“The Good Soul of Szechuan” is the first show to hit the boards of the McDaniel stage, and I, being a theatre kid myself, am excited to experience the show. I would hope that the McDaniel and Westminster community would be just as interested as I am, and coming up are some reasons why.
First, I have to note the fact that I am involved in the show, as I am planning on running on Stage Crew, dealing with the movement and arrangement of the set pieces that need handling. What this means? Well, I have personal experience with aspects of the show, and I know many of the people who are much more involved.
As a technician in the theatre, I am inclined to speak on behalf of the technical side first, so let’s start with the set. As soon as you walk up into the Mainstage, your eyes are drawn to massive set pieces set by either side of the proscenium (the boxy section where the curtains hang from) that are made up of lopsided triangles, drawing the eye to any number of off-kilter angles, keeping the audience wondering about the purpose of each piece, and how the set works in tandem with the story. In terms of lighting, another technical aspect of the theatre, there are very specific techniques that are being used.
Rosalie Edelston, lighting designer, spoke about drawing inspiration from visual kei, a Japanese style of fashion and music. “The way that I incorporated [visual kei] into my design,” says Rosalie, “was in my use of bold colour choices and stark shadows. My intentions are to separate the characters from the show from reality, even though the theme of the play relates directly to situations in society today.” This disconnect between what is real and what is beyond reality is something to contemplate when regarding the purpose of the play as a whole, and what the implications of that disconnect are.
Bertolt Brecht, a german playwright known for the Epic Theatre style, wrote the play. Stylistically, Epic Theatre strives to have the audience reflect upon them as to where they stand in terms of the themes and motifs of the show, rather than sympathize with the characters in the play. In addition to this, Elizabeth van den Berg, director, has developed a way to integrate Asian acting styles into the performance in an attempt to match the setting of the Chinese city of Szechuan.
Whitney Walker, an actress in “Good Soul” says, “We’ve integrated a lot of specifics from Noh and Kabuki theatre to create a world that no one has ever seen before.” In creating this new world, the performance is asking the audience to live in the shoes of the characters in an attempt to experience this new world for their own, and contemplating on decisions that would be made in those positions.
All in all, if any of this has sounded interesting, or if you feel like a bit of contemplation is needed in your life, or even if you just want an entertaining night with a group of friend, come out to McDaniel Theatre October 5th through the 8th. Curtain is at 7:30, so make sure to get there early and grab an ideal seat. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for senior citizens, as well as for McDaniel students and community. Enjoy the Show!
While I'm loathe to refute a story, I was never interviewed or asked about my reasons for integrating Asian Theatre Styles into the piece. In truth, it's not about matching "the setting of the Chinese city of Szechuan". Au contraire, the play as written makes no attempt to make us believe we're in Szechuan other than the title and frequent references.
Brecht chose Szechuan because he believed the foreign setting would distance the audience from things they (Europeans and Americans) would be familiar with. His belief was that audiences should not immerse themselves emotionally into any piece of theatre, but that they should feel alienated enough to think, reflect, and really listen to the message behind the piece. He was influenced in his writing and theories of performance by Asian performance styles, particularly those of Beijing opera and Yuan drama, both of which use a very presentational style, as opposed to the realistic forms that we are accustomed to today with many forms of theatre, film and television.
It was for this reason that I chose to integrate the Japanese styles of Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen, Visual Kei, and Takarazuka into this production. All are very presentational, often suspending time in moments of the performance to make the audience recognize that this is theatrical, not real, and therefore we should pay attention to what is being talked about, not just become emotionally involved in the story. For example, in one instance in the play and unemployed person (Shelley Hierstetter) enters into the tobacco shop to essentially beg for free cigarettes, announcing "Hello. I'm Unemployed." This is immediately followed by the character of Mrs. Shin (Whitney Walker) using a style of laughter that is prevalent in Kyogen – a broad "Aaaaahhhh Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah!" This is meant to call attention to the dismal state of unemployment in the play (and our current society), as well as many people's (and our current society's) response to this.
Brecht believed that theatre could be a tool for social change. He was writing in a time when film was developing as an art form, and television was in its infancy. Realism was the mode, but he felt the stage was a forum on which he could challenge people's thinking about society, politics, religion, and the world. Self-exiled from Germany pre- World War II due to his prescience about events to come, he subsequently landed in the U.S., where he was ultimately brought before the House Committee of UnAmerican Activities (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkiqGxD4CZ8) during the McCarthy era due to his political viewpoints. The version of the play that we are using was revised while he was living in the U.S., and highlights problems of drug abuse that were not in the original script.
This, too, is highlighted using a technique prevalent in forms of Asian Theatre, where the actor stops the action of the play by directly addressing the audience, dropping out of character, and looking at the audience as one might in a speech. Yi Chong (Angel) Li, who plays the character Shen Te/Shui Ta, moves to the edge of the stage with a prop and speaks directly to the audience displaying it's contents, saying "See, it's heroin." This technique is used quite often during songs as well, as it is in the Takarazuka Revue, when characters move onto an extension of the stage (also integrated into our set) to sing directly to the audience. This is also used in Kabuki, when characters central to the plot enter onto the extension to stop and strike a pose, meant to thrill or enthrall an audience in Japan, who often then call out to the actor on the stage from the house.
While these techniques will certainly seem odd to our American/Euro-centric sensibilities, it is my hope that they will highlight Brecht’s original intent, which is to turn our attention to his original purpose in the play. He states “our city is in crisis”, by which he hoped we would understand our society, our economics and our country are in crisis. This play is particularly relevant to this time in our lives. My intent using these techniques is meant to make our audiences walk out talking about it.
So, come see the play, and let me know if you walk out talking.
I agree, our economics and our country are in crisis. Brecht was heavily influenced by Marxism. He believed as we see in The Good Soul of Szechuan that people are inherently good as evidenced by Shen Te's drive to do good in her city, but it is society (namely a capitalist society) that makes people not so good. These not so good people are motivated by profit and greed. When Brecht was writing, the world was suffering through a economic depression, where many people were suffering from poverty. Brecht's native country of Germany suffered severe economic problems in the aftermath of WW1. But Brecht, like Marx believed that society could change its ways. Now, Marx argued revolution, but in The Good Soul of Szechuan Brecht does not seem to argue revolution, but instead asks the audience whether or not the world should be changed. The Gods are on a mission to find at least one good person, if they succeed then the world does not have to be changed. In America today like in the late 1930s when Brecht began seriously writing this play (he based it on earlier drafts from the early 1930s), there is poverty and capitalist exploitation. Are good people valued in today's capitalist society? Is it Shen Te's inherent nature of goodness that is the problem or is it society that is the problem?