For Confident Storytelling, Prepping
Is A Must. But What Should You Prep?
Note: In September and October, the author is presenting audiobook narrator workshops in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. For details, please click here.
By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional & Teacher
Several weeks ago the question - should narrators "prep" their book before recording? - surprisingly, from my perspective, provoked a flurry of divergent opinions among a dozen or so audiobook crowd participants.
Why was I surprised? As a director/producer, I imagine querying a narrator soliciting employment:
"So, when you prep ... "
"Ya know, Paul, really, prep/schmep? C'mon, what's the diff? Just, like, hire me, okay."
Really? I'd be thinking:
"Hire you? Ah, no thanks. But I will have the vegetable plate."
YOU SHOULD PREP - NO DOUBT ABOUT IT
Grover Gardner, studio director for Blackstone Audio in Ashland, OR. and an award-winning narrator, spoke succinctly for me when he unequivocally urged narrators to prep before entering the booth.
I'd echo Grover's instructive advice for what seems to me to be the obvious: There is an axiomatic relationship between preparation and confident storytelling.
If it's fair to argue that prepping the book is a must - is there really a downside to confidently knowing what you're talking about before saying it? - the emerging salient concern for narrators, and the thesis of this post, is: What exactly should the narrator be prepping?
BUT WHAT TO PREP?
What's preppable, what isn't and, importantly, what shouldn't be prepped? Some prep may be hazardous to the listener's experience.
Merriam-Webster defines preparation as: "The action or process of making something ready for use ... getting ready for some occasion."
Let's localize this definition by determining how it applies to the narrator - or, to substitute my preferred nomenclature, the storyteller - an aesthetic and more accurate and respectful characterization of this performance artist.
THE PREPPING PROCESS
Sort of like Spock's mind meld, as storytellers read the book in advance their purpose is to emotionally engage the subtext so that when they enter the booth to record they can confidently tell the story because they've already been in touch with what's coming emotionally.
And the more confident the storyteller, the more opportunity he or she has to accurately reveal the subtext's emotional nuance.
So, if emotionally engaging the subtext is the process, which I'll discuss further, what, ultimately, does the process seek to accomplish?
My answer: Connecting the narrative's emotionality to the listener.
That's the storyteller's bottom line: evoking listeners' willing suspension of disbelief so they can uninterruptedly be emotionally involved with the story as if it's happening in real time.
DIGGING INTO THE SUBTEXT
The storyteller understands subtext. Still, it always feels useful to briefly define it in advance of prescriptively suggesting where to locate subtext, and then how to prep it.
The author's words - the text - are not actable because their sole preoccupation is intellectual, that is, meaning.
So, looking through a performance lens, a word or a sentence is not, itself, actable. The word becomes actable only when its subtext, its feeling, its emotional consequence, is construed.
As storytellers prep the book, what they are actually doing is discovering and engaging the feeling and the emotional consequence that is embedded in every single one of the author's words so they can confidently reveal those feelings during the recording.
TEXT AND SUBTEXT - THEY'RE DIFFERENT
Simply stated: Subtext is preppable. Text isn't.
Try, as a storyteller, to get a handle on how to say "She eats carrots" without first investigating their emotional intention. Impossible.
To be sure, it is important for storytellers to intellectually grasp the text, to literally get what's going on in both fiction and nonfiction, to know who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and to generally understand the intellectual issues the author may be posing and/or grappling with.
But intellectual acuity is, from a performance point of view, the low-hanging, tasteless fruit. Why? Because, as I've suggested, you can't act intellect.
At the risk of redundancy, it's important for the storyteller to remember that, strictly speaking, just because he understands the Civil War better than anyone doesn't mean he can compellingly tell its story.
Authors who read their own work are living examples of why, if they value storytelling, they'll always leave their book to a storyteller.
FEEL THE SUBTEXT
If it's fair to suggest that acting is largely intuitive.
As narrators prep the book, they must intuitively focus their eyes, as if they are dual X-ray ovals, on the "feeling" (subtext) buried inside the syntax.
And feeling is buried there, under each and every word, oscillating unhappily, as if it were a lonely, fallow soul, anxiously waiting to be discovered and plucked from inside the (nonactable) syntax - so that it can intentionalize the words with its emotional consequence.
As their eyes pass over the narrative, every storyteller must reflexively ask:
Until the subtext has been identified (happy, sad, morose, elated, etc.), engaged, and internalized, there is no opportunity to liberate that emotionality and then deliver the feeling's consequence to the listener.
BEWARE PREP HAZARDS
Narrators who prep the book by underlining or highlighting or drawing curvy lines above words and phrases for the purpose of remembering to emphasize them may, albeit unintentionally, aesthetically compromise their best intentions, sometimes damagingly so.
Because emphasis that occurs non-organically - that is, when it's not the result of in-the-moment subtextual revelation - is an emotional disconnector, the dead opposite of what the storyteller wants to create.
I would argue that narrators who are intent on engendering interest by vocally imposing emphasis or modulation risk the unintended consequence of compromising their emotional connection to the listener.
If severing willing suspension of disbelief, removing listeners from the narrative's emotional consequence - as if it were occurring right now - is the outcome, all that's necessary is to impose emphasis.
Non-organic emphasis may catch the listener's attention, but only because he or she has disconnected emotionally in order to intellectually consider what should be felt.
Process, it seems to me, is meaningful when it dutifully serves its correctly understood outcome.
If prep's outcome is emotionally connecting the listener to the narrative, then like Spock, the subtext meld should be the storyteller's primary prep objective while reading the book in advance of recording.
ABOUT PAUL ...
Paul Ruben has produced and directed numerous award-winning audiobooks for every major publisher since 1987. His many Audie Awards include work for It's Not About the Bike, Raymond and Hannah, The World is Flat, and A Slight Trick of the Mind. He also received the 2003 Grammy (Best Spoken Word Album) for Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and the 2009 Grammy for Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox. He has directed regional and summer theatre productions, contributed features on audiobook narration to AudioFile magazine, and was elected to the Audio Publishers Association Board of Directors in 2005. Based in New York City and casting and directing many first-time narrators - some of whom have become outstanding and award-winning working narrators - he also teaches audiobook narrator workshops through his company, Tribeca Audio.
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