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Theatre Style - Epic Theatre

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Brigitte Ferguson

on 22 April 2016

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Transcript of Theatre Style - Epic Theatre

What is Epic Theatre? (Continued... )
Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956)
Born in Ausgburg, Germany in 1898
What is Epic Theatre?
Historical Influences of the Time Period
Influenced by the effects of World War I.
the suffering of the middle and lower classes during the post-war recession
the human cost (amount of men and women who lost their lives during war)
Influenced by the Great Depression in the 1930's
Fun Facts about Bertolt Brecht!

Started writing at a young age
February 1933, Brechts career was interrupted when the Nazis and Hitler came to power in Germany.
Fearing persecution, the night after Reichstag (burning of the German parliament building) Brecht fled to Prague.
His books and plays were banned in Germany.
During his exile (February 1933- October 1948), Brecht wrote what were considered his best plays –
Mother Courage and Her Children
The Good Woman of Setzuan
The Days of the Commune
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Goals of Epic Theatre
Make the audience aware that they are watching a play
Make the audience feel detached from the action of the play
Break the fourth wall completely
Make the audience think and question rather than accept and enjoy
goal is to make the audience aware of their social surroundings and encourage them to act to change their society.
Epic Theatre
Bertolt Brecht (Continued...)
Epic Theatre is the exact opposite of Realism.
Created in Germany in the 20th Century
A form of didactic drama, which involves loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the story line to address the audience
Came along at a time when Naturalism, Realism, and Melodrama were popular theatre forms
Against the conventions of Realistic and Naturalistic theatre
Epic Theatre
detaches the audience from the play and characters
makes the audience
aware they are watching a play
portrays the realities and issues of everyday life
draws the audience in
the audience feels connected to the characters and the situation
Each scene linking to another
Each scene for itself
Almost expelled for writing anti-war poems in school at age eighteen
By age 16, he was writing for a local newspaper
By age 20 he had written his first full length play
--> Baal
What is Epic Theatre (Continued...)
Bertolt Brecht was against Naturalism and Realism.
He saw re-creating real life onstage, making the audience believe the characters are real, and letting the audience simply relax and not think as a "waste of an audience".
Brecht wanted the audience to think, to question and to be challenged --> not just accept and enjoy.
Strong follower of Marxism
In 1917 Brecht studied medicine at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
Was married twice, once to Marianne Zoff (1922-1927) who had 3 children, only one of them Brecht being the biological father
Later married Helene Weigel (1929-1956) and had a daughter.
Served in an army hospital
Erwin Piscator
December 1893 – March 1966
Playwrights & Innovators

Vladimir Mayakovsky
July 1893 – April 1930
Vsevolod Meyerhold
February 1874 – February 1940
All three of these men expanded and contributed to Brecht's idea of a new style of theatre --> Epic Theatre
Acting Techniques


Brecht believed in keeping lighting simple as he didn’t want the production values to overshadow the message of the work
Open white light was used often (as colour would generate an emotional response from the audience)
If the house lights were left on during a performance, open white light also allowed for the spectators and performers to share a single same-lit space
The source of lighting must be in plain sight and completely visible
Lighting instruments in full view of audience (no attempt to hide them, but rather remind the audience they were watching a play)
Elements of Epic Theatre
Special Effects

Special effects were not used
If special effect was used it would take away from Brecht's goal.
Special effects would make the play seem more realistic, which was the exact opposite of what Brecht wanted.
Bertolt Brecht (Continued...)
Brecht was originally a Communist.
in 1926 Brecht embraced Marxism and his theatre techniques after this point served his Marxist beliefs
He first came into prominence in Berlin in 1929 with a new version of Gay’s
The Beggar’s Opera
– his
The Threepenny Opera
with music by Kurt Weill.
Brecht wrote over fifty plays.
His plays were professionally presented after 1945 by his own company, the Berliner Ensemble, led by his actress-wife Helene Weigel.
In 1956 Brecht died due to a heart attack.
Origins of Epic Theatre
Why “Epic”?
Epic implies a narrative, rather than a simple plot.
It also implies a story that spans multiple time frames and locations.
Many of Brecht’s own plays follow this convention and there are numerous examples that can be easily found.
Epic films with huge narratives include Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of The Rings trilogy of films (2001, 2002, 2003).
Origins of Epic Theatre
“Scenes” or Episodes”?
Brecht began writing his plays with no act or scene divisions, which were later added after the work was completed.
Publishers may call them “scenes”, but Brecht preferred to name them “episodes”.
“Episode” implies a self-contained unit of action and less of a reliance on the cause and effect relationship between scenes in the theatre of realism … a style of theatre Brecht loathed.
One of Brecht’s primary goals was to emotionally distance the audience from the action on stage.
Brecht labeled the audience “spectators” in his writings on the theatre.
When do we refer to the term “audience” and when do we use the term “spectator”? What are the differences?
Cinema and theatre viewers are an “audience”, while large venue, arena and sporting examples (often, but not always outdoors) are “spectators”.
In a 100, 000 seat arena, the spectator is physically distanced from the action and feels less involed in the experience.
But in the cinema, the audience can be much more involved in the event. “Audience” implies intimacy.
“Spectator” implies detachment.
Origins of Epic Theatre
“Audience” or “Spectator”?
Brecht was the dominating influence in the European theatre of the 1950s.
His early plays showed him attempting to make use both of Piscator’s ‘epic theatre’ and his own theory of ‘alienation’.
This new approach to the problem of actor-audience relationship consisted in destroying by various technical methods the once-prized ‘theatrical illusion’, and so preventing the spectators from becoming emotionally involved in the action.
Only then, he argued, can they judge the performance and the subject-matter objectively and with intelligence.
Origins of Epic Theatre
Blank, simple sets – sets only indicate the place of scene
His style of theatre was not about illusion, therefore he did not need or want an entire set that would take away from the goal.
Music and song used to express the play’s themes independent of the main spoken text in the play (in parable scenes)
Music was used to neutralise emotion, rather than intensify it (opposite to a modern-day musical)
Epic plays employed a large narrative (as opposed to a smaller plot), spanning many locations and time frames.
Short(er) scenes normally involved parables, used to emotionally detach the audience marginally
focus was always on the society being presented in the play, not individual characters.
Events in plays were sometimes told from the viewpoint of a single storyteller (alienation device)
Elements of Epic Theatre
Parable scenes often involved the use of song, an alienation device employed by Brecht to help deliver the (Marxist) message of the play.
‘Historification’/’historicisation’ was a Brecht term defining the technique of setting the action of a play in the past to draw parallels with contemporary events.
‘Historification’/’historicisation’ enabled spectators to view the events of the play with emotional detachment and garner a thinking response.
Elements of Epic Theatre
All of this was supposed to distance spectators from the drama, turning the audience into objective observers.
He insisted that the house-lights remain on at the start of a performance, so that the spectators should remain aware of themselves as a group.
At times sets were industrial eg. ramps, treadmills (influence of Meyerhold’s constructivist set design)
sets were sometimes non-existent or fragmentary (either partial sets or one object representing many of the same)
Signs/placards used to show audience a range of information
Screen projection used to reinforce play’s theme/s (to garner an intellectual response, not emotional)
Some makeup and mask use
Non-realistic and ‘theatrical’:
grotesque and/or caricatured
Makeup and costume used to depict a character’s social role in the play, not that of his/her everyday appearance
costume was not individually identifiable eg. the farmer’s costume represented ‘a (typical) farmer’
costume was sometimes incomplete and fragmentary eg. tie and briefcase for the businessman
costume often denoted the character’s role or function in society (plus wealth/class)
Brecht believed that the actor's job was to simply show what happens.
He did not want the actors to 'become the character' or play the character realistically as Stanaslavski had his student study.
He wanted his actors to move or block as if it were their first time doing it.
Epic theatre breaks the fourth wall (the imaginary wall between the actors and audience which keeps them as observers.)
To do this, Brecht developed a technique called 'Verfremdungseffekt', known today as the 'alienation effect'
The use of anti-illusive techniques to remind the audience that they are in a theatre watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself
The main idea of alienation effects is to make the audience remember that they are in a theatre watching a play.
Some ways Brecht’s plays did this were:
Changing the set in full view of the audience exposing theatre technology
Performing the play with the house lights on to make the audience aware of one another
Having the actors wear all black rather than be individually costumed
Narrarating throughout the play
Have one actor play obvious multiple roles
Singing and dancing throughout an actors lines
Use of signs explaining, or projecting what is going to happen in an upcoming scene
Actors speaking in third person
Using the same prop to represent various items,
for example, a suitcase can become a pillow, a door, etc.
Speaking in "quotations"
"Why use Alienation effects?"
They bring the audiences focus to something different
These techniques break the illusion of drama-- letting the audience not get caught up in the story or the characters.
They help avoid emotional investment the audience may make with the play
They interrupt the rhythm of the play, making the audience question and think which is the main goal of Epic Theatre
Gestus is an acting technique developed by Brecht, but inspired by Charlie Chaplin.
It is a combination of physical gestures and attitude.
Brecht felt that traditional theatre focused too much on facial expression and not enough on gestures.
Gestus should not be spontaneous - it should be carefully thought out and used to convey a message.
Example of Gestus: A soldier simply walking across stage does not have much meaning. Having the soldier walk across stage stepping over bodies, this shows a heartless uncaring character and becomes meaningful.
Performing a Brecht play
Movement & Gesture
Mix of realistic and non-realistic movement
Movement was at times graceful, but at other times forceful
Brecht used the Latin word ‘gestus’ to describe both individual gestures and whole body postures
Character gestus denoted one’s social attitude and human relationships with others (linked to Marxist principles)
Some Oriental gesture used (Brecht’s influence of a Balinese dance showing)
Groups of characters often positioned on the stage for functional and not aesthetic reasons
Characters grouped according to their social relationships in the play (Marxist)
Space & Actor-Audience Relationship
Brecht’s plays were performed in traditional proscenium arch theatre houses
However, the stage curtain was often dispensed with or a half curtain used instead of a full one
Brecht preferred to call the audience ‘spectators’
Direct address by actors/characters to audience was a strong and unconventional technique used by performers
Direct address broke the (invisible) ‘fourth wall’ and crushed traditional realistic/naturalistic conventions
The narrator was a common figure in Brechtian dramas (Brecht was probably the father of the modern narrator)
Acting and Characterisation
Actor was never to fully become the character, as in the realistic/naturalistic theatre
Actor was asked to demonstrate the character at arm’s length with a sense of detachment
Often characters tended to be somewhat oversimplified and stereotyped
Yet other characters were sometimes complex
Historical, real-life characters in some Brecht plays
Some (but not all) character names were generic eg. the worker, the peasant, the teacher
Mix of presentational and representational acting modes
Summary of Brecht’s
Epic Theatre conventions
direct address to audience
placards and signs
spoiling dramatic tension in advance of episodes (scenes)
disjointed time sequences – flash backs and flash forwards – large jumps in time between episodes (scenes)
historification – setting events in another place and/or time in order to distance the emotional impact, yet enhance the intellectual impact for the spectator (audience)
Summary of Brecht’s
Epic Theatre conventions
fragmentary costumes – single items of clothing representing the entire costume
fragmentary props – single objects representing a larger picture (or setting)
song – like parables in the Bible, songs are used to communicate the message or themes of the drama
demonstration of role – actors are encouraged not to fully become the role, but rather to ‘demonstrate’ the role at arms length, with a sense of detachment
multiple roles – actors commonly perform more than one character in a drama
costume changes in full view of the spectator (audience)
Summary of Brecht’s
Epic Theatre conventions
lighting equipment in full view of the spectator (audience)
open white lighting – due to its emotional impact, colored light on stage is eliminated – instead, the stage is flooded with white light
alienation technique – a complex term translated differently by scholars from the German “verfremdungseffekt”, involves the use of many of the above conventions, with the ultimate aim of distancing the audience emotionally and increasing their intellectual response to the drama
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