Sunday, July 22, 2012

Page to Stage

I've recently been in the enviable position (and I'm not being ironic) of performing my writing in front of audiences. Note: not "reading", performing. How many times have you gone to hear a writer whose work you really admire, but sat there in dismay — or worse, boredom — because the way they read turned their wonderful words into sawdust? Performing your own writing is an exhilarating opportunity to connect with people and share the excitement you felt when you wrote the piece to begin with. It gives you immediate, warm, vibrant feedback on what works (and doesn't) in your writing. And, to be entirely pragmatic, it introduces potential new readers to who you are and just how intriguing your writing is. What's not to love?

However, many writers seem to have a few misconceptions about performing their own writing.

  • I'll look like an idiot if I read with all that expression. No, you won't. Trust yourself and trust your audience (and trust me). Go to poetry slams and notice which poems really grab an audience and which don't. Pretty much all the time, the ones that are performed with panache and courage end up being the ones that rivet everyone's attention.
  • My writing should speak for itself; I don't need to pretty it up with a flashy delivery. Do you want people to be able to hear the cadences and flow you worked so hard to produce? Do you want them to instantly comprehend the rush of meaning in each sentence? Or do you want them to have to squint, frown, and puzzle out where each sentence begins and ends, which character is speaking, and what emotion they're supposed to be feeling, because you're reading in a dead-flat monotone?
  • People at a reading expect a calm delivery, not a freak show. That may be so, but they'll be a whole lot happier and more excited about what they're hearing if they get the freak show. People have grown to expect the monotonous delivery that seems, regrettably, to be the standard. I've had a number of wonderful surprises at readings when an author has taken such obvious joy in sharing their writing with me that now the flat-style readings seem almost...rude. Why aren't I important enough to the author for them to put a little effort, a little preparation, into their reading?
It's a sad truth that most writers get little or no training — not even a hint — about how to perform their stuff effectively. I've worked pretty hard on it, having been inspired by two of the best I've ever heard (Richard Harland and Robert Shearman), and I've come up with a few strategies that have helped me a lot. I present them here:

  • Pitch. This is probably the most important one. Practice (and I do mean practice, more than once, and not just to the mirror) how to make the pitch of your voice go up and down to maintain interest. This is the single most effective change you can make to your reading, and it's worth a lot of effort. Don't worry about sounding too melodramatic; that's almost impossible to do, and you can always scale it back later if you get feedback that you've taken it too far. (A sympathetic friend can be helpful here while you're getting the hang of it.)
  • Pace. You don't have to read with every syllable as regular as a metronome. Experiment! Don't be afraid of the pause! Love the pause! Trust the pause! And for God's sake, slow down. It gives your listeners time to assimilate and enjoy (in short, to savor) your amazing words. You have all the time you need.
  • Volume. Particularly if you're miked, you can have a lot of fun with this one. (For example, lowering your voice a lot, but leaning in close to the microphone, can involve your audience as though you were murmuring confidences, and yet they can still hear you.) But even if it's just you and your words, don't be afraid to make the exciting bits louder, and the calmer bits a little more gentle.
  • Physicality. While this (obviously) is less relevant when you're reading over the radio or as part of a podcast, your physical presence can add a lot to your performance. As much as you can without losing your place on the page, look up and into the eyes of audience members. (Printing your reading out in a large font so that it's easier to keep track of where you are is useful for this.) If you have a hand free from holding your text, don't be afraid to make the occasional gesture (within reason). And never, ever underestimate the power of your facial expressions: a smile, a frown, the expression that your character has at the moment you're reading their words. The expressiveness around your eyes is particularly important. Me, I have shocking eyesight, and even with contact lenses I need glasses to read. However, glasses are a serious barrier between you and your audience, so I've taken to printing out my text in large type so that I can wear the contacts without the reading glasses and still actually read the words.
  • Sense of fun. We writers are not known for being particularly...jolly. But I've never know a one of us who hasn't had a highly developed sense of whimsy and drama. Use that! Have fun with your audience, and your own words.
  • Courage and trust. The two are very closely related, if not synonymous. Your audience wants you to succeed. They will give you every benefit of the doubt, forgive much, appreciate everything you're brave enough to offer them. They trust you to give them good stuff. You trust them to give you a fair hearing. Isn't that great? For once in this cold, hesitant, suspicious world, people are trusting each other. Don't you want to be a part of that?
So — how do you get started making your performances jaw-droppingly wonderful? First, listen. Go to readings, go to slams, and don't just focus on the pieces, but on how they're performed. How does the author use pitch, pace, volume, and physicality?

Second, choose a piece of your own writing that will work well when performed. In other words, it's short (two minutes is an eternity), it's self-contained (more or less), it's got something happening in it (as opposed to just a long and pretty description of, like, a sunset or something), it hasn't got too many characters for the audience to try to keep track of in their heads as you read, and it's got some interesting language that flows and uses sound well. (Going to slams will be very helpful in starting to figure out what kinds of language work well out loud.)

Third, PRACTICE. You want your brain to pretty much remember how the words go, so you don't sound surprised every time you have to turn a page or start a new paragraph. You also want your mouth to be trained in how the words go, so they flow smoothly. It's like learning a dance: if you don't practice it, the individual motions are disconnected, awkward, tentative.

Fourth, try your performance out on audiences of increasing size: first, one or two trusted friends, who will concentrate on what you did right so you can keep on doing it. Then, as you gain confidence, maybe a writer's group (beware and be ready for feedback of varying levels of helpfulness — it may help if you prime them by saying, "Tonight I'm really looking for feedback on how I'm reading the piece, not on the piece itself"). Work up to a small open-mic night at a coffee shop or pub. Soon, you'll have the hang of it, and you'll start to live for the moment you hear the laughs at the funny lines, and the gasps of wonder at the very place your own heart leapt when you wrote the words.

I've grown to love performing my own writing: it's made me a better writer, it's brought my writing to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have ever found it, and it's given me great, great joy. I hope you, too, give it a try!

I offer for your listening pleasure two stories that I consider to be fabulously well-read: one by Nathan Hill and one by Richard Harland.


  1. Fantastic post, Laura. So engaging and now I want to go to slams and practise. Sounds like fun :)

  2. Great post, Laura, thanks...and I practiced by reading your pointers aloud (and dramatically) ;-)

  3. Another data point, this one from Sam Twyford-Moore, writing for the NSW Writers Centre e-newsletter (to which, by the way, anyone can subscribe for free, member or not):

    I recently attended the launch of an anthology, which I keep referring to as the worst I've ever attended. This was also held at Kinokuniya, like some evil demented twin of Grant's engaging launch. The fault was not in the quality of the writing, exactly, it was the way that the stories were read. Each author was monotonous in his or her delivery, but, far worse than this, the monotones themselves were monotonous. They all shared the same droning voice. It would be easy to blame the first reader for having had some infectious flatness which spread around, but I fear there is a culture of bad readings which is much wider. Most writers don't think twice about what they sound like. They don't think about the audience, because they rarely care to look and acknowledge them. At Writers' Festivals many authors insist on reading from their books, which might look nice and official, but are in no way the font size ideal for reading from [I've been guilty of this print flashing ego stroking before, but never again].

  4. Boy is this a confronting post!
    Lots to chew over in this one!

  5. I've always wondered why so many writers don't perform their work. Me? I'm with you. I rehearse, practise then perform. It's great because you then have a connection with the audience and it's fun for the reader.