Stagecraft and Storytelling: Unveiling the Theatrical Charade

In human communication, few mediums possess the power to captivate and sway audiences, quite like the combination of stagecraft and storytelling. The synthesis of these two disciplines creates a potent concoction capable of evoking profound emotions, challenging established beliefs, and even shaping history. However, we must approach this venerable art form with a critical lens, for amid spectacles lies the potential for manipulation, deceit, and the perpetuation of stagnant narratives.

The Illusion of Reality:

Theatre, at its core, is an art of illusion. It invites us into a realm of make-believe, where fictional characters and their narratives are brought to life before our very eyes. The power of this illusion lies in its ability to suspend disbelief, blurring the line between reality and fiction. Yet, we must remain vigilant and not succumb to the allure of the stage without questioning its purpose and motives.

From ancient Greek tragedies to Shakespearean dramas, the stage has served as a battleground for ideological clashes and political commentary. Plays like Euripides' "Medea" or Shakespeare's "Macbeth" present us with characters whose actions and dilemmas reflect the socio-political realities of their time. However, we must be cautious not to conflate the characters and their struggles with reality. They are constructions manipulated by playwrights and actors who seek to convey their messages and agendas.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom:

Stagecraft and storytelling, though often celebrated for their ability to challenge societal norms, can sometimes become victims of their success. Presenting a controversial or provocative idea on stage can create an illusion of rebellion while reinforcing the status quo. However, we must not be seduced by the surface-level revolution depicted on stage, for actual change requires more than a mere performance.

Consider, for instance, the works of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who sought to provoke critical engagement through his "epic theatre" approach. While Brecht's plays were hailed for their innovative techniques, designed to jolt audiences out of passive consumption, they ultimately fell prey to their formulaic patterns. The audience became accustomed to expecting a Brechtian critique, and the very act of defamiliarization became predictable in itself. The challenge, therefore, lies in constantly pushing the boundaries of theatrical conventions, refusing to settle for complacent rebellion.

Historical References and the Power of Myth:

Throughout history, theatre has played a central role in creating and perpetuating myths. From the ancient Greek theatres to contemporary Broadway stages, storytelling has often been intertwined with the reinforcement of cultural and national narratives. Whether glorifying war, romanticizing heroes, or preserving societal norms, the theatre has frequently served as a vehicle for propagating prevailing ideologies.

One need not look further than the works of William Shakespeare to recognize the power of mythmaking. His plays, with their universal themes and timeless characters, have become ingrained in the collective consciousness of humanity. Yet, it is essential to remember that these stories were crafted within specific historical and political contexts. Shakespeare, a master of his craft, was not merely an impartial observer but a product of his time, consciously or unconsciously influenced by the political dynamics of Elizabethan England. To fully appreciate the profound impact of stagecraft and storytelling, we must unravel the layers of myth and examine the underlying intentions.

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Cameron on Storytelling and Stagecraft

What’s in a story? Stories are how we conceive of the world. Religious and mythology were all stories that helped people understand things that we didn’t understand by other means. We live in story. No matter what happens in our lives, we will create a story about it. We tell others what happened to us through story. Our brains operate in stories. Even memory, as unreliable as it is, is a form of storytelling. When we dream at night, our subconscious expresses our worries, cares, and concerns through elaborate metaphors and similes.

The theater is most well-known for stagecraft, although the principles of stagecraft can be used for other things. I recently interviewed a guy who had written a book on how to organize your home and your life based on his years working in theater. As a culture, Japanese people tend to treat their small homes like stages where things are moved out or put away as needed. In a standard Japanese apartment, which is quite small, the kitchen, bedroom, and sometimes even the bathroom are all one room and so the entire place must be setup for each activity like sleeping or meal times.

From our earliest days in the caves and from the earliest languages, humans have been telling stories. We know from the latest discoveries of pictoglyphs in Southern France that cave paintings were a way to convey information but they were also a way to tell the story of the people that lived there. Story is everywhere in an archaeological site. Pottery, textiles, even the ruins of dwellings all tell a story about the human that created them and what materials they used or what challenges they faced. A skeleton can tell a story too.

Stagecraft is used in a variety of ways to tell a story. Politically, we can see how staged instances of outrage can shift political opinions or simply demonstrate the incompetence of the people involved. No one can forget the image of Trump’s team doing a press conference at a landscaping company’s parking lot because someone didn’t realize that “the four seasons” could be something more than a hotel. In other contexts, stagecraft can be used to obfuscate a story. The CIA is very good at using these principles to create a different story than one might imagine. To consider stagecraft we have to return to the original form for which the art was created: theater.

There is a power to live theater that is simply unmatched. Live theater can tell a story in a microscopic way that pulls is in. Stagecraft is the fine art of using paint, wood, cloth, objects, furniture, and light to create the illusory fantasy that transports us to the story. Every decision of what appears on stage starts out as a decision of stage craft. It answers the fundamental question, “how do we tell this story?” Theater is a representation that uses part action and part imagination to tell the story but the real thrust of the performance is the fact that it is happening live, in front of the audience, and that means no two shows are exactly the same.

Before television, radio, and motion pictures, theater was the primary way stories were told outside of books. Theater was a big business. The earliest films were often shot like theater and included many familiar theatrical elements. The first radio broadcast was an opera in Chicago. Theaters were the first movie houses where silent films would be shown as part of the schedule of performances. Live musicians would play the scored parts that had come with the film.

Playhouses were places where shows of all kinds, some of reputation and others of not-so-great reputation would take place. This also went for music because it was a primary way music was consumed although bigger cities had dedicated concert halls. Theater was accessible to the average working person because most places had shows for different kinds of audiences or even had multiple theatrical venues where many different kinds of acts could be viewed. Theater was not always the purview of high culture like it is now. It was a way of telling stories for all sorts of people.

Part of theaters power is how modern theaters are built. The ancient Greeks performed in half circle stages usually without a proscenium. Modern theaters with a square stage, proscenium and an orchestra pit for music (before recordings were available) are a product of a culture of theater from Shakespeare and the revolution of the Renaissance. Having a special place in a room, slightly elevated, creates a space for fantasy to thrive.

However, a stage need not be square or even elevated to create a certain amount of power. Theater in the round, as Shakespeare was often performed, has its own special kind of magic because the audience sees so much more of the story and a certain amount of the actual work it takes to create the story.

Opera, which is the lovechild of theater and music is a unique opportunity to tell a story in a different way. Not comparable to musical theater, in opera the music tells the story far more than the dialogue. Musical theater uses music to complement the story and is a layer on top of the story. Opera uses music as an intrinsic storytelling device. Musical theater can be done without the songs but Opera would fall apart. Opera also has a certain sense of grand presentation that isn’t always present in musical theater, although some of the best large-scale musical numbers ever committed to film by Hollywood are from popular musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, White Christmas, or West Side Story.

In 2020, right before the pandemic started, over the New Year weekend, I had the privilege of doing the 24 Hour Theater Festival at the BlackBox Theater in Shepherdstown, WV. I have written about this before but I decided to finally write a play that I had bumping around in my head. It was called The Interview and it is a fictional dream of what might have happened if, during the Great Financial Crisis, Hank Paulson had given a 1-on-1 interview on a major network. The process was grueling, we cast the show, wrote it, rehearsed, and performed it all in 24 hours. The effect of a play of five characters and using those five people to tell the story of the GFC and how it affected lives is unique to theater. Whole books have been written about the GFC but I was able to take all of that and using the power of story and stagecraft, distill it down to a 25 minute show that even includes a little subplot. The stage allows us to see things through that specific light and that is why stagecraft is a powerful storytelling tool.


Stagecraft and storytelling are powerful tools that can shape perceptions, challenge the status quo, and inspire change. First, however, we must engage with them critically, transcending the seductive allure of spectacle and the comfort of familiar narratives. We must question the intentions behind the performances, challenge conventional wisdom, and demand intellectual rigour in our consumption of theatrical art.

Let us embrace the transformative potential of theatre while remaining vigilant against the manipulation and perpetuation of stale ideologies. By approaching stagecraft and storytelling with a critical mindset, we can reclaim the power of the art form and ensure that it remains a beacon of intellectual exploration rather than a vehicle for mere entertainment or indoctrination.

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