Excelling at Prose: An Advanced Guide

If someone were to ask me what my strongest speech event was, I would unreservedly reply Prose. It was my event. When people on my team needed help on Prose, they came to me. I made it to Sectionals for that event. Prose was a passion; the binder containing my cutting precious to embrace. I will never say I know everything about the event, but I can confidently say I know more than most. Prose is not just reading. It is an art. And in this tutorial, I am going to provide helpful hints and advice to benefit not only beginners but seasoned Readers. Although this is not all I learned about Prose, these are the essentials and what I feel needs to be mastered to succeed. Harnessing this knowledge can give you the edge to go beyond the average Proser.

1. Piece Selection/Cutting A Prose Reader needs to be a fine chief. To cook a masterpiece you need the right ingredients; to consistently perform well you need the right piece. Selecting an excerpt from a novel, or trimming a short story, is not only the easiest way to locate a piece, but the most functional as well. Novels and short stories are designed to have arches (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement) and will provide the framework for your selection. Novels can be tricky, but select the most complete story portion. You need a piece that allows for drama/comedy, hold’s the audience’s attention, facilitates characters (developed characters), and above all is something you love. You will be analyzing, practicing, and performing this piece for vast stretches of time. You need to love this enough to want to nurture it, improve it, and live it over and over again. If you find the right piece, you find your passion.

2. Analysis Prose Interpretation. You can love this piece with every fiber, but if you do not take the time to analyze it and truly understand it, you will not get far in Prose. Sorry. If literary analysis is not something you want to do, then Prose might not be the event for you. You need to attack this as a literary student and as an actor. You need to ask, what is the theme? What does this piece mean to me and why bother telling it? Is there symbolism? Who is this character? What does this person want, from who/it, and how are they going to get it (by begging, teasing, flattery, etc.—use action verbs)? How does this person view this person/idea/situation/environment? What is the eventual outcome and how did we get there? Are all characters trustworthy or are some cunning? Is the narrator trustworthy? Why does the author use this particular word; why this language (look at the diction of the work). Does setting play a role? What can setting and physical descriptions of characters tell me about their portrayal? And so on. Obviously this list does go on and alters for specific genres and pieces. My personal golden rule for literature, drama, and life: always questions why.

3. The Introduction Placement of the intro is something to be well-thought out. Although you can have your intro at the very beginning of your performance, I find it more professional and dramatic to give a short teaser prior (teaser: reading a short selection of your piece before the introduction). This teaser acts as a hook to your audience—it gets them interested and wanting more. Keep the teaser short and have it end on a button, a final sentence that sparks the audience. A button can be a revelation, a decision, or a revealing fact, to list a few. The introduction itself needs to memorized and delivered with your Prose Book closed. I found it useful to place the introduction after the first page. That way, you can quickly turn the page, leave your finger between the pages as a bookmark, and close the book all in one graceful swoop. When I opened my book, I knew exactly what line to start from too because it was the first line of the new page. Introductions need to list the author’s name, the title, give necessary information, and act as bait for the audience if they were not caught by the teaser. Give them some food-for-thought in the introduction, and perhaps leave them with a question to ponder that can be answered or look-out by listening to your piece. Also, introductions need to be practiced, from closing the book until you open it again. Introductions give you the opportunity to be yourself, show off your confidence, and thus leaves you open. If you are unrehearsed and look terrified, the judge will instantly see that because you cannot hide behind the binder.

4. Body This might not be a walking event, but your body needs to be active. Rigor mortis and energy are contagious, and both are given off by you and your body during performance. If you are into performing your piece, and you use your body effectively, this energy will exude from you and people can sense it. To look confident, give yourself a strong stance with legs somewhat apart and comfortably bent—unless the piece details otherwise, but typically a solid stance works for the main voice. Own the room with your stance! All characters should have some sort of body change that works with the interpretation given to that character. It can be your stance, how you hold your shoulders/book/head, or specific gestures to that character. Do not go overboard, this should be subtle. Remember, this is NOT HI/DI, but Prose. We guide the audience along by the hand, and sudden, jerky movements tend to break our magic. Sometimes quick character pops are required for snappy dialogue, but most often smooth, non-sluggish, polished transitions are fine because they mimic your tone. Look to your piece for the answer to timing! All gestures made need to be seen. If they look half-complete, the judge will mark that. Also, control your body. Do not rock back and forth, slap your hands to the side of your body, twitch, or repeat the same hand-extension gesture; rein-in nervous movement! Basically, all movements need to be pre-planned so muscle memory can occur during performance. Train your body what to do and even if your mind gets lost, your body will remember and help place you back on path.

5. Facials The same attention given to body should be given to facials. The audience will be looking at your face. It needs to be alive at all times. I am not saying pretend to be Jim Carey, but emotions need to be seen. You are reliving a moment and that moment is to be seen on the face. Every character’s facials need to be appropriate for that character. Like body movements, all facials need to be planned so you do not give some non-human, unrelated to the piece facial that throws you off because you’re thinking “why did I do THAT?!” I know some people who like to work in front of a mirror to study their face. I personally get annoyed with how fake I look trying look good, so I prefer facing a wall and visualizing what I am doing and then having a coach or friend watch to get feed-back. I also think that facials should mostly be subtle, natural, and visible. Again, if you look like you made a mistake because a facial was half-done, the judge will mark it. Immerse yourself in the piece, and the facials will come.

6. Eye Contact Because this is Prose Reading, you must read from the pages periodically and give the appearance of reading; even though you should have memorized your piece for total understanding and control. I tend to look down a few times per page, pending on how much I put on that page. Moreover, how long you look down can be dynamic. Are you sad or perplexed? Reading a sentence might add to the drama. Are you frantic? Quick glances here and there add to the panic. As always, plan this out, make it routine, and practice. Another place for eye contact is at the audience. When not “reading” or glancing away for theatrical appeal, you should be engaging the audience with eye contact. DO NOT only look at the judge. You are performing for other people as well. Use the layout of people to your advantage—scanning and picking individuals to look at for an extended time during specified intense moments add to the performance. It also boosts your appearance of confidence by being able to look at the crowed. Finally, not looking at people, staring blindly into the book, or looking into space can be compelling as well.

7. Book A whole article can be written on book procedure alone, but here are the basics. Find the most comfortable way to hold your book (I like a nice cradle) and practice holding it. The book is an extension of you, and therefore, you need to wield it with authority. For instance, being able to clasp it tight to your body, hold it away in disgust/anxiety, find shelter behind it, lovingly hold it, and stroking or flicking its pages for page turns all tell a different story of the atmosphere of the piece/character for that moment. All book openings and closings need to fit the mood of the moment and be rehearsed. The book is NEVER to be used as a prop, so be careful with any of these choices that the book is not taking attention away from you. Further, Prose Books should be a 10” black binder—anything else and you might loose points for being “distracting.” There are no regulations on the book, but this is standard. You should also glue/tape your cutting onto black construction paper to match. Placing the paper in plastic page holders/laminates is your decision. Just be aware plastic is slippery so tabs on the sides are often helpful when trying to grab a page. 

8. Voice Your voice needs to caress the words. It is your job to turn the text vibrant and make it live. After analyzing the piece, your voice is what animates the interpretation most. The secret with vocals is variation. Unless otherwise stated, your main voice should be smooth, engrossing, mindful of diction/pronunciation, clear, and a treat to the ears. All characters should have their own voice that suits their personality. Dialogue is to be natural and with expression. Play with tone, pitch, rhythm, volume, and all forms of dynamics. Having an exciting voice that relishes in tasting and forming variation keeps the audience interested in what is happening and helps tell the story. If you sound enthusiastic and alive, your excitement will creep into your audience and ignite them. Above all, be heard. Many judges remark the most prevalent problem with any speech event is not hearing the speaker.

9. Overall All of the above factors are required to work together. They have to feed off one another and improve each other. If your facials do not match your body movements or voice, then something will look off. The easiest way to ensure all these factors mesh is to fully understand the piece, play around with ideas, test them with a coach/judge/friend, and practice. If cohesion is met, your piece will flow smoothly, be polished, and make you look like a professional who made sure every detail was examined and that your heart is attached to your work.

10. PRACTICE! Nothing is possible without practice. Review all notes from coaches, captains, team members, judges, friends, and yourself. Get everyone and anyone to watch your piece and give you feedback. Individuals have various opinions, and you might learn a vital piece of knowledge from the least expected source. Take what you feel works best, and incorporate that into your performance. Try new things to keep it fresh and HAVE FUN! There it is; everything you need to focus on to succeed in Prose. There is much to examine and still more that can be done to improve a piece. But knowing and working with these basic concepts will facilitate launching you to Prose divineness. For further reading and viewing: I surfed the Internet trying to accumulate more knowledge to add to what I learned my 2+ years doing Prose, and I hardly found much. Most was so basic, or notions I already knew, it was not even worth bookmarking for future reference. However, these sites do offer good tips that reiterate and add somewhat to this article: http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to/video/how-to-perform-prose-interpretat... (best site I found; step-by-step, basic Prose break-down) http://www.uvm.edu/~debate/NFL/rostrumlib/interpcrabtree0998.pdf (some good concepts, even though I do not agree with author’s stance that reading and looking at the audience should be a 50/50 exchange. That’s spending too much time in your book!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prose_interpretation (gives a list of what judges look for, and knowing is half the battle of attaining success)