Sunday, May 17, 2015

"...but at least the narration was good"

Being a narrator--professional or, whatever I am—is kind of weird.  I guess it’s a little like being an actor.  An actor wants work, wants to express himself artistically, wants to make money.  But sometimes an actor will take a job where there’s no pay involved, because they believe in the project, or because they’re just that dedicated to their art.  Or hey, maybe it beats answering phones for a temp agency, or refilling truckers’ coffee right before closing.

But what if the play’s really, really bad?  Or what if they movie they booked a part in was made by the Asylum, that production company that makes films indistinguishable from what you fertilize your lawn with (or find in a particularly fussy baby’s diaper)?  Hey, work’s work, right?

I narrate (and do voice work) on various podcasts, and for the last couple of years, audiobooks.  I think I’m pretty good at it, and while those folks over at the Facebook Audiobook Narrators group would be sure to disagree (a more humorless bunch you’d have to find planning acts of terrorism), I think I’m pretty good at it.

Right now, I’m just about finished narrating a story that . . . well, it’s just awful.  It . . .

Gee, I don’t wanna come across as a jag-off here, complaining about somebody else’s work, criticizing the art of a person surely more successful than me.  So let me just say that I’m typing this now, with plans to save it, so that when I put out this blogpost, there’ll be no way of knowing what project I’m referring to, since it’s sure to have aired long ago, or heck, maybe it never aired, maybe it’s mid-2017 and I just realized I never published this entry and it was all for naught anyway.  So, there’s no reason not to talk about it, right?

This story is awful.  I did a couple recently where, to be frank, I didn't get the story.  At all.  I read it, then I recorded it, acting out the parts, then I edited it, and eventually they got aired, all without me understanding what it was saying, what the point was, or if it was saying anything or there even was a point.  But I could, with a bit of distance, appreciate the language, or the attempt at symbolism, or at least make a guess as to what might have been the author’s intention or the point of the story.*

Just like an actor in a lousy movie, I've tried to make it my policy never to let it show in my performance if I think a piece is weak or a part is poorly-written.  I try to bring my A-game to everything, so the listener never knows my opinion of the source material, and maybe I can elevate a weak moment or poorly-developed part.  That's what a good actor does, no?

There was one Young Adult novel that I narrated early in my c . . . I nearly said “career,” I guess I should substitute “experiences.”  That Christian Y.A. book was not my cup of Earl Grey, and wow, if I had kept in all the profanity and complaining about the book that had been in my recording, that might have made for an amusing clip, or enough for my next of kin to get me committed.  The book was pretty bad, but I hope it’s not apparent if you’re into that sort of thing, and you bought that book and listened to my reading of it.  I tried to pull it off the same way I would something I had written myself.

But not “getting” something is different, because in many ways, the narrator has to interpret the text in a certain way, in order to deliver a performance.  If there’s a sentence that can be read two different ways, the audiobook narrator has to choose one, in essence deciding which way to go with it, even if it ends up clashing with the author’s intent.  The only way around that is if you contact the writer and ask their opinion on it, and then wait until you hear back to continue with your recording.  And that can be an enormous waste of time and momentum.

I asked some people on Facebook if they thought the narrator had to “get” a story to effectively narrate it.  I got a mixed response, and my own answer is mixed too.  Like I said, it helps to know where the author wanted the story to go, so you can make the narrative choices to back that up, but I can also just read something and make a guess as to how to deliver it and hope everything ends well.**

With the project I’m just finishing up right now, I not only don’t “get” the point of the story, I don’t get what the tone is supposed to be, I don’t understand what the genre is, I don’t even know why the work was given to me and not to someone else, since it certainly doesn't play to my strengths.  But there’s a paycheck involved, and so I've done my best with it, but man oh man, do I hate this one.  Is the story supposed to be fanciful?  After all, there’s a pseudo-Fantasy element to it.  Is it written with little kids in mind?  After all, there’s a little kid who’s a major character in it.  Is the story about death?  After all, there seems to be allusions to it, though they are never overt.  If so, is the story a parable about death, with a cutesy little candy shell around it?  If so, that should paint how I narrate it.  Is it written with angry, man-hating feminists in mind?  If so, am I really the best choice of narrator? 

It's difficult to narrate this piece adequately without any context, if you will, and though I've not phoned in my performance in any way, it sure has been difficult to motivate myself to finish it (after all, Wikipedia has been playing me a siren song even whilst typing up this blogpost).  And it doesn't help that there's something about the tone of the story--whether it's simply badly-written or just overly flowery or trying and failing to achieve some kind of magical realism (or conversely, is trying to remind the reader that this is the real world, the same as you or I trudge through every day)--that frankly pisses me off.

Sometimes I've had to interpret typos or poorly-worded phrases and try to figure out what the author is trying to say, since you can't (usually) read gibberish out loud, but this is the first time that an entire piece feels that way.

Perhaps you’re saying, “Outfield, you clod, if you hate the piece so much, you should turn down the work and let somebody more worthy take it on.  Someone like me, who often poops Twizzlers and Cadbury Crème Eggs.”  To which, I must parrot one of those actors who appears in TRANSMORPHERS or TWO-HEADED SHARK ATTACK or THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED or AVENGERS GRIMM or AGE OF THE HOBBITS or another one-star art film by the Asylum, when they said, “I needed the money.”  And maybe one of those guys really acts his lil heart out in a movie like that (like ALIEN VERSUS HUNTER: AVH or I AM OMEGA or ATLANTIC RIM . . . they really made a PACIFIC RIM-rip-off called "Atlantic Rim," kids), blowing away everyone who watches, but I wouldn't know, because I wouldn't eat the filthy mother f***er.

Who knows, somebody somewhere may hear my narration and be genuinely moved or entertained or inspired by what I did, and if that happens, I'll certainly be of two minds about it.  I will, however, be pleased if they never caught on that this one was all about the money, like that "art" film you did right out of school with very little dialogue, a heck of a lot of nudity . . . and not much else.  You know the one.

By the time you've read this, that money will have come my way, and been spent (probably on something worthless, like a toy or a book I will never read), so any questions I had with this project are now academic.

But still, I wonder.

Rish Outfield, Boy Narrator

*I've told this tale a time or three, that when I was in Los Angeles, I would go to a writers’ group, and we would read one another’s work, and one of my short stories got shared with the group, and I thought it went well.  But when it came time to discuss the ending, people had gotten WILDLY different impressions of what the ending meant (one understood that the ending was meant to be unhappily grim for our characters, one thought that good had triumphed over evil, and one lady had somehow gotten the impression that there had never been any danger and it was all a silly game the characters had been playing [despite my never setting up or paying off anything of the sort]).  It made me wonder about how subtle I should be in my storytelling, or if I should make a couple of changes to make certain the audience understood that the bad guys hadn't failed after all, or if it’s okay if a certain segment of the audience doesn't get it.  It probably helped me grow as a writer, though I may just be fooling myself.

**I am reminded, though, of the time I narrated the story about the mysterious messages this young man kept getting, from a stranger, in a voice he didn't recognize.  I wanted it to be obvious which character was speaking, so I gave the mystery voice as British accent.  Only at the end of the story did I discover that the mystery voice was the main character from far in the future, sending messages back through a sort of time travel.  Whoooooooooooops.

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