Brechtian Theatre: Rehearsing with Professionals; Rehearsing with Students

The Brecht in Practice project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has allowed me to direct full-length shows with both professional and student actors (Closer by Patrick Marber in 2016 and The Crucible by Arthur Miller in 2017, respectively). Each production was rehearsed in four weeks with an additional production week (a technical and a dress rehearsal, followed by three public performances).

One of the challenges of the project was to see whether a Brechtian approach could reconcile itself with the constraints of the professional theatre with its average of 3-4 week rehearsal periods. To my surprise and great satisfaction, I found that Brechtian theatre could indeed be made with such time pressures. Indeed, in both cases there was no sense of hurry.

I will be publishing a guide to rehearsing a Brechtian production in four weeks in the next while. I’ll announce it on this Blog and publish it in  the Download Zone when it’s ready. Here, however, I want to reflect on the differences between working with professional and student actors.

In many ways, my experiences were predictable (and in the following paragraphs, I’ll be generalizing on these experiences: each actor clearly has his or her own strengths and weaknesses). On the one hand, the professionals could deliver long speeches, negotiate the rhythms of dialogues, and have a presence on stage effortlessly. On the other, what enabled them to approach the nuts and bolts of performance so ably also prevented them from grasping a new method quickly: their training, technique and wealth of theatrical experiences could prove a barrier to working in a new way.

In the following production, the students often lacked an ability to process their lines and deliver them effectively without direction, would upstage each other and lack some of the fundamentals of being on stage. Yet their lack of technique meant that they were open and adaptable, ready to engage with a clearly set-out method for realizing a play.

What was interesting to me was that the opposing advantages and disadvantages evened themselves out over the course of the four-week rehearsal periods. In the third week of each process, both groups of actors were able to overcome their respective problems and work productively with a Brechtian approach. The professionals began to ignore questions of motivation, inner life and psychology that were usually their starting points for characterization and took up a mode of acting that was more interested in signifying than being. The students, who submitted themselves to heavy direction from the outset, particularly on the delivery of lines, became more conscious of the reasons for the direction that had been given and started to fine-tune their performances to bring out the contradictions of the scenes with great clarity.

That both groups of actors could rise to the challenge of the Brechtian method suggests that it offers both efficacy and reassurance to those unfamiliar with its forms. As mentioned above, I will publish a practical guide to applying the method anon. What now interests me is what might happen to a group of actors who have already experienced the method and go on to work through it again…


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BRECHT IN PRACTICE - Copyright 2017 © Prof. David Barnett | All Rights Reserved

David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York