Thursday, March 09, 2006

The New Storytelling (concluded)

General characteristics of what I’m calling “The New Storytelling” in theater:

1. Telling is the primary mode of performance.

2. The distinction between showing and telling in theater is dialectically transformed into the showing of telling and telling as a way of showing.

3. The fact that telling is what’s happening becomes a major part of the narrative, content and meaning of the piece; different modes of telling are among the different kinds of content.

4. This situation illuminates the ways in which a given mode of telling partly produces the other content of the play.

5. Examples of “modes of telling:” In The Designated Mourner, Jack and Judy’s distinct interpretative and selective stances toward events; the continuum between the everyday and the highly aestheticized in the language (which makes particular sentences and passages stand out). In Dust, the anecdote; direct reference to storytelling; narrative framing beyond the scope of the body of the piece; the musicality of the speech, including its melodic and rhythmic qualities and its speed (these produce emotional/expressive tenor, make particular phrases memorable, and cement the impression of a single voice being imitated by different speakers in their distinct styles). In The Myopia, varying degrees of absurdity in the form of repetition, mixed dialects, and stylistic quotation (“Beckett,” Stein, colloquial stereotype, high verse drama) alter the comparative importance of narrated content, language as surface, and self-reference; the most “narrational” passages and the most “dialogue-like” ones bring the issue of scale to the fore. In The Climb Up Mount Chimborazo, highly composed speech and simultaneous distinct texts; direct address to the audience, pseudo-dialect verse, announcement of general frames, and quotation vary the degree to which one is invited to draw historical parallels and extrapolate broader arguments (the scale of a given element of content).

6. Overlapping somewhat with #5: There is an emphasis on techniques of performing speech that’s more related to musical models of composition than to theatrical models. This goes beyond “stylized” telling in its demand for great precision in speech performance. Though a mode of performance may function as an “estrangement effect” (at its best, engaging and simultaneously encouraging of critical reflection, a liberating distance rather than an alienating one), it also positively sets up entire systems of relations within the new context it brings to the material presented. A new “layer” is added to the piece, and it both stands out from and intermingles with the “layers” of content and theatrical performance in the usual sense.

7. Scale is a major issue. The frame for the piece takes in much more than can be covered by what’s inside it; or the language within the piece has a larger range of reference than its frame; or the “size” of what’s told is much larger than that of what tells; or the sheer quantity of language “overloads” the play so it becomes a dance of contradictory arguments, alternative theses, possible worlds, societies, and cultural values.

The question of scale is, in a way, what calls for storytelling in the first place in these works. We in the U.S. now face, more than ever, the tensions between our overwhelmingly localized (busy, harried, overdetermined) personal existences and our large-scale global roles and relations with literally and metaphorically far-flung matters (environments, economies, people). What do we do in this situation? Specifically, what do we do as artists? These four composers have tried to tell stories that respond to the threat of a brutal new fascism, our contemporary species of profound loneliness, the long rightward drift in U.S. politics, and the latest attempts in South America at an emergence from centuries of imperialism and destitution. They have invented techniques that allow the stories to cover as much as possible while retaining the sense of imbalance and partiality proper to the global situation. These stories transcend themselves, not symbolically (as in myth), and not via any universalist assumptions, but through new formal and performative strategies and remarkably free approaches to writing. Making the importance of telling internal to the work of art places a crucial question at center stage: how to represent one’s position in the language, as the medium of large- and small-scale history as well as of interpretation and argumentation, so that it might become possible to negotiate the vast systems of relations in which one finds oneself when trying to figure out how to contribute to the end of all unnecessary human suffering. A cure for paralysis. An opening of new possibilities of thinking, and so living.


  • At March 9, 2006 at 12:01 PM, Blogger JOT said…

    Hi Andy

    Just left you a follow-up on the Ron site. I have currently spent exactly 45 seconds scoping your own blog here and obviously I need to have a serious read, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm a Canajun expat in London, married to a fairly serious player in Shaxberdland (Ann's ed. of Hamlet for Arden 3 is out end of this month), and very interested in the greater potential for interplay between theatre and poetry than we have had. I don't know how you feel about my compatriot M. Lepage, my own feelings are overwhelmingly positive. Anyway, just thought you might like to know, dum dum dum 'Police' chords, I might just be reading you!



  • At March 9, 2006 at 5:26 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    Hi John

    Thanks! I hope you find the stuff here interesting; it's a little sloppy at times, since I'm using this space largely to get things down that I might revise or revisit later, and using the publicness of the blog form as a way to get myself to finish drafts.

    I don't know much about Lapage, actually. The little investigation I've done makes it seem like interesting work. Do you see that poetry/theater cross-fertilization there?

    I haven't thought too explicitly about the merging of the two genres, though it really comes up all the time in practice, since I tend to think in terms of writing more than anything else (where a theatrical performance, unless it's primarily movement-based, is mostly a way of presenting a text)... probably because I'm mostly a poet, having mildly collaborated on a little bit of playwriting.

    I'm really a dedicated long-time mere dabbler in theater (performing or directing a play or two a year under often absurd no-budget circumstances), and I'm not nearly as up-to-date on what's happening in that realm as I'd sometimes like (though I'm also very picky, so my ignorance might be for the best).

    I'll leave it at that for now.



  • At March 10, 2006 at 5:37 AM, Blogger JOT said…

    Hi Andy

    This is quite fun! I've just left you another little message on Ron's site. I'm just in very early days of blogging myself, ever cautious as I am, but what you say about how you use your blog seems so very sensible to me ... do feel free to look at what I've been putting up, tho at the moment it is rather 'enigmatic'.

    So you are in Madison--home, for those of us with 'film studies' credentials, of the wonderful global 'neo-formalist project' mounted by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson. It's kinda a 'hey you're from London, you must know my pal George Klutz' move, but dont' know if you have any contacts with the big Madison film studies programme. I admire what DB and KT have achieved a great deal.

    We keep thinking about 'globalisation', but actually, and it's a grim thing to say, being in London I've had a better chance to see Lepage stuff than if I'd been in Madison but equally if I had stayed in Edmonton. His work is extraordinaire. He has made a few films himself which are worth unearthing, tho the best 'introduction' to him on film is in the wonderful Jesus of Montreal, where he acts Pontius Pilate but only on condition that he gets to do 'to be or not to be' as part of the performance! (It may be of some relevance here that my wife, Ann Thompson, is about to have published in the Arden 3 Shax edition a 2 vol. ed of 'the skull play'.)

    Anyway, you have a good day, and it may be fun to exchange ideas and work and stuff--but always just tell me if I'm being tedious!


  • At March 10, 2006 at 4:55 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    I'll certainly check out your enigmas.

    I'm new to blogging myself.

    I know Bordwell & Thompson's essays about film very vaguely--or at least I read some at some point. I definitely want to find out more. I moved to Madison a year ago, but have spent a lot of time on the road as a touring musician, and it's only very recently that I've begun to truly familiarize myself with what's going on here. So it's amusing that a tip from across the ocean will likely get me to take the fifteen minute bus ride to the university to discover things.

    I doubt that this discourse will become tedious. If I drop out, though (which is likely, especially since a mammoth amount of rehearsing starts soon), don't take it amiss!


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