Basic Brecht: A Caucasian Chalk Circle Primer

Artistic crew behind the Black Swan Theatre Company's collaboration with National Theatre of China director Dr Wang Xiaoying (centre). L-R Tao Chen (Asst Dtr), Felix Ching Ching Ho (Asst Dtr), Dr Wang, Kate Cherry (Artistic Dtr BSTC), Zhao Yan (Costumes), Zhang Huaxiang (Masks & Props). Photographed at Chinatown, Northbridge, Perth, WA; 4th February 2016. Photographed by Philip Gostelow.

Black Swan State Theatre Company are bringing the epic theatre classic ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ to the State Theatre Centre. Devotees will be familiar with the revolutionary works of its author, Bertolt Brecht, while casual theatre-goers will probably have heard his name – so who exactly was Brecht and what is ‘epic theatre’? Let’s break it down.

Born in 1898, Brecht was an influential German playwright and poet. His early works of poetry focused on politics and his plays pivoted on the social issues of the time, eliciting his expulsion from school for his writings against the war and his passion for Marx and Socialism.

His budding Marxism became the essence of each of his works, writing critically of capitalism and marking the growing economic and social inequalities of the time with the rise of the machine and changing power structures of the time.

He developed his brand of ‘Epic Theatre’ as a reaction to a time when Realism, Naturalism and Melodrama were at their peak as popular genres of the stage. Realism aimed to recreate life and fool the audience into believing the action was happening and provide an escape from the world. Brecht hated this passive style, wanting to challenge people and question their beliefs.

Brecht developed a set of alienation effects, or Verfremdungseffekt, to jar the audience into considering the themes of the work rather than just absorbing them. These effects were used to draw attention by doing something unexpected and breaking rhythm – forcing audiences to remember they are watching a play.

Such effects include keeping the theatre lights on, alternating between song and speech, showing written signs to the audience and characters without costume. Sets may be obviously artificial or entirely absent from the stage.

Brecht felt the actor’s job was to plainly show what happens, not become embroiled as their character. He encouraged robotic movements, speaking the stage directions aloud and swapping roles with other actors during the performance.

Brecht’s influence can still be seen in contemporary theatre and cinema, notably in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’, where the set is replaced with chalk outlines of houses and objects. A true icon of the theatre, Brecht passed in 1956. His final request was to be buried in a lead lined coffin with a stiletto through his heart – his final work of art.

The Black Swan production is a collaboration with pre-eminent theatre director Dr Wang Xiaoying, Director, Deputy President of the National Theatre of China, who will direct ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ with surtitles in Mandarin. 

Pictured: National Theatre of China director Dr Wang Xiaoying (centre). L-R Tao Chen (Asst Dtr), Felix Ching Ching Ho (Asst Dtr), Dr Wang, Kate Cherry (Artistic Dtr BSTC), Zhao Yan (Costumes), Zhang Huaxiang (Masks & Props). Photographed by Philip Gostelow.

Black Swan State Theatre’s production of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ is at the State Theatre Centre from 3 August 2016. Book tickets at www.bsstc.com.au  

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