(A conversation during the rehearsal of “Kate Cracker-nuts”)
- Okay, Sarah, tell us what’s going on in that line.
- Well … I’m telling about how Kate sees the fairies come out and circle
around the sleeping Prince.
- So … you think you’re just giving us information…?
- Yeah … pretty much… (she laughs here, knowing that just giving
information is not enough)
- So, Everybody … what do we have to ask?
- Gleeful, rhythmic, group chant from the whole cast: WHAT do we want the AUDience to FEEL?
For the past 5 years I’ve co-directed Story Theatre performances at a project–based school with actors aged 9-14. Story Theatre is an ensemble performance art that combines the art of acting with storytelling. To help the children understand their roles and to get into character we use techniques any drama teacher would use, but the most difficult task, especially for our first-time performers, is to help them understand that the storytelling lines in the play are as important as the dialogue lines. Some of our young actors tend to treat the storytelling bits as no more than basic narration, and no amount of “what’s your motivation?” questions seem to help them make the leap from “just-the-facts-ma’am” narration to fully-fledged, engaging “can’t-stop-listening-for-a-moment” storytelling.
This year we incorporated a technique I was introduced to by British storyteller Ben Haggerty. It’s called Rasa and it is, quite simply, an Indian philosophy of art whose basic principle is that every form of art has as its goal that the artist and the audience experience shared emotions. Or, as we explained it for our youngsters: “you perform the scene where a boy carries a donkey home on his back and if the audience laughs then you have created the ‘things that make us laugh Rasa’ together.” The responsibility of the performers, then, is to be absolutely sure what it is they want the audience to be feeling at any given point in their acting or storytelling.
During the introduction of this concept we first listed the 8 Rasas, (they are described slightly differently depending on the book, website or teacher you get them from). We used terms our young actors could relate to. I then began telling them “The Beauty and the Beast”, stopping along the way to have the children tell me which Rasa was being demonstrated, or simply what they were feeling at different points in the telling.
Here are the 8 Rasas the children identified and the corresponding section of the story:
Things that …
- delight us: that part where you talked about the carpet of flowers and the merchant getting drunk on the smells.
- make us laugh: the part where the merchant doesn’t know about the invisible servants and he wonders if they can see him naked in the bathtub.
- make us feel angry: when Beauty’s sisters say, “Beauty should go live with the beast because she doesn’t care about parties and clothes and she doesn’t have a life anyway”.
- make us feel someone else’s pain: Where beauty knows that Beast is her best friend and maybe she‘s killed him because she stayed too long at her home.
- inspire us: when Beauty says, “Father, I will go live with the beast to save you!”
- frighten us: when the beast suddenly appears and is so furious at the merchant for picking the rose.
- disgust us: that part where you said the beast ate by putting his face in the raw meat and tearing it his teeth.
- amaze us: when the merchant is in the castle and the floor begins to move and it takes him up the stairs and down the hall and a glass of wine flies through the air.
Of course each of these sections can be told using different Rasas and we worked with this idea by asking each actor to say one of their character’s lines using each of the 8 Rasas. As you can guess, this produced great hilarity when the emotions in the line were diametrically opposed to the Rasa being demonstrated. (Imagine a 10 year old boy saying his line, “And of course they were married” in a horrified, then disgusted voice!) And yet… it certainly gave them the opportunity to realize how powerful their vocal intent can be.
The result of a few days’ work on identifying and experimenting with Rasas was that while we were doing script work, instead of asking the actors, “Why is your character saying this?” we could move to what had now become the group chant, “WHAT do we WANT the AUDience to FEEL?” and in the case of blank looks, a fellow actor would help clarify the Rasa for a stumped classmate.
I must confess that in rehearsals in the previous years we sometimes resorted to telling a child exactly how to say their lines when they weren’t “getting it”. They would then simply mimic our words and intonation, which, as we must admit, is not an optimal learning experience for a young thespian. But by introducing the “Rasa approach” to script study, the delivery and intent of the children’s lines was almost magically made clear. An added bonus was that, in many cases, it even helped replace awkward, stilted stage gestures with more grounded, natural movement. The kids felt so empowered and very pleased with the results. It is a technique that we will continue to use in ongoing productions.
By the way, the answer to our initial question…?
Sarah, with the help of her co-actors, came up with, “I really want the audience to feel the wonder and amazement that Kate feels.”
And guess what…? She nailed it!
Further information on Rasa can be found via wikipedia or if you would like a list of the Rasas and their synonyms useful for working with young people please contact the Bethany.
Bethany Ellis is a storyteller and teacher based in Alberta, Canada.