Brecht on Anxiety and Lighting a Bomb in the Theatre

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In John Willett’s compendium of some of Brecht’s most important critical writings, the editor helps to outline the theatremaker’s development of his style. Each letter and article allows for a further glimpse into Brecht’s take on Epic Theatre, acting, and the alienation effect for which his works are so renowned.

On anxiety, Brecht aptly points out:

“In his obscure anxiety not to let the audience get away the actor is immediately so steamed up that he makes it seem the most natural thing in the world to insult one’s father. At the same time it can be seen that acting takes a tremendous lot out of him. And a man who strains himself on the stage is bound, if he is any good, to strain all the people sitting in the stalls.” – From Berliner Börsen-Courier, 1926

Around the same time this article was written, Brecht was insisting on a new type of audience engagement in the form of what he called “ ’smokers’ theatre.” The audience would puff on cigars and look on as if taking in a boxing match, therefore developing a more detached and critical outlook than was possible in the ordinary German theatre. Smoking was verboten in theatres at the time.

He posits:

“That in a Shakespearean production one man in the stalls with a cigar could bring about the downfall of Western art. He might as well light a bomb as light his cigar. I would be delighted to see our public allowed to smoke during performances. And I’d be delighted mainly for the actor’s sake. In my view it is quite impossible for the actor to play unnatural cramped and old-theatre to a man smoking in the stalls.” 

Forever pushing the boundaries of what theatre was “allowed to be” at the time, Brecht paved the way for many in the modern day interactive and absurdist theatre realms. Brecht on Theatre is a delight – like sitting down for a rare and illuminating coffee-date with Brecht himself.

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How to Be Happy – By Stephen Fry

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“Certainly the most destructive vice if you like, that a person can have. More than pride, which is supposedly the number one of the cardinal sins – is self pity. Self pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred’s a subset of self pity and not the other way around – ‘It destroys everything around it, except itself .’

Self pity will destroy relationships, it’ll destroy anything that’s good, it will fulfill all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself. And it’s so simple to imagine that one is hard done by, and that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated, and that if only one had had a chance at this, only one had had a chance at that, things would have gone better, you would be happier if only this, that one is unlucky. All those things. And some of them may well even be true. But, to pity oneself as a result of them is to do oneself an enormous disservice.

I think it’s one of things we find unattractive about the american culture, a culture which I find mostly, extremely attractive, and I like americans and I love being in america. But, just occasionally there will be some example of the absolutely ravening self pity that they are capable of, and you see it in their talk shows. It’s an appalling spectacle, and it’s so self destructive. I almost once wanted to publish a self help book saying ‘How To Be Happy by Stephen Fry : Guaranteed success’. And people buy this huge book and it’s all blank pages, and the first page would just say – ‘ Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself – And you will be happy ‘. Use the rest of the book to write down your interesting thoughts and drawings, and that’s what the book would be, and it would be true. And it sounds like ‘Oh that’s so simple’, because it’s not simple to stop feeling sorry for yourself, it’s bloody hard. Because we do feel sorry for ourselves, it’s what Genesis is all about.”

― Stephen Fry

Love this simple and effective take on the ease of happiness. We often get caught up in thinking that 10 to 2,000 other things, distant objects in the future, are the keys to our happiness, when in fact the simple key is “ease.” When presented with less than ideal circumstances, we can choose to resist or struggle, or opt to accept them without the need to wallow in self-pity. By releasing the need to control the outcome of every situation, we allow ourselves to respond to each moment as it comes. And that’s a heck of a lot easier than trying to master the art of feeling sorry for oneself.

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The Most Widely-Known Question in the English Language


From Slings & Arrows, a gem of a show that follows the workings of a fictional Shakespeare festival akin to Stratford’s.

Directors like the fictional Tennant are an actors dream – insightful, brave, and brutally honest. The kind that are able to take usher a well-loved, oft-recited collection of words out of an actor frightened of his own greatness. This shows’ three seasons only get better as they progress and I would highly recommend a watch if you’re in need of a new TV addiction.

How many times have you heard this illustrious speech? What makes it memorable for you?

Some of the Best Reveal How They Find Creative Inspiration

On Creativity and Finding Inspiration:

(The following excerpts come from this article from The Guardian. I’ve chosen a few of my favorites below.)

Guy Garvey, musician

• Spending time in your own head is important. When I was a boy, I had to go to church every Sunday; the priest had an incomprehensible Irish accent, so I’d tune out for the whole hour, just spending time in my own thoughts. I still do that now; I’m often scribbling down fragments that later act like trigger-points for lyrics.

• Just start scribbling. The first draft is never your last draft. Nothing you write is by accident.

Polly Stenham, playwright

• Doodle. I’m very fidgety, and I seem to work best when my hands are occupied with something other than what I’m thinking about. During rehearsals, I find myself drawing little pictures or symbols that are somehow connected to the play. With Tusk Tusk, it was elephants, clowns and dresses on hangers. I’ll look back at my doodles later, and random snatches of dialogue will occur to me.

• Go for a walk. Every morning I go to Hampstead Heath, and I often also go for a wander in the middle of the day to think through a character or situation. I listen to music as I go. Again, it’s about occupying one part of your brain, so that the other part is clear to be creative.

Tamara Rojo, ballet dancer

An idea never comes to me suddenly; it sits inside me for a while, and then emerges. When I’m preparing for a particular character, I look for ideas about her wherever I can. When I first danced Giselle, I found Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark incredibly inspiring. It was so dark, and it felt just like a modern-day version of Giselle – the story of a young woman taken advantage of by others. It brought the part alive for me. Now when I talk to others who are playing Giselle, they sometimes say they’re worried that it feels like a parody, and not relevant to today. I tell them to watch that film and see how modern it can be.

To be truly inspired, you must learn to trust your instinct, and your creative empathy. Don’t over-rehearse a part, or you’ll find you get bored with it. Hard work is important, but that comes before inspiration: in your years of training, in your ballet class, in the Pilates classes. That work is there just to support your instinct and your ability to empathise. Without those, you can still give a good, technically correct performance – but it will never be magical.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer

• If you write something in the evening or at night, look back over it the next morning. I tend to be less self-critical at night; sometimes, I’ve looked back at things I wrote the night before, and realised they were no good at all.

• If you get overexcited by an idea, take a break and come back to it later. It is all about developing a cold eye with which to look over your own work.

Fyfe Dangerfield, musician

I used to think that being inspired was about sitting around waiting for ideas to come to you. That can happen occasionally: sometimes, I’m walking down the street and suddenly hear a fragment of music that I can later work into a song. But generally, it’s not like that at all. I liken the process to seeing ghosts: the ideas are always there, half-formed. It’s about being in the right state of mind to take them and turn them into something that works.

Anthony Neilson, playwright and director

• Don’t forget to have a life. It’s important to look outside the business. There are so many great stories out there that have nothing to do with the theatre, or with other writers.

•Be as collaborative as possible. I do a lot of my thinking once I’m in the rehearsal room – I’m inspired by the actors or designers I’m working with. Other creative people are a resource that needs to be exploited.

• Try to ignore the noise around you: the chatter, the parties, the reviews, the envy, the shame.

Rupert Goold, director

• Once you have an idea, scrutinise the precedent. If no one has explored it before in any form then you’re 99% likely to be making a mistake. But that 1% risk is why we do it.

• Make sure you are asking a question that is addressed both to the world around you and the world within you. It’s the only way to keep going when the doubt sets in.

• Love the effect over its cause.

Lucy Prebble, playwright

• If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

• Feeling intimidated is a good sign. Writing from a place of safety produces stuff that is at best dull and at worst dishonest.

• Write backwards. Start from the feeling you want the audience to have at the end and then ask “How might that happen?” continually, until you have a beginning.

Ian Rickson, director

• Trust the ingenuity and instinctiveness of actors. Surround them with the right conditions and they’ll teach you so much.

• Embrace new challenges. When we’re reaching for things, we tend to be more creative.

• Try to remove your own ego from the equation. It can get in the way.

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Directing à la Kazan

On director Elia Kazan (acclaimed stage and film director of successes such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and On the Waterfront):

“Stimulation and dissimulation were his twin talents. ‘He would send one actor to listen to a particular piece of jazz, another a certain novel, another to see a psychiatrist, and another he would simply kiss,’ [Arthur] Miller recalled. During rehearsals, according to Miller, Kazan ‘grinned a lot but said as little as possible.’

‘Instinctively, when he had something  important to tell an actor, he would huddle with him privately rather than instruct before the others, sensing that anything that really penetrates is always to some degree an embarrassment…A mystery grew up around what he might be thinking, and this threw the actor back upon himself.’ Kazan’s trick was to make his own ideas seem like the actors’ discoveries. ‘He let the actors to excite themselves with their own discoveries, which they would carry back to him like children offering some found object back to a parent.’

– Kazan on Directing, Foreward by John Lahr

This book was one of my Christmas gifts this year and I’m loving it. Recommended reading for those looking for insight into one of the great director’s methods.

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