Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance
Katrina Archer, who is a writer (and a former student of mine) asks:
Since you’ve recently been on tour, I have a question about the mechanics of preparation. Preparation for the *performance* not the travel.
As I’m in Canada I haven’t seen what you do on tour, although I have attended your readings at cons. Is a tour mostly readings, or are there other performance aspects? How do you select the reading and other material, and do you practice or mostly improvise? What do you feel is the most important thing to do to meet audience expectations? I’ve noticed many authors struggle to make the transition from solitary writer to performer.
First, I really do want to do a tour of Canada. It’s on my list of things to do.
Second, I do in fact think a lot of about the performance aspects of a reading, precisely because it is so very different from what writers usually do. The act of writing is usually solitary and silent and done with no one else around (or if they’re around, like in a coffee shop, incidental to the writing act). A reading, on the other hand, is meant to be social, and heard, and in front of (optimally) as many people as possible. Writing is an introverted act of creation, and a reading is an extroverted act of expression. Writing is a process, a reading is a performance.
Which takes a massive shift of gears, and not every writer is good at that, which is not a great thing when a writer who is not particularly good at it nevertheless does a reading or goes on tour. Those of us who have been to readings on a regular basis have been to the event where the writer hasn’t managed it, and it’s kind of deadly — the reading is flat, regardless of how good the text is, because the writer, as a performer, just can’t sell it. So the audience sits there, blankly polite, until they can get their book signed.
This is not to criticize these writers overmuch, I want to note. Performance is not a natural state of action for most writers, who again tend toward introversion as their default. Performance is draining and weird and it exposes you directly to the judgement of others, which is its own thing as well (and which can further affect the performance). You have to work at it to get good at it, and most writers don’t really ever have to start working at it until after they’ve published, i.e., they’ve created something people want them to read. Which is to say they’ve spent all this time learning to master one specific skill set, and when they get good at it, people want them to bolt on an entirely different skill set and take it on the road.
Which is why, in my anecdotal experience, the writers who are good at the performance of reading right out of the gate are often ringers — that is, the ones with some previous performance experience. Writers who have acted or played music or did presentations of some sort — anything which meant getting in front of people in some way, and getting used to the rigors of performance. It also helps if the writer is in fact extroverted, which is unusual but sometimes happens. Even “not actually extroverted but can fake it for a few hours” will suffice.
In my particular case, I did acting in high school and college and I can fake extroversion and I’m relatively quick-witted in real life. Also, for various reasons, for good and ill (which could be a Reader Request Week piece all in itself), I’ve long been used to the idea that when I open my mouth people want to listen. Put it all together and I’m a fairly ideal writer to do a reading…
… and I would still fail miserably at a reading without adequate preparation. Likewise, a writer who is not like me in terms of being used to being up in front of people can, if well-prepared, still offer up a presentation that hits the mark.
So, how to properly prepare? Well, this is what I suggest folks do, based on my own experience.
1. Recognize it is a performance. Which is to say that you can’t just go in front of a room, mumble your way through fifteen minutes of text, answer a couple of questions and go home (I mean, you can, but it won’t turn out the way you want it to). You actually have to be up and on, from the moment you get to the event until the moment you’re done. Which is draining, but can also be fun. When you read, don’t just read the text, act it. When you’re answering questions, don’t answer quickly, answer completely. When you’re signing, work to make it so the person you’re signing for feels like that those 30 seconds with you is a pretty good 30 seconds of their life. Know all this going in, and prepare.
2. It’s okay to role-play a little. If you’re not the sort of person is who naturally up and extroverted and ready to deal with public events, here’s a useful trick: Ask yourself “what would an up, extroverted version of me do in this situation?” And then do that. It’s called having a “public face.” I definitely have a public face — a version of me tuned for performance and dealing with the friendly strangers who show up to my events — and having cultivated that helps me on those days when I am just so not into being in front of people, or, alternately, when an event has gone on too long and my brain has clicked over from “socialized introvert” to “everyone in this building must die in fire.” If you see me at a event, you’re seeing me in what I call my “performing monkey mode.” It’s me, just on.
3. Plan your event. I mean, people are taking time out of their lives to see you, right? You might as well have a plan. When I tour, I plan specifically what things are going to happen, and how they’re supposed to work. Here’s my usual plan for my presentation, which clocks in at about an hour:
- A primary reading (usually from an upcoming work, not the book I’m on tour for, on the basis that people who come out to see me should get something no one else gets) which will take 15-20 minutes;
- A secondary, humorous reading (because people like to laugh) which takes about ten minutes;
- Sometimes an additional piece (usually a Whatever post that’s on point), which can take another ten minutes;
- If someone brings a ukulele, as they sometimes do, a short song (with patter, no more than five minutes);
- Question and answer period, for the remainder of the hour.
And then I sign for however long it takes, and budget 30 seconds to a minute of time for each person in line.
I use this general outline because it works for me, although I tweak from tour to tour — this tour, for example, the primary reading runs a little long, so there’s no third piece, the ukulele bit comes and goes (it’s dependent on others bringing the instrument), and the Q&A sometimes goes a little longer this time around — which is fine, it’s often the best part of the event for the audience and me, because Q&A plays to my personal strengths as a performer.
The outline for each writer will be different — some people will read for a shorter amount of time, or stick to a single piece, or whatever — but I think it’s important to plan ahead so you as performer have fewer surprises, and so over the course of doing a bunch of readings you can get into a groove with the material you have on hand. Speaking of which:
4. Have some flexibility. I go on tour with a larger selection of stuff than I actually read, on the thinking that some nights, with some crowds, some material might be better than other material. Likewise, if I’m doing a reading at an event that’s being broadcast to the public, I’ll read from the newly-published book rather than the upcoming work, because I want to keep the upcoming work relatively down low. And for events where I’m teaming up with another writer, I may only read a short piece (so we both have time for reading) or we’ll abandon readings altogether and have a conversation, an idea that’s best when you have two people who can blather on and/or at least one of those people is willing to direct the conversational traffic. The point is to plan ahead enough that you have the ability to makes changes on the fly that will give everyone a better experience.
5. Don’t panic. Readings are work, and not every writer is going to be great at them right out of the box. But the thing to recognize is that when you go to do a reading, you’ve generally got a pretty easy crowd — these are people who actually went out of their way to see you and already like at least some of the stuff you do. They want you to succeed, and will give you leeway to do so. Remember that, when you’re up there, doing the reading. It makes it easier. And the more you do it, the easier it gets, most of the time.
With all that said:
6. It’s okay if you discover performance is not for you. Some writers will never be great performers and will never like being up in front of people, reading their work. For those writers, maybe other sorts of presentations (like an interview, or panel presentations, for example) might be better. Or maybe you just… don’t, and find other things that work for you, publicity-wise. There isn’t any one right way to do this stuff, you know. It’s just finding out what’s right for you.
So find out! You might be surprised.