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.
“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.
Don’t have a traditional theatre on hand? More and more groups seem to be saying “that’s alright, we’ll make do” and seeking out alternative theatre spaces. And I have to say, I love this trend. A production of The Tempest staged steps away from the ocean, Halloween-themed shows performed in a cemetery, even promenade plays that invite audiences to walk along the streets of a town and experience a theatrical event in an incredibly immersive fashion. A notable example is the NYC production, Sleep No More, which took a few abandoned warehouses and created “the McKintrick Hotel,” a 1930s setting for a multi-story recreation of MacBeth. Audience members don masks and follow the action of not only the Shakespeare original, but also what precedes and follows the story of Mac as we know it.
An immaculate amount of detail, room after room of embellishments and the result? A macabre and innovative manner of storytelling that invites the audience to be a part of its unsettling nature.
“The best theatre should be like gym for the soul”
– Anne Bogart
Recently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the LA Stage Alliance explored the intrinsic impact of live theatre in the first of their LA STAGE Talks series. But how does one go about measuring how theatre affects its audience members when an individual walks away from a show with no quantifiable differences? The piece touched you/changed your life/challenged you/made you think? Great. But how do you show that?
For the researchers involved in this study, their answer was a U.S.-wide survey. The lead researcher Alan Brown asserted, “If you can describe something, you can measure it.” And so they went off to help 18 theatres better understand what kept their patrons coming back.
Perhaps the most interesting part of their findings were their results on the motivations for attending a production.
For most, a primary motivation was “to relax or escape,” which goes up significantly with age, and then tapers off. The second most popular motivation was the desire “to be emotionally moved or inspired,” which also increased with age, before leveling off. Ranking third was “to spend time with family members,” which rises during the child rearing years, and then, “plunges” later.
Another interesting motivation was “to re-visit a familiar work of art,” especially true in cases of classic musical theatre pieces and staples such as the Nutcracker and Christmas Carol, which served as a primary reason for older theatergoers to attend.
Interestingly, the motivation “being invited by someone else,” was highly recorded throughout the results. Brown was able to report that “an invitation from a friend explains half of all art participation.”
The last one speaks greatly to the idea of art as a community. We often forget the power of people and the strength of word of mouth. Theatre cannot exist without the audience. Thus it is as necessary to cultivate a great audience as it is to find a great cast when working on a piece. The two are interdependent. The crowd will sustain the theatre, and the theatre will sustain the crowd.
What are some of your reasons for getting down to the theatre?