Considering Voiceover – via Kate Benson’s [Porto] at the Bushwick Starr

Porto, in the midst of voiceover.  Photo by Marina McClure

Let us contemplate voiceover.

You are paging through your Facebook feed, the account you meant to delete two years ago but haven’t yet out of a sense of professional need, some separation on your part between your “work” and “self,” and in order to maintain the belief that you are a person apart from the occasional necessary post that you make in order to engage your “audience” – what an ugly word to use in that context, “audience,” like a king’s court.  As if you’re a king.  A king of what?  You scroll down. Ignore the ads.  You see an article about voiceover that has been liked by an acceptable number of your peers.  You click.  You begin to read.

How does one define voiceover?  For example, I’m not sure it technically exists in literature.  Or maybe in literature it takes on its purest form.  Consider David Foster Wallace.  (I assume permission to do so because he is referenced with simultaneous disdain and admiration in Kate Benson’s new play, [Porto], to which this essay is a response to, although, as you may have already guessed, I’m coming up softly behind the response as opposed to taking it on directly for the moment. The book Infinite Jest is referenced in the play as an actual – physical – doorstop that one of the characters has plucked from out of a doorway and is now reading at a bar when he is encountered by Benson’s title character, who is named Porto and has read the book two and a half times, and so a conversation regarding Wallace’s writing ensues.)

A.O. Scott, in his New York Times article The Best Mind of His Generation, had this to say about Wallace.  

“The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.”

So, in literature, maybe voiceover is simply the voice of the writer coming through with force.  Moments when you’re more aware of the creation and quality of the writing itself than what the writing is saying – and in the case of Wallace, those two modalities of experiencing the writing have been collapsed into one collective experience, as opposed to the voice of the author commenting versus the voice of the author’s characters behaving, acting, being.  Or – if one is to be technical about it, maybe voiceover doesn’t exist in literature, because if it did, all written words should be considered voiceover, except the voice is supplied by you as you read, not some external (audible) other.

In cinema, we often encounter a truer, or at least more easily defined version of voiceover.  Sometimes it’s quite bad.  Like when there’s a wide-shot sequence of someone getting out of a car, or riding through a landscape, and the editors have deemed that due to lack of exposition or a shitty focus group experience or generally poor dialogue writing, it is necessary to have the character (whom we are most likely seeing from afar) speak to us via voiceover, to explain where they are going, what they are feeling, etc., although it works better when placed over showy action sequences at the top of movies, like Ewan McGregor running in Trainspotting. Still, voiceover delivered through the voice of character has a tendency to fall flat, especially if we’re being asked to both view that character from the outside as well as be occasionally privy to their thoughts.

Occasionally, voiceover in cinema is deployed in a more interesting meta-theaterical way.  In Marc Forster and Zach Helm’s 2006 comedy Stranger Than Fiction, we are given a main character who is a writer (played by Emma Thompson) who is writing a novel about a character that she has created named Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell).  As it so happens, Harold Crick is also an actual person, who begins to hear the voice of Emma Thompson in his head. And so do we. Here, I’d argue, the voiceover is used primarily to give voice to the frustrated creator – a means to cajole, to make manipulation bare, to expose the voice of the creator in a different way.  Again, though, it’s a means to explore the act of writing more so than a means to reveal any meaningful information.  It maintains a distance.  It reminds us that someone else is in charge.  It replaces the voice in our head (or, Will Ferrell’s head).   

Voiceover is also effective in cinema as a means of framing and transition.  One of my personal favorite uses of cinematic voiceover is found in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which is adapted from an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackery.  In the novel, the story of Barry Lyndon is narrated in the first person by Barry himself as an imperfect observer (giving the reader the opportunity to either take Barry at his word, or, you know, not). In the movie version, Kubrick shifts the narrator voice to that of omniscient third-person commentator, who offers a resonant, dryly ironic counter-take to the action on screen.  (Not unlike Ron Howard in Arrested Development.)  Kubrick, when questioned in an interview as to whether he needed the commentary at all, stated:

A voice-over spares you the cumbersome business of telling the necessary facts of the story through expositional dialogue scenes which can become very tiresome and frequently unconvincing: “Curse the blasted storm that’s wrecked our blessed ship!” Voice-over, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate and economical way of conveying story information which does not need dramatic weight and which would otherwise be too bulky to dramatize.

I doubt it is coincidence that the voiceover is used in Barry Lyndon at least in part because it is a movie being adapted from a novel – specifically, a novel that is an existing and recognizable piece of writing with its own specific voice.  While Kubrick executes the narration near-perfectly (and makes it his own), when thinking back to poor uses of voiceover in film, so very often they are a result of the filmmaker adapting from a literary source and trying – desperately – to maintain the voice of the writer, most often because they have realized at that point that the story itself, sans narrator, is not going to make a very good film.  A handful of Jane Austen-based films come to mind.

So what about voiceover in theater?  I’ll argue that it works (and doesn’t work) in uniquely different ways than its dramatic counterparts. Unlike literature (but similar to film), when we go to the theater, we are listening to characters speak, their language rendered through performance.  Drama is not typically or easily generated through the quality of the language itself; rather, in a generalized sense, it most often emerges as a result of a play’s ability to place us in a situation, crises, confrontation, etc., which we (as audience) emotionally understand and are able to experience alongside at least one of the onstage characters.

But, also unlike in literature (and unlike most film), theater exists in a durational space – one that operates as a scene or system of scenes, as opposed to quick edits available to the creator of film, or the ability to temporarily look away and take a break while in the middle of a demanding chapter. Let’s say you’re trying to theatrically stage a woman entering a room.  We need to establish that there is a room.  Then there needs to be a door, or some semblance of it.  We need a knock.  We need the door to open.  We need the woman to walk through the door into the room.  Annoyingly, frustratingly, sometimes rewardingly, in the theater, if someone is opening a door, it takes the amount of time that it takes to open a door.

Or, we could do it using voiceover.  

VOICE: “A knock on the door.  A woman enters.”  Lights up on the woman.  And done.  Except that, not really.  Because who the hell is this voice telling us things? Go away! We accept this intrusion more easily as a device in film, for some reason. Why are we more protective of the agency of the voice in our head while at the theater?

Perhaps it’s because being devoid of realistic scenic elements, the “where” we are in theater must be generated either through physical objects onstage that stand in for “place” or through language.  This deficiency of being able to realistically articulate a space (you can’t stage a mountain range) creates an opportunity for language to fill, which I suspect is why it is quite often more satisfying – depending on the play I suppose –  to commit to hearing a play read out loud than fully staged (along with all the stage directions, which, among other things, generally state the place – “A dirty hotel,” “A boat in the middle of the ocean,” or in Benson’s [Porto] – I haven’t forgotten it –, “a boushy bar.”)  Hearing the location read aloud relieves us of the tension of maintaining our internal voice that says, “Hotel, ocean, bar.”  We can be lazy, and let the other voices tell us everything we need to know.

But theater is tricky, in that most plays are not intended to be experienced the same way you experience a reading of something.  The amount of agency a piece of theater grants the voice in your head to parse through the play’s content is directly equivalent, I would argue, to the amount of “work” it takes to make sense of the play.  Using voiceover risks undermining our own ability to solve the play, and removes the sense of satisfaction we experience while doing so.

Theater is also generally not an arena in which the audience is asked to create (i.e., imagine) most of the design.  There are lights, sound, costumes.  And it’s not typically an art form where we necessarily want to hear from the characters directly.  I’m not 100% sure why, although I suspect it comes from the amount of effort it takes for us to see an actor onstage and pretend like they’re another person.  Once they’ve been able to establish that position, it’s jarring for them to – and I quote from the stage directions of countless bad plays (and a handful of good ones in which this actually works) – “(the character) turns and speaks directly to the audience.”  We don’t want them to do that.  We want that information some other way.  We would actually rather work for it.

Now, let us finally and fully consider [Porto], which is playing at the Bushwick Starr through February 4th as part of the Exponential Festival, within the larger context of a piece of art that uses a lot of voiceover.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.  Then come back and read this article.  But in case you can’t (or you’re reading this later, after it has closed), let’s describe it here as a neighborhood bar play with a strong female named Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest, extraordinary) at the center of it.  She meets a guy named Hennepin (Jorge Cordova), and there is some impulsive romance, followed by a period of introspection.  The play’s world is also made up of the bartender (a perfectly understated Noel Joseph Allain), the waiter (the always welcome Ugo Chukwu), a heavy drinker and bar regular (Leah Karpel), and a few special guests.  Themes include gentrification, pleasure, food, and what comfort means, depending on one’s position, point of view, personal set of values versus need for companionship.  It also utilizes a third-person narrator (Kate Benson herself).  

There may be a more elegant way of stating this, but l’ll just put it out there: Benson’s voiceover technique does all the good stuff and almost none of the bad stuff that you usually get from utilizing a narrator in the theater.  

Her first move is to establish that there is a voice who speaks, but that voice is unseen.  The play opens in darkness, and we are privy to that voice – it is the voice of Kate Benson, which makes even more sense, because what we’re about to see is an act of creation and she is its creator.  There is an authenticity present that one might not get otherwise.  The (active) act of creation is a big part of it – the voice maintains agency, is able to make the lights come up or go down, is in control (except for the occasional character revolt – one sings when bidden not too, another won’t leave the stage right away when told that they “exaunt.”)  By utilizing voiceover to engage with the act of writing – and as a happy byproduct, the subsequent allowance of the literary voice of the language itself to shine through – we remain, for the most part, in a dynamic relationship with the characters, the world of the play, and the voice of the narrator versus our own interpretation of all of the above. Our ability to “do the work” is not removed, rather, intriguingly displaced.

Benson’s second good move is to give this narrative voice stuff to say that has nothing to do with the direct action of the play itself.  Heavy juxtaposition of theme against content.  For example, we get a detailed description of the process of a factory-farmed pig’s slaughter while watching a man on stage who is thinking about bacon for breakfast.  This would not be in any way possible without using the voiceover, and probably wouldn’t work as well in either literature or film – somehow, the durational space, the physicality, and the establishment of narrator as creative force makes for a moment that could almost stretch into forever, so long as the voice can keep speaking.

Obviously one could easily err and go too far.  Benson does not.  She goes just far enough.  Her third move is a technical one.  She amplifies this voice (i.e., uses a microphone), foregrounding it, and ensures that it is a voice we want to keep hearing.  Benson’s voice is rich, resonant – the person I saw the show with described listening to it as a similar experience to biting into a decadent boozy dessert of some kind.  

A sense of humor & playfulness cuts through potential preciousness. Many laughs in the play are generated by either setting an inactive moment on stage against an inner voice or desire delivered through the narrator.  Near the beginning of the play, Porto considers entering her neighborhood bar.  All she has to do onstage is gaze out over the audience, tightly lit, and assume the facial position of “thinking”. The voice can then enter in, giving us authoritative report of her thought process, referencing the turn-of-the-century actress Lillie Langtry’s lawsuit of a steakhouse in order to allow women inside its doors (and giving us a lot of insight into who Porto is – well read, obviously), and concluding with “You, sitting alone at a bar: A feminist act.”  The laugh itself is generated not only through this statement, but through the ever-so-slight blink of affirmation that Sirna-Frest gives us before turning and entering the bar.  And what’s funny, of course, is not that she has given in to the advice of the narrator, but that we recognize and empathize with making irrational justifications for indulging in comfort and giving way to temptation, this being a particularly creative one.

I will say that, while the play (and technical use of voiceover) is excellent, there is a certain point in the evening that a vague fatigue sets in.  I suspect it happens at the point in the play where the narrative voice has mostly dropped away, and we’re left with the space and permission to fill in the blanks ourselves, but when we do, our own mental voice pales in comparison to Benson’s.  We become nostalgic for her authority, yet when it reasserts itself, we realize that we’ve lived for so long (and comfortably) in this meta-literary space between thought and action, between theme and content, that to end it seems like an uncomfortable thing to do.  But, so what?  After all, it’s hard to end a play, especially one that doesn’t utilize a classic hero’s journey-type structure. How do you end a play that’s filled with language, theory, contemplation, and delivers many of the same pleasures of reading a very good book?  You can try fading out.  You can try the hard blackout.  It’s unfortunate that you can’t do what books do so well, which is just, to end.

You reach the end.  Nothing else there.  You scroll back.  You reread the last sentence.  You stare out into space.  The voice in your head goes silent, and you have to start thinking for yourself once more.

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