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1.5: Literature for Performance

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    222957
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    Defining Literature

    Literature, in its broadest sense, is any written work. Etymologically, the term derives from the Latin litaritura/litteratura, “writing formed with letters,” although some definitions include spoken or sung texts. Taken to mean only written works, literature was first produced by some of the world’s earliest civilizations—those of Ancient Egypt and Sumeria—as early as the 4th millennium BC. Taken to include spoken or sung texts, it originated even earlier, and some of the first written works may have been based on a pre-existing oral tradition. As urban cultures and societies developed, there was a proliferation in the forms of literature. Developments in print technology allowed for literature to be distributed and experienced on an unprecedented scale, which has culminated in the twenty-first century in electronic literature.

    References

    “Poetry, N.". Oxford English Dictionary. OUP. Retrieved 13 February 2014. (subscription required).

    Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 938–9.

    Touchstones of Literary Merit

    The label of “literature” can be placed on many different forms of the written word. While the term often conjures vision of Shakespearian plays or Homer’s Odyssey, those works are only examples of more specific categories of literature. For the purposes of oral interpretation, one might perform works such as those but may also choose to perform song lyrics, letters written by soldiers in World War II, or even text message exchanges between lovers. So, with so many possibilities, how does one go about choosing literature that would be good for performance?

    Not all literature is a good fit for oral performance. Texts that make the best fit are those are of literary merit and that the criteria to determine that merit are as follows (Gura and Lee 2004).

    Universality

    If a value or idea is “universal,” this means that it is tangible to a wide audience. For a work of literature to have universality, it must have messages or themes to which many people can relate.

    As an interper considers a piece of literature for performance, they should think about their audience and the sorts of topics that can be significant to them. For example, I might really love the poem, Richard Cory, by Edwin Arlington Robinson. However, this poem deals with the theme of suicide, which might not make it a good choice if I was performing for a younger audience or perhaps at a happy, celebratory event. However, perhaps Waddy Piper’s children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, about a little train engine who repeats the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can” to conquer a trek over a tall mountain could inspire a group of college students to continue their education. When evaluating literature for performance, look for themes you know you can connect to your audience.

    Individuality

    While you want to find universal themes for your audience so they can relate to the literature, you also want to ensure you aren’t simply selecting works that might be overworked or overdone. Audiences love relating to pieces, but they also appreciate novelty. The literature you choose to perform should be unique in some way. This can be through language/style, or perhaps through the characters in the piece, or maybe in the way the author tells a story, etc.

    This is not to say that performers should steer clear of classic or popular literature known by many. However, if you do choose to perform a work with which your audience is very familiar, ensure that you infuse it with uniqueness that can make it appeal to your audience. If you choose to perform a scene from a recent popular movie, for example, do not feel you have to imitate the characters as they appeared in the film. This approach, unless you are a gifted impressionist, can be disconcerting to an audience. Analyze the literature, discover what it speaks to you, think about the attitude and feelings of the characters, independent from any previous conceptions you had about the work. Allow yourself to view it through a different lens before making performance choices.

    It can be the “easy choice” to search for literature with which you are already familiar for an oral interpretation performance. However, spend some time looking for work that is new to you and to your audience. Performing literature is a wonderful way to expose ourselves and our audience to material we might not otherwise encounter. Take advantage of this opportunity.

    Essentially, when performing oral interpretation, aim to present your audience with literature and/or an approach to it that they’ve never seen before.

    Significance

    Perhaps the most important of Gura and Lee’s touchstones is that of significance. Literature with significance has impact beyond its own existence. It makes the reader, performer, and audience think and make connections to their own lives and/or the world. Have you ever seen a movie that you could not stop talking about for weeks? Ever had an amazingly easy time writing an essay about a poem in an English class because you had so much to say about it? Then, you have encountered literary significance.

    I once had a student who chose to perform a series of silly poems from a children’s book about going back to school. He performed them very morosely, darkly, highlighting themes adults could connect to as they identify the drudgery of tasks they do every day. I loved that way it made me reconsider the sorts of daily chores I find boring that I remember being enamored with as a child. It gave me an appreciation for the fact that I can do them at all, and this wasn’t something the student pointed out directly. I found this connection through watching the performance and comparing it to my own experiences.

    If you choose works that speak to your audience, you make their experience watching you perform more meaningful. It is also easier to choose universal themes and ideas to highlight for your audience through your performance when you choose literature with significance.

    Many students in an oral interpretation course are authors in their own rights. You may have some poems you have written as a hobby, or maybe you wrote an interesting essay or creative non-fiction story in previous course. You can and should absolutely consider using your own work. Be sure to take a fresh look at it and measure it against the touchstones described above to help you decide whether you would like to use it.

    References

    Gura, Timothy. and Charlotte Lee. Oral Interpretation. 11th ed. Routledge. 2004.

    Genres

    Categorically, literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction and whether it is poetry or prose or drama. It can be further distinguished according to major forms such as the novel, short story, or essay, and works are often categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations.

    When performing literature from different genres, there is different preparatory “work” that must go into the analysis of the literature. As you know, picking up a book of fiction is different than opening a book of nonfiction essays. When we do so, there is an ever-so-slight, yet important and different preparation. Think about it. Although both nonfiction and fiction share similar writing tropes, how would you feel if someone told you that the nonfiction book you are reading—the one that brought you to tears—is not nonfiction, but fiction? Most people would become upset, feeling as though they had been duped. To put it another way, think about how differently you prepare to engage as an audience member at a live performance depending on its genre. How do you set yourself up differently for a stand-up comic as opposed to an opera? Not only are the effects of the performance different, but the way we emotionally prepare ourselves to receive them is also different.

    An oral interpretation performer should understand to what genre a work belongs before performing it. That will help the performer determine how to best gauge its meaning, understand its characters, and make performance choices. Literature studies courses often describe several genres, however for the sake of oral interpretation, we will focus on three primary ones: poetry, prose, and drama.

    When performing literature from different genres, there is different preparatory “work” that must go into the analysis of the literature. As you know, picking up a book of fiction is different than opening a book of nonfiction essays. When we do so, there is an ever-so-slight, yet important and different preparation. Think about it. Although both nonfiction and fiction share similar writing tropes, how would you feel if someone told you that the nonfiction book you are reading—the one that brought you to tears—is not nonfiction, but fiction? Most people would become upset, feeling as though they had been duped. To put it another way, think about how differently you prepare to engage as an audience member at a live performance depending on its genre. How do you set yourself up differently for a stand-up comic as opposed to an opera? Not only are the effects of the performance different, but the way we emotionally prepare ourselves to receive them is also different.

    An oral interpretation performer should understand to what genre a work belongs before performing it. That will help the performer determine how to best gauge its meaning, understand its characters, and make performance choices. Literature studies courses often describe several genres, however for the sake of oral interpretation, we will focus on three primary ones. The following chapters will explore these: poetry, prose, and drama.

    References

    “Poetry, N.". Oxford English Dictionary. OUP. Retrieved 13 February 2014. (subscription required).

    Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 938–9.


    This page titled 1.5: Literature for Performance is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Martinez.

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