"That's the magic of art and the magic of theatre: it has the power to transform an audience, an individual, or en masse, to transform them and give them an epiphanal experience that changes their life, opens their hearts and their minds and the way they think." -Brian Stokes Mitchell

The theatre dates back centuries and has always been a place of expressing artistic expression. Broadway musicals and stage plays such as Angels in America, Death of Salesman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Hamilton, Hairspray and The Phantom of the Opera has influenced popular culture and has shaped the 20th and 21st centuries.

The writings of famous playwrights like William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman are still being studied today in secondary school and at a university level. 

Many actors prefer the theatre in comparison to film and television since they have the opportunity night after night to improve their performance. The theatre demands a more flamboyant performance and is more friendly to the unattractive, overweight and ageing since the camera is unforgiving and cruel to any flaw the actor or actress may have.

While many playwrights and theatre actors have left their mark on the stages of the West End and Broadway, there is plenty of talent among directors and theatre practitioners who have developed revolutionary methods that are still in use today.

Superprof will now examine one of the most influential people from the theatre world. Who may that be? Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about the one and only Bertolt Brecht.

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Who is Bertolt Brecht? What Are the Techniques of the Brechtian Method?

performing to the audience
Breaking the fourth wall and making contact with the audience is a typical device used in Brecht's plays. (Source: Visual Hunt)

"Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theatre work today at some point starts or returns to his statements and achievements." -Peter Brooke

Bertolt Brecht was born in Germany in 1898 and died at the age of 58 in 1956 in the city of Berlin, East Germany. He is best known for his literary works, poetry, being a playwright, a theorist of epic theatre and the Brechtian acting method. He lived in Munich during the Weimar Republic and then during Nazi Germany, he fled to seek exile first in Scandinavia and then in the United States.

Some of Brecht's most famous stage plays include Mother Courage and Her Children, Life of Galileo and The Good Person of Szechwan.

The themes of his early stage plays were often influenced by his Marxist thoughts and were extremely political bringing up ideas of Marxism. Brecht did not want his audience to sit down and get lost in the story of the play; he believed that it would be best for his audience to have opinions. To accomplish involvement of the crowd, he brought up themes that were ironic, provocative and sparked interest.

It is important to note that Brecht's works were most famous after the Second World War in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Even though his theatre works faded in popularity after these decades, Brecht's influence is still present in many theatres all over the world. He is widely known as being the man that changed the face of modern-day theatre.

Brecht's goal was to remain objective and for actors to stay unemotional so that the audience could make rational political decisions after observing his works on the stage.

Some of the most known Brechtian techniques include the following:

  • Narration: Brecht enjoyed using narrative to remind the audience that they were watching a story and not realism. The narrator would often tell the crowd what was going to happen before it happened so that audience would not be as emotional,
  • Actors Coming Out of Character: during moments of heightened drama, actors would come out of character to remind the spectator that they were watching a fiction play,
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Brecht's plays included the breaking of the wall between the audience and the actors. The breaking of the fourth wall would be accomplished by actors directly addressing the audience with a speech, comment or question,
  • Use of Song and Music: songs would be played in the background to remind the crowd that they are not watching real life.

All of the previously mentioned techniques can be currently observed while watching the plays of other theatre directors or playwrights around the world.

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Elements of the Brechtian Acting Method

stage plays
A specific scene in Mother Courage and Her Children demonstrates the Brechtian element of gestus. (Source: factfile.org)

The characteristics of actors featured in a Brecht play are very distinct and easy to recognise. The style of acting used in Brecht and Brecht influenced productions are the following:

  • Verfremdungseffektwhen translated to the English language it is known as the distancing, alienation or estrangement effect. While not invented by Brecht, the verfremdungseffekt was made famous by Brecht and is one of the essential characteristics of Epic Theatre. This distancing effect is accomplished by having the actors play multiple characters in the same stage play, rearrange the set to fully view the audience and break the "fourth wall" by speaking directly to the audience. The estrangement acting effect can be experienced in any Brechtian influenced play and be executed in several ways during a rehearsal or performances. The actor must always remember to separate themselves from the character and treat the role as a separate being that needs to be let grown on their own,
  • Gestus: a word invented by Brecht that has the definition of mimicking social relationships through specific choices of movements. It is the combination of a gesture and a social meaning in the same action. These gestures are usually played to the audience so that they may experience the bigger picture of a specific situation. In Brecht's case, gestures used by actors were almost always political. One of the most famous examples of gestus used is from Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children. In a particular scene, Mother Courage expresses her emotional turmoil, not through words but by letting out a silent scream. The combination of this action and its social meaning make it a perfect example of gestus. 

By thoroughly understanding the acting techniques of verfremdungseffekt and gestus, any person can correctly identify the differences between Brecht and Stanislavski's acting theories. Brecht approached a character's emotions from the outside whereas Stanislavski focused the actor's attention on the psychological. 

Brechtian's acting methods were developed to separate an actor's thoughts and emotions from the character they were portraying. Commenting on a character's action proved to be very useful in showing the personage's flaws.

Epic Theatre

A genre of theatre that was established in the mid-20th century to respond to the political, social and economic climate of the world. The epic theatre genre, or dialectical theatre, was highly political and had the purpose of forcing the audience to think introspectively about the specific moments that were occurring on the stage and why they were happening in that way.

It is important to note that epic theatre is very different from dramatic theatre. Dramatic theatre has the purpose of entertaining, has a plot or a storyline that the audience can follow and resolves all the issues presented in the end. Epic theatre is very different because it is objective, lacks empathy and the scenes in plays are episodic which means that they are cut up into chunks rather than slowly building tension.

Epic theatre has a fractured narrative and often jumps about through time that is not in chronological order. Epic theatre also shows an argument and expresses a clear political statement.

Without becoming attached to the characters and the story, which is commonplace in dramatic theatre, the crowd can recognise social issues and create their own real opinions that are not tainted with emotion. 

Famous practitioners of epic theatre include Bertolt Brecht as the main component, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Erwin Piscator.

Artists Influenced By Brecht's Theatre Techniques

French films
One of French cinema's greatest talents, Jean Luc Godard, used Brechtian devices in the majority of his films. (Source: Medium)

Brecht's plays are still famous today and have influenced many playwrights and filmmakers. Even after more than 60 years since his death, Brecht's talent cannot be overestimated. He is the father of epic theatre, and his plays have been revived many times by various stage companies all around the world.

Brecht wanted art to be realistic and desired to address current issues while remaining true to his ideals and he would be overjoyed to discover that many daring artists in the film and theatre world have followed his footsteps. 

The following list displays famous artists who have implemented Brecht's techniques on the silver screen and created an aesthetic spectacle:

  • Lars Von Trier: in his film Dogville starring Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Paul Bettany, Von Trier again refers to the Brecht's stage play The Three Penny Opera by using the revenge-song Pirate Jenny as the inspiration for his 2003 picture. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is hiding away from the law in the town of Dogville and after some time she discovers that the townspeople do not like her and they begin to show hostility towards her character. The primary Brechtian concepts that be observed include the theatrical distancing elements, the division of chapters with names and the fact that Von Trier explains to the audience how the film will end. Lars Von Trier is indeed avant-garde and a lover of Brechtian techniques,
  • Jean Luc Goddard: widely regarded by most critics as being one of the film directors who most frequently used the Brechtian techniques in his movies. Godard made it possible for filmgoers to ignore the fact that they were watching a movie since the actors who spoke directly to the audience, the music was cued in the wrong places, and there were random endings. All of the previously mentioned elements are iconic Brecht devices. All of Goddard's films demonstrated Brecht techniques but the 1965 film Pierre Le Fou is where verfremdungseffekt elements are most present.

There is no denying the fact that Brecht was a true artist and intellectual that revolutionised twentieth-century theatre. His techniques will continue to be used by theatre experts and film enthusiasts all over the world for generations to come.

As an aspiring artist, it is important to have a basic understanding of the various acting methods that are being used by those in the performing arts such as the grace and complexity of classical acting, the everlasting effectiveness of Stanislavski's system, the controversial Method, the realistic and truthful Meisner technique, and the no-nonsense ways of practical aesthetics.


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