The Fight is the Story (part 2)

Make sure you go back to the previous FitS post, part 1, and read it thoroughly before you read this one. This is my contrasting example to the pointless fight scene that was in the Phantom Menace. It appears at the end of Return of the Jedi. Here it is:

Let’s look at the basics first: this, like the PM fight, is a master and apprentice vs. a solo opponent. What’s that? Oh yes, it is. If you are under the impression that the Emperor isn’t a part of this fight because he isn’t whipping out a lightsaber, that’s where you’re wrong, and that’s also where you’re falling into the same trap as so many storytellers out there, when it comes to fights. The Emperor is a major part of this fight, throughout. In fact, he starts it.

So. 1): Why here, why now, why these characters fighting? What’s everyone’s OBJECTIVE?
It’s quite clear: Luke’s OBJECTIVE: to bring his father back with him. Vader’s OBJECTIVE: same thing, basically: to keep his son here with him, enjoy blissful life in the Dark Side as a family. And our third fighter in this scene, the Emperor? He wants these two to fight to the death. Remember what Vader seems to have forgotten: there’s only a master and an apprentice Sith at any one time. Now for the Emperor, he’d obviously rather have Luke, as he’s younger and stronger with the Force, but hey, if Vader ends up killing his own son, well talk about Dark side, and he’s been a pretty gosh darn good viscount of terror for this many years. Really either way is fine. And no, you don’t have to have read novels or anything to get this from this fight scene–in fact, if you didn’t see any of the rest of the movie, this would still be clear as day.

So, how about 2)? Lots of clear TACTICS going on here, starting with Palpatine’s biggest TACTIC, the one he’s best at: to seduce. Notice that he’s using mainly words in this fight, up until the end, that is. Why? Because WORDS ARE HIS STRONGEST WEAPON! Palpatine has no need to resort to physical tactics through most of this fight. Why? Because HIS VERBAL TACTICS ARE WORKING. It’s his insidious tease and threat to Luke’s friends that spurs Luke to grab his lightsaber and attempt to kill him. And yeah, it’s obvious that that is what he’s trying to do–the way the first move is choreographed makes that apparent. Vader’s objective? To protect his master. Through the first part of that whole fight, every physical move Luke does (after the initial failed one) is to try and get away from his father, so he won’t have to fight him. Kicking him away, only blocking Vader’s blows, jumping up to the catwalk–all these things are attempts to STOP fighting Vader. Why does he start fighting him again? Well, Vader himself pulls out the verbal tactics, to get Luke to come out of hiding and continue the fight. He finds out about Leia, and threatens her safety. This TACTIC works: Luke is overwhelmed with anger and launches himself at Vader, his attacks now vicious.

This is where we see the fight take a major turn. And this is where the biggest fight scene mistake was made in ep. 2 (the ridiculous Yoda vs. Dooku lightsaber fight), when you compare.

Luke accidentally cuts off Vader’s hand. This shocks him, and makes him stop his barrage, remembering what his OBJECTIVE is and how this attack was NOT a TACTIC to get him that OBJECTIVE. Palpatine takes this opportunity to pounce: still using verbal TACTICS, he reveals his OBJECTIVE to the other fighters. He tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place. When Luke turns off his lightsaber, throws it away, and says, “No,” this is the moment when Palpatine’s verbal TACTICS have run out. Then, and only then, does Palpatine resort to physical violence. And he does so in a way appropriate to his character (unlike Yoda vs. Dooku). Does he whip out a lightsaber and supernaturally become agile real quick? No, of course not, that would make no sense. Instead, he uses a physical weapon much more apropos to him: the Force lightning. Luke has no idea this is even a thing, and has no defense against it–all he can do is collapse, screaming in agony. He does have one more verbal TACTIC left in him, though: he calls for his father to help him.

And boy does that TACTIC work: Vader then uses a physical TACTIC to stop the barrage. Because of this balance in the fight scene, it’s my professional opinion that Vader didn’t predict that he’d die from the lightning. It sure doesn’t look like he expected it, but once it was happening, he changed his OBJECTIVE into killing Palpatine, because he knows he won’t survive to collect his previous OBJECTIVE. And thus he succeeds. All of this is crystal clear, not from obscure back story, but FROM THE FIGHT ITSELF.

Not a whole lot of spinning in this fight scene, but what a more compelling, interesting, gripping, and exciting fight this was than the one in Phantom Menace. Well, the music in the other was pretty cool…..


Brecht and Storytelling, Part 3

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.

Part 3

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


UMKC Theatre shows the masks of the stylized acting of Brecht. Sorry but I couldn’t find a picture from that production I described for the life of me…

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.



Works Cited/Consulted

(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.

Image credit

Brecht and Storytelling, Part 2

Brecht and Storytelling

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

Part 2


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


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)

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.)