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Di Trevis: Acting is not theoretical

Let’s face it. The Messingkauf essays are a difficult read.  I have been working on Brecht plays, plays about Brecht, cabarets of the songs of Brecht and recitals of the poetry of this great writer for over forty years and I will freely admit, these theoretical writings baffle and frustrate me. For readers of German I am assured the writing is lively and engaging. I am told in explanation that they were not finished and bundled together rather hurriedly and at times mistranslated or poorly organised, but even so ... I was not looking forward to a group of actors battling through opaque prose instead of getting up on the floor and using their practical skills.

So it was from this starting point that I invited a group of six actors to spend a few days exploring some of Brecht’s acting exercises. We met, as I like it, not as pupils and academic expert but from the first sitting in a circle, in honest dialogue and on the level.

Who is Brecht beyond the clichés and myths? What kind of acting can we learn from him? What did he call for?

Acting is the antithesis of theory. Those who can talk most about it are notoriously poor at actually doing it. Actors enter the space bringing their bodies, their emotions, imagination and biographies with them. Acting is about action, not cerebral activity. But actors also have an innate sense of the world about them and highly honed powers of observation. They know disappointment, unemployment and poverty. They travel to the rehearsal room through the jungle of the cities, the vicissitudes of public transport, able to observe on train, bus, tram and teeming street the objects of their study and their potential audience – fellow men and women trying to survive in the world. Then this world of work, struggle and exploitation has to be filtered through their bodies into their mouths and their words and become their craft. It is sensuous and their work flows, if it goes well, through muscle, breath and vocal cords.

Theoretical talk paralyses an actor’s impulse and no single theoretical word confuses them more possibly than the only one they have ever heard talk of when discussing Brecht ... ‘alienation’. In this respect the Modelbooks, with their eloquent silence about Verfremdung, are a refreshing pendant to the Messingkauf. How many times have I had to explain to actors that their job is not in fact to ... ‘alienate’ the audience! Even the simpler phrase ‘show that you are showing’ needs elucidation and practical examples on the rehearsal room floor.

... before you show the way

A man betrays someone, or is seized by jealousy

Or concludes a deal, first look

At the audience as if you wished to say:

Now take note, this man is now betraying someone and this is how he does it.

(BFA 15, p. 166; Poems, p. 341)

So my actors that spring morning in Soho, London were no different from any others I have met in my working life. Their ages ranged from sixty-five to twenty-two. They had one thing in common: they were interested in improving their skills. The youngest was about to embark on training, the oldest a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company with four decades of experience behind him. In between were four actors expertly trained over three years by top British drama schools and already making their way in the profession.

Then I made my first startling discovery. With the exception of me and the veteran actor, none had acted in a professional production of a Brecht play and no one had investigated the theatre of Brecht in any depth at their respective schools. With the fall of the Wall and the fracture of the Soviet bloc and a surge towards global capitalism, how many times in the last fifteen years have I seen artistic planners grimace at the suggestion of a Brecht production or young directors declare they are going to do a Brecht play … but not with the politics or the music!

These actors like most of their peers are trained through immersion in Stanislavsky technique: they start from personal emotional response, from naturalism. Fortunately, however, the modern actor is also trained thoroughly in movement and when taught well this is not only intended to serve the actors’ physical versatility in naturalism but also to take the actor into a more heightened expressive style. Many actors are thus encouraged to work non-verbally, through animal study and through the use of mask. And such is Brecht’s often unacknowledged influence on contemporary staging that the basic ingredients of his theatre are completely familiar to them. Taken in the context of the overblown, sentimental German theatre against which Brecht reacted, his views were startlingly innovative, but nowadays the stripped back set, visible changes of scene, actors moving in and out of character, the use of song and poetry, the address to the audience, the absence of the ‘fourth  wall’ – all this is seen and practiced by actors night after night on our modern stages and in fact refers back to a theatre from which Brecht drew many ideas, the theatre of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

So what kind of exercises did Brecht give his actors?

A basic requirement for any actor tackling Brecht is that they should be minutely aware of the nuances of social class and be able to express this through ‘gestus’ or outward physical characteristic. A useful opening exercise to get the actors thinking along the right lines is to send them before they read a word of theory out onto the street. There, as Brecht would say, outside the doors of the theatre is both their audience and the material world and the economic forces they seek to depict.

            You artists who perform plays

            In great houses under electric suns

            Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time

            To that theatre whose setting is the street.

(BFA 12, p. 319; Poems, p. 176)

They must find on the streets and in shops, cafes and restaurants someone at work and study them carefully so that on their return they can show us in their words and outward gestures, their particular physical and social characteristics. How do their tasks affect their bodies? What does endless repetition do to a person? How does time wear them down? What are their work tools? How do they personalize them and handle them? What can be expressed about their economic position? What place do they occupy in the immediate pecking order?  What value do they feel society assigns to them?  ‘I show ...’, Brecht writes in his poem ‘The playwright’s song’,

What I have seen. In the man markets

I have seen how men are traded. That

            I show, I, the playwright.

How they step into each other’s room with schemes

Or rubber truncheons, or with cash

How they stand on the streets and wait

How they lay traps for one another

Full of hope

How they make appointments

How they hang each other

How they make love

How they defend their loot

How they eat

I show all that.

(BFA 14, pp. 298-9, Poems, pp. 257-8)

It is important for the actors to imitate carefully what they observe and experience in real life and to avoid clichés. This was especially evident in the playing of class. When, for instance, I asked the actor Peter C to show me an English upper-class man making conversation with an unemployed working-class youth he, albeit expertly, reverted to a clichéd drawling upper-class English accent, nose in the air, almost soldierly in posture.  The youth, well observed by Geoffrey B, was monosyllabic, frustration in his barely audible words, bashing his fist into his hand compulsively but revealing a terrible repressed anger, no eye contact.

– What d’you do?

– Nuffink

– But can’t you go and find a job?

– Unemployment, innit.

Then I asked Peter to show us upper-class gestus as it is in the early twenty-first century, to try and show us how we actually see it and experience it. Royal princes, Old Etonian members of the political class, for instance, are currently speaking in a kind of softened Cockney which we call ‘Estuary’, as it seems to have travelled a few miles down the Thames estuary and slightly softened in the process. It indicates an effort, albeit unconsciously, by the upper classes to appear levelled down to a more socially acceptable position of equality. It was chilling to see in action the body language and speech patterns of the modern ruling class: what the Old Etonian Prime Minster David Cameron likes to call ‘conservatism with a human face’. Peter’s accent relaxed and, exuding bonhomie, he said,

Hi! My name’s Will …

And later,

‘Let's go to a boozer ‘

This was a perfectly enacted royal prince whom we see driving his own car and employing a glottal stop while his peers in the Cabinet with precisely the same informal style and accent cut benefits and vilify the unemployed. The audience thus observe not a familiar cliché but what clothing the wolf presently employs to bamboozle them.

To develop this sense of gestus or realistically observed social behaviour evinced through the whole body, one of Brecht’s exercises suggests actors behave according to a list of adjectives, near in meaning but subtly different:

Note the difference between strong and crude, relaxed and loose, quick and hurried, imaginative and digressive, thought out and elaborate, deeply felt and blissful, contradictory and nonsensical, clear and emphatic, useful and profitable, high-flown and loud-mouthed, ceremonious and pompous, delicate and feeble, passionate and uncontrolled, natural and accidental.                                             

A word of warning, however: an exercise is often only good in its author’s hands; when mechanically reproduced by another director or teacher it can become commonplace and dull. The clue in this exercise is that these words are to be understood adverbially – they refer to action. So it is important, as it was for Brecht in all his work, to put props into an actor’s hands so that the exercise involves expression through gesture and object not just inner feeling. In other words, these are not adjectives referring to unchangeable individual characteristics but words describing action in a particular circumstance with a particular object. I should remind you that costumes and props were ever present in Brecht’s rehearsal rooms. Brecht’s actors never relied on mime but on a physical reaction to a material object or garment:

... The pewter spoon

Which Courage sticks

In the lapel of her Mongolian jacket, the party card

For warm-hearted Vlassova and the fishing net

For the other, Spanish mother ...

(BFA 12, p. 330; Poems, p. 427)

Give the actors an object to handle and they will have the opportunity for minute cultural observation in this exercise. I asked Anna T to pretend to use a mirror and put on a hat ‘delicately’ and Claire ‘feebly’. One was full of social and sexual insecurity, the other vanity and superiority. ‘Quickly’ and ‘hurriedly’, when enacted in the putting of a coat, gave one actor deft swiftness, the other desperate fumbling haste. This exercise made the actors focus carefully on meaning and social nuance and how that can be expressed. I did not give them time to talk about meaning but to enact it impulsively. I also encouraged them to concentrate less on an inner psychological feeling – for exercises with objects are important too in Stanislavsky training – and more on an outer physical quality, allowing the object to inform the full physical expression. When James H put on his coat hurriedly, we began to see an actor showing us how a man in desperate haste interacts with a coat he cannot control. Brecht placed enormous emphasis on how his actors used props, not interested in theatrical skill but in a revealing human situation. The actor not only handles the prop, the object, in turn, dictates the movement of the actor. It can almost become another character. He was emphatic about the portrayal of the workman or craftsman in relation to the tools of his trade and went to great lengths to find the correct prop for his actors – material, craftsmanship, age, wear and patina all taken into consideration. When playing Mother Courage, Helene Weigel had to learn how to pluck a chicken. Soldiers learned how exactly the gun was assembled with unhurried indifference before shooting down Kattrin.

These adverb lists can be extended by a thoughtful director, and the actor could be asked to find three adverbs that might apply to an activity and discover which one is most useful to the narrative. As an exercise in developing observation and physical expressiveness throughout the whole body, I felt we had stumbled upon ‘a kernel of brilliance’. Most of all the actors started to have fun, not because they were trying to be funny but they were pushing the adverb often to its furthest extreme without losing truthfulness. Spass was the word Brecht used for this most vital ingredient and I wish it was the word immediately associated with him, not Verfremdung.

On the second day, the actors worked with movement director Jane Gibson. Here she wanted to try an approach to character from the outside to the inside, rather than from inner contemplation outwards. Actors chose outfits from an array of rehearsal clothes and then found what the clothes did to their bodies, first as they stood still, then as they walked. Finally each actor picked up a prop and, letting it dictate their movement, found a voice and social type. Here we saw an immaculate couturier answering the phone to a customer, a stout embarrassed woman trying on a coat that did not fit, a working-class boy in driving gloves clasping imaginary weights between his hands in a display of machismo.

All the actors found this approach to character liberating in that it took them into their bodies and relied upon impulse instead of paralysing thinking and character analysis. ‘So much of my work just locks me in my head’, said Geoff, ‘this is such a relief’.

All the exercises we had explored so far were quite accessible to the Stanislavsky-trained actor, but the yes/no exercise took them into a real political consideration of their work. This is an exercise where Brecht asks actors to show a moment of crucial decision in character development where one decision might lead to inhumanity, the other to humanity, political consequences and perhaps danger. He suggests the audience must be aware the there are two directions in which a character can move: towards the forces of reaction or revolution. This presupposes a view of history where there can be no stasis: ‘Everything changes’, Brecht wrote, ‘You can make / A fresh start with your final breath’ (BFA 15, p. 117; Poems, p. 400).

To elucidate a position where an ordinary ‘non-political’ character is forced to move over some sort of political line, I used a moment in Christabel Bielenberg’s compelling memoir of Berlin during the Second World War, The Past Is Myself, when a neighbour asked her to take in a Jewish couple who were on the run from the Nazis. This would have meant a death sentence if she were caught. I had to encourage Anna to move from the thought ‘shall I/shan’t I?’ to a depiction of the struggle to decide and the competing feelings running through her body. She stood in a doorway and moved backwards with a tiny shake of the head, then looking towards the couple standing defenceless in the street, she moved slightly towards them. Then her body seized up with fear, she looked furtively around, then longingly towards the safety of her house, her feet rooted to the spot, eventually moving back to her door. Still we could not guess what she would do. Finally she called the couple forward and hustled them into her house despite all her anxiety. This exercise fascinated the actors because they had rarely been called upon to depict this kind of decision making: there is no escape at this particular historical point. One small action will put you irrevocably on one side or the other. We all like to think we would make the humane decision, but how many of us really would?

In the ensuing discussion we decided that most actors would be capable of enacting this moment, but it would be the director’s task to draw it out and give it its dramatic importance. And this is where so much theory becomes merely abstract because the actors cannot achieve this kind of work alone. They form part of a collaborative effort, of a collective vision, and much of the dynamic and emphasis of a scene is in the director’s, not the actor’s hands – a point I have made again and again to actors when they ask if a new kind of acting is called for in Brecht. Most modern actors are perfectly capable of emphasising the political development of their characters but in the end it is the director through the overall political understanding of the narrative who can give space and attention to such moments and who can call for a simple clear enactment of it on the part of the performer.

It is in the director’s hands too that the question of dramatic context can be examined. Here we explored what the actor’s contribution might be to a scene where a simple action can be completely charged with meaning if placed in a particular context. To demonstrate this, I devised a scene with a copper bowl of water on a table, an imaginary mirror, a rough towel and a piece of paper with writing on it. I asked a non-actor in the room to approach the table slowly, to dip her face in the water with her eyes open, dry her face on the towel and then try and memorize the words pinned up on the wall next to the mirror. I specifically asked that she evince no emotion and try not to construct an emotional narrative. What Alvin Nikolai the dancer called ‘motion not emotion’. I then asked her to repeat the scene several times until the timing became steady. Finally I asked her to repeat the action while I read the following poem:

When years ago I showed you

How to wash first thing in the morning

With bits of ice in the water

Of the little copper bowl

Immersing your face, your eyes open

Then while you dried yourself with a rough towel

Reading the difficult lines of your part

From the sheet pinned to the wall, I said:

That’s something you’re doing for yourself; make it



Now I hear you are said to be in prison.

The letters I wrote on your behalf

Remain unanswered. The friends I approached for you

Are silent. I can do nothing for you. What

Will your morning bring? Will you do something for yourself?

Hopeful and responsible

With good movements, exemplary?

(BFA 14, p. 360; Poems, p. 290)

The effect in the room was profound as the onlookers realized they were looking at the actress Carola Neher, prisoner in the Soviet Gulag, for whom Brecht could ‘do nothing’. In the ensuing discussion, the actors realised that trying to bring emotion into this image would militate against its power. Its starkness and simplicity together with the dramatic revelation of context in slogan, song or poem had immeasurable power. The same startling use of contextual information occurred when Helene Weigel, as Mother Courage, silently screamed, as the audience heard the drum roll announcing that her son had been executed.

Perhaps, however, the most thrilling part of our workshop came with Brecht’s suggested exercises for classical texts, Schiller’s Maria Stuart and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. These consisted of scenes which Brecht wrote for the actors to perform as rehearsal pieces, rather in the manner of his designer Caspar Neher, who often composed moment drawings of scenes that did not actually occur in the plays but which helped Brecht to develop a vision of the world he and the actors were trying to create. All these rehearsal scenes were designed to reveal a hidden side of the characters’ lives. In Macbeth we explored life in the porter’s lodge with messengers arriving and deliveries being made; in Romeo and Juliet a scene between Juliet and her nurse which showed Juliet’s peremptoriness with her servant. In Maria Stuart a scene between the two queens was re-written as a fight between two fishwives on a dockside.

The work on the Schiller play gave us one of those wonderful moments in a rehearsal room where an actor goes from a stumbling, stilted reading of classical language to a passionate fluency in the space of a quarter of an hour. Claire B moved from her fishwife harangue into the text with hardly a moment’s hesitation, and the emotional investment of both monarchs was revealed as they violently protested their rights and grievances with the gusto of fishwives.

This use of rehearsal scenarios was what the actors enthused about most. The modern actor or director does not need these scenarios written out as Brecht does for us,  but each situation in a potential production can be examined carefully, and scenarios of previous action, of the hidden world of servants or inferiors, of queens as brawling neighbours or princes as yobs picking a fight can be outlined and improvised. The actors can move from scenario to written scene and explore the discoveries of one in the formality of the other. A great deal can be gleaned from this trick of turning class, situation and character as if it were a sculpture, to view it from another angle. And that, put at its simplest, is what Brecht asks theatre makers to do.


The workshops described here took place in January 2013 and were the subject of a short film by May Abdalla available at Messingkauf-workshop for actors.

Brecht wrote a large number of poems about acting and the theatre, some of which are referenced in this account. They include a small group which Brecht would subsequently publish as ‘Poems from Buying Brass’ (in Versuche 14, 1955, and now in BFA 12, pp. 317-31) although they did not at all originate in that context. The first and last of these, ‘On everyday theatre’ and ‘Weigel’s props’, are quoted above, along with ‘The playwright’s song’, ‘Everything changes’ and ‘Washing’. All of these are in Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen, 1976).