Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

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‘A voice for life’: Max Hafler on teaching voice to young people

For director and voice teacher Max Hafler, good vocal training is vital for young people – and not just for those preparing for a career in the performing arts. Here he explains the benefits of a holistic approach, and how his new book, Teaching Voice:  Workshops for Young Performers, can help teachers and facilitators with little formal experience of voice work to bring out the best in their young people…

 

Our voices are vital components of our lives. We use our voices ­– naturally and instinctively – to express ourselves and to relate to others. We’re also amazingly sensitive to other people’s voices, able to pick up on what a speaker is feeling from the slightest inflection. Our own voice is a source of great power – something we learn almost as soon as we start using it. And it quickly becomes as much a part of our identity as our face or body.

Yet despite this, voice is given very little attention in our schools. Often it is just ignored or dealt with only through the limited pathways of ‘speech and drama’. As so often in education these days, the onus is on a skill being ‘useful’ for prospective employment. Voice is certainly that, of course: we have only to make a list of the jobs that require good clear speech and communication skills to realise how essential it is. But it goes beyond that. Anyone who works in this field knows that the impact of encouraging a young person to explore their voice in a positive, imaginative way is more than just improving their job prospects. Immeasurably more. By doing voice work with a young person, you are literally giving them a ‘voice’. It ought to be part of the social and educational remit of any school, youth theatre or liberal arts course.

I have always felt that whilst the technical element of voice work is important, a holistic approach is essential for the health of our young people. For their voices to become fully expressive, we have to help them connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. Right now I feel that young people are being increasingly denied the opportunity to develop their imaginations by the finished, ready-made images presented to them by mainstream media. I often use an analogy with the way the imagination works when reading a book, as opposed to watching a filmed version of that book. The images created by the filmmakers are never the same as those created by our own imagination, and they never have the same power. When you watch the film of a book you know well, it’s almost always a disappointment. Our imagination is a deeply personal place, and a place of absolute power.

The need to connect up the physical, emotional and imaginative components of our creative selves is at the very core of the acting technique developed by the Russian-American actor, director and teacher Michael Chekhov, a pupil of Stanislavsky. While his technique is used primarily in actor training, I have found it an immensely useful way to awaken and enliven the voice, and reconnect it with our bodies. If we want the sounds we make and the words we speak to really come to life, we have to find a strong impulse for them. And we can do that most effectively through the body and imagination.

MaxHafler2

I have been working with young people on voice and acting for decades in a whole range of settings (youth theatre, university, drama schools, non-vocational courses and special interest groups), and I have long been aware that there are a great many facilitators and teachers who want to employ voice work in their classrooms and studios without necessarily embarking on full-time training. My book, Teaching Voice, is intended to fill that gap. It will serve those with experience in voice teaching, and also those with very little formal experience. As well as offering workshop plans, it provides the reader with a programme of work to develop their own skills. While I fully recognise that approved training courses are invaluable for those who have the time and resources to devote to them, my aim has been to be as helpful as I can to as wide a range of people as possible: anyone who might say ‘I want to teach voice to my young people’. I wanted to address the issues of assessing the needs and desires of any particular group, and the time constraints which exist when we work in youth theatre or school drama clubs. I wanted to give the book a structure that made it flexible enough to be used by new teachers just as readily as by more experienced ones.

MaxHafler1Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am far from being a theorist!  Whilst I wanted to share my ethos throughout the book, above all I wanted it to serve as a solid bedrock for a practical and grounded approach to the work. At the centre of the book is a set of workshop plans which focus on particular areas such as rhythm, projection, realism and Shakespeare, supplemented by micro sessions and a chapter on incorporating voice in productions, both scripted and devised. My approach is to combine traditional vocal training exercises with those that work with the imagination and body. Energetic and visceral exercises such as Consonant Characters and Verbing the Body are included alongside more conventional drills and floor work. Radiating and Receiving, a principle I’ve adopted from Michael Chekhov Technique, is used in tandem with familiar exercises in projection.

This combination of traditional and holistic approaches makes the work much more energetic and engaging – so important, particularly when working with young people. Underlying it all is my belief that voice training is not only for acting, but for life.


FormattedMax Hafler teaches Voice and Chekhov Technique on the BA and MA programmes at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has taught voice in youth theatres all over Ireland for the National Association of Youth Drama. He discusses his work extensively in his own blog: www.maxhafler.wordpress.com.

His book, Teaching Voice: Workshops for Young Performers, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

The photos accompanying this article were taken by Sean O’Meallaigh at a workshop run by Max Hafler with members of Dublin Youth Theatre.