Four simple ways to explore Bertolt Brecht’s concept of distancing

Twenty years ago this year, I went to see what was for me, one of the most defining pieces of theatre that I have seen.

I’m talking about The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht performed by Theatre de Complicite at the Royal National Theatre in London.

For me it was an incredibly important performance because it came at a point when I was just beginning to define my own theatre practice. My performing arts teacher was fuelled by political theatre and held Brecht centre stage to his way of working and it was a rite of passage for all those students on his course to participate and perform in a Brecht piece. Mine was The Caucasian Chalk Circle, later students all performed in Mother Courage and Her Children.

Brecht taught me a valuable lesson about the power of theatre. That whilst theatre can be anything, anywhere, and be about everything, it should principally always be something that challenges and changes an audience, something which both excites and inspires the audience, and something which educates and entertains an audience.

As I make theatre with my students in whatever capacity whether it is within 20 minutes in a lesson, exam or coursework based performances or whole school productions, it is that principle, which I hope I have stuck to, that has guided me.

Brecht reacted against Naturalism of the time because he thought that if the audience truly believed in the onstage action they became emotionally involved in the characters’ lives and thus lost the ability to think beyond the character they were becoming emotionally attached to.

In short, this stopped the audience from seeing the “big picture” or only saw it contained from the perspective of one character.

Instead, Brecht wanted to stop his audiences from forming a deep emotional connection to just one or two characters. In this way, he felt that his audiences would stay objective towards all the characters, thus allowing the audience to make informed and considered decisions about the “big picture” of the play; which, whatever genre of theatre, tends to involve some sort of commentary on society.

Brecht referred to this as Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) and to do this, he wanted his actors to distance themselves from the role they were playing.

As a concept this can be very difficult to explain to students so here are four activities I’ve used to help demonstrate Verfremdungseffekt in a way that shows to the students how it should feel for the audience if the technique is carried out correctly.

Activity 1

With a partner, share a recent argument that you have been involved in (this could be with a parent or sibling etc.). As a pair, decide on one of the stories to create a short performance out of. Make sure that the person whose story it is plays themselves.

Activity 2

Watch a few of these scenes as a whole class. After each of the performances, ask who the audience felt sorry for. How many people felt sorry for the person playing themselves?

Activity 3

With the same partner, choose one of the scenes you have just watched to re-enact. This time however, one partner narrates the action whilst the other partner acts some of the action. The person acting out the characters should try to exaggerate the movements and voice of the original person. The character should be unbelievable but not silly. This is called demonstrating a role.

Activity 4

After watching the performances from Activity 3, with your partner add to it by trying to make the audience feel some sympathy for both the characters equally. Try to share the role of the narrator between the two actors. Can the characters speak in third person to help explain how they are feeling? Can the characters, or even the actors, speak directly to the audience about the action.

Develop the demonstration of the characters into more realistic and believable performances but present them only during the moments when they are in role.

The idea of being one step removed from the personal argument you shared in the first activity at first can be amusing, but the process of acting out and developing someone else’s personal argument in the fourth activity is a very interesting one.

It becomes about re-balancing what was potentially quite a naturalistic scene, where one was naturally drawn towards the person who was at the centre of the argument, into a scene where the two sides of the argument are presented in an equal footing to allow the audience to remain objective throughout and see both sides of the argument.

You can download this as a worksheet, along with another worksheet on how Brecht deals with empathy from Tes Resources.

This blog first appeared on 27th April 2017 on the TES Subject Genius Blog

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