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Three Versions of Brecht

I would like to begin by explaining why I chose three models rather than one. In my later blog, Experimental Theatre--Ones that Worked, Ones that Didn’t, I raise many potential options. These included performing a scene in the home of Brecht in Berlin, or setting the stage in Moscow, where Brecht first saw the Mei Lan Fang troupe’s performance of the Chinese Peking Opera, or even just performing the scene in an open space of Hong Kong’s Times Square. Brecht can be performed anywhere. But not everywhere Brecht is performed shows a thoughtful understanding of the legacy he left--the Epic Theatre. My answer goes to Brecht himself, and to his designs for the Epic Theater.

 

As an actor and director, I serve to identify the rhetoric of Brecht prior to rehearsal, and then use these interpretations in their work with actors and implement them during the performances. You may see traces of Brecht’s dramaturgical system that are explained in this series of short essays, reflected and unfolded in all the elements of production. It is fairly rare for a single production to reflect the entire range of the Brechtian ethos. Many productions become overcrowded with the need to reflect all of his thoughts in one staging. Rather than go in this direction, I have decided to break apart a scene into three separately-interpreted entities. At a later point, I will address how these approaches could be convertible to be integrated in an uncluttered way, but it is always worth remembering that Brecht’s mind teemed with theatrical experimentation, and that not all his ideas work easily together on a single stage. 

The first interpretation is a virtual performance of Brecht’s classic scene with the intention to “lose the stage”. The audience sees the servant mother, Grusha, weeping over her taken child, Micheal.  Then the scene is disrupted in seconds as the drunk corrupted old judge, Azdak, dribbles his head and is passed over by a group of soldiers under a carefully choreographed stage combat scene. The trial opens, and he asks, “the court would want to know what fees the lawyers are getting”; within minutes, we see Grusha and the Governess, the biological mother of Micheal advance, from a sea of black screens—the back wall of the Courthouse— their hands relentlessly grasping onto, ripping Micheal’s feeble limbs in a thin chalk circle, their chain of physical interactions memorable, but horrifying. Grusha is proclaimed the true mother.

Brecht’s act unfolds in a 7-inch screen with 10 squared boxes holding the characters. This is tantamount to losing several of Aristotle’s six elements of drama: Spectacle, Character, Fable (Plot), Diction, Melody, and Thought; a union of these six elements is often considered as vital to performing successful theatre. My second blog, Losing The Stage (The Seeing Place), explains why it is both necessary and advantageous to shift away from the “quotidian” Aristotelian approach to theatre (which Brecht commented on as a young critic) as we perform the scene.

I further examine the challenges of Brecht’s dramatic concept of Verfremdungseffekt. As articulated, the “alienation effect” is by which a critical distance is established through some form of disruption, where the relationship between the character, the performer itself, and the spectator is completely destroyed. The term recognizes the centrality of imagination through staging and dialogue, to a community’s ability to understand and envision and digest. Brecht often said that the mainstream French farces of his time were unrealistically comforting. In rebuttal, he not only reflects a realm of ideas seemingly outside of a community’s understood modes of thought, but it also becomes a medium for communal assimilation and a form of intimacy that is not purely flooded by surfaced, temporal emotions, but intellectually transmitted. My specific commentary and how it is used in my three models can be found in one of my central essays, Imitation, Intimidation, and Intimacy--Comments on the Brechtian Method.

My second interpretation is presented in the idiom of a different dramatic medium. This presents Brecht’s scene by implementing the traditional Chinese shadow puppet (皮影戲) in digital conversion, adapting theatrical and staging techniques of the Beijing Peking Opera (京劇), which Brecht saw in Moscow in March 1935, and which, later on, became the skeleton of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. In turn, the Chinese drama movement in the 1950s revealed itself to be directly influenced by Brecht’s principles, an interesting example of theatrical cross-fertilization. 

The Peking Opera is considered the earliest form of Chinese Theatre.  The shadow puppets are of equivalent status--considered as the first of the Chinese Films. The virtual audience is seated in front of a translucent cloth screen (幕布), that is, the Figurentheater. The production opens amidst an audio playing the Guzheng (古箏), an elegant Chinese court instrument.  There is also a noisy collaborator, the Singer chanting a dissociating traditional folklore during a bloody scene of soldiers hunting Grusha and her young child. 

The storytelling work of puppetry is complex, requiring a substantial amount of careful attention and practice to master. The puppet’s gestus are restricted to one-limb movements. In order to avoid the contradictions in verbal text and the lack of action present in the characters’ physicality, it is accompanied by 2-4 live Chinese instruments and multiple singers, which reflects the “attitude and gist” of his terminology. The final product is an art form that is effectively alienating, and draws the audience into the concrete focus of the message. Yet, as a cultural heritage, shadow puppetry is long admired and performed by each generation of young children in China, showing how alienation can be inflected by shifting a form from one culture to another.  Even though I have simplified the process, the completion of this model remains to be one of the most challenging aspects of the entire production. My methods are elaborated in Emerging From The Shadows--Lessons From Shadow Puppetry.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the modernized version of the scene. In light of our current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, many audiences are hung in the stasis of quarantine. We are present in this distancing, placed by external circumstances, and are forced to feel the same type of alienation that Brecht has experienced in his life of exile. After repeatedly receiving the message of “keep our distance,” and viewing, and starring in multiple productions from my small screen, I felt it urgent and necessary in 2021 to present this new revival of the same Brecht act, readapt the performance as an entertaining comedy with a vibrant use of overlapping multi-media--aiming to connect and deliver the Brechtian mode of Epic Theatre to our relevant social context of isolation. 

This performance takes undiscussed details from Brecht’s personal life into consideration. This includes his poetry, rich in emotional intensity, and the group of expressionist artists and theatre practitioners he was acquainted with. I also adopted his style in his multiple attempts of readapting classics in his early career as a playwright.  I develop these ideas further in A Naivété Theater--Brecht’s Poetry and Observing Expressionist Art of the Weimar Republic--A Bourgeois Theatre.

 

The third interpretation is presented to be easily accessible and comprehended. In this way, I try to give Brecht’s work of art a deeper, more immediate resonance in our own context. In my blog, The Art of Modernising Brecht, I explain that there is a typical misreading of Brecht by the general audience, and how the underlying notion of intimacy and expression is overlooked.  Understanding this, I had to make some key changes, but without compromising Brecht’s original model of the Epic Theatre. I decided to preserve the essential ingredients in Brecht’s theatre, but these ideas are translated from its original shape to the form of “regular” theatre. The model also poses a series of key tensions in his work--Brecht’s performances are interwoven with alienation and disruption, with an undertone that explores intimacy and the human emotion.  In this context, I had the thought: what if I did the opposite, coating the performance with vibrant expression, but allowing the overall message to be alienating? How would the audience transmit and perceive intimacy under these two experiences?

 

The process of directing, writing, and producing these three versions has been both challenging and rewarding.  I have engaged with Brechtian scholarship, relevant to the context of Brecht’s life and the time he lived in. If you are interested in sharing my passion for Brecht’s work, you can click on the Book Recommendations section. In this blog, I also explain how I tackled problems along the way and developed a rehearsal process to prepare my actors using Brecht’s original methods to encourage them to try every feasible option for each detail.  This can be seen in Dealing With Problems Along The Way and On Eric Bentley’s “Are Stanislavski and Brecht Commensurable? :  Evolution of the Interpretation through Rehearsals.

 

I hope you enjoy my three versions of Brecht. I am eager to hear your reactions to the productions, so please feel free to comment below. I greatly value your ideas. You can also email me at sammyeeho@gmail.com with your thoughts. 

 

I look forward to seeing you at my virtual theatre! 
 

  

 

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