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Directing Audiobooks: What difference does it make?
By Paul Ruben

Please indulge an audiobook director for a moment. Read this article title aloud as if you were recording it. Okay. Go ahead. Take one.

“Directing audiobooks: What difference does it make?!”

Hmmm. Okay. Your intonation was a little flat, and your pace a bit fast. Sounded sorta half question, half statement…like you’re not really sure about audiobook directing. Lemme hear your point of view. And remember you need to perform, not just read the words. Okay, you’re rolling. Take two.

“Directing audiobooks: What difference does it make!”

Good. Better energy; nice pace. But I’m still not hearing your point of view as the storyteller. So, take three.

“Directing audiobooks: What DIFFERENCE does it make!!!”

Wow, that was interesting. I guess I know what you think of audiobook directors, huh!

Listeners who have never witnessed an actor and director at work on an audiobook may well wonder what contribution, if any, the audiobook director makes to an actor’s performance. I hope my answers to this question will illuminate two propositions: first, storytelling; and second, that a director’s specific “performance tools” enable good actors to become better storytellers.

If I were advertising for a director, one succinct bullet point would summarize the job description:

Wanted: Audiobook Director to assist actors with interpreting authors’ works

That’s it. That’s what an audiobook director does; that’s all an audiobook director should do. But while the “what” is simple enough, it’s the “how” that I’d like to explore. How does a director “direct”? How is a good actor influenced by a good director?

An audiobook director’s work is divided between fiction and nonfiction. While directing nonfiction can be extremely satisfying, fiction--with its descriptive narrative, multiple characters and plots--often provides the greater challenge and reward. So, fiction first.

Let’s begin with the want ads job description. Simple as “assist with interpreting” sounds, it requires certain ineffable skills.

Not long ago an experienced and exceptionally talented actor walked into my studio, manuscript in hand. His tone and body language shuttled among disbelief, amusement, anxiety, even a little fear.

“Did you…totally understand the story?” he asked, hesitantly.

There is a subtle, albeit noticeable, affectation that barely masks the ceaseless please-don’t-let-this-be-a-nightmare-session terror permanently lodged inside the audio producer’s heart: It’s called producer twitch. I twitched.

“Ah… I have an idea,” I replied.

The actor and I then sat down and carefully reviewed the story. We figured it out intellectually (we understood the story) and emotionally (we understood how the main characters felt). More importantly, our conversation made the actor and me feel like team players, as we employed our creative skills toward the mutual goal of interpreting the author’s words to the best of our ability.

Director’s Rule #1 Read the text in advance. Know the story and the characters so that you can assist the actor with interpretation.

Director’s Rule #2 Become the actor’s co-conspirator. Collaboration inherently breeds trust and confidence, enabling the actor to “hear” the director as he or she assists with text interpretation.

So, how do you actually direct actors? Even ones as famous and accomplished as, say, Lynn Redgrave? First, recite the director’s mantra: Audiobooks are an actor’s medium. Repeat: Audiobooks are an actor’s medium. Unlike directing a film or even a play, there’s nothing monumental an audiobook director can do to assert his or her imprint on the production. You serve the actor. Remember that, and good actors will respect you.

Director’s Rule #3 Only offer actable direction, because that’s all the actor can act.

Last year I produced and directed Lynn Redgrave (one of the planet’s foremost actors) in Robin Pilcher’s romance novel, Starting Over. And, because Ms. Redgrave is the quintessential actor (meaning she’s grounded in theatrical tradition and training as opposed to being a TV personality), she responded positively to any direction that was “actable.”

What does “actable” mean? Actors can act (or perform) only one thing: emotion. They can’t act intellect. Or ideas. Or what happened to the character last Wednesday. Or what really made the author use the phrase “camel-like” instead of “over-sexed”. Offer an actor a non-actable direction and they’ll think you’re well-meaning, maybe, but no director. The not-so-sweet actors may treat you like an idiot. So, Ms. Redgrave reads a line. (I take a breath. I call her “Lynn.” She smiles. Whew, I live.) “Lynn, I think this character’s feeling more enthusiastic.”

“Hmmm,” muses Lynn, “Ok”.

Take two: Lynn masterfully executes my direction and I feel like a genius.

So, what if Lynn disagreed with me (as she sometimes did) and said, “Actually, Paul, I think maybe less enthusiastic?” We’d collaborate, find an agreeable and “actable” solution, and move on. However, this does beg the larger question: How do you know if your direction is correct in the first place?

Directing is an art, not a science. That said, if you know what’s going on in the scene, you and your actor/collaborator will probably draw conclusions consistent with the author’s. Specifically how you accomplish this with the actor suggests the next Director’s rule.

Director’s Rule #4 Bring your director’s tool kit to every session.

Your director’s kit consists of two compartments, which I label “organic” and “technical.” Each includes a variety of appropriate directing tools that can stimulate, even inspire, actors to increase their creative choices. (Caveat: Directing tools are only as good as the actors on which they are used.)

Enter Simon Jones, another gifted storyteller. (Yes, I know, it’s all Brits. The Yanks are coming.) I’ve worked with Simon on numerous projects, including Peter Mayle’s A Dog’s Life and French Lessons and C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution, a mystery set in sixteenth century England.

Like many of the talented storytellers I’ve recorded-- from experienced narrators such as (here come the Americans!) Peter MacNicol, Ron McLarty, Cherry Jones, Dennis Boutsikaris, Blair Brown, Jeff Woodman, Barbara Rosenblat, Eric Conger, and Tony Roberts, to relative newcomers such as Oliver Wyman, Stephen Spinella, Jenna Lamia, Ron Livingston, David LeDoux, Beth McDonald, and Janine Carter-- Simon Jones responds intuitively and with unmatched capability to tools in both compartments.

Organic direction goes to the heart of the characters’ motivations and emotions by drawing from the actor’s own emotional reservoir. I might say, “Hey Simon, I think maybe the character’s more nervous than you’re playing him.” Simon nods. Intuitively, he recalls that sense of nervousness from past experience. And, like magic, he re-creates it.
Read the following third-person narration as flatly (monotone, without emotion) as you can.

“John came in the house. It was cold. The heat didn’t seem to be working. John was too distracted by a recent encounter with his ex-wife to do anything except collapse on the couch. He was exhausted and cold.”

Sound like any audiobooks you’ve heard lately?

Even talented actors, especially after several hours in the studio, can fall into simply “reading” as opposed to storytelling. The narration’s a little dull, the pace metronome--like, the volume a little weak. Talented actor, flat performance. You know the actor understands the story. You’ve talked it through. Whataya gonna do now? How do you get the dialogue?

Enter organic direction: “Live the narration through the point of view of whom or what you’re talking about.” “OK,” says the actor, and suddenly she becomes a storyteller who imbues the narration with feeling (in other words, an emotional point of view). It becomes performed instead of read. I have no idea what occurs physiologically to create this palpable metamorphosis. But thank goodness for the likes of Jones, Jones, McLarty, Wyman, Woodman, Rosenblat, etc. When they respond to that simple suggestion, boy, am I a good director or what!

Technical direction finds another way to skin the cat by asking the actor to employ vocal technique (as opposed to emotional recall) to influence performance.

An actor’s pacing (literally, the rhythm of the words) can be altered vocally. If I say, “Hey, Oliver, let’s make the character more empathetic here.” Simply by slowing his pace, Oliver increases listeners’ empathy for the character. And, again, like magic, the entire performance is transmuted. One possible explanation for the effectiveness of this directorial elixir may be—at least in my opinion—that the slower you speak, the better you interpret. Slowing down affords good actors the time to make stronger emotional choices.

Altering the narrator’s rhythm can be enormously effective as well. My associate, John Cheary, calls the following Direction #1: “Don’t let the words come out so easily. Make them hard to say. Don’t sing.”

A good actor intuitively understands that in real life one’s rhythm is not smooth and predictable. People hesitate when they speak because they can’t say what they want, or what they’d really like to say isn’t exactly what comes out, or because they don’t know what they’re going to say next. Just by not letting the words spill out a narrator sounds more like a person than a reader. To hear the difference, listen to the voice-over on a TV commercial. Does it sound real to you? No. I call this predictable rhythmic sound “singing”. However, when you listen to a good actor narrating an audiobook, the rhythm is varied and richly subtle, not “sing song” like a typical TV voice-over.

Other technical directions, such as affecting a stage whisper to create mood, or pausing for dramatic or comic effect, can also significantly heighten a given moment or scene.

What about directing nonfiction? Viewed through a director’s eye, the performance challenge of nonfiction is to compel listeners to suspend their disbelief and, in effect, think that they are hearing the author, not the actor. But the rules are the same. Using all the tools in the aforementioned director’s kit, the director can ensure that the actor becomes the storyteller and that the listener hears the author instead of the reader.

Now, some author’s narrate their works on audio, and directing them requires a different approach. While some are good readers, they’re generally not as capable as professional narrators because most are not actors. They can’t respond to Direction #1 because they simply don’t know how. So the director’s job is to make authors feel comfortable and secure by allowing them to be themselves. That’s all you can and should do.

I hope this focus on the audiobook director’s role properly illustrates the efficacy of the contribution. I suspect, however, that some readers still may have questions, so maybe a brief Q&A will resolve any lingering doubts.

Paul: Yes, the man in the back row.

Man: Yeah, so, Paul, in a word, if I wanted to become an audiobook director, and I’m not saying I want your job or anything, what’s the first thing I should do?

Paul: So long as you don’t want my job, here’s what you do—get good actors! OK, one more question. Ma’am?

Ma’am: C’mon, Paul, with a good actor, is a director really necessary?

Paul: I’m glad you asked that question. Ever seen a play or film that didn’t credit a director? Me either. And why is that? What do all these directors have to offer? While some audiobooks are performed without a director, I’ll go out on a limb and reply: Ask any good narrator, and he or she will tell you that the collaborative effort with a good director opens the door for more creative choices, which can produce a richer, more compelling performance. And who are the beneficiaries? Not only the actor, the director, the author, and the publisher… but the listener! And that’s the real story!

* * *

With almost 20 years in the business, Paul Ruben is one of the most highly regarded producers in the audiobook industry. He is an award winning independent audiobook producer/director in New York and has worked for most major audiobook publishers.

This voice over Helpful Hint is brought to you by Sherri Berger.
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