Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Here's the last in my series of blogs called "ONSTAGE SUITE" ( written sporadically, yes; erratically, yes). This one deals with a very minimalist performance, if you can call it a performance: no costume, no set, one stage manager, and no audience present. There are times I wonder if there ever will be an audience. If so, I'll probably never know who or where, or if they enjoyed the gig.

A couple of years ago, Nancy and I decided to volunteer at the Oklahoma Library for the Blind. Since then, we've been recording books on tape. Except that I don't think they're actual tapes any more; they may not even be CD's. For all I know, they could be crystal tubes like those that showed up in the frosty Marlon Brando segment of Superman. The technical end is not my job. I just go into a small booth, clap on big ear-phones, adjust the mike and start reading. Nancy, at the control desk outside, does the rest.

("The rest" includes giving directions through the earphones: "Did you just burp?" or "Stop gesturing; the listeners won't see any of that, and you keep clunking the lecturn." Also, "Better read that over; you just said 'gentle football' instead of 'gentle footfall.'" Editing also includes going through the tapes afterward, closing up long pauses, snipping out "lip smacks," and generally making the results presentable.

I've always loved to read aloud. I almost flunked kindergarten, being SO not up to grade level at making paper chains, using scissors, and pasting A onto B. There were no tutors available for Remedial Pasting: my mother checked. But when Mrs. Howell had us pull our little wooden chairs into a semi-circle and take up our large-print readers, look out! Dick and Jane suddenly sounded as lively as the radio show of "Terry and the Pirates."

And for the most part, people like to be read to, I think, sighted or not. That surprised me--that adults would enjoy being read to. In several of my college courses, I experimented with reading aloud a short story or poem, perhaps to illustrate a theme or a technique we'd been discussing, or just to change the pace. No one fell asleep; no one even seemed to space out. Instead, the class appeared to drift into the alert but relaxed Alpha state that probably prevailed thousands of years ago when one of our ancestors pre-empted the campfire to tell stories of the Woolly Mammoth That Got Away.

In today's world, what with TV and I-pods and cell phones and the rest, I wasn't sure that the blind would still be interested in books on tape (or crystals). But apparently they are, along with physically impaired folks who can see but can't hold books or turn the pages. So the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped makes books on tape available to the state's citizens, along with the machinery necessary to play the tapes. No charge. Not for the machinery, nor the tapes, nor the postal service needed to receive and return the tapes.

My first assigned book was a dandy: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. She has written, among others, The Shipping News (made into a fine movie) and "Brokeback Mountain" (ditto). That Old Ace is set in the present day in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Beautifully written, it's a lively, funny tale chock full of odd and wondrous characters. Lots of them. And therein lay my first mistake.

I decided, before I knew what I was doing, to give each main character a distinctive voice. The central figure, Bob Dollar, got a rather ordinary, bland voice. His quirky Uncle Tam got a nasal, high-pitched sound, befitting one who adores the Keno Brothers on Antiques Roadshow. (Well, I adore the twins also.) Bob Dollar's no-nonsense rancher-landlady ended up with a loud Texas twang. (Proulix has her say, "ray-road" for "railroad." Easy to catch her sound.) But there are a whole passle of characters.

The problem became evident in about Chapter 10. Here, after an absence of 100 pages, comes Bob Dollar's old buddy, the Fat Boy, who has spent a spell in the clink, during which time he lost tons of weight and gained an amazing new career. But what in thunderation does he sound like? What kind of voice did I give him, five recording sessions ago? Jim Dale, the marvelous voice/voices of the audio Harry Potter books, keeps tapes so he will be consistent as he vocalizes all the Muggles and monsters, wizards and whatevers. All I can do now is hope that the listeners forget what Uncle Tam's boyfriend Bromo sounds like when he reappears.

Currently, we're doing Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper. Yes: Gypsy Rose Lee, central figure of the musical Gypsy. She wrote her book more than fifty years ago; today, the stripper-act that Gypsy Rose Lee did for burlesque shows pales when compared with what one can see any night of the week on TV or cheering on the sidelines of any high school basketball court. We are recording the book at the request of a deep-pocket donor of the Library, himself blind and desireous of hearing Gypsy's life story.

How is the book? In a word, long. In several words, topheavy with unjuicy details. Except that Rose Louise had no formal education at all, I'd think she had been frightened by some schoolmarm scribbling "BE SPECIFIC!" all over the stripper-to-be's little essays. She's specific, all right: the map she draws with words is almost bigger than the territory covered. We're three-fourths of the way through the book, and Gypsy (Rose Louise) is still only sixteen and just trying on her first pair of heels. As a successful stripper, the Gypsy differed from all her competition because, while promising so much, she left almost everything to the imagination. Oh, that she'd brought that strategy to her writing!

So, in the snug soundproof booth, beneath the earphones and emoting to the mike, am I performing? Or simply translating printed words into spoken language? Only those who hear the tapes could say. Hello, out there!

1 comment:

Emily said...

I have probably accomplished more 'reading' by audiobook in the last couple years than in the ten years before that. I'm always driving around, and I've set about to fill some of the gaps in my reading list. Some favorites of the past year have been the Epic of Gilgamesh, Jack Kerouac (read by Matt Dillon), Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Louise Erdich, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex...among others. Currently listening to Bleak House (try keeping track of THOSE characters' voices) on my iPod and John Krakauer's Into the Wild in the truck. Of course there are some print books I'm toting around with me too. It's just harder for me to get to them these days. It's so nice to be read to.