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: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m looking forward to working this week with former workshop alum and busy storyteller, Caitlin Davies.