Brecht and Storytelling
Written by Jenn Zuko for Senior Seminar, BFA Acting program @UCB, 1995.
Let us consider this for a moment. In my last paper on this subject, I found no distinguishable difference between Brechtian acting and storytelling as a practice. What, then, is the one characteristic most obviously distinct between the two? There is only one performer in storytelling.
This may seem simple, but it makes all the difference. In Brecht, the presence of the narrator is in the set, in the form of commenting projections or bright lighting; or in the text itself: the inclusion of songs, or having the characters drawn in a more stylized than realistic way; or in the acting, with actors broadening their style, or breaking the fourth wall. Yet, as much as all these things are meant to emotionally alienate an audience, when someone sees a character in front of them, not on the page but in the flesh, a separate person from other characters, they will see them as that character, and even empathize automatically. And, since the narrator is not a character in itself but in all the characters or their environment, this device for distancing does not work as well because it is not as obvious as having an actual narrator character interrupting or adding the commentary. No matter how much style and set may try to reach only an audience’s intellect, audiences will attempt to suspend their disbelief anyway and have an emotional reaction, and and then wonder why the character was so unreal. Audiences now are conditioned to the realistic theatre; they are used to empathizing with the characters in front of them, who, no matter how intellectually they try to present themselves, are still real people onstage.
The narrator in storytelling, however, is an actual character. Not only that, but it is
the only character. There is only one actor for all the characters in storytelling, not one for each. And, no matter how good the teller is at character voices or physical work, that one teller is all the audience sees. Certainly a professional, polished teller can do very well at making each character she portrays different from each other and the voice of the speaker in ways that are stunning, and with a little imagination, an audience member can feel as though he were transported to the realm of the story. But, between each snatch of dialogue comes the voice of the narrator, describing scenarios and commenting on the action (often inviting the audience to comment too, not only in their minds as Brecht wanted, but actually out loud in the form of audience participation). That is, the one character of the narrator, or storyteller, presides over all the action and dialogue, and no matter how engaging the teller, there is never anyone else but the narrator on stage. Having one person doing the entire set, movement, and acting for every character and scene makes it impossible for an audience member to suspend his disbelief and think the characters real. The narrator is physically there and omnipotent in storytelling, so an audience can distance itself from the plight of the characters with more ease, and can more readily comment on the story as a whole instead. Also, as an acting practice, the characters in storytelling are (hopefully) believable, but brief, and interspersed with narrative which is non-matrixed. So the storyteller uses swifter means for getting at her character than an actor would: she uses body and voice work mostly, working from the outside in, not the inside out as in Stanislavsky’s method.
That, in a paragraph, is what storytelling is about. But suppose we help Brecht and discover why his alienation fails while the techniques of a librarian bring large, loud audiences to hear stories every week.
Stay tuned here for Part Three.
(Image credit / complete Works Cited will appear at the end of the final installment)