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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brechtin' Ain't Easy

On their path to graduation, all Villanova Theatre second-year students complete an Orals project - the equivalent of a Master's thesis - in a chosen area that they have studied over the past two years. Options range from academic to artistic and have taken on many forms over the years.  John, currently playing Tiger Brown in Villanova's production of The Threepenny Opera, is exploring the particular difficulties that accompany playing a Brechtian role.  Brecht created his own aesthetic in the mid-20th century, and along with it, a new style of acting.  What's it like to take on an unfamiliar technique?  Read below to find out!

As I write this blog post, it's April 3rd and we are just starting a much needed four day rest for Easter Break before returning for tech week, and my brain has been out in Brecht-space for about six weeks straight. (For those unaware, Bertolt Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera, the musical which we're currently neck-deep in.)  To be honest, I'm surprised I can remember what state I live in at the moment. This material is difficult for several reasons, but I'm quite glad to be here. This is my last show as a second year in the MA program, and playing Tiger Brown is a great-and challenging-note to go out on.

John as Officer Lockstock in Urinetown
I first become somewhat acquainted with Brecht several years ago during undergrad, and within a year or so of studying him (somewhat) for the first time, we did a production of Urinetown. I played Officer Lockstock (look at that, another chief of police) and ended up being our dramaturg and writing the program notes, so this was when I really began to read about the conventions of Brecht's Epic Theatre and how Urinetown was a love letter to shows like The Threepenny Opera. I thought I knew what I was in for, but it's a much more delicate process than I had imagined.

It's very hard to approach Brecht like you would a conventional play or musical. I hesitate to put it this way, but you're not really playing a flesh and blood character, you're playing an idea. Almost like a stock character from a farce, but more complicated than that. Brecht wanted his audiences's called "verfremdungseffekt", or the distancing effect. He wanted you to think about the deeper meaning of the material after leaving the play, and doing this outside of the theatre. He didn't want his audiences deeply engaged with the characters, enough to worry about who's getting killed, who's cheating on who, how character A knows character B's plan, etc. It was sort of a "Don't worry about that and be entertained" approach, because he wanted his audiences very aware that they were watching a play and directly addressed them through the fourth wall. 

John as John (seriously!) in Michael & Edie
Now, the ultimate insult for Brecht was said to be an actor who "became" a character rather than played them...he wanted his actors demonstrating the material, not living it. Therefore, as an actor performing Brecht, it may seem to be counter-intuitive to everything you've ever learned. Forget Stanislavsky and throw out Meisner. For a normal play, if I was playing a police officer in 1839, like I am here, I would be doing a lot more historical research than I am this time, because you simply can't be method in a show like this. Sometimes you're playing an actor, observing the show with a knowing grin. A second later you may be playing your character. Moments later, you may be observing as your character, but not engaged. But you're not the actor, viewing with detachment, you're the character. A character who is detached and removed, but still IN the play, while OUTSIDE the play, who a moment later might be IN the play, and engaged. It's understandable if during the rehearsal process, people forget who they are. 

But Valerie Joyce is kind of a genius, so none of us are ever worried, because it all just works out. Not to mention Peter Hilliard is kind of a wizard, and he's leading the band. We're moving right along as we approach tech, and everything is falling into place nicely. Now, if only I could get my body to be a dancer as well as an actor and a singer. I said Valerie was a genius, but it'll be a miracle if she gets me to become a good dancer. (I'm tryin'.)

The Threepenny Opera runs from April 14th-26th at Villanova Theatre.  Call 610-519-7474 or visit for tickets!

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