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Emerging From The Shadows-Lessons From The Shadow Puppet

 The Caucasian Chalk Circle was not Brecht’s completely original creation. The plot was actually translated and derived from the original Chinese opera, The Chalk Circle (Chinese:灰闌記)  by Li Qianfu, a Yuan dynasty playwright.

This is not the only example of Brecht’s borrowings. He was an expert in reimagining stories and placing them in new and vital contexts, in taking vital elements from theatre beyond the western canon and then using them in his work. His productions cannot be understood comprehensively without examining the multiple origins of his dramatic inspiration. Which, in this case, are Asian dramatic and visual art elements he had gained from his international travels in Moscow and China. Brecht details this process in his essay, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”.

I am interested in the study of Asian visual and dramatic arts in Brecht’s productions and how it is composed and arranged in his texts. This had led me to put on the Chinese shadow puppet version of Li’s opera as a theatrical experiment. You can review the performance here. 

The two genres might at first glance appear to be very different. But there are many lines of affiliation between the traditional Chinese shadow puppet stage and Brecht’s. The shadow puppet stage as the set of The Caucasian Chalk Circle turns out to be a very apposite interpretation of Brecht’s concept of a “people’s theatre”. There is an analogy in Asian theatre that these puppet performances were first created as a form of entertainment in rural China for farmers and agricultural workers that could involve large crowds of agricultural workers as audiences. This kind of audience is exactly what Brecht had in mind when he wrote the prologue to The Caucasian Chalk Circle; its omission from Eric Bentley’s first translation in 1949 took away a key reference to the play’s original Chinese context.

I ran across many problems in moving this play to the medium of shadow puppets.  It has clear strengths and evident weaknesses. I made this adaptation in part because of the limitations during the height of COVID-19 and had to make many compromises along the way.  The final product is not yet what I would like it to be. Nevertheless, even in this form, it draws out an archetypal dimension of the play that can sometimes be lost in more realistic productions.

This production also had something that my other productions lacked, simplicity. This kind of simplification can sometimes teach us things. The rigidity of the shadow puppet can be used as a warmup exercise for my actors to explore physical relaxation and tension, where I ask my actors to pretend they are shadow puppets. This aspect is especially important because Brechtian actors have to be sensitive enough to recognize both external and internal alienation, and what the Verfremdungseffekt is doing to their bodies. They are challenged to isolate different body parts, engage in sharp and simple movement and more. 

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