Monday, February 21, 2011

in the continuing series

Of things I said I'd blog about later: Notes from Mary Robinette Kowal's talk on Readings, given at the World Fantasy Convention 2010.

Usually, it seems, this talk has a much longer time-slot, so she was rushing and hitting the high points, with an invitation to join her in the bar afterwards for a more detailed discussion. Unfortunately I wasn't able to follow the mass that went on to do that, so this is only what was said in the time allotted. Also, only what would fit on the back of my namecard, since somehow I did not have a notebook with me (this is really unusual - I don't know how I wound up walking around without a notebook. Next I will not have a book to read, and then you can take me away raving.)

So, the high points, or what I wrote down of them.
Be loud: this means not yelling but projecting. You don't want to wreck your voice, so use what you learnt in choir or drama class, sit or stand up straight and give your lungs room to fill. Keep your head up and aim for the back row (My mum used to call this 'the deaf old lady in the back row.)
Slow down. You want to run at about 150 words per minute (this is the recommended rate for recording audiobooks). She pointed out she was being a poor example, because she was rattling along talking fast to cram as much of the content in as possible. Practice reading your selection aloud, and clock yourself to make sure you're not speeding up.
Tell the story. Practice, read it aloud beforehand and get familiar with it. As much as possible, tell it without reference to the page, and look at your audience. Make eye contact and watch their reactions.

Choosing which piece to read:
It should be self-contained, without requiring a lot of explanation beforehand or during, and have some sort of closure to tie it off.
It should have a small cast, so that you don't have many character voices or presentations to keep distinct.
It should suit your voice.
It should lend itself to being read aloud, with onomatopoeia and strong rhythm to the sentences. (think Just-so Stories).

The narrator is a character, whether named as one or not, and has to be distinct from the other characters. The narrator is the gateway, and the narrator's attitude determines the audience's interaction with the character. Decide how to play the narrator.
Note the key words in each sentence, give them weight.
If the selection is first person, narrator shouldn't be too different (gender, age) from you, or audience will be distracted & maybe confused.

To distinguish characters, use:
Pitch--learn your pitch by humming high to low
Placement--voice is different when it resonates in back or front of mouth, chest, sinus, movement of soft palate
Pacing--give characters different speeds of speaking (remember to keep own speed down)
Accent--if you are using one, make sure it's accurate, better to use rhythm, pacing & inflections
Attitude--if you speak with a smile, or as if you're angry, the same words sound different

She talked briefly about microphones, but I didn't make notes on that, only mentally resolved to avoid the damn things. If I can teach an Ithra class without a mike, I ought to be able to read aloud without one--I doubt the audience would be any bigger, and probably smaller.

Hmm, that's kind of skimpy compared to how it looked in rough notes. So, my review, then?
Well, it's always worth while watching Mary Robinette Kowal. I would probably attend a panel on, um, ichthyology if she was the speaker, because she's just that lively and engaging. Also she would give all the fish different voices and gestures.

Anyway, with that in recent memory, I paid close attention to Robert Lloyd Parry's performance of M. R. James's ghost stories in November (a run of three-name names - is it significant?) as mentioned here.
He was playing the narrator - Montague Rhodes James, a Cambridge don, and in the second story, the main character was also an academic, and the introductory part of the story was banter at a college dinner, so the characters had similar accents and to some extent similar delivery.
He dealt with this by using posture and body language - it was clear that one character was seated and looking up, and the other standing, looking down & interrupting the first one's meal. The seated character (our MC) he gave a slightly querulous, nasal tone, and when the bluff old soldier appeared, he got a lower in-the-chest voice and a slower speech.
The first story had a historical setting, with characters of different classes, and he kept with James's somewhat caricatured country bumpkin form for the servant, lengthening his vowels and speaking slowly. The squire had a more peremptory pace, and the vicar slower but higher and quieter.
What impressed me was how willing he was to employ movement--even though he mostly stayed seated--and to convey fear (by breathing and pitch mostly) which I think I would be very self-conscious about doing.
And of course I was massively impressed that he was doing it all by memory, with no reference to a text. Tell the story indeed.


Sharon Needles said...

Storytelling is becoming a lost art, to be sure.

batgirl said...

Like puppetry, it's something people assume is done only for children. And if it's done for children, it a)can't be important and b)must be didactic.

Maybe youtube will save storytelling?