Brecht to the Future

Have you ever seen a play by Bertolt Brecht?

Generally, there’s a lot of scowling involved. Very serious theatre, all about Ideas, you see. And there’s that whole verfremdungseffekt. That’s German for  “Alienation” or “Distancing Effect”, to the uninitiated—it’s all about exposing the machinery of theater-making so that the audience never gets too emotionally involved in a play.

Aaaaaand, enough of that.

The problem with Brecht plays is that so often they are performed in a way that is so deadly serious. If you were to read any of Brecht’s theories about how theater should work, however, you would discover that he thought theater should be fun! Imagine that!

In fact, he says we should look around at our sports stadiums. Look at how full they are! People go to watch live sports, sometimes even paying hundreds of dollars, because it’s fun.

Now look at the arts. Look at how hard our theaters and dance companies have to work to pull in an audience. Think about how little money some people (you?) are willing to pay for a ticket for a local performance.

Could it be the problem is that we’re not offering enough fun to draw people in?

These questions came to mind in response to a blog article on the website of The Guardian, a newspaper in the UK. Written by playwright Anthony Nielsen, it asks why the arts have to be so boring.

“Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We’ve been boring audiences for decades now, and they’ve responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don’t care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we’ve so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they’ve never returned. They’re not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled.”

So, instead of going for fun, people often go out of a sense of obligation—a feeling that they “should” go.

“That ‘should’ tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement”

How are we supposed to become un-boring, then? I happen to like Nielsen’s prescription for this:

“We have to give the audiences what they can’t get anywhere else. Debate they can get in a newspaper. Reality – well, they can get that on TV. We can offer them “liveness”, but few plays, or productions, take advantage of this.”

Film and television can be great entertainment, but they are never the same as being there yourself. That’s why people keep shelling out for sports tickets, right?

So what can we do to make the arts more experiential? More memorable? And more fun?

Figure that out, and you have found your key to a successful future.

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