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.)


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