Month: March 2017

Brecht and Storytelling part 1

I came across this old (OLD!!) paper in my continued culling of belongings, lovely lurkers, and I was still interested in its arguments, so I thought I’d share. It was the final paper for my Senior Seminar at CU Boulder, for my BFA in Acting, waaaay back in 1995. It’s a little longish for a blog, so I will post it in multiple parts. Here’s Part 1.

Brecht and Storytelling
Written by Jenn Zuko for Senior Seminar, BFA Acting program @UCB, 1995

Audiences have difficulty engaging in and understanding Brechtian acting. Brecht’s idea of separating the actor and character is meant to touch the audience intellectually, to “alienate” the audience and let them watch the action at an emotional distance, but this idea often fails in practice. Brechtian productions, therefore, are done rarely, and when done, are met with criticism: “In his own home Brecht has been criticized … The cool, calculated, artificial, expressionistic acting is against our traditions and spirit” (Rouse). Having the presence of a narrator, whether in set design or textual style, violates what most theatregoers view as a “normal” play, and so most are thrown off by this style.

Storytelling, however, also has the presence of a narrator, and has a separation of teller and character that hits a viewer more in the mind than the gut. Yet storytelling continues to gain large audiences of all ages, and is practiced and performed with great success by many. Why is it, then, difficult for audiences to enjoy Brecht’s alienated acting, while storytelling (which is much the same style) still enchants and engages?

In my last paper, I attempted to answer this question by analyzing the acting styles and techniques of Brecht’s work and that of the storyteller. Here, I will pursue this question further by discussing character construction in both acting styles. How the character is formed directly affects not only the acting, but the structure of the entire play or story and how it moves the audience.

The character construction modern audiences see and to which they are most accustomed is the realistic system originated by Stanislavski. His way of creating a character is so widespread that his “Method” (or variations thereof) are taught as the only approach in most acting programs. That is, the actor and character are inseparable; as an audience member, one must believe that the person onstage enacting a role is indeed that character. As an actor, one delves into the past history and inner thoughts of the character, and strives to be “believable” in the role. Then, the directors and designers clothe the actor and her environment in authentic-looking costumes and scenery. This way, in all respects, the audience member succumbs to the illusion that this is a different person in a different place. This indistinction between actor and character may be one of the reasons (as I argued in the last paper) that audiences have a hard time sitting through Brecht, since Brecht tried to separate the person of the actor and their character. Kasimierz Braun describes it thus:

This is an actor, with a name, personal life, political opinions, a member of a specific society, and that is a character, a creature of literature and imagination. The actor was not subordinated to the character” (117).

One can understand why, when audiences are so accustomed to Stanislavskian realism, they would have difficulty engaging with this strange Brechtian separation.

Yet we still have not explained why storytelling, which is much the same in theory as Brecht (that is, the

The man himself, Bertolt Brecht. And the cigar is just a cigar.

separation between actor and character is certainly present in storytelling) flourishes marvelously with the same modern audiences, where Brecht’s plays remain relatively esoteric.

Perhaps Michael Kirby can help us. We have just discussed how Stanislavskian characters are formed: by the actor in effect becoming the character in psychology, physical bearing, and costume. We have also concluded that for realistic theatre, constructing a character constitutes creating the illusion of another person in another place. Brecht did not want to create this illusion as such; rather, he wanted his characters, through alienation, to keep the audience engaged intellectually, not fooled into a fantasy world and duped into emotional empathy. Michael Kirby (he of Happenings fame) describes acting as a “matrixed” performance: one that has a structured, imaginative situation surrounding it. In the following quote, Kirby describes the difference between the realistic way of creating a character, and his characterless performer of the Happening:

“Acting might be defined as the creation of character and/or place: details of ‘who’ and ‘where’ the performer is are necessary to the performance. The actor functions within subjective or objective person-place matrices. The musician, on the other hand, is non-matrixed. He attempts to be no one other than himself, nor does he function in a place other than that which physically contains him and the audience.”

Kirby’s concept of performers in the Happening is that none of them are different characters or existing in any other world besides this present one. So, though they are not acting, they are still performing. This sounds almost opposite to the realistic character construction, and it seems as though Brecht is trying to have both Stanislavski and Kirby present in his characters. Each character, for Brecht, should be real in their intentions and actions, but behind them is a consciousnesses which comments on those actions: that of the actor, who is only himself, and separate from his role. This combination is the center of why Brecht doesn’t do it for most audiences.

Where does storytelling fit into all this? In practice, it distances the audience by separating the teller from the characters, and, like Kirby’s performers, each teller wears no costume, puts up no set, and attempts to be no one else but herself when she is the narrator. So why is storytelling more widely practiced with success than Brecht? There is one major difference between the two that might be the cause for success in one and not the other:



Stay tuned here for Part 2.

(Image credit. Works Cited will appear after the final installment.)

The More You Holmes

From: Elementary ep. 5.17

Character name: Lady Frances (Carfax)

Reference: “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” is one of the most underrated, underplayed mysteries of the whole canon, and on of my personal favorites. It involves a kidnapped lady and has one of the most chilling “gotcha” moments at the end, of any of the canon stories.

Though there are twists and turns in this ep, the Lady Frances is not a woman, but a Carfax Desperado guitar, described as the “Stradivarius of guitars.” Which of course is another reference to Sherlock Holmes’ musical instrument of choice.

Upcoming Events and Other Things

Golly, it’s been awhile, lovely lurkers. Sorry bout that. See, it’s around midterm time at schools one and two, it’s the end of one class session and the beginning of another for school three, and for school four, I’m behind in having my updates for the complete course shell up and ready to go. All that, plus my computer dying on me yesterday means not only are there wrenches being tossed in my machine, but several of them. Which I needs must juggle. Anyway.

That’s not counting the intense personal stuff happening right now too. Sheeeez you guys. And no, as usual, buy me a pint in person and maybe I’ll tell you a little about it. But there’s a little blog out there in the online world now (that’s very well written), on which you can see some of the story unfold. I won’t direct you there, to protect the not-so-innocent, but it is out there.

But hey! There are two events happening this week, in both of which I will be performing. One is an author’s reading series, on Thursday at Front Range, and the other is a politically themed burlesque show in Boulder, called Pussy Grabs Back. Either or both should be a lot of fun, so come one, come all…

Parakeet: a play

More from the about-to-be-recycled old notes from my MFA. I found this to be hilarious, though methinks it may not be funny to anyone else who didn’t experience the aged neo-Beats of the Naropa writing faculty. As far as I can ascertain, Anne is Anne Waldman, Andrew is Andrew Schelling, Andrei is Andrei Codrescu, Anselm is the late great Anselm Hollo (who now infamously called my work “determinedly derivative”), Reed is Reed Bye, then department chair, and I don’t recall who Ronnie or Tyler would have been. I think they were students/friends, which makes me feel awful that I don’t remember them. Anyone who was there, chime in in the comments. Anyone named STUDENT were all different people. The rest have both first and last names.  Also: I really really hope nobody gets offended by this. But, it was my dramatic impression, that hot summer afternoon, of  Colloquium #3. I don’t have it down, here, whether it was 1999 or 2000, but was one or the other. Also: go google all these names, kids, and get some real good reading added to your list…

ANNE: Blah blah blah…

ANSELM: (snores)

ANDREI: (nods)

ANNE: blah blah blah…

KATHY KUEHN: it’s wonderful to be here, working with you guys. It sort of spiralled from there

ANSELM BERRIGAN: (trying to look very wise) …

BRIAN EVENSON: (stares at the ceiling)

STUDENT: each shoe is a dream.

ANNE: that was wonderful…blah…

me and Monaco making observations together. Around this same time.

ANDREW: look where we are now.

ANSELM: (snores)

STUDENT: c’mon c’mon c’mon

ANSELM: (stares at the ceiling)

REED: (smiles sweetly)

ANNE: (chortles)

STUDENT: Fat chance

ALL: (applause)

KAREN YAMASHITA: took a lot of notes, I don’t know what everyone did

ANSELM: (snores)

NORMA COLE: This is a translation: I do love banana split

ANDREI: (snores)

STUDENT: Blah blah blah…

ANNE: (stares into space)

TYLER: Blah blah blah…God forbid you can become complacent, so

ANNE: (nodding)

RONNIE: bad boy bad boy

BRIAN EVENSON: It was a class on madness??

SIMONE FATTAL: Makes me want to clear my throat…

(then, underneath, I have a note which apparently is a term coined by C. Davis [whoever that is]: Techgnosis. hmmm, fascinating…)

The garage lights, foggy & dust-licked

Culling even more of my superfluous belongings, I have saved a few bits from my old notes from my MFA studies. I’ll share them here, a select few, before recycling. The following is an in-class exercise, of which the phrase in this blog post title is the prompt. If you know about writing, you’ll recognize the poetic form.

…late at night, after many margaritas (the kind they stop you after three), tottering to friend’s car, talking about love, war, or (more likely) sex, we enter.

going to friend’s car, we enter, a large parking garage, the kind that makes all women think of attacks, that make me in particular think of those action scenes in movies: car squealings, gun ricochet off paint, hiding between BMWs with a magic sword.

Power in two–not nervous like alone. The place itself is alone. And there, a sound. –Under the lone lights, stained with time and piss, he leans, jazz man.

Jazz man leans in that way on the cement wall. His sax softens it. He doesn’t look like anybody in particular–no more frightening or more beautiful than anyone. Ordinary–yet his sax softens cement.

We stop.

Not going home, yet. Friend lights cigarette. Not going home yet. Stay a while. Learn to listen. No hat, so no pay. No deal, no bargains. Only music. Only echoes subterranean. Ricochet off paint, moths tick, a syncopated metronome. Music.

Stage combat as a ryu

Back in my first martial arts training experience, I had the good fortune to train at a dojo that was intensely focused, complete, and rigorously disciplined in the instruction of its myriad arts. All the ryu-ha put together made for some high quality, authentic ninja training that has formed the base and foundation for many other practices in the many (many!) years of my life since then.

One of the documents I’ve come across as I cull my belongings is a page of musing re: making stage combat a facet of the trainings offered at the school. Before I recycle this (handwritten) document, allow me to share these thoughts of mine from 2004 with you, lovely lurkers.


When most people think about the martial arts these days, one of two things come to mind: sport tournaments, and the movies. Therefore, most non-martial-arts people have a completely distorted view of what real martial arts (read: actually used in combat or self-defense) are really about.

As practitioners of ninpo, I feel it’s important to know what the fake stuff constitutes, so that we can freely communicate the differences to those who inquire. Also, as practitioners of theatre, I feel stage combat is one of the most important and useful trainings one can get in the theatrical arts.

Fake fighting and real fighting go hand in hand in this culture. Mark Grove isn’t so crazy in his inclusion of stunt work and stage combat in his dojo. I’d like to embrace this cultural idea of martial arts as theatrical, and include a branch of training in this art. In reverse, too, hopefully those only trained in the fake stuff can then also come to us, to learn what a real punch feels like to throw, and especially to receive, and etc.

I get poked in the sacrum with my brother’s boshiken. My first black belt test, ninpo taijutsu, at the Genki Kai dojo. Also pictured: sensei Jason Boughn.