Translating writing for performance

From novelists to playwrights, poets to memoirists, performance remains an essential way to share and promote written work, to discover and expand your audience. Writing great work and presenting it well can demand very different skill sets, and the knack for performing doesn’t come naturally for all writers.  So, we spoke with some writers about what works for them.

Consider your audience

It’s important to be empathetic to the audience. “Keep the talking pace slow enough that there’s room for reflection, and for the audience to get used to your accent, your cadence.” – Jen Porter, author.

A listening audience has different needs to a reading audience – “the listener doesn’t have the luxury of text.” – Mark Brandi, author.

“Print allows the brain to hone in on words, revisit and abstract them, whereas aural and visual communication are rooted in the setting and moment. A performer must be attuned to the specificities of location, mood and attention span.” – Adolfo Aranjuez, editor of Metro magazine, freelance writer and speaker

“It’s important to have an awareness that the reading is happening live and isn’t an artefact.  Be willing to accept and acknowledge the audience’s reactions as you go, and be open to changes in your performance as a result.” – Vidya Rajan, writer and performance-maker. Eye contact sounds simple, but it can go a long way to staying responsive to your audience.

Selecting work carefully is key – some pieces translate better to performance, or to a particular setting. “Some writing demands the spatial qualities of a page, or the seclusion of a single reader” says Vidya Rajan. Mark Brandi suggests monologues can be a good choice for readings, as “complex dialogue and multiple characters can be tough to keep track of.”

Be prepared…but not too prepared

“Read through the piece quickly – out loud – the night before. This helps identify those words or phrases that might trip you up. But don’t read it out loud too many times beforehand. It’s good if the piece feels fresh when you perform – you don’t want to sound bored of it!” – Mark Brandi.  Jen Porter agrees – “it can become very wooden if done to death.”

“A little anxiety is good, it keeps you in the moment and charged for a performance. When you get too chilled out your performance can be really flat. I had a director who’d say ‘keep finding ways to make it scary’.” – Vidya Rajan

Adolfo Aranjuez has a suggestion for finding the balance of prepared yet still fresh – “I over-practice for weeks until I know my material inside out, then in the days before the performance I cut down to a couple of run-throughs daily – just to keep my retention fresh. Once you’re on that stage, own it. It’s all muscle memory, baby – and voice, body and brain are just muscles.”

Remember to perform…but don’t overdo it

“It’s not enough to just read a piece aloud. You need to ‘auralise’ your words, accounting for pacing, intonation, breath. You need to visualise your stance and your presence. You need to envisage how to ‘hook’ your audience, how to keep them riveted, on what note to best leave them.” – Adolfo Aranjuez. “Rhythm, tone, energy and emphasis is important – a bit of contrast and colour goes a long way.” – Mark Brandi

“A written text can accommodate performative flourishes, but it’s not about performing a cabaret. Just get out of your own way so your humour, voice and emotion is coming across clearly and you’re not hindering your own words.” – Vidya Rajan. “Vary your tone but don’t overdo the theatrics, let the words speak for themselves.” – Jen Porter

Writers can learn a lot from artists working in different mediums – Mark Brandi points to voice projection, Vidya Rajan identifies techniques for inhabiting characters, and Adolfo Aranjuez pinpoints engagement. “There’s an immersive sociality to performance art because audience response is so immediate. This is something creators of written work can become disconnected from, partly because of the writerly notion of the ‘solitary genius’, which I find incredibly destructive. Writing is communication, and therefore inherently social: we need to throw ourselves into engaging our readers and our communities.”

There’s no single model

Find the form that works for you.  “One of the best readings I’ve been to was a guy wearing footy shorts who read from a piece of foolscap and couldn’t look anyone in the eye. It was captivating! If the content is good enough, it will shine through.” – Jen Porter

Vidya Rajan leaves us with this pithy advice – “don’t rush it, have fun, you’re great.”

See Adolfo Aranjuez, Mark Brandi, Jen Porter and Vidya Rajan in Literary Live Art: Performing Place on Thursday 22 June at VU at MetroWest.