Learning to Read Out Loud: Dylan Thomas and "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
Growing up, the one consistent holiday tradition my family maintained was listening to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” I can still picture us all--stuffed after our Christmas dinner, the presents long since unwrapped and sitting in a pile under the tree—sinking into our respective chairs in the living room and listening in rapt attention. Each year, I would hear something I hadn’t heard before—a phrase or an image. Even now, nothing evokes a greater sense of nostalgia for me than hearing Thomas’s deep, resonant voice recount his long-ago memories. Before I left home, my parents gave me my own vinyl copy so that I could always replicate the experience.
My parents are long gone, and Christmas is no longer an important holiday to me. But I still have that record (although now I can turn to YouTube for instant play.) And in the past few months, as I’ve done readings from my own published novel, Gina in the Floating World, I’ve realized that it’s not just the story of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that’s stayed with me, but Thomas’s reading of it. His cadence, his enunciation of his frequent tongue-twisting imagery, his appropriate shifts in tone, his timing, his rendering of other’s words provide exemplars for the writer turned performer.
Recently, I gave a private reading in someone’s house to over 20 friends and acquaintances. In contrast to my public readings, in this one I read two steamy scenes. I could have swallowed my words. I could have droned on in a monotone. I could have rushed, wanting to finish out of embarrassment. Instead, I read proudly, channeling my inner Dylan Thomas.
Of course, it helps to practice, so the words and phrasing are familiar. Here are some other tips, gleaned from my newly found performance mentor.
Enunciate, enunciate, enunciate. Enunciating will automatically slow you down sufficiently, so that you don’t need to concentrate on reading slowly. It is particularly important when reading complex images, or alliterative phrases to prevent stumbling. (try saying, “like a dumb, numb thunderstorm.”)
But don’t be afraid to occasionally speed up, especially when images are building on each other, or to show some excitement. (“He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs. He wagged his bag like a frozen camel’s hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and by God, he was gone.”)
Use pauses to let a particular image or thought sink in. (“She said the right thing……always.”)
When describing a series of actions, it’s okay to judiciously slide from one phrase to another, without a big pause, to provide a form of movement. (“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”)
Change the pitch of your voice, especially when reading dialogue, and contrast it to the tag lines. (“Were there uncles like iin our house?” “There are always uncles at Christmas.”) Interestingly, Thomas rarely uses the he said-she said tag lines in this story. However, I’ve found it sometimes to helps to add these in when there is a lof ot dialogue, both to announce when someone is finished speaking and to distinguish among speakers.)
Above all have fun!! And if it's your own work, you're reading, show your pride in it!
Whether or not you are called upon to read out loud this holiday season, I wish you memorable times and a very happy new year!