I try to refrain from discussing specific books or narrators. But a review I already had prior interest in caught my additional attention because it provides (albeit anecdotally) an opportunity to focus on a larger proposition that, if confidently welcomed by narrators, will enhance their performance.
For the purpose of clarity and context, it’s important to note that this post's thesis refers specifically to dramatic fiction (as opposed to humor, or satire, or some permutation of non-realistic fiction). Also, it’s important to emphasize in advance that dozens of very talented narrators win awards, many without a director or engineer, and deservedly so.
I recently directed The Kept, featuring the actress and storyteller, Kate Udall, for Harper Audio. Ms. Udall received a flattering review from Audiofile Magazine, along with an Earphones Award ©. But beyond flattering sentiments, there’s a particular characterization by the reviewer that captures the heart of at least one of dramatic storytelling’s aesthetic demands, and illuminates a fundamental difference between reading a narrative and storytelling it.
First the review, then the characterization in question, and then I’ll suggest that this particular reference to Ms. Udall’s performance is indicative of the storyteller’s overall obligation to vocally match performance with the text's dramatic demand.
Narrator Kate Udall makes James Scott's disturbing debut novel choice listening. In northern New York in the late nineteenth century, Elspeth Howell and her 12-year-old son, Caleb, set out to find the men who brutally murdered their family. While the two are motivated by revenge, this textured story offers much more. Udall's performance slowly peels away carefully concealed secrets whose revelations leave no one unscathed. Udall captures the characters' moral wretchedness in an unforgiving world, the rage and pent-up emotions of mother and son, and the human capacity for cruelty. Not for the squeamish due to some explicit raw descriptions, Scott's controlled prose and Udall's understated narration make this an experience that will stay with you long after you remove your ear buds. S.J.H. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine [Published: FEBRUARY 2014]
The salient quote: “Scott's controlled prose and Udall's understated narration make this an experience that will stay with you long after you remove your ear buds?”
Understood through a performance lens, what am I deducing? First, “Scott's controlled prose…”
If you believe Audiofile's reviewer, and various print reviews, The Kept is a high-stakes drama. “Scott’s controlled prose” tells me that how the author has constructed his narrative's syntax is commensurate with the relentless tension and graphic descriptions of killing and physical abuse that occur throughout the novel. I assume that “controlled prose” compliments the author's successful effort to keep readers on the edge of their seat.
Second, “…Udall's understated narration make this an experience that will stay with you long after you remove your ear buds?”
As it applies to the storyteller’s craft, let’s define “understated” as, a performance tool whose aesthetic purpose is to match the stakes (tension embedded in the subtext) while maintaining listeners’ willing suspension of disbelief.
I think “understated” is alluding to, the actor’s performance response to the demand of the narrative’s “controlled prose.” In other words, round peg (“controlled prose”) fitting precisely into round hole (“understated” narration). The reviewer is saying that Ms. Udall’s “understated” performance connects listeners to the subtext in a way that matches the text’s dramatic expectation. Voila. Great audiobook review.
What caused me to unpack this particular review was the reference, “understated.” It reminds me that so many emerging and even experienced narrators seem reflexively suspect of understated, or less. When in fact, it’s more that often removes listeners’ interest because more disconnects listeners from the story’s dramatic import.
Axiomatically, if narrators want to diminish listeners’ involvement in a dramatic narrative, they might speak at a kind of normal volume. If they really want to deaden listeners' involvement, they should speak louder and Aunt Mary-modulate. To be sure, emphasis, effusiveness and yelling occur in drama, and more voice is sometimes required. But these heightened moments are generally rare. Few narratives—unless they take place in an asylum with no meds—are about crazy people who constantly shout.
If “understated” is a preferred dramatic performance tool, how then is it actualized?
In three words: Less, less, less! Less voice. Less vocal emphasis. Less tick-tock, rhythmically similar pace (This is achieved by the storyteller’s attention to the point of view of the character being talked about, staying inside the head when the character’s thoughts speak, and discovering events as if they’re unfolding before the character’s eyes right now, because to the listener, they are.).
And why might this understated narration “stay with you,” as it did the reviewer? Perhaps because the storyteller focused on connecting the roiling emotions beneath the narrative’s words, rather than concerning herself with how those words should be enunciated.
If I had a ruble (not worth so much these days, to be sure) each time I suggested to an actor, Less voice, less emphasis, just get inside the head of the character, work your way through the events confronting that character, and heard, Really, Paul? Seriously? No one will hear me. No, I can’t speak that softly, and there’s just so many plum words for me to emphasize, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d have a boat load of rubles.