Last week, the Theatre Department brought in Stefan Brun, an experienced Chicago theatre director and expert on playwright Bertolt Brecht to have a discussion on how Brecht’s work should be approached. Brecht has been a recent focus of the department with the upcoming “Learning Plays,” a main stage production of many of Brecht’s shorter works, which replaced the cancelled production of his play “The Good Person of Szechwan.”
Brun was invited by Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder, the director of the “Learning Plays” production, with costs being covered by the Theatre Department and the Cultural Events Committee. Blackadder brought Brun in with the hopes that his experience with Brecht would provide useful insight both for him and the students working on Brecht’s play.
“I also sort of liked the fact that he’s very much a theatre maker rather than an academic . . . He’s someone who has a lot of practical experience,” Blackadder said.
In a lecture prior to a Q&A with students and faculty, Brun primarily focused on his interpretation of Brecht’s approach to theatre and spoke to Brecht’s aim of showing the possibility for change based on individuals’ actions.
“Showing what happens with emphasis on people’s choices Ñ however overwhelmed or mentally ill, racist, phobic or capitalist they may choose to be Ñ is a positive and constructive strategy,” Brun said.
Brun believes that Brecht’s work has been misunderstood in America. He partially attributed this to anti-communist sentiments which went against Brecht’s political beliefs.
“We came to Brecht as the enemy and the spokesperson for the enemy,” Brun said.
However, Brun also stated that there is a lack of proper context for Brecht’s work. He cited the way Brecht advised actors to not fully identify with the characters in his work as one example. He observed that this was advice specifically for the highly trained 1920s Berlin actors Brecht worked with, and wasn’t necessarily how he would want his work approached by actors today.
“Were he alive, I think he’d say something different in this historical situation in this time,” Brun said.
One question posed to Brun from the audience was the approach to distant times and settings of some of Brecht’s plays. This was among the issues faced by the production of “The Good Person of Szechwan,” which was written to be set in China.
Not specifically discussing Szechwan, Brun noted that Brecht was no expert on other cultures, but did explore his reasoning for these settings.
“I don’t think he knew jack about Asia . . . What he liked to do was to create a distance in which we can see things that the characters on stage cannot see . . . You can pull them away both from the historical place they were in and the current time,” he said.
He acknowledged that this approach by Brecht may not be as effective with modern audiences.
“It was intentional and probably wouldn’t work now like it did then in a very provincial and unworldly Germany,” Brun said.
The talk was attended by about 20 students and faculty, with both Knox’s Theatre and German Department represented. Sophomore Joel Willison, a student involved in the upcoming “Learning Plays” production, commented positively on Brun’s discussion.
“It’s interesting to see how he approaches directing Brecht and what he thinks of Brecht’s methodology . . . because he has a lot of experience at this,” he said.
Blackadder was also pleased by the nature of Brun’s talk and that it turned into a dialogue between Brun and the audience as had been intended.
“It was clear that he was not someone who was going to give a dry academic talk, he wanted to have a conversation,” Blackadder said.
In addition to giving a presentation, Brun was also a guest in Blackadder’s Brecht seminar during the day, and attended a rehearsal of “Learning Plays.”
“At the rehearsal he had some specific suggestions for us about things like how to handle the choral speaking . . . how to deal with some of the stage combat stuff that we still need to work on,” Blackadder said.
Within his presentation, Brun also suggested an insight from Brecht’s work for people aspiring to creative work.
“Make your audience smart. Audiences don’t want to be lectured to . . . audiences want to be smarter than what they’re watching,” Brun said.