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Directing Audiobooks

Once upon a time, I was cast in a Hollywood stage production of The Sea Gull. The director -- a German-born graduate of a prestigious film school who was making lots of bucks doing episodes of "Hunter," "Star Trek" and numerous other TV shows -- was bringing his vast experience with car chases and space aliens to Chekhov, the subtlest playwright of all time. During a break in the first rehearsal, he strolled out to the isolated area where I was enjoying a cancer stick and, as casually as he could, struck up a conversation.

"I see from your resumť," he said, "that you have much experience in theater. Yes?"

"Some."

"Tell me something. Exactly how-er-how do you do this thing?"

"What thing?"

"Theater." Hew was serious. "You know. Directing plays."

When the initial shock passed, I realized that without a camera, he was lost. So I thought for a moment to see what directorial wisdom I could give him in ten minutes.

Finally, I told him "Do nothing. Leave the actors to their own devices. Do nothing and the actors will rally together and come up with something, which, though it may not be right, will at least play. Interfere, get in their way, and you risk disastrously impeding their efforts."

You see, directing is a scam. Theater existed for thousands of years without directors. You want to work in theater, you have no talent, so you become a director. In film this is doubly true, for the big stars carry more status than most of their directors, and, therefore donít have to obey orders. In TV the production crews are permanent, the directors transient. The cast and crews give your favorite series their looks and personalities. The directors merely tell people where to stand. An actor friend of mine who turned to TV directing to pay the rent cynically calls his operation Directing Traffic Productions.

What about audio? What does a director do there? Anything? Perhaps not. How often do you see a director credited on an audiobook? Presumably, the producer directs the narrator. In most instances, the producerís job consists of saying, "You mispronounced Ďavoirdupois,í" or "Good enough; no need to redo that line; letís move on." Do narrators need more than that?

I assert that even the best narrators do. Further, the industry needs to cultivate more sensitive, knowledgeable, diligent directors, whether they call them producers or dogcatchers. The more publishers turn to extended, unabridged recordings, the more they need a supervising intelligence to clean up the faults pandemic in the field today.

Most readers hired to read someone elseís writing come to sessions under-prepared. They may have read through the material once-maybe even a second time to flag unfamiliar or difficult words. Generally, the busier they are or the greater their marquee value, the less preparation they put in. Often, particularly with the most commercial recordings, they fake their way through material they donít comprehend rather than deal with it head on. Many read one sentence or phrase at a time. As a result, listeners are cheated of context-the way elements relate to each other and build up to something.

Dialogue is devoid of subtext, and structure is amorphous. Tension is absent or misplaced. Climaxes are in the wrong place, if theyíre present at all.

Mostly one hears only a skimming of the surface.

Even the basest potboiler deserves more than that, and only a director can supply the missing elements. Nothing in actorsí training prepares them to read a full-length literary work all by themselves. Most of their prep occurs as they work on the set or in the rehearsal hall, not in advance. In the sound studio, there isnít time for such discovery. And if there were, the tedium of rereading and rereading and rereading a full-length work would subvert the extra effort.

How does a director improve things? 

You, the listener, hear the difference. Your comprehension and enjoyment depend on it. But should you be able to say, "Gee, that director sure knows his cookies!" Not if the director does know his cookies! In most instances, when a directorís work calls attention to itself, itís "displacing action," that is, upstaging the narrator and the text.

As a rule of thumb, especially with unabridged material, if the tape tells you what the book is about and why you should bother with it, five will getcha ten that a strong director had a hand in it.


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