Reading Aloud 10: Stage presence

You’ve honed your voice to be a well-modulated wonder. Now you have to get in front of people and actually read. In some readings, the author remains seated. Some, they stand. What should you do?

Well, it depends on venue, the story and your own preference. If you’re in a small venue with an intimate story, you might chose to sit to be closer to your audience. A large venue, you might want to stand. Those are choices that you should make before arriving at the venue so that you can practise in that configuration.

Back in college, I used to compete in Interpretive Reading, and while not everything is appropriate outside of competition, there are some very useful tricks which can enhance your reading.

Preparation of reading material.
My preferred reading format is a small black binder or a copy of the book/magazine in which the story appears. The nice thing about using the book/magazine is that it makes it easier for them to recognize and hopefully buy. The downside is that it’s often heavy.

cerbotext 1You may want to print your story out in a larger font, and insert the pages into the book, essentially using it as a binder.

Highlight your character’s dialogue lines with identifying colors. (Kaj in green, Grete in pink…)

Place an oversize apostrophe at places where you know you need to breathe, particuarly the places you tend to forget.

A squiggly line under the words you need to emphasize.

Bookmark the first page.

Artist’s white masking tape or rubber band the pages, which you are not reading, together so they don’t fly around.

Write this, don’t improvise it on the spot. People have an unfortunate tendency to repeat themselves when speaking extemporaneously, besides, you’re a writer. Make it as short as possible and make sure it’s in the same general tone as your story. In other words, don’t be funny and then dive into post-apocalyptic horror. You should also memorize it and practise it until it sounds as though you are speaking off the cuff.

Keep your book closed while giving the introduction. When you finish, lift the book and open to the first page. If you’ve marked it, it will open easily. This provides a clear signpost to the audience that the story is beginning.

Pick a point on the back wall to represent each character. When you speak for that character, you look at that point on the wall. This, in addition to your voicing, gives your audience instant cues to who is speaking. This is especially handy in rapid exchanges. It also means that you get to use their “eye contact” with other characters to add another level to the performance. Your narrator gets to play the field, but should mostly stay in the middle.

Decide the area of focus for each character when practising at home. When you get to the venue, pick the specific focal spot. I use stains on the wall, a knot in the panelling, a word in a poster… you get the idea.

You can also use focus to indicate a change in scene. At a scene break, look down, take a pause, and then look back up again to a different section of the room. It’s subtle, but it will help prepare your audience to shift to the new location with you. It’s called signposting.

Body Language
Okay, don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you get all into heavy acting. You are reading, not doing a one-man show off-Broadway. But, subtle shifts to body language can help your audience identify character and add another level of emotion to your performance. This is one reason that I like working with a black binder, it means that I can free up one hand for gestures.

Say you’ve have an older character. Try adding a very slight stoop to your reading of his or her lines. Soften the stance of your ingenue.

Say your last line. Hold the focus for a beat. Lower your head. Close the book. When you lift your head, your audience will clap. Do not rush this, no matter how much you want to run off stage.

You may not choose to bow, but please, if you are going to, learn to do it right. Tuck your head when you bow. The audience is thanking you and complimenting you at the same time. A bow is both the “you’re welcome” to the audience and thanks for their praise. To keep your head up, a) makes you look like a duck and b) is like fishing for a compliment. It’s like saying, “I really was good, wasn’t I?”

The depth of the bow depends on the formality of the event, and the level of the ovation. Chances are, that a simple head tuck and slight incline will do you. But honey, if they stand for a reading? You bend way over at the waist and thank them for the courtesy.

In competition you’d just tough it out, but in a live reading, you can have it standing by. The best places to drink are at scene breaks.


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