Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Performance Skills

Recently, had the honor of being one of the judges in a writing competition hosted by my local library. At the awards ceremony this weekend, each of the winners read their work aloud. It was an interesting mix of performances--some of the writers (more than I would have expected) obviously had lots of public speaking experience and were comfortable reading before a crowd, while others looked a little bit nervous and out of their element. Unfortunately, the winner of the category I was judging--fiction--was away at a writers' conference and so I didn't have the opportunity to meet him. His story was read by my friend Emma, a librarian and organizer of the event.

While I'd really enjoyed the winner's story on the page (obviously), Emma's reading was stellar. As she read the piece she was bringing the story alive, elevating it. It wasn't just that the words were being read aloud, they were being read well. Emma was hitting the comedic beats with such impeccable timing that she was taking a sweet, humorous story and making it hilarious. The audience went wild for it.

After trying to figure out how I could hire Emma to do all my future readings, I began to wonder how some of the other pieces we'd heard that afternoon would have come across if she had been the reader. Conversely, I wondered how some of the pieces that were presented by confident readers would have sounded in less capable hands. This really drove the point home for me that author readings were less about the writing and more about the performance.

One of the best readings I've been to in recent years was by Monica Wood, author of WE WERE THE KENNEDYS. While many readings follow a simple format of introduction/10-15 minutes of reading/Q and A, Monica talked about how the book came to be, techniques in memoir writing, and her recent trip to Ireland. She even sang a duet with her husband! She interspersed these anecdotes with five-minute bursts of reading. Truth be told, I don't think she read much at all--just enough to whet the audience's appetite for the book.

The thought of having to perform for an audience probably strikes terror in the heart of most writers--I know it does mine. We are, by nature, a more introverted breed, better suited to sitting alone at our desks than getting up in front of a room full of people. But publicity is part of the job, and with some practice, it can actually be fun.  I took a reading seminar with author, playwright, and actor, Howard Waxman, and here are some of the things I learned:

1) THE AUDIENCE IS ON YOUR SIDE. It's in their best interest to root for you. Think about it--if you do well, they'll be entertained. If you're shaking and mumbling, they'll be squirming in their seats, feeling your pain.

2) YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SHAKESPEARE. Don't apologize for not being the greatest writer who ever lived. There will always be someone better than you and someone worse. It's not a contest. Simply say to yourself that this is the best work you are capable of at this moment and be proud.

3) BE SELECTIVE. Pick a scene that will sound good out loud. Dialogue, action, and humor all play well to an audience. Long narrative description will put them to sleep. Don't be afraid to edit your scene for brevity, clarity, and time constraints. Don't forget to explain anything in the scene that the audience won't understand out of context.

4) PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE! Time yourself. Slow down, then go half that speed. E-NUN-CI-ATE. Exaggerate. Animate. Give each character a different voice. What feels over-the-top to you will most likely just barely register with the audience. A good exercise is to practice reading children's books aloud as if you are reading to a group of preschoolers (or, better yet, find a real group of preschoolers to read to!). Taking an acting class is also helpful.

5) HAVE A FEW ANSWERS READY.  Instill confidence in yourself during the Q and A period by having the answers to the most frequently asked questions ready. At every reading I've ever been to, someone has asked about writing habits, the creative process, favorite books, etc. Know your answer beforehand. Also have a few comments ready in case no one in the audience is brave enough to ask questions.

6) ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE. Think about how lucky you are to have the opportunity to share your work. As nerve-wracking as public speaking is, it's a nice contrast from the lonely work we have to do from day to day. You may even find, with enough experience, that you'll love it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Just happened to check in to see what you had to say and saw the mention and link! Thank you!!!