Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Collective Effect

I was recently intrigued by the beginning of a class in which a fellow student—and director of a new production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”--opened the floor for discussion about a potential flaw in his upcoming presentation. The concern at hand was that he had perhaps misinterpreted the representation of a number of ensemble characters, and in so doing, jeopardized the integrity of the play. In seeking to rectify this, he proceeded to open himself to suggestions from the class. This call for collaborative input is what stood out to me as a very Brechtian technique.

Through the discussion of the issue at hand a lively conversation was started, in which many of the class members offered their insights into their interpretations of the characters and, moreover, how they could/should be portrayed. I label this sort of group exercise as 'Brechtian' for the fact that Brecht himself, as well as the Brecht Collective—which by the way, I am amazed and ashamed of myself for JUST NOW finding out about—took this approach with many of their earliest and most prized works; namely “Man is Man,” which openly deals with the collective experience.

From the breadth of my theater training, I have certainly learned that in order for any production to be successful, a definite sense of collaboration must be established and embraced. It is not a matter of the actors trying to be “stars” in their own rights, nor is it for the production team to best the play through their uniquely interpreted presentation. It is, instead, a matter of an organic formation of artists and thinkers who are dedicated to making the production happen for the sake of the play and, in Brecht's case especially, its message.

I found it wonderful that the aforementioned director was open enough to discuss his anxiety with a group of like minded people as opposed letting the ego take hold and powering through the problem silently. I hope to explore this issue and others like it in the coming weeks as we continue to delve into the collective experience. While, in the case of the class, we are driven more towards understanding Brecht and his work, this creatively constructed curriculum is beginning to take hold on us all. Through our discussions we forging new ideas not only what theater is, but its myriad purposes as well. I hope to hear more from the class following the staging of the production as I feel that we will all be excited to discuss what we thought worked why.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Brecht's Last Jest?: The Influence of the Personal in the Objective Epic

In seeking to explore a possible contradiction of the Epic Theatre's aim, this week I have chose to turn an eye to the personal influences which contributed to some of Brecht's most well known works. In particular, the focus of this will be on the enduring roles of motherhood and warfare in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” and “Mother Courage.” The reason for my interest in this particular subject is the apparent juxtaposition of the Aristotelian objective on focusing on the plight of the individual, versus the Epic's groundbreaking concentration on the larger social and political issue. The major question of this curiosity being: If the inspiration of the Epic's characters is based on personal experience, does this not place the playwright as a contradictory representation of his own work?

The simplest answer to this question would be “no.” This is because the muse for any work can not be the sole blame, or basis for the work's intent. However, it seems quite interesting to consider this from a different perspective, so let's indulge it and answer “yes” instead. From this perspective we can consider some of the biographical factors that provided the characteristic human building blocks for the two aforementioned plays.

Firstly, the similarities between that of Brecht's upbringing and the struggles of the Chalk Circle. Brecht was a child of mixed religious persuasions. His father a Catholic, and his mother a Protestant, offer a considerably obvious influence on his original story (discussed in the first blog) “The Augsburg Chalk Circle”--not to mention the fact that Brecht himself was born in that very town. In addition to facts like this, the religious differences at home, the subsequent fascination with the Thirty Years War, and the personal impact of the first and second world wars, it becomes more evident where the playwright's interests lie. Though, back to the initial question; can a writer objectively write on moral, social, and political themes by drawing from his own past?

As we have seen, this can indeed be done; successfully even. Perhaps Brecht was not a Epic Theatre man, rather, a man who—through research, and keen concern for the human condition—found a way to write 'from the heart'. Funny enough, there is a clear opposition to the notion of human's having hearts in these works. Here we are shown murderous soldiers, callous parents who live off of war, and noble figures who make sport of their subjects' suffering. These caricatures, as they are to be somewhat portrayed, almost appear as if Brecht was not only striving to provide audiences with a starting point for forming their own opinions, but also perhaps shielding his own history from the public eye via fantastically removed spectacles.

My earlier questions could be considered Freudian, I suppose. But then again, maybe this is just another posthumous trick Brecht set up for later generations to begin an 'epic' conversation about art and the human mind...I'd like to think of it as just one of those considerations that was missed at the time, but left on the table for later consideration. Can we only write from what we know? Even if the story is not for or about us? Or does the imagination exceed the confines of experience?

Whenever we seemed
To have found the answer to a question
One of us united the string of the old rolled-up
Chinese scroll on the wall, so that it fell down and
Revealed to us the man on the bench who
Doubted so much.

On with doubt.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stop your crying and do something: Brecht and the Humanities

The 1980 United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the humanities [as such] in its report, The Humanities in American Life:

"Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason."

It's becoming more and more clear that the objective of the Epic Theatre is to stimulate conversation and instigate action. I once had a teacher define “the humanities”--in regard to artistic discipline—as having the same intent. By offering audiences an open-ended conclusion, such as with the endings of of Ionesco's “Rhinoceros” in which the anti-hero Beringer exclaims that he “will not capitulate!” as well as Brecht's “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” viewers are given less of an cathartic release, and instead, provided with a poignant prompt for discussion. These very discussions are the same kinds which encourage human beings to really ponder the problems facing the human condition.

In “On Theatre,” Brecht demonstrates his own explorations into the concept of the Epic Theatre and, moreover, its emphasis on stimulating the audience—not simply entertaining. In one passage (to paraphrase) he makes light of the Epic's intention to examine social and cultural facets, as opposed to the Aristotelian emphasis on human folly. While some may see this intention as being widely adverse to the theme of the humanities (all which is humane), Brecht's aim of providing human beings with the intellectual tools necessary for thriving is in all aspects quite humane. Here he has told, and demonstrated to, us that we need not simply experience what it is like to, say, lose a child—but that we should consider the circumstances which allowed the child to be lost in the first place. With this understanding we can learn how to save the lives of future children, be they our own or a neighbors.

Such exercises as reviewing Brecht's texts through conversation with others who have recently read them is proving to be an insightful, and at points frustrating, task. Though, its stimulative aspects should be lauded in that participants are forced to suss out and make decisions about the core concepts they are discussing. To make a point to someone else does, or course, require a finite amount of effort; yet, so does accomplishing anything worthwhile. This regimen has also answered a few questions I previously had regarding Brecht's implementation of acting theory; the question itself being: How did he train his actors to carry out the ideologies that bolstered his work? To answer this question, recent experiences have been helpful in making sense of prior observations.

While taking a tour of Brecht's home in Berlin, perhaps the most curious and inspiring room was the one in which he worked. Adorned with countless volumes, and multiple desks and ash trays, it was a room which the guide told us served as the 'command center.' It has now become apparent through seminar exercises, reading, and deduction that the free flow of communication is both vital for the successful construction and understanding of Epic Theatre. It is as is if Brecht is reminding us from the grave that we are not alone, and we're going to need to get along with others (as well as argue like mad!) in order to make any sense of our time and its myriad problems and glories. How else are we supposed to highlight what's important in the world than through putting something together and artistically channeling ideas?

It would seem that what Brecht is trying to relate to us through his critical essays on the Epic is: the study of humanity from the individual standpoint is selfishly vulgar. This set of examinations should favor objective presentation, subjective rumination, and subsequent objective relations.

On that note, my mind may slightly explore...I meant explode...

This tangent is once again a 'can of worms' that can, and will, be explored further. Since I'm not out to provide answers, I here wish to continue on doubting. Off to find some questions and make some changes.