Welcome to part four of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.
- Part One: How Much Should You Read?
- Part Two:What Material Should You Read?
- Part Three: Preparing an Excerpt
- Part Five: Pacing
- Part Six: Intonation
- Part Seven: Character Voices
- Part Eight: Live Performance
- Part Nine: Digital Performance
Now we’re ready to talk performance. And the first step of performance is . . .
Don’t just print out your reading or load it up on your electronic device of choice and go. Not if you have the opportunity to rehearse it first.
I really can’t stress this enough. Practicing beforehand by reading your piece out loud is the #1 thing I recommend to people who want to improve their readings. Also the #2 and #3 things. Because it brings so many benefits, nothing else even comes close.
What does practice do for you? For starters, it’s your reality check on that whole “how much can I fit into the time allotted?” question. If you don’t make a habit of reading out loud, you have no real idea how long it takes to get through a certain amount of text. And although we talked in part one about getting ballpark estimates, there are factors that can mean one 3000-word selection and another won’t actually take the same amount of time. (Frequent pauses, for example — more on those in a future installment.)
Practice also familiarizes you with your text, in a way that merely writing and revising it can never do. You’re much less likely to trip over your words if you’ve rehearsed them — and, apropos of my previous comment about revising unpublished texts, there’s nothing like reading something out loud to find every last awkward phrasing. I read every story of mine out loud before it goes to print, though not in public. Yes, even my novels. As a kid, I wrote the phrase “such lush foliage” into a playscript, before realizing that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. You don’t want to find that out the hard way in front of a live audience — especially if your selection contains words whose pronunciation you aren’t entirely sure of.
Not only does practice make you less likely to trip over your words, but this is also where you start figuring out your performance. Which words are you going to put stress on? Where are you going to pause? Rising intonation on that line, or flat? We’ll talk more about those aspects later on, but it all starts here.
And practice helps lay the nerves to rest. Doing something for the first time in public can be terrifying. Doing it for the tenth time is much less so, even if it’s the first public iteration. If you have a friend or family member who’s willing to sit through a rehearsal or two, that’s great — especially since getting familiar with the text means it’s easier to lift your attention from the page and make periodic eye contact with an audience member.
Sometimes you’ll even wind up changing your mind about the piece you chose. It’s draggier than you thought, or you can’t really do justice to the emotion in it, or now that you actually go through it word-by-word you realize there’s a lot of stuff in here that won’t mean much without prior context. The good news is, you figured that out before you got up in front of a crowd, and you have time to change out for something else.
How many times should you practice your reading? As many as you feel you need, really. I make sure I do at least one pass full-voiced, i.e. performing it just like I’ll do on the day, standing up if I think I’m going to be standing, with all the vocal elements I intend to use. Reading it under my breath is good for making sure I don’t stumble, but insufficient for working out the performance aspects; I might do that as a refresher before the reading, if I feel I need it. If I’ve never read this piece out loud before I might do two or three full-voiced passes, workshopping my approach. You might feel you need more. Don’t do so many so close to the actual time that you wind up hurting your voice, but basically, practice until you feel reasonably comfortable with it.
And if it helps you, don’t be afraid to mark up your text with whatever cues will help you remember your intended approach. The only time I’ve personally done that is for The Mask of Mirrors, with a passage that requires me to use three different accents; I use bold and underlining to mark two of the three, so I have a visual reminder that I need to prepare for the shift. But you may find that putting in symbols to indicate pauses or where the stress should go is helpful to you. If so, go for it!
Next time, we’ll talk about pacing!