You’ve probably heard NPR’s terrific program Selected Shorts, which broadcasts readings of short stories. When the readings aren’t on tour, they take place at Symphony Space in New York. I went to a couple last year.
The theatre is a simple, modern space seating less than 800. The stage is bare for Selected Shorts, except for a small table with flowers and a podium. With the dark curtains upstage, the minimalism is beautiful.
I attended the first programme in the spring – it was called Stories from The Pushcart Prize. That Prize is given to literature published in the small press, and these selections were marvelous stories by Andrew Porter, Stuart Dybek and Steven Millhauser.
Toward the end of the year I was at a second programme, An Evening with The Believer. The Believer is a non-fiction magazine “where length is no object”. Nonetheless, these pieces were short fiction, by Breece D’J Pancake, Julia Slavin and Will Eno. The material was weaker on that evening, marred with passages of common pornography. However, Eno’s piece, Interview, was welcome and enjoyable.
The author of Interview is the celebrated playwright, and it’s written in an unusual form, a fictitious interview with the author. Eno himself read the piece, which is a monologue spoken not by Eno, but by the anonymous interviewer. The interviewee never speaks. It’s a clever conceit, and Eno acted the monologue – and very well.
Which brings us to one of the stylistic notes I took from these readings: the reading of a story in the first person requires the reader to act. Whether he likes it or not, he’s portraying a character. The audience automatically has expectations of what this performance will be, and the reader himself automatically makes adjustments.
I saw this adjustment in the opposite side of the coin in D’J Pancake’s story read by Stephen Lang. Lang was called upon to say “He motioned with his hands in two directions”, and Lang, very wisely, didn’t execute the gesture physically. A line like that presents the reader with a great opportunity to create distance, and the reader would do well to emulate Lang’s disciplined choice. It’s important that the interpretor put space between himself and the material.
It was also clear from these readings that the best readers begin a new paragraph vocally. It’s the equivalent of a starting a new beat when we’re acting. Acknowledging the start of the paragraph gives the story a sort of audible structure, and it keeps the work fresh. Our goal, after all, is to translate what’s written into voice.
By chance, Alec Baldwin read on both evenings. As the most recognizable name on either programme, he was greeted with a special applause when he appeared on stage. He was clearly the weakest reader of both sets. The audience’s response to his reading, I expect, would have been different if they hadn’t recognized the movie star’s name.