Brechtian Acting

The style of acting associated with the works of Bertolt Brecht can most simply be split into the concepts of Verfremdung and Gestus. Verfremdung is the concept of alienation from the actor to the audience, and from the actor to the written role. This is probably the concept you have encountered with any liaison in Brechtian method. Equally important, however, is Gestus, a word Brecht invented to mean the mimicking of social relationships through detailed choices of movement during performance. After becoming familiar with these two concepts, several differences between the goals of Brechtian acting and the Stanislavski system are apparent.

The subject and setting of The Good Person of Szechuan, originally translated as The Good Woman of Szechuan, may seem out of place for a German playwright who spent a good amount of time in the United States. However, the discovery of separation and alienation in the Chinese acting style was a huge influence as Brecht developed the concept of Verfremdung. With this concept “acting has two components,” Silvia Jestrovic explains in Theatre of Estrangement: Theory, Practice, Ideology “the showing of the character’s attitude, and the ‘showing of the showing,” laying bare the actor’s attitude toward the character,” (111). This objectification of the piece works to endure the audience constantly knows this is a work of fiction (McTeague 24). The separation of the actor’s self from the psychosis of their character also leads to Brecht’s emphasis on overall plot. The fundamental objective of all Brechtian drama is social change (18), so the emphasis must be not on the individual character’s objectives and obstacles, but their interactions with the rest of the cast within the greater story.

This is all well and good, but very theoretical. The concept of Verfremdung can be executed in several ways during the preparation and rehearsal process. Brecht recommends that before you memorize the words of a script you should memorize which parts of the script you support, and which you will contradict (Jestrovic 111). Brecht continues this mantra of separating yourself from your character when he discusses the development of a character. He treats the character almost as a separate being you need to let grow on its own accord. “You allow the character to react to other characters, to its environment, and to the plot. All this in a simple and natural manner,” (McTeague 47). He also suggests that in the rehearsal process, one could start by speaking the stage directions as they moved around the stage, instead of the dialogue, in order to isolate your technique from the thoughts of the character. Another well known technique Brecht used in rehearsals was the “third-person technique.” During one rehearsal of Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht felt there was too much emotional anger driving the scene. He told the actors to rehearse the scene and add “the woman said” or “the man said” to the dialogue. This change did not follow the play to performance, but the change in the way the actors played the scene did carry over (35-36).

Specificity of movement relates directly to the next concept in Brechtian acting. Gestus is defined as both an activity and a commentary. It dictates the attitude of the play to the audience, and in Brecht’s case that attitude is most always political (Jestrovic 113). “The Gestus of a scene becomes the outward expression of social behavior embracing the economic, emotional, familial and rational reality that inform the scene,” writes McTeague (42). This is not just blocking, but your smallest gesture (41). Gestus also emphasizes your part in a bigger whole. While the specialized movement does work in order to individualize your character, it must also define your social relationships with others (41). A good example of Gestus should be as quotable as a well-written line. For example, in Mother Courage, Helene Weigel’s character would bite any coin she was paid with throughout the play to make sure it was real (43).

The nature of Gestus uncovers one of the major theoretical differences between Brecht and the emotional acting technique usually associated with Stanislavski. “The emphasis on Gestus was Brecht’s way of approaching a character or a scene from the outside rather than focusing the actor’s attention on the psychological,” (43). Brecht understood that empathy in the theatre was important, be he also recognized that too much of it can turn an audience myopic and wearing (XX). When the actor immerses themselves into a character, they can fail to see their faults as sympathetic, instead of something that may need to be reared against and made clear. Some of these differences may seem daunting, however, a lot of Brechtian theory and Stanislavski’s methods do overlap, or at least seem relatively related. That is to say, the skills and crafting put in with the more common system should not be thrown away. The clear difference lies in the thoughts on the character surrounding the rehearsal period. For example, how the character fits within the overarching social comment of the piece. Most importantly, Brecht focused on separating your thoughts and actions from the character. Fully becoming the character is one thing, but using your performance to make a comment on the characters actions is quite another.

-Jessica Ayers

Further Reading and Bibliography:

Theatre of Estrangement: Theory, Practice, Ideology by Silvia Jestrovic

Playwrights and Acting: Acting Methodologies for Brecht, Ionesco, Pinter, and Shepard by James H. McTeague


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