by GARY YAMASAKI I have been a fan of live performances of biblical passages for a long time. My first such experience was about 25 years ago, and it was not actually a live performance, but rather, a video-recording of a live performance: David Rhoads as storyteller for the whole Gospel of Mark. As I remember it, he worked through the whole gospel–reciting from memory verse after verse after verse–with the aid of no props at all. It was a mesmerizing experience as the story of Mark came alive for me like never before.
I have had the privilege of attending a number of actual live performances since that time, with each of them also bringing biblical texts to life in new and fresh ways. However, my research into point of view in biblical narratives has caused me to take a step back, and view these live performances in a different light. . .a light that has raised questions for me regarding the way in which these performances are executed.
A practice I have witnessed repeated is what might be called the embodying of characters. Imagine a storyteller relating an account of a blind man approaching Jesus, with the storyteller relating this event while stumbling across the stage with eyes shut tight and arms extended as if to detect any obstacles, and mimicking the character’s speech. Here, the storyteller is not just speaking about the blind man, but rather, is embodying him. On the one hand, this way of relating the account is certainly more engaging than simply standing motionless and talking. However, witnessing this practice causes a question to arise in my mind: “Does this embodying of the blind man actually reflect the way in which the passage was intended to be experienced?”
In every performance I have experienced, the storytellers have embodied every character having a significant role in the story line, but attention to the point-of-view crafting of the passages performed suggests that only some of these characters should have been embodied. This post makes the point that point-of-view crafting is capable of dictating whether readers have an objective or subjective experience of a particular character, that is, being kept at arm’s length from the character, thus experiencing him or her as a mere object, or being led to merge with–i.e. embody–the character, thus sharing in all the character’s experiences. In the latter case, it is totally appropriate for storytellers to act out a character’s movements and mimic his or her speech as a way of drawing the audience into merging with the character’s experience of the event. But what about the case where the point-of-view crafting of a passage keeps the readers at arm’s length, thus having them consider a character as a mere object? In a case such as this, an embodying of the character by a storyteller would be inappropriate.
More importantly, embodying a character in such a case would actually distort the intended dynamics of the passage. Another point made in the Sep 25/12 post is that when readers come to merge with a character, they develop a sense of empathy for the character. Now, consider the case of a storyteller relating the actions of a character who is playing a significant role in the story line, but who is intended to be viewed negatively. If the storyteller acts out the character’s movements and mimics his or her speech, the audience will be led to merge with the character, and this would result in their coming to empathize with this character who is not intended to draw the audience’s empathy.
To conclude, a storyteller’s embodying of a character does increase the impact of a performance of a biblical passage. But I would willingly sacrifice experiencing big impacts at every turn in favor of the originally intended ebb and flow of impacts encoded into the point-of-view crafting of biblical narratives.