I was, of course, a theater major in college. I concentrated on technical theater, not acting, but even so one of the most interesting courses I took, in or out of my major, was called “The Oral Interpretation of Literature.”
The class is just as it sounds. We learned to read stories aloud. Not merely as readers, but as actors.
It was taught by a wonderful actress and person, one half of the couple who chaired the theater department and a woman who changed the life of almost everyone with whom she came in contact.
I still have the textbook, one of the few I kept from my undergraduate degree, and when I pulled it out for a glance before writing this post, I discovered I still had the notes she gave me from my final performance, a reading of Shirley Jackson’s haunting The Lottery.
She wrote that I had lost the cadence a bit and didn’t show enough desperation. Not too bad for a non-actor.
I thought about this class today as I attended a “literary festival,” a weekend of author readings and talks, and was surprised when several authors read their work quite poorly.
Not everyone is a born performer or even public speaker, I realize that. And, as my college course taught me, oral storytelling isn’t as easy as it looks. It requires talent and skill.
But it seems that if anyone is going to read a piece well, it would be the author.
One was fine while she was talking, natural and quite well spoken. As soon as she started reading, however, she pulled into herself. She was quiet and swallowed the words.
The audience complained about the microphone, that it wasn’t working, but it was all her not the mic.
And, not surprisingly, no one had any questions for her when she was through.
Later that day a short story writer read two flash fictions in almost a monotone, no emotion or passion at all despite the rather sentimental topics of the pieces.
If the author doesn’t act excited about their work, then how can they expect anyone else to be excited?
I understand nervousness. Authors put themselves out there when they write and read. The very act of reading work that comes from your soul to a roomful of strangers makes you vulnerable.
But reading and speaking is important to both the art and business of literature. So important that it’s a shame that more authors don’t get a little coaching, some help from an acting or public speaking teacher.
Learning a few tricks of the trade would make readings more enjoyable for the audience and less painful for the author.