Monday, 19 November 2012


Defamiliarization or ostranenie is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A central concept in 20th century art and theory, ranging over movements including Dadapostmodernismepic theatreand science fiction, it is also used as a tactic by recent movements such as Culture jamming.

Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them. (Margolin 2005)

The technique appears in English Romantic poetry, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, and was defined in the following way bySamuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius."
In more recent times, it has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect") was a potent element of his approach to theater. Brecht, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.

Verfremdungseffekt: The distancing effect

The distancing effect, more commonly known (earlier) by John Willett's 1964 translation the alienation effect or (more recently) as the estrangement effect (GermanVerfremdungseffekt), is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht "which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer."[1] Brecht's term describes the aesthetics of his epic theatre.
The distancing effect is achieved by the way the "artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him [...] The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place" (Willett 91). The use of direct audience-address is one way of disrupting stage illusion and generating the distancing effect. In performance, as the performer "observes himself," his objective is "to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work" (Willett 92). Whether Brecht intended the distancing effect to refer to the audience or to the actor or to both audience and actor is still controversial among teachers and scholars of "Epic Acting" and Brechtian theatre.
By disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and "fictive" qualities of the medium, the actors alienate the viewer from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the play as mere "entertainment." Instead, the viewer is forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind that serves to disabuse him or her of the notion that what he is watching is necessarily an inviolable, self-contained narrative. This effect of making the familiar strange serves a didactic function insofar as it teaches the viewer not to take the style and content for granted, since the medium itself is highly constructed and contingent upon many cultural and economic conditions.
It may be noted that Brecht’s use of distancing effects in order to prevent audience members from bathing themselves in empathetic emotions and to draw them into an attitude of critical judgment may lead to other reactions than intellectual coolness. Brecht's popularization of the V-Effekt has come to dominate our understanding of its dynamics. But the particulars of a spectator’s psyche and of the tension aroused by a specific alienating device may actually increase emotional impact.[7] Audience reactions are rarely uniform, and there are many diverse, sometimes unpredictable, responses that may be achieved through distancing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Brechtian Advise To Actors

  1. Rational, calm detachment,
  2. "The Brechtian style of acting is acting in quotations marks"
  3. The actor should not impersonate, but narrate actions of another person, as if quoting facial gesture and movement,
  4. As the audience is not to be allowed to identify with the character, so, too the actor is not to identify with the character they are portraying.
  5. Brecht agrees with Stanislavsky what, if the actor believes he is the character, the audience with also believe it, and share his emotions. But, unlike Stanislavsky, he does not wish this to happen.
  6. Rather than live or "be" the character, an actor must portray them - become a representation of that person.
  7. Bretch, in rehearsals, advised actors to speak in the third person, the past tense and even say the stage directions in order to help this.
  8. The play is cemented as not being real and the focus can move back to the message.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Dialectical Theatre and Epic Theatre

Dialectical theatre is a label that the German modernist theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht came to prefer to Epic theatre near the end of his career to describe the type of theatre that he had developed earlier in his career. From his later perspective, the term "Epic Theatre" had become too formal a concept to be of use anymore; one of Brecht's most-important aesthetic innovations prioritized function over the sterile opposition between form and content.[5] According to Manfred Wekwerth, one of Brecht's directors at the Berliner Ensemble at the time, the term refers to the "'dialecticizing' of events" that his theatre produces.[6]

Epic theatre (Germanepisches Theater) was a theatrical movement arising in the early to mid-20th century from the theories and practice of a number of theatre practitioners, including Erwin PiscatorVladimir MayakovskyVsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously,Bertolt Brecht. Although many of the concepts and practices involved in Brechtian epic theatre had been around for years, even centuries, Brecht unified them, developed the style, and popularized it. Epic theatre incorporates a mode of acting that utilises what he calls gestus. The epic form describes both a type of written drama and a methodological approach to the production of plays: "Its qualities of clear description and reporting and its use of choruses and projections as a means of commentary earned it the name 'epic'."[1] Brecht later preferred the term "dialectical theatre" which he discussed in his work A Short Organum for the Theatre.[2]
One of the goals of epic theatre is for the audience to always be aware that it is watching a play: "It is most important that one of the main features of the ordinary theatre should be excluded from [epic theatre]: the engendering of illusion."[3]
Epic theatre was a reaction against popular forms of theatre, particularly the naturalistic approach pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski. Like Stanislavski, Brecht disliked the shallow spectacle, manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama; but where Stanislavski attempted to engender real human behavior in acting through the techniques of Stanislavski's system and to absorb the audience completely in the fictional world of the play, Brecht saw Stanislavski's methodology as producing escapism. Brecht's own social and political focus departed also from surrealism and the Theatre of Cruelty, as developed in the writings and dramaturgy ofAntonin Artaud, who sought to affect audiences viscerally, psychologically, physically, and irrationally.

Dramatic form developed in Germany after World War I by Bertolt Brecht and others, intended to provoke rational thought rather than to create illusion. It presents loosely connected scenes often interrupted by direct addresses to the audience providing analysis, argument, or documentation. Brecht's goal was to use alienating or distancing effects to block the emotional responses of the audience members and force them to think objectively about the play. Actors were instructed to keep a distance between themselves and the characters they portrayed and to emphasize external actions rather than emotions.

Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children (German: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) is a play written in 1939 by the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) with significant contributions from Margarete Steffin.[1] After four very important theatrical productions in Switzerland and Germany from 1941 to 1952—the last three supervised and/or directed by Brecht—the play was filmed several years after Brecht's death in 1959/1960 with Brecht's widow and leading actress, Helene Weigel.[2]
Mother Courage is considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century, and perhaps also the greatest anti-war play of all time.[3]
Mother Courage is one of nine plays that Brecht wrote in an attempt to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism. In response to theinvasion of Poland by the German armies of Adolf Hitler in 1939, Brecht wrote Mother Courage in what writers call a "white heat"—in a little over a month.[4] As leading Brecht scholars Ralph Manheim and John Willett wrote:
Mother Courage, with its theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it, is said to have been written in a month; judging by the almost complete absence of drafts or any other evidence of preliminary studies, it must have been an exceptionally direct piece of inspiration.[5]
"Brecht's genius was to mix humor in the great tragedies
- not always, but as a contrast."
Therese Giehse, 1968.[6]
Following Brecht's own principles for political drama, the play is not set in modern times but 

during the Thirty Years' War of 1618–1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling, nicknamed "Mother Courage", a wily canteenwoman with the Swedish Army who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Swiss Cheese, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the same war from which she sought to profit.

Mother Courage is an example of Brecht's concepts of Epic Theatre and Verfremdungseffekt or "estrangement effect".Verfremdungseffekt is achieved through the use of placards which reveal the events of each scene, juxtaposition, actors changing characters and costume on stage, the use of narration, simple props and scenery.

For instance, a single tree would be used to convey a whole forest, and the stage is usually flooded with bright white light whether it's a winter's night or a summer's day. Several songs, interspersed throughout the play, are used to underscore the themes of the play, while making the audience think about what the playwright is saying.

Brecht Research

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) offered a challenge to Aristotle's ancient approach to theatre as a spectator activity. He sought to stimulate the minds of his audience, integrating economics and politics into his plays, in hopes that those watching would respond with intellect, not emotion. 

As Eyre and Wright describe him, "He was a brilliant man of the theatre, highly receptive to the avant-garde of his day, quick to improve it and somewhat too precipitate to turn it into theory. He was a communist: not a left-winger, not a liberal, nor a humanitarian. From his twenties onwards, he thought and worked in terms of Marxist dialectic and he really wasn't kidding."

Over the course of his career, Brecht developed his so-called epic theater, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. To create a distancing effect, Brecht promoted acting and staging that would merely demonstrate what was being portrayed, thus giving the audience a more objective perspective on the action. In Brecht's plays, say Eyre and Wright, "lucidity reigns: nothing is worse than a jumble of confused impressions."
They go on to offer a look at Brecht's continuing role in political theater:

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Brecht was revered by left-leaning theatricals as a sage whose slightest jottings could be relied on as a guide to morality, politics and life itself. In the 1990s the collapse of faith in Marxism put a stop to that. But although his Mao-like status hasn't lasted, his plays (or some of them) have quietly entered the theatrical mainstream. Whether they've entered as what they are, or in disguise, is harder to say. Some productions get praised for following his thinking to the hilt, others get praised for throwing his boring theories out of the window. Sometimes both are said of the same production.

Brecht was mainly known for being a theatre practitioner however, he was also both a playwright and producer/director of his own, and others', plays. He also wrote extensively on dramatic theory. 

You should explain his theory in terms of his practice in writing and production. You may be confused if you assume that the theory matches the reality of the plays in production. 

The theory, arising from a Marxist notion of drama as a vehicle for rational didacticism, describes theatre as Brecht, in a sense, wished it to become. This theory is only partly realised in his own work. 

Brecht would say that this is the result of the theatre's (and society's) not being ready yet for the final, perfected version of epic theatre. Modern theatre critics might say that Brecht's practical sense of what works in the theatre has (happily) overruled the more extreme applications of his theory.

Epic Theatre began in the early 20th century from the theories of a number of Russian and German theatre practitioners: Erwin Piscator, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and, most famously, Bertolt Brecht, who is credited for unifying and popularizing the concepts and practices that now make Epic Theatre. 

Brecht (1898 -- 1956) was both playwright and director of plays. His most important works are 'The Life of Galileo' and 'Mother Courage and Her Children' which were written between 1937 and 1945 whilst he was in exile from Nazi Germany. Brecht returned after the war to establish the Berliner Ensemble. 
It was only after the production of his plays that he received wide recognition. 

The 20th century was an age that saw the political extremes of Nazism and Communism compete for dominance worldwide. Brecht himself had Marxist influences and avoided any support of capitalist values in his plays. Instead, many of his plays demonstrate examples of social injustice, and use these to promote socialist ideals. He believed theatre should be capable of making social change, while still providing entertainment

Read more:

Saturday, 10 November 2012

An Introduction To Brecht

My initial response to reading about the works and life of Bertolt Brecht was that I believe that Brecht’s' methods do have merit to them in the order of developing the skills of a training actor, however I do believe that his method of theatre essentially takes the fun out of acting. It can make the work too intellectual in my opinion and in some situations can really make the exploration of his methods dull and boring. I do however hope that as i continue to study his works and the methods of epic theatre that I can find more joy and excitement in it.

Bertolt Brecht was born on the 10th February 1898, and died on the 14 August 1956. He is mostly well known for being a theatre practitioner however he was also a playwright, a director, and a producer of his own works. 

Essentially Bertolt Brecht is held in such high esteem because he believes that through theatre you could create social change whilst still entertaining an audience. He didn’t like to think of his audience as an actual audience who were passive and played no part in the theatre - he wanted the people who witnessed his works to be spectators whom expel some kind of a reaction to the theatre that Brecht created. 

In the early 1900's a man named Konstantin Stanislavsky developed a type of theatre called 'Naturalism' which replicates real life and shows the realistic version of it. Stanislavski developed naturalistic acting, as he wanted his actors to become emotionally and psychologically involved with their roles, in order to create a convincing, realistic performance. Bertolt Brecht agreed with the idea that naturalism can evoke emotion within an audience however he tried to avoid it in his own work.

Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre: The major characteristics are that the audience weren't actually audiences. They were more like spectators as they were not spoon fed, therefore majority of the epic theatre plays didn't give away everything. It let the audience think. They were permitted to eat, drink and smoke. The actors had to portray the character and not get into the "skin of the character".

Epic theatre was proposed as an alternative to the Naturalism developed by Stanislavski. Brecht was not trying to pretend that what he put on stage was real life. He was not concerned, for example that a scene in 'Galileo', in a renaissance palace, had to take place in a believable imitation of such a palace. He wanted his audience to be aware of what was really happening -- that they were watching a play. Epic Theatre is supposed to keep an audience calm, reflective and detached from any emotion on stage. Brecht objected to theatre that relieved its audiences of stored emotions and desires, and did not want them to identify with characters. He believed such plays left audiences complacent and did not inspire them to effect change. Rather than passively sit through plays, Brecht's audiences are expected to give intellectual reflection to performances and even initiate social change after seeing examples of exploitation and inequality. The audience is invited not to feel, but to think.

Elements typical to an Epic Theatre production: 

· Loudspeakers announcing political events of the time.
· Flooding the stage with harsh white light, regardless of areas of action.
· Leaving stage lights in full view of the audience.
· Minimal use of props.
· No elaborate scenery.
· Musicians playing in view of audience.
· Intentionally interrupting the action with songs, for example, to make a point.
· Episodic narrative theatre where each scene begins with a caption, displayed or read aloud, that tells the audience what is about to happen.
· Using the voices of the Chorus for a main actor's speech, while the actor mimes.
· Anti-climactic lines after emotive speeches, such as "I must eat now." - A mundane observation made inappropriately by the protagonist in 'Galileo' after an impressive speech, to show the weakness of the man against the inventor.
· Language is clear and often informative, as Brecht intended Epic Theatre to be educational.
· Actors stepping out of role to comment on their character's actions.
· Actors making their choices explicit in speech e.g. "I could have helped the beggar, but I kept walking."
· Actors speaking directly to audience.
· Actors not supposed completely being their characters.
· Highly stylised, exaggerated movements.

All these techniques and elements aim to discourage an audience from suspending their disbelief and to keep them aware that they are watching a play, by making it harder for them to identify with characters and to keep the action alien and remote. Brecht called this the alienation effect, or 'V-Effekt'. These techniques remind the audience that the action is merely an enactment of reality and give Epic plays a constructed appearance, in the hope of communicating that our reality is also constructed by people, and so changeable.
The use of "quotable gesture," (using stances, mannerisms, or repeated action to sum up a character), and sudden shifts from one behaviour to another to put the audience off-balance, and suggesting "roads not taken" in moments of a character's decision-making, encourage audiences to criticize the society we see onstage in Epic Theatre.

Read more: