Aug 31

Narration: The Most Dangerous Game

I’ve just been listening to recordings from the Uncharted Zones rehearsal on Monday night, which was the first full readthrough of the show as it will be (well, with hopefully a few more polishes here and there from my end). Well, actually, I haven’t listened to the bulk of it yet. I sort of cheated and skipped through listening to the narration by itself (the play consists of four stories given shape by a narrator), as it was the first time those bits had been read out loud at all. So now I’ve got it in my head to talk about narration.

Narration can be a pretty tricky business, particularly in playwriting. There are reasons why we do it, but it’s something to be used sparingly, and with a bit of concern for your life – like eating fugu or tightrope walking. It can’t possibly be a good choice every time, so you have to give it careful consideration before you take that first bite or first step. (Okay, my similes are stretching it slightly – but you get the point, and hey, this is a blog.)

The thing is, a lot of the art in writing a play is in creating the illusion beyond that fourth wall – letting that be the dividing line from which extends another world. The audience wants to feel a part of things – that’s the magic of live performance – but at the same time, they’re filling in the gaps and participating in the artifice, they want to be drawn in and taken on a journey. And we’re going to assume for the sake of this discussion that you’re hoping for that as well. There is definitely theatre where this isn’t the goal (Brecht would have hated the thought), but I feel like those are somewhat special cases. And I’m not necessarily talking about every situation where an actor addresses the audience – breaking through that fourth wall can be an effective construct, and of course there are scads of one-person shows where the audience is brought into things in place of another character on stage – though I do think some of the same dangers are there.

Thus, using narration has the (often unintended) effect of breaking that illusion down – of reminding people where they are again so they can shift in their seats and rustle programs and look up at the lighting. It’s blurring the boundaries between author and fiction, between actor and character, and it can be difficult to pick up the pieces and rebuild once it’s done. Even when it’s ‘in character’, or disguised as a journal or correspondence, there’s no mistaking the shift in tone when the artist is speaking directly to the audience, and it has to be particularly compelling and necessary to make it work for the play as a whole. It’s as dangerous a tool as direct exposition, and for a similar reason – you’re telling the audience something, when they so often prefer to be shown.

So why do it at all? Is there any good reason for taking that sort of a chance with the delicate balance that is your play? I think sometimes there is (obviously, since I’ve made that choice for UZ). There are two things that narration does well. The first is to provide information to the audience that would be difficult to insert into your dialouge – historical details, or facts (true or fictional) outside the scope of the scenes presented but relevant. (You can’t count on the audience to visit your website before the show, or read program notes.) The second is, to me, far more often the reason why narration can be a useful choice – through a narrator, you can colour the audience’s perception a bit of what will come next, provide a framework for what they’re about to see, or a lens to focus (or distort) their view. Narration, when done well, can guide your audience deeper into the illusion along the path you’ve chosen. Think about the opening crawl from Star Wars (which is narration, even if it’s not spoken): “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” – and think about how that affects the audience’s perception of what comes next.

That’s what I’m hoping for in Uncharted Zones. We began the production process with four fairly disparate stories and chose to add a narrator to stich them all together, to draw out the themes we’d found that were in common and give some shape to the play as a whole. It’s a tricky process that’s going to take some more work, based on what I’ve heard in these recordings, but hopefully in the end it will provide the audience with a sense of connection that would have been lacking if we simply jumped from one story into another.

Even at that, it’s damn tricky. And we won’t have any idea really if it’s working or not until the show is performed before an audience. That may be my last warning – and last word on narration for the moment: it depends so directly on the audience’s willingness to participate that it’s even harder to be sure in rehearsals if it’s going to work. Tread lightly if you’ve chosen it, and may the gods go with you.

PS: Of course, narration isn’t really the most dangerous game. The most dangerous game has always been hunting humans. Or maybe World of Warcraft; man, that will suck out your soul.

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