshop.

For information and to register, contact Michele Cobb:


I’m looking forward to working this week with former workshop alum and busy storyteller, Caitlin Davies.