The following is a lecture presented at Spalding University on May 25, 2015. It was part of the graduation requirement for the MFA fiction program.
How is it possible that a fiction writer who knows her story inside out couldn’t possibly present a more compelling narration of that work than a skilled actor, even an actor whose intellectual grasp of the narrative is minimal? Myriad arguments support the contention that, between the two, the actor’s storytelling advantage is irrefutable, despite the writer’s superior appreciation of the work, and its attendant intellectual nuance. Why is this? Essentially, because acting fiction and writing fiction are as different as, say, apples and oranges. The writer’s discipline does not address the act of performing fiction aloud. The pathways to creating compelling storytelling, then, are located in the actor’s discipline.
Nothing is more indicative of this apple/orange binary than the actor’s and writer’s unique relationship to the syntax—the words themselves. This lecture will focus primarily on the actor’s syntax relationship. The exploration of that unique relationship will shed light on how actors actually act fiction, and subsequently strengthen the contention that when authors desire a presentation of their fiction that connects the listener to the story’s emotional import, their first and only thought should be: hire an actor.
On the surface, it might seem that the words unite writer and actor in a common communicative undertaking. Not the case. As we explore the actor’s aesthetic relationship to the words, we’ll discover that it’s unlike, maybe opposite, the writer’s, that acting the words wholly differs from reading them, can I say, dramatically. Upon explicating this difference, we’ll also discover that the actor who narrates aloud as an actor is inherently predisposed to actualize the words’ emotionality, to give the narrative life. Conversely, the writer, who reads aloud as a writer, may convey the words’ meaning, but doesn’t possess the performance tools to actualize the words’ feeling. And so we can deduce what’s arguably the obvious: Accessing the words’ emotional territory is the key to a riveting performance; authors who lack that access are locked out of the words’ emotionality, which explains why their readings are often flat, atonal, more likely to elicit somnolence than edge-of-the-seat attentiveness.
Before specifically interrogating the actor’s relationship to the words, let’s contextualize his discipline with a brief primer on acting, and the storytelling process. One parenthetical, albeit important caveat: We’re exclusively discussing fiction. Non-fiction’s narration process is related to, but different enough from, performing fiction to the degree that non-fiction might be regarded as, say, a tangerine.
Finally, two brief addendums before getting underway: Throughout, I’ll use narrator, storyteller and actor synonymously. For me, these nomenclatures reflect an identical aesthetic endeavor. Second, it’s worth mentioning that I’m discussing fiction through the storyteller’s lens, rather than the author’s, and it’s always useful to remember that various definitions and characterizations writers understand one way, may be regarded quite differently by the actor.
Back to acting, and the fiction storytelling process (arenas I have some expertise in, given my years as a theatre and audiobook director, and storytelling teacher).
First, some definitions. What is acting? What is storytelling? What is the aesthetic relationship between storyteller and listener?
Sanford Meisner, one of the America’s most preeminent acting teachers, defined acting as a process that connects the performer with his “emotional impulses,” and that acting itself, “is firmly rooted in the instinctive. All good acting,” he argued, “comes from the heart, as it were, and there’s no mentality to it.” (1) While numerous definitions of actor and acting express various truths about the process, what’s instructive about Meisner’s definition is that he specifically conflates acting with emotion, and not with intellect (what he means by mentality). Meisner portrays acting as a craft predicated on the performer’s ability to connect to her emotional impulses, her feelings, rather than her cognitive experience—what she thinks. Which is precisely why an actor never has to have been a king to play Lear, and why the actor who does play Lear isn’t playing how Lear thinks, but rather, connecting to what Lear feels. Bottom line, it’s the actor’s simulation of Lear’s emotions—emotions the actor has surely experienced—that determine how well, or poorly, he portrays this character.
In a word, the storytelling process can be reductively summarized as: acting. Storytelling is an acting process whose primary obligation is to connect the actor to the text’s emotions. By definition, when there’s no acting, there’s no storytelling, and the result is reading, or speaking words, often with emphasis, but—and we’ll explain why shortly—never confuse emphasis with acting. For now think, readers (non-performers) emphasize words’ feelings, actors act words’ feelings!
In summery, storytelling and acting are synonymous. When acting fiction, the storyteller intuitively connects his own emotional impulses to the emotionality embedded in the narrative’s syntax, and never to the words’ meaning. Like a heat seeking missile, the actor is inexorably propelled toward how the characters feel, rather than what they think. In the actor’s parlance, all that’s of value is the subtext. Subtext simply refers to the feeling within the words, rather than their meaning.
In order to move a listener from dazed to engaged, two aesthetic bridges must be constructed by the storyteller: one that connects him to the narrative’s subtext (its emotionality); and another that connects that subtext to the listener. The visceral material those bridges are constructed of is acting. Therefore, no acting, no bridges, no storytelling.
This bridge-building metaphor helps us fathom why the actor’s cold reading of a novel, for example, is likely to be light years more gratifying than that of the writer’s rendition, no matter how long, or how diligently the dedicated writer has practiced, no matter that she’s committed this hundred-thousand word tome to memory, verbatim. It’s worth noting, too, that writers who construct the actors’ subtext-connecting bridges stand an excellent chance of narrating their fiction like an actor. Why? Because they are one.
When the storytelling process is proceeding, the actor is in the midst of fulfilling his most basic promise to listeners: Maintaining their willing suspension of disbelief. Listeners know, of course, that the story, written in the past, is being told by someone standing before them, or if it’s an audiobook, has been pre-recorded by a narrator in a booth. But that doesn’t inhibit them from wishing, maybe praying: promise me I’ll be transported my immediate reality, as if on a magic carpet ride; promise me I’ll be emotionally integrated into unfolding events that are happening in real time, where I, just like the fiction’s characters, have no clue as to what’s going to occur next. When listeners willingly suspend their disbelief, it’s most likely because the actor is just doing her job, making good on her wish-fulfillment promise.
Having briefly examined acting, and storytelling, we’re better prepared to peer further into the storyteller’s process, and describe some of its salient moving parts, that when aggregated, help us visualize how the actor actually acts fiction.
Earlier, I argued that it would seem fiction writers and actors share seats in a common communicative domicile: Words. I suggested that, upon investigating this presumed commonality, whatever the words may imply to the writer, likely none of those implications are applicable to the narrator—and so, apples and oranges. In an effort to deepen our understanding of the storyteller’s process, it’s useful to explore in more detail what the writers’ words mean to actors.
We’ll begin by imagining a word as a house with two rooms: one is the thinking room; the other, the feeling room. The thinking room is filled with thoughts, intellectual constructs: abstract symbols, signs and significations that represent meaning, ideas, etc.; the feeling room is populated by our emotional states of being: happy, sad, angry, etc.
Only the feeling room warrants storytellers’ attention; the thinking room is useless to them, off limits, verboten!. Why? Because ideas and meaning aren’t actable. Only emotion is actable. Therefore, we can categorically assert that to the storyteller, the words’ intellectual value, their meaning, are irrelevant: dead weight. In effect, actors are not wired to access the author’s intellectual purposes, nor the characters’ thoughts. In fact, attention to the words’ meaning crosses actors’ wiring, and distracts them from doing their job: acting. At worst, excessive fretting over meaning can totally short circuit the actor’s ability to connect the listener to the text’s emotionality precisely because this mislaid agenda prevents the actor from acting.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, why is the actor’s attention to content such a narrative-toxin? Shouldn’t narrators understand the plot, the story? Won’t that knowledge enhance the storytelling experience? To a degree. Essentially, the actor should comprehend the story, be familiar with its characters and ensuing events, but only enough to be secure that he more or less knows what’s going on. Too much concern for content, a trap many storytellers fall unwittingly into, reinforces their misperception that understanding the words will enable them to act their feelings. It will not! Here it’s important to reiterate that to the actor, the text (the words) are not actable. Ipso facto, an actor who attempts to act what’s not actable—the words—will fail to locate what is actable—the words’ feeling. Axiomatically, the harder the actor works to understand the words, the more likely he is to fail to appreciate their emotional consequence.
By way of example, let’s reiterate this words-aren’t-actable storytelling pillar, mindful of the thinking room and feeling room, and also, as Meisner might say, the stimulus that’s necessary to connect actors to their “emotional impulses.”
If I present this sentence to an actress—“ Katy Smith walked to her office”—and then said to her, okay, act that sentence, what would trigger her “emotional impulses,” or the acting response? How would she interpret the syntax? The answer is, she wouldn’t because she couldn’t. Essentially, she’s in the wrong word-room. Though the sentence is grammatically correct, and coherently communicates Katy’s activity, to the actor it’s just syntactic static. But what if I said to the actress, well, in this part of the story, Katy’s favorite hat has been blown off her head and then kicked into a mud puddle by Roy Jones, whom she’s walking beside? Now the actress can act, “Katy Smith walked to her office!” Now she can intuit Katy’s distressed mood, access her bereft feelings, and then connect—not the words’ meaning—but their emotional consequence (the subtext) to the listener.
Getting down to some how-actors-act-fiction nuts and bolts
We can now turn our attention to several fundamental storytelling elements that will specifically demonstrate how actor’s actually act fiction. Three of these nuts and bolts—perhaps first among equals of what I tell narrators are really storytelling’s ten commandments—are: Point of view; The Stakes; Discovery. And again, a reminder to fiction writers: these three commandments are being viewed through the storyteller’s lens.
To visualize these nuts and bolts in action, we’ll enlarge the Katy/Roy example, replete with a surfeit of adverbs, so that it more accurately reflects most of the best selling fiction I’ve directed over the years. We’ll assume a female narrator reads: “Katy Smith walked cheerily to her office with Roy Jones, and stupifyingly gaped as her new pink hat blew unexpectedly from her head by a gusting wind, into a mud puddle on the sidewalk, and as if that wasn’t horrible enough, when Roy carelessly booted it, she angrily grimaced when he seemingly stepped on it on purpose, though he could have stepped over it purposefully, too.”
How then, step-by-step, does the actress act this sentence?
First, she intuitively disabuses herself of the writing’s quality—good, bad, literary or pedestrian; it’s meaningless to her, and therefore, to the quality of her performance. To her, there’s no difference, say, between Danielle Steel, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Why? Because, while these fiction writers may exist on opposite ends of the literary continuum, their stories reveal identical emotions. Their characters are happy, sad, distraught, obnoxious, etc. And since only the words’ feelings (subtext) are accessible, thus actable, their literary merit is inconsequential. To the actress, there’s no such thing as literary vs. commercial anxiety, just anxiety.
Preparing to act the Katy/Roy example, step one finds the actress internalizing the words’ emotionality: actually connecting her emotional impulses to the words’ feelings. Then on to step two, which requires her to organically (believably) replicate the words’ feelings, and exactly as the author intends. If the author writes, ‘she murmurs sadly,’ the actress murmurs sadly. If the author’s intent is less apparent, she must employ her intuition and training to access that intent. A daunting process sometimes, which is why we rely on her training and intuition to organically simulate those feelings.
Breaking down step two—believably replicating the words’ feelings—is where we find the majority of the actress’s nuts and bolts repertoire, including the three specific commandments we just mentioned, that serve her effort to organically simulate Katy’s emotional experience, and as the author intends?
Point of View: In narrating fiction, among the actor’s most obligatory commandments, is: Tell the story from the point of view of whom, or what you’re talking about. That directive’s importance is fully appreciated when we understand that every single word in fiction—including description—is imbued with feeling, or an emotional point of view. Every person, place, or thing in fiction comes from an emotional place. A way to further understand point of view is to read fiction and try and locate a neutral word or phrase, one utterly devoid feeling, an emotional black hole. Not possible. Imagine a fiction writer: writing and feeling nothing, then reflecting that nothing in the words. Again, not possible. And remember, actors can only act feeling, and so if they can’t locate feeling, activate the words’ point of view, there’s nothing to act. Their default scenario is a reading, a rendition; think somnolence, or Sominex.
In our Katy/Roy example, because the sentence’s emotionality is revealed through Katy’s eyes, the actress connects to Katy’s feelings, that is, Katy’s point of view. And what is her point of view? Actually, it’s several. At first, it’s cheerily. And so the actress intuitively connects to a Katy who “walked cheerily to her office with Roy Jones.” But then, Katy’s pov shifts to stupification, when her hat falls into the mud puddle, and then to anger when Roy, seemingly accidentally on purpose, steps on it.
Despite the gangly, convoluted sentence, the subtext (its emotionality) is unmistakable, and like a plug in a socket, the actress intuitively connects to Katy’s cheerily, stupifyingly, and angrily point of view, in order of their appearance.
The Stakes. Exactly how intense are Katy’s feelings in this sentence? Or, in actor-parlance, what are the stakes? To what degree do Katy’s feelings reveal themselves? First, the actress senses the stakes by connecting her intuition to stupifyingly, angrily, etc. These are all feelings she’s had before, or can imagine having. She may relate to walking down a sidewalk with someone, though, again, this scenario isn’t her primary concern because scenario isn’t actable.
How then does she believably simulate these feelings’ intensity? Here, we refer to Meisner, to the actor’s instinct, the actor’s heart—upon which her believable performance is predicated. The actress relies on her experience and intuition to vocally match the stakes she sees embedded in the author’s syntax, to replicate their power, or intensity, and then connect that intensity (the stakes) to the listener. When listeners sense that, indeed, her performance replicates those stakes, they willingly suspend their disbelief, and are emotionally engaged, plugged in, not only to stupefied, and angry, but to how stupefied, and how angry. Connecting to the stakes is acting; it is how actors organically act the subtext, rather than emphasize, enunciate or imitate that which isn’t felt by them.
Discovery. Our daily lives unfold in the moment, in real time: that is, we don’t know what’s going to happen next, even if we’re dead sure we do. Our experiences aren’t scripted; we can’t flip ahead ten years to see what happens. Fictional characters written as real, sentient beings respond similarly. Replicating fictional characters’ spontaneous, real time interaction with events, other character, and themselves, is another fundamental storytelling commandment.
Discovery, then, is defined as activating the here and now: Or real time, or the moment. Discovery maintains willing suspension of disbelief by convincing listeners the story is unfolding right before their eyes.
By the way, when narrators fail to discover, their reading sounds like reading—stilted, or rote, pre-fabricated, distant, or reported like the six o’clock news. Lack of discovery disconnects listeners from the here and now, from sensing that it’s all happening in real time. When narrators fail to discover, willing suspension of disbelief ruptures, and listeners become restless, and bored. When it’s delivered a fatal blow, listeners are no longer engaged by the subtext, they’ve tuned out.
Discovery’s most important benefit to the storyteller is that it stimulates an organic (that is, believable) response to the subtext, and at the same time discourages what’s called indicating, or voicing, or emphasizing what’s not felt. Indicating is really an intellectual choice to represent feeling, imitate feeling, fake feeling by emphasizing words. Indicating—voicing rather than internalizing emotion—is the antithesis of acting because it is not stimulated by the subtext’s emotionality. Nothing separates the listener from the story’s emotional consequence more than indicating.
Discovery can be confounding, even to experienced actors. The primary reason is because reading aloud is antithetical to discovery. The very act of reading words that the narrator sees just prior to speaking them is so counterintuitive to spontaneity. Especially when he’s already prepped the book by reading it in advance of the recording, which means he also knows the complete story, including who-done-it! Additionally, most actors aren’t trained to read aloud. Their film, TV, or theatrical experiences involve dialogue memorization and rehearsal, a familiar process that encourages simulation of real life spontaneity. Finally, the non-dialogue syntax is utterly foreign to the performer, and almost terrifyingly artificial. While dialogue presents various obstacles, such as playing multiple characters, including opposite gender, at least trained actors are experienced in interpreting and simulating naturalistic speech. The non-dialogue syntax is another story: People don’t naturally narrate their lives aloud, especially in third person, so humanizing the non-dialogue, and then spontaneously discovering its emotionality, just like a real person speaking in real time, is arguably the storyteller’s most vexing challenge.
For the storyteller, the major discovery impediments—the act of reading, advance knowledge of the story, and the non-dialogue syntax—are most effectively addressed when, perhaps surprisingly, he seeks guidance from his number one discovery guide—the text itself.
Just how does the text earn the actor’s favor, that is, guide him toward discovering the words’ emotionality? Three ways:
First the obvious: Feeling-instructions appear in the author’s dialogue and character descriptions. For example, “I hate you,” ‘she said, angrily!’”
Second, actors discover less obvious feelings in the syntax by sensitizing themselves to word order, and word choice. Such as, “She just couldn’t work at this pointless job another day.” Here, the actor intuits a particular distress, or anger in the phrases, ‘she just couldn’t,’ and ‘pointless job.’ As an example of word order’s impact on discovery, we’ll reverse two words in this sentence—couldn’t and just. Now the sentence reads: ‘She couldn’t just work at this pointless job another day.’ Here the actor discovers a different feeling, subtle perhaps, but different due to the word order.
Third, and often invisible even to trained storytellers, are two fail-safe discovery clues that we’ll call The Discovery Twins, because they’re so closely related, like twins. Twin One is The Punctuation. Twin Two is The White Space.
First, we’ll explain each twin’s discovery contribution. Then we’ll hear how they work in tandem, hoping this demonstration will further illuminate their unique and profound importance to spontaneity.
Twin One: The Punctuation. All the text’s punctuation—the period, comma, semi-colon, explanation point, m-dash, etc.—serve as a discovery marker. Much like a buoy in a sea of words. To the storyteller, punctuation indicates the end of one feeling, and signals the beginning of another feeling. In actor parlance, a feeling is termed a beat. The new feeling, or beat, may range from sharply to subtly different than what preceded it. But for the actor, what’s relevant is that the beat is new, therefore, what follows the punctuation is not part of the previous beat, or feeling. In short, punctuation signals the actor: Old beat over; get ready to discover the new feeling.
Twin Two: The White Space. For the actor, the actual white, or blank, space between the punctuation and next word is a discovery stimulant: an ah hah, or oooh, or, wow indicator. The white space is a vibrant, emotional territory that, when inhabited by the actor’s intuition, stimulates his discovery of the feeling embedded in the words he’s about to say.
An example of how these twins work as a team to activate discovery may further highlight their significance to the storyteller:
Let’s focus on the following sentences’ punctuation, and the white space: “Kathleen perused the Spalding lunch menu. (Period/white space) Not another day of soup. (Period/white space) Damn the diet. (Period/white space) She was going to order a bacon cheeseburger. (Period/white space) No! (Explanation point/white space) A double bacon cheeseburger, (Comma/white space), and fries. (Period/white) And a chocolate shake!! (Double exclamation point).
Now I’ll read these sentences twice: first, no acting: simply to reinforce focus on the punctuation and white spaces. Then a second time, I’ll narrate as the storyteller who is directed by the punctuation and white spaces to discover Kathleen’s feelings (and you’ll excuse my less than award-winning performance).
First: Again, listen for punctuation, followed by white space.
“Kathleen perused the Spalding lunch menu. Not another day of soup. Damn the diet. She was going to order a bacon cheeseburger. No! A double bacon cheeseburger, and fries. And a chocolate shake!!
Now, as the storyteller:
“Kathleen perused the Spalding lunch menu. Not another day of soup. Damn the diet. She was going to order a bacon cheeseburger. No! A double bacon cheeseburger, and fries. And a chocolate shake!!
I hope you hear the discovery in the second version, and can visualize how punctuation and white space create spontaneity. Incidentally, you also sense the stakes, and can tell that this experience is told from Kathleen’s pov.
If we open the storyteller’s head while she’s narrating, we can bear witness to the storyteller and Discovery Twins’ at work. Listen to the first few sentences: (I’m fairly chipper) “Kathleen perused the Spalding lunch menu (period/white space—Ugh! Now I’m bummed) “Not another day of soup (period/white space-frustrated, reeeaaallly frustrated) “Damn the diet.” Etcetera, etcetera.
There’s discovery. Discovered feelings create immediacy; immediacy brings the fiction writer’s words to life. Discovery is an integral component of the carpet’s magic that transports the listener’s imagination toward willing suspension of disbelief. Discovery transforms the listener from passive observer to engaged participant. In short, no discovery, no storytelling. End of story.
When audiobooks emerged in the late 1980s as a derivative compliment to their printed elder, some readers—many of them college educated—balked at audiobooks’ legitimacy. Most people casually listened while driving in their car; cassette decks were becoming standard in newer models. And most audiobooks were abridged—often by 70%. By the way, unabridged is the rule today. When queried about audiobooks, readers’ common, pejorative refrain—I read—spoke volumes about the implication that spoken word was comparable to print. The notion that reading and being read to could ignite their imagination equally seemed impossible; after all, reading and being read to were apples and oranges.
In a very real way, that assumption is accurate. It’s also fair to argue that reading and being read to are equally viable aesthetics. Rather than apples verses oranges, the explicit notion that I hope this lecture advances, is that storytelling is by definition, a performance art, a unique enterprise that deserves to be considered an artist’s endeavor. How actors act fiction, and why authors can’t possibly narrate their fiction as well as actors, is really meant to inform, and then persuade us to first imagine what it means to be an actor, so that we can imagine what it means to be a storyteller, so that, then, we can imagine what it means to be read to.
I am looking forward to residing and working in LA next January/February, and to my September Narrator’s workshop in New York, and January workshop in LA (for information/registration, contact Michele firstname.lastname@example.org).
Finishing the MFA fiction program is gratifying, and will allow me to put less time between blog posts.