Live Before a Studio Audience

A workshop on "Performance Prose" taught me more than just reading techniques.

A few weeks ago, I was in a rehearsal studio in lower Manhattan, standing in a circle with a small group of other writers, pretending to toss a beach ball back and forth. I’d hold my arms up and apart, imagining the ball in my hands, and then push my arms out toward another writer; she’d pretend to catch the ball, and the cycle would begin anew. Then one of our instructors introduced an imaginary tennis ball into the mix, which required one-armed throws and catches, and once we got comfortable passing those two projectiles around, another instructor added a giant medicine ball—that one, I pretended to bounce off the floor so my fellow students could catch it on the rebound.

The ultimate goal of all this was to make me a better writer—and I think it worked.

I was taking part in a two-night workshop on “Performing Prose” to which I’d been invited by Anne Ray, a Brooklyn-based writer. Last summer, at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, she met two actors, Emily Shain and Sean McIntyre; the three of them sat in on a lot of author readings over the course of two weeks, and they got to talking about the performance aspects of those events. Now, it’s a bit of a cliché that some writers are just awful at reading their own work, and you know what they say—clichés become clichés because of all the times they’re true. But the trio realized that it doesn’t have to be that way, and they developed a workshop where writers could learn the fundamentals of performance technique and apply them to reading their own work.

“Artists are generous by nature,” McIntyre said early in the first night, after we’d finished tossing the invisible balls around and running through some other warm-up exercises. “They’re giving something to the world.” But, he noted, many times they’re shy or insecure about that gift, and so they hold themselves back even in the act of giving—and when that happens in the context of an author reading, the end result can be a pale reflection of what’s on the page. “Take ownership,” he advised us. “Be who you are.”

So they handed us a few paragraphs from Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and invited us to figure out how we would read them out loud. They gave us three variables we could play with: pitch (how loudly are you delivering the words?), power (what words and phrases are you leaning into?), and pace (where are you inviting the audience to linger?).

“This isn’t about getting it right,” Shain assured us; rather, it was an opportunity to “explore” the text, “getting out of the habits we’ve created for ourselves” as readers and public speakers. In a way, she said, our takes on the material would be “teaching audiences how to listen.”

When it was my turn, I had fun with the material, treating it like a mini-lecture and quickly finding myself pacing in front of my classmates until McIntyre suggested that, for that night anyway, that I dial it back to a reading. But even though I kept my feet planted, my hands were all over the place, and there’s a lot of stuff you can do just by tilting your head one way or the other… McIntyre and Shain gave me more notes, inviting me to raise my voice on one phrase, or rush through one phrase on the way to hitting the next phrase hard and slow—eventually, a characterization emerged, a spin on the passage that, whether or not it was Dahl’s, was definitely mine. There were at least a half dozen other ways to read that half-page, of course, and over the course of that first evening, the other writers carved out their approaches. After that, we did some similar exploration with our own material, but the real personal showcase was to take place on the second night of the workshop.

All the other students were fiction writers, and they tended to choose passages from the beginning of their short stories or novels, but I found a section in an essay I wrote for Medium earlier this year about a potential divine intervention. I wanted to read something that could stand on its own, without requiring me to explain too much other stuff around it, so I settled on three paragraphs where I explained Pascal’s Wager, which isn’t exactly an argument for God’s existence but rather an argument for why we should believe in God’s existence.

As I ran through the material in my head before the workshop resumed, I wasn’t just figuring out how to read those three paragraphs; I started to get a better grasp on a fundamental component of my writing voice. Once upon a time, I was an academic-in-training, and though I only got as far as the master’s degree, that was enough to saddle me with some of the worst elements of academic writing. I’ve been working against that training, consciously and unconsciously, for more than two decades now—and “Performing Prose” reaffirmed for me that I’m more comfortable with my (nonfiction) writing the more it feels like a spoken statement, when I can feel the point I’m trying to make come across clearly.

I also saw where I need to work harder on that. I have a tendency, for example, to weaken statements by qualifying them, by admitting the limits of my authority or by bending over to acknowledge contrasting perspectives. None of those are inherently bad things to do, as long as they don’t crowd out the actual thesis. Reading my sentences out loud, in an empty room or in front of a small, sympathetic audience, helped me understand where that was happening.

If you have the opportunity to take a workshop like “Performing Prose,” I would encourage you to do it. The feedback I got from my three instructors, and from the other students, provided me with much-needed objective analysis on my public speaking technique, but it also provided a framework in which I could conduct a self-critique, stepping outside myself momentarily to get a fuller perspective on what I was doing. You can do that on your own, if you don’t have any classes or workshops available to you. It’s just that having a structured environment makes things a little easier, at least in my experience. (See? Slapping down limits on my authority again!)

In these newsletters, I’ve frequently brought up the idea that writers are setting out to share an important story with other people. Reading that story out loud, in front of an audience, can be a valuable aspect of that sharing process, as much as releasing the text out into the world. So there’s a lot to be said for learning to put yourself out in the world with more confidence, not just in those moments that you may be called upon to “perform” your work, but in all the other times when you’re sorting out what it is that you’re meant to be sharing.

There are times when, doubting ourselves, we ask whether the story we’re trying to write is really worth telling. Often, what we’re really asking ourselves is whether we’re capable of telling that story the way it should be told. And though knowing that you can, if the occasion calls for it, stand in front of other people and read that story out loud isn’t the only way to recognize your capability, it can serve as an effective spur to dig deep and find the story that you’ll be excited to share.