You made me love you…

Bertolt+Brecht+BrechtIn my mid teens Bertolt Brecht was one of those people I thought might be a bad influence on me.  My older brother loved him. Enough said. But I had a secret passion for David Bowie and he seemed to rate him. So I gave him a go in the 70’s.  But I found Baal just too weird a read for me. Mother Courage just bored me. And I never really got into him. In fact I’ll go so far as to say I started to get quite antipathetic to him.

In the late 80’s when I went to drama school I had a lot of ideas about what theatre was and should be and I’m afraid they weren’t very ‘mature’ or sophisticated. How can I tell the 24 year old me these truths?! I grew up in love with the myth and magic of the purple plush velvet seats, the proscenium arch and the sort of plays that might now be described as melodrama.  To be fair to myself, I had moved on a bit. I had been flirting with absurdism since meeting Tom Stoppard in the form of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the 70’s, but this left me a pretty confused kid. And I couldn’t risk getting into bed with Brecht so to speak.  I was a Stanislavskian groupie. Reason? Well, since I thought I wanted to be an actress and I was ‘into’ realism I thought that Stan’s radical removal of ‘the fourth wall’ and the ‘living in the moment’ of Stanislavskian drama was the best way to be ‘real’ in the theatre. So that’s what I was trained in. Well trained.

Brecht of course had other ideas. Brecht had a quite different take on what ‘reality’ meant than I did. I learned over the years. My creative journey practitioner wise took me from Stanislavski through Brecht to Boal and I ended up with a unique combination of all three in my own drama practice.  I have met and mingled with them all and like a series of lovers I don’t regret a minute of my time with any of them, have taken the good memories and learned from the experience before maturing into a happy marriage writing fiction.

But in the 80’s Brecht was there tempting me into something or away from something, and I resisted.  I struggled with the fact that what I wanted to see on stage and what I wanted to write were two quite different things. I had to grow up. I had to interrogate my own intentions and ambitions and beliefs.  I could stay in the safe waters or go out of my comfort zone. It was quite a battle. I had loved the theatre for its safety. But when I changed from being an actress to a writer I had a whole new set of priorities and my present just didn’t fit with my past.  Of course I didn’t work that out that clearly at the time. Only now with hindsight can I see the battle for what it was.

In the end, perhaps inevitably I couldn’t help but fall for Brecht’s charms. He’s that kind of guy. Scary but charismatic.  He attracts a lot of people – and not always for the right reasons. That’s hardly his fault though is it? I will say that I’ve seen some truly awful productions of Brecht.  But I fell in love with him one night at the National Theatre in 1991. It was the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The scales fell from my eyes. Prior to that my cry had been – ‘what is this Alienation effect’ I don’t WANT to alienate the audience’  (I’ve actually alienated a lot of audiences since I suspect with or without Brecht’s help!)  But as with so many things in life, when I stopped resisting and started learning I found out that Brecht had at least as much to offer as Stanislavski and when I morphed from actress to playwright I realised that I had much more in common with Brecht than I had ever thought possible.

After my night of passion with Brecht I still loved the Cherry Orchard but I saw that life in the theatre had so much more to offer than simply sitting reinforcing one’s own comfortable inherited world views.  He opened my eyes as Stoppard had done but with a bit of added bite. He opened the door for me to be able to match what I wanted to say with the way I wanted to say it. He gave me a voice.

My first real writing dalliance with Brecht (via Dario Fo and Tom Stoppard) was BENITO BOCCANEGRA’S BIG BREAK which I wrote during a particularly unpleasant evening at the opera (where an alienation effect was VERY much in evidence for me) of Simone Boccanegra. It’s a long story (and explained in the ebook of Benito Boccanegra if I recall correctly)  But my first performed Brecht inspired piece came some years later. 1997 I think it was and it was called THE TRUTH ABOUT HATS. (If you’re interested you can read it for free here)

It was a youth project. We had the absolute theatrical gift of a pair of identical twins in the cast  as well as a pair of brothers who looked the same except for height.  Well, Shakespearean comedy was the obvious option so… we avoided it.  The group wanted to enter a ‘competition’ event. I’m not into competitive arts but we decided to rock them with something quite different. We were limited in time, money, talent and scope.  I’m not a great believer that you can turn anyone into a great actor with very little training and so I determined to teach Brechtian method to the kids in order that they could deliver a message without having to learn Stanislavskian method in 10 sessions (an impossible feat).  It certainly taught me that for political theatre you can go a long way with Brecht at your side. And of course the kids didn’t win the competition – it was plush velvet theatre land. We certainly ‘alienated’ the audience in a good way (not all in a good way) with our combination of music and cardboard boxes and Brechtian style. I’m happy to say we shocked the blue rinse brigade.   The funniest moment was when the somewhat po faced judge came backstage to talk to the kids and ask them if they ‘knew’ what they had been doing and the youngest member of the cast regaled him with a full explanation of the Brechtian alienation effect, explaining how and why they had used it in the play.  It was a triumph. I’m sorry to say that the same wee lad cried at the end of the competition when they didn’t win. I felt for him. They were the best thing by a long shot. And he knew it.  But they were competing in the world of amateur dramatics.

I’m not being a snob but I’m afraid that amateur acting does not cut it for me. There’s enough of the old Stanislavskian in me to admit that when I’m being told to suspend disbelief I need to believe in the actors as real people and I’ve rarely met the am dram group who can pull this off.  For musicals it doesn’t matter. What is real about musical  theatre?  For opera its obligatory (which is why I hate opera, it’s so phoney) For Brechtian or Boalian style, classic Stanislavskian training is an irrelevance because fundamentally these styles are not about trying to portray reality in an unreal environment. It’s a shame that more amateurs don’t get themselves aligned with the dramatists who actually serve their skills and needs. But they don’t. They all want to be West End divas without the training and it just doesn’t work. So sadly, my juvenile cast learned a couple of important lessons that night. That life (especially in the theatre) isn’t fair and that Brecht is a dangerous guy to have on your side. But they also learned what it meant to tell ‘their’ story to the world in a way that suited them and played to their strengths. For that I thank Bertolt. And I’m now proud to call him one of my friends.

I had a similar passionate experience with Augusto Boal in 2002 which once more changed my life and direction. But that’s a story for another day. (16th of March to be precise!)


Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break is available to read in Chasing Waves in  Kindle and   epub.  formats. Chasing Waves was performed in 2004 to mark the end of my writers residency and was my final dalliance with Absurdism/Brechtianism before Boal stole my heart and soul.

Reviews available by those two great men of the theatre: Jan Needle  and Bill Kirton 

If you want to know more about Brecht and his alienation effect, do some googling. You should work at a relationship with Brecht, he’s not an easy conquest. You should also know he wrote some seriously good poetry. 


About callyphillips

4 Responses to You made me love you…

  1. jan needle says:

    bet you didn’t know i co-wrote a book on the old demon. brecht, by jan needle and peter thomson (professor of drama at exeter university). doubt whether you could get a copy today, tho

    • Of COURSE I knew that Jan. I knew it before I asked you to review Chasing Waves. You cannot begin to imagine the depth of my research. I am the biggest loss to the ‘intelligence’ services they’ve never heard of. Maybe I should try and get hold of the book though. That might be a challenge.

    • Pah. Too easy. Within 5 minutes had located over 10 copies in US. Getting one in UK not so easy unless you’re prepared to pay top whack. BUT I located a copy in Abdn Uni library so it’s on my list for my next post snow trip!

  2. Enjoyed reading this Cally – but opera isn’t trying to be anything but phoney! In fact, it’s trying very hard to be over the top and phoney – it’s unreal. I wouldn’t say I was a big opera fan, but I love Don Giovanni & The Magic Flute. On film, anyway.

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