stories with spirit

Brecht and Storytelling, Part 2

Brecht and Storytelling

Written by Jenn Zuko for Senior Seminar, BFA Acting program @UCB, 1995.


Part 2

THE NARRATOR.

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

Cooper

Friend Cooper, of local storytelling company Stories With Spirit, doing what he does best.

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)

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BIFF Review #1: Grimm’s Tales

Fringe Fest Review #1: Grimm Tales

Review by Jenn Zuko



Storytelling is one of those theatrical forms that is not as well known or certainly as commonly practiced as others today. I’m not sure why that is, unless it’s a matter of the general public misunderstanding the art as something only old lady librarians or tribal shamans do. Truth be told, the art of storytelling is one of the richest practices one can experience, on either side of the stage (and I’ve been both places, readers, so I should know). Stories With Spirit is the first Fringe group I was able to enjoy at this year’s festival, and I couldn’t have been happier with what I saw.

Rachel Ann and Cooper are not reciting text verbatim from a script. They’re not acting out scenes and dialogue together. Nope, they are telling the story, in their words, not because they know their lines, but because they know their stories, and this makes all the difference in good storytelling. They have chosen a variety of tales from the Brothers Grimm that span from the bizarre (a bird, a mouse, and a bratwurst living together?) to the dark (innocently murderous children, or are they?) to the familiar but not so familiar (a delightful run on commentary on an old version of Cinderella). Cooper, in particular, has a near-perfect blend of the comfortably natural and the powerful actor in his delivery, and to see him walk downstage as the angry, fooled-thrice Devil himself is enough to send delightful goosebumps up the arms.

One little thing that I did wish: I had hoped they would treat at least one of their longer stories the way they did their 5th of the Princess Bride last year: telling the story together, as a pair. This show consists of them trading off stories back and forth, which was great, don’t get me wrong, I just would have liked…maybe the last one, about the hunchback and the Princess, to be done together, instead of one at a time. Totally not a criticism, however, they’re both compelling to listen to, and it’s easy to become transported to these strange varied worlds. Though you may have told some versions of Grimm’s tales to your children, I wouldn’t bring very young ones to this show–another common misconception of storytelling is that it’s just for kids. This well-curated collection of gruesome, compelling tales well told is not. 


RATING: 5 stars out of 5

Find the rest of these performances at Boulder Fringe