Here’s the final installment, lovely lurkers. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on any of the three installments. ~jenn
Brecht and Storytelling
Written by Jenn Zuko for Senior Seminar, BFA Acting program @UCB, 1995.
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. We have discussed in detail what drama is: two or more performers on the stage, within their matrix, acting. The audience sees who and where the performers are, but has to interpret the goings-on for themselves. That is, they supply the “why.” In storytelling, the “why” is given; the narrator explains exactly the goings-on, and tells us up front whether each character is a villain or not, or if what the hero does is praiseworthy. The audience here has to imagine the what the characters, costumes, and scenario look like, since there is only one voice and body to supply them all. That is, they supply the “who” and “where.” In drama, we don’t know which character is telling the truth. In storytelling, we can always believe the narrator. So drama, therefore, shows plot purely by characters’ relationships, and storytelling centers on plot and leaves the intimate details of relationships up to the viewer. These are two different ways of telling a story, two polar performances. What would happen if we combined the two?
In October of this year (1995), I teamed up with some musician friends of mine to put on a storytelling show for Halloween. This time, instead of it being just me telling and them accompanying, we brought in two other storytellers and an actor to join me in the show. Most of the pieces were merely each one of us taking turns telling a spooky piece by ourselves with musical backup. But three of the pieces used all four of us to create a performance style which I think combines acting and storytelling in a harmony which worked well for our audiences.
Here is the way it worked:I’ll use the first one of these pieces, “Dancing Bones,” as an example. Daune Greene, our beloved narrator, stepped onto the stage and sat on a stool with a microphone placed in front. She began the tale: “Clarence Kelly was dead. Everyone was happy.” As she continued her narration, and mentioned Clarence’s widow, I entered, in the costume for the widow. I said no lines, but did actions as I heard them coming from the narrator. There was another actor portraying my dead husband, and another for the courting fiddler who comes in later. We said no lines unless Daune’s narrative included it: that is, we had short snatches of dialogue, but constantly interspersed with her narration. We even, for comedic effect, sometimes reacted to the narration itself, such as when she said that the widow might lose her insurance money if Clarence refused to stay dead, I stopped the action and looked towards her, in a “say-it-isn’t-so” manner. This further lowered whatever fourth wall
was there, and distanced the audience emotionally, so they didn’t empathize with any character, since the narrator was onstage, a character almost in her own right–almost a quarterback’s role in American football. This kind of performance (which I have both done and seen often) is not strictly drama, nor is it pure storytelling. The presence of the narrator as a character makes it storytelling, but having one actor per character engaging in dialogue makes it drama. Perhaps we should call it Storyacting or Dramatelling, because it combines both mediums effectively.
Brecht’s problem, as I see it, is that he was trying to map dramatic acting onto storytelling, the one on top of the other, which doesn’t work. He should have combined the two instead, not expecting actors to be both narrator and character at once, but one or the other–having actors to portray both. In fact, he actually does this very thing in his play Caucasian Chalk Circle. There is a minstrel-like character who inserts narrative into the action as he strums his guitar, much like our Halloween production. Perhaps this play is the exception to the rule that Brecht failed in effectively combining acting and storytelling into one whole.
(Note to any Comp students reading this: I have zero idea what style citations these are in. I’m assuming it’s an old version of MLA.)
Braun, Kasimierz. “Modern Acting Theory and Practice.” Brecht Yearbook, 1982 v11, p.108-121.
Kirby, Michael. “The New Theatre.” Tulane Drama Review. 10.2 (Winter 1965), p.23-49.
Martin, Suzanne. “Altered States.” Storytelling, 1993 Summer v5, p.20-23.
Pellowski, Anne. The World of Storytelling, H.W. Wilson Co. NY, 1990.
Rouse, John. “Brecht and the Contradictory Actor.” Theatre Journal, 1984 March v36, p.29-41.
Sawyer, Ruth. The Way of the Storyteller, The Viking Press, NY, 1951.