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the first in a series of posts on Theater About Then for Now

November 30, 2011

When I’m asked to describe my work as a theater director (as anyone in this field is often asked to do), I make sure I use a few keywords: Viewpoints and Composition, gender, Epic Theater, performance of identity. When talking to artists with whom I collaborate, I sometimes say post-modern, and then I explain what I in particular mean by that.

There are other isms and ists. Feminist. Post-colonialist. I also use reconstruction instead of deconstruction. And I invoke Brecht, namely in the context of narrative (as opposed to plot) and history.

So it’s always interesting to go back to those sources and take a fresh look at what I actually do versus what the theory that inspires me asks me to do. I’m working on two unrelated productions at once right now – As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath and Rimers of Eldritch – and with both I have invoked “historicization” as a design and performance aesthetic. But what do I mean by that?

In answering that question, I decided to remind myself what Brecht (might) have meant. Historicization. “Perhaps the incidents portrayed by the epic actor need to be familiar ones, in which case historical incidents would be the most immediately suitable,” he says in “The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting.”

In “Indirect Impact of the Epic Theater” he espouses,

[Scenes] must be portrayed as emphatically and significantly as any well-known historical episodes, though without sentimentalizing them. In this epic theatre serving a non-Aristotelian type of drama the actor will at the same time do all he can to make himself observed standing between the spectator and the event.

From “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theater:”

The epic theater is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt toward one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). … The concern of the epic theater is thus eminently practical. Human behavior is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.

I’ll be honest. I often choose historical subjects for productions simply because I think history is really interesting. I like having an excuse to learn as much as I can about a particular period – to devour the music, the images, the words and sounds of an age.

But I also chose to adapt Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath partly because its historical material so perfectly speaks to our current economic concerns. (Also partly because it’s brilliant and beautiful and the things he does with words are wow.) Part of my point is that we can learn from the ways history repeats itself – we can see ourselves in the past and understand that we can’t keep making the same mistakes. When we see how history repeats itself, surely we will realize that we have to change, or so my thinking goes.

Though I was sure I got the idea from him, Brecht’s take is actually a little different. He actually goes to great length to argue that we should perform history in order to show people how different the times are, not how similar. In a contradiction to his earlier statement that historical incidents would be suitably familiar to the actor, in “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting” he argues:

The actor must play the incidents as historical ones. Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods. The conduct of persons involved in them is not fixed and ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view. The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

So whereas I want to use the way that things don’t change to convince the audience that we must change, Brecht wanted to reinforce change by showing all the changes we’ve already made. The endpoint, I would argue, is the same: to get the audience to think critically about the ways we behave. But the means are actually pretty different. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

Now, if you’re still with me, you have either have some pre-existing interest in me or in Brecht, so bear with me a little longer, because what’s fun is how these things manifest in rehearsal. For As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, it’s in 4 ways in various combinations: what is historical, what is Steinbeck, what makes our political point, and what is good theater.

Two examples: the women actors in the show play both Women characters and a Used Car Salesman, a Truck Driver, and a Manager. They do not have time to change costumes (we can’t afford more than one costume per actor anyway), and the question came up of whether they should wear dresses. The dresses would be historically accurate when they are First, Second and Third Woman, but not as the other characters. So the question becomes what will the audience believe (“believe” in the sense of “be able to make meaning out of”), and the answer is they are more likely to believe Women in pants than Truck Drivers in dresses. So then the question becomes do I want to challenge what the audience believes? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. In this case, the gender of the characters is not the main point I’m making, so I’m not interested in defying the audience’s expectations with that particular choice.

At the same time, because I am adapting text that was not written as dialogue, I have the opportunity to assign lines by gender in ways that empower the Women characters. My choices here have also involved going against historical assumptions, though in a different way. Together with the actors, we have created three distinct man-woman marriages, in some of which the women are equal partners with the men, and in all of which the women have genuine thoughts, feelings and opinions and take genuine action. But here I can argue that though it was not the norm, inevitably some women in 1935 had fairly equal relationships with their husbands. Inevitably some women lived as the subjects of their own lives. I can therefore justify the fact that in the adaptation I create a world in which that is true.

But in making these sorts of choices, am I in fact perverting history? Am I encouraging people to believe in a falsehood? Am I “Oliver Stone-ing” the Okies? This is a work in progress, but right now, I’m thinking no. And here’s why.

My work is Brechtian. I’m not actually trying to convince the audience that women wore pants in 1935. Nor am I suggesting that they actually had social or economic power. I’m actually assuming people know the truth on both scores, and that they know that this is theater and therefore a fiction. And I am hoping that in seeing real women with their own thoughts and motivations living in 1935 circumstances, we can get closer to understanding how absurd assumptions about gender are in all times.

Or maybe my work is not actually Brechtian at all. Either way I’ll leave you with this: Women always have been and always will be fully human subjects of history. How we document that, as far as I can tell, has always been pretty much up for grabs.

Quotes from Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett

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