After the Knox Theatre Department decided to cancel its mainstage production of “The Good Person of Szechwan” over concerns voiced by students, Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder was still determined to produce a Bertolt Brecht play.
Blackadder was drawn to the ensemble aspect and minimalism of “Learning Plays.” With the last minute cancellation of “Good Person,” the department sought a show that could be designed in a short amount of time while still doing it justice.
“My colleagues and I had been conferring about design and other issues to do with the show we thought we were directing so we all had much less time,” Blackadder said. “So it made sense for me to come up with something that could be not necessarily bare bones but minimal in style, which is what we’ve come up with.”
The production of “Learning Plays” will consist of “He Who Says Yes,” “He Who Says No” and “The Exception and the Rule.” “He Who Says Yes” and “He Who Says No” are set in a nonspecific world. Blackadder has tried to play up this universal element, due in part to time limitations.
“There are no specific references to anything cultural. There’s talk of a teacher and a house and mountains. It kind of could be anywhere,” Blackadder said.
For sophomore Casey Brayndick and junior Shannon Mindlin, the show provided a learning experience in a form of acting other than realism. The two actors play several roles in the cast, which consists of an ensemble of characters who are played by multiple actors throughout the show. As Brayndick noted, much of Brecht’s work falls somewhere between real and not. She often had to remind herself that, although much of the show leans toward realism, she should think of it in a more abstract manner.
“When you’re doing Brecht right, it’s not real,” Brayndick said. “So I really have to just tell myself, pause, slow down, take it back, don’t necessarily do it in a way that makes the most sense to you.’”
The plays focus on political issues like class and economic status, while also touching on social issues such as consent being important in unexpected situations. Brayndick feels that the issue of consent will be notably relevant to Knox students who see the show.
“Especially on this campus because we’ve had so much stuff about sexual consent, a lot of people are going to connect it to that,” she said. “But this is more just consent in a broader sense. So it’s saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any sort of situation whether it’s simple or super complicated.”
Actors in the production were tasked with not only finding their own throughline—connecting themes or motifs—for a character, but creating a parallel with the version of that character played by another actor. As the roles in the show switch frequently, it is important for the different takes of the character to retain the same overall arc. While this posed a challenge, Mindlin found it to be a process that, at times, occurred subconsciously.
“It’s very much [a process of people] bouncing ideas off of one another and you end up picking up the quirks of the character that another person does,” she said. “And so you don’t realize it but you’re playing off of one another even without actually saying, ‘oh I’m going to do this thing, you should do this.’”
Brecht drew inspiration for “He Who Says Yes” and “He Who Says No” from a traditional Japanese Noh play. Unlike “The Good Person of Szechwan,” these plays focus on the universal rather than borrowing explicit elements of Asian cultures.
“When Brecht originally did it, I think it was more that he borrowed the story from the Noh play and changed it,” Blackadder said. “He did it with contemporary 1920s German music rather than trying to make it Asian so we haven’t really dealt with that. I shared the original Japanese play with the students in the course of the process but there’s not a huge amount of difference in the story that it tells.”
Senior Aidan Murphy serves as composer and dramaturg for “Learning Plays.” A dramaturg is essentially a literary advisor, addressing textual interpretations and historical accuracies. Since “Learning Plays” are set in a nonspecific universe, Murphy has not had to deal much with historical and cultural aspects of dramaturgy.
“It’s not realism, so we don’t need to be faithful to the things they were doing at the time,” Murphy said. “We have done research and learned a lot about how Brecht’s plays were initially staged, but in terms of contributions in the rehearsal room, there really hasn’t been a lot of filling Neil in on things he doesn’t know because he knows a lot more than me.”
Murphy appreciates how songs are built into the structure of “Learning Plays.” He wrote original music for the six musical moments in “The Exception and the Rule.” These moments interrupt the action onstage and allow characters to comment on it directly to the audience.
“The purpose in a theoretical sense is basically to interrupt the action; create an aesthetic experience for the audience that will entertain them but also to stimulate their minds and think critically,” Murphy said.
Since the cancellation of “Good Person,” time has proven an issue.
“I wish we had more time to rehearse this music. The last song, I wrote a week and a half ago and I shared it with the actors; we’ve only begun to rehearse it this past week and, of course, we start on Wednesday, so time has definitely been the biggest [challenge],” Murphy said.
While designing the technical aspect of the show provided an obstacle, the surreal aspect of the show made casting an easy process. As Mindlin noted, the producers of the show did not have to take special care to portray a specific culture or identity in an appropriate manner.
“It’s more abstract and also it gives more room to play around with the setting and everything because it’s not set in China,” Mindlin said. “It’s set in a broad space and it’s not like showing a specific race of people.”
For Mindlin, Brecht is an important playwright in the study of theatre. She noted that much of how theatre runs today is influenced by his ideas.
“Brecht is the one who introduced the lights being able to be seen on stage,” she said. “Before Brecht, there would be curtains just to hide the lights. And we don’t even realize how much of Brecht’s techniques have been implemented into theatre today.”
“Learning Plays” will run from Wednesday, Feb. 21 through Saturday, Feb. 24. The shows will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Harbach Theatre.