5 Questions: Brecht Unchecked in Central Park

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Mel House in The Exception and the Rule. Mask by Joe Osheroff. Photo by Chris Harcum.
Mel House in The Exception and the Rule. Mask by Joe Osheroff. Photo by Chris Harcum.
Mel House in The Exception and the Rule. Mask by Joe Osheroff. Photos by Chris Harcum.

Shakespeare in the Park seems so old school — so pre-financial crash, so pre-Obama, so pre-47%, so good-times-have-come-and-gone, so Koch-brothers-ruined-the-world. How about Brecht in the Park? Yes! Brecht outdoors! Brecht in the bracing balmy breeze! That’s where the heat is, at least according to the collective Elephant Run District, which is, to use the company’s phrase, “stampeding through New York City” under the leadership of artistic director Aimee Todoroff and executive director Chris Harcum. Brecht in the Park consists of three short plays by the German master of the distancing effect — also called verfremdungseffekt if you’re feeling especially Teutonic and guttural — translated by Eric Bentley: The Elephant Calf (1926), The Exception and the Rule (1929) and In Search of Justice (1938). Using a racy mix of physical and political theatre (including some provocative mask work), the three plays eerily channel our own unsettled and infuriating times. There are echoes of the Occupy movement as well as tough references to Citizens United, Stop and Frisk and that Florida law that not only triggered but justified murder on the basis of race, Stand Your Ground:

In The Elephant Calf, a man is presumed guilty based on his appearance. In this “play within a play,” he is assigned the role of a guilty man, and a kangaroo court is called to session to prove what has already been assumed by all at the trial. We see a direct parallel in the current NYPD’s disastrous Stop and Frisk policy. By clearly pinpointing the absurdity of racial profiling, it becomes clear that the practice makes no sense. But as Brecht says in the opening of this farce, “If you want to see something that makes sense, go to the urinal.”

Citizens United has opened up the floodgates of corruption into our political process, allowing corporations and special interests to anonymously funnel unlimited funds to our government officials. In Search of Justice questions what happens when a corrupt judge must choose between two special interests, sending an innocent man to jail. The people on trial are nothing more than playthings to the judge and the special interests, which we will highlight by turning the courtroom into a puppet show, exposing the absurdity behind the law.

The nation was riveted by the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed young man, by George Zimmerman, who shot Martin because he felt threatened. As early as 1929, Brecht was asking the questions we ask today when we discuss Stand Your Ground. Does a man have the right to shoot another man if he fears him? Is fear enough to justify killing? And why would a man with power fear a man who has none? The Exception and the Rule brings these themes to life in a moving story that we’ll tell with masks and movement.

Brecht in the Park, which features Ethan Angelica, Ron Dizon, Rebecca Nyahay, Michael Perrie Jr. and Jenny Tibbels-Jordan in the cast, performs Saturdays and Sundays at 4pm near the southeast corner of the Great Hill in Central Park (take the C, 2 or 3 to 110th St.), and will give one additional performance at the Brecht Forum (451 West St., corner of Bank St.) on Tues., July 23 at 7:30pm. Admission is free (but donations are accepted).

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And now, 5 questions Aimee Todoroff has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about our work?
Being a director, I’ve found that if I’ve done my job, very few people will have any questions for me at all. Also, people who are not involved in the performing arts, and even some that are, generally don’t have a clear idea of just what a director does — and I’m fine with that. The thing that should stand out in their mind is the experience of the play itself, not anything I’ve done. I’m most satisfied when people skip the questions all together and just pull me aside to start telling me their own stories that relate to the play they’ve just seen. For example, Two Lovely Black Eyes, now renamed American Gun Show and set to play at 59E59 before we take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, deals with the personal fallout of the American love affair with guns. After every performance, I was bombarded with stories from people’s own experiences, stories of friends, or friends of friends or family. The play touched them on a personal level, and they felt compelled to start a dialogue about what they’d just seen. I think that’s the most perceptive response an artist can hope to get.

2) What is the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Oh, at first I was torn between the classic “How do you learn all those lines?” and the purposefully antagonistic “So, you lie for a living?” But then I remembered a conversation I had recently with someone I had just met. I told her I was a director and she seemed intrigued. I followed up with information about the next show I was working on, and she asked me, “But why do you do it?” When I started to tell her why I thought the play was important, she cut me off and said, “No, I mean, how much do you get paid? Do you get paid? Do you make money off it?” And that’s when I excused myself, because if someone asks why someone does something, and what they really want to know is how much money is involved, that’s a sure sign that you are speaking to an empty plastic bag. Chuck the conversation in the recycling bin and move on.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
There have been so many weird questions, but most are about the general process of working, not so much about my work specifically. (See question 1.) When I get a strange or unusual question, I usually end up trying to filter it through my own version of a “What do they really mean?” translator. After a show, I get this one a lot, more than you would think: “Can I be in the show? I would love to be in this!” Now, since they’ve just seen the show, I know they aren’t asking me to kick someone out; someone who has rehearsed the part and dedicated their time and energy to it, to put this random person into the play. What this person is really asking me is “How do I get on your audition list?” or “How can I be involved with your company?” It’s a lot easier to gush about the show you’ve just seen and throw out a silly comment than it is to put yourself out there in a vulnerable way and say you’d really like to be considered for an audition in the future. The weirdness comes from the weirdness of the situations our chosen profession imposes upon us.

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Ethan Angelica in In Search of Justice. Stick puppets by Joe Osheroff.
Ethan Angelica in In Search of Justice. Stick puppets by Joe Osheroff.

4) Based on their description, the three plays do indeed seem like they could have been written in 2013 — and on 2013 issues — rather than the 1920s and 30s. What about these plays themselves, though, suggests that they’d best be explored in an open, public space? How do the New York noise, foot traffic and endless urban distractions enhance your production?
The plays are structured in such as way as to draw attention to themselves. In a typical indoor-theatre experience, the audience is presented with a stage — a box, really — to draw their focus in and allow the play to unfold. The theatre space announces the event. These plays, however, announce themselves. The opening of The Elephant Calf, for example, is an invitation for the audience to participate in the performances, even giving instructions on how to behave and hints about how the play will end- in the opening lines, one of my favorite characters says “if you want to see something that makes sense, go to the urinal!” So they are perfect for outdoor spaces. They allow an audience to gather and give permission for passers-by to stop and notice what is happening. The pasture we’re performing in is a little bit off to the side of the Great Hill, so we don’t have too much noise or foot traffic (though we did have a curious dog invade a scene at our opening!) but we live in a world of constant distraction. We have computers in our pockets! This production uses big, bold tools like masks and physical absurdity to draw attention away from the distractions of our lives and onto the performance, which can then turn our focus back onto the reality we’re trying to explore.

Jenny Tibbels-Jordan in The Elephant Calf. Mask by Joe Osheroff.
Jenny Tibbels-Jordan in The Elephant Calf. Mask by Joe Osheroff.

5) Since Brecht’s themes, as you note, remain eerily relevant today, what does it say about our society that so little has apparently changed? If so little has indeed changed, then to what degree is theatre really the tool that artists ought to use to force meaningful social changed?
Well, I do think our society has changed quite a bit. These plays were written in a world that was much less “connected.” Information came from fewer sources and didn’t arrive very quickly. I think that, in part because of our 24-hour news cycles and market-driven reporting, the world we live in is a much more extreme place. Populations are divided into red and blue, conservative and liberal, etc. Everyone has a steadfast opinion, and can find instant confirmation of their opinion by typing a few key words into a search engine. It seems as if these plays were written as extreme examples of the injustice that happens often in society, but that would have surprised an audience in the 1920s and 1930s. In the text of The Exception and the Rule, Brecht writes, “what here is common should astonish you.” And I do imagine that seeing the injustices of the world performed in these plays would have astonished that audience. I don’t think audiences were talking about these social issues in the same way or with the same frequency that we do today. We have an ongoing, televised and streamed debate about Stop and Frisk, Stand Your Ground and Citizens United. For good or bad, we are much more aware of these issues today. But Brecht is still surprising in the depth and complexity with which his characters confront these issues. My hope is that these plays allow the audience to examine the beliefs and opinions they come in with on a much deeper level. This is why theatre is important as a force of social change. These plays allow an audience to experience the injustice, rather then just receiving a report about something terrible that happened in Florida or somewhere far away. By experiencing these plays, the stories become a part of who we are, and how we see the world. It may be a slow process, but more than any other art form, theatre makes better people, and when those people are released from the play back out into the world, they make the world a better place.

Bonus Question:

6) If one aim of Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt is to incite action from the audience-spectator, what is it that you, specifically, want the audience to do, not think, after they see your production?
Truly and from the bottom of my heart, I want people to go to our website or follow us on twitter (@ElephantRunDist), where Ethan Angelica, our managing director, has put together an incredible collection of resources for people. You can find the most up to the date information about Stop & Frisks happening in NYC in real time, learn which states have Stand Your Ground laws on the books, or get in touch with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. It’s all right there, and it’s an easy first step to getting involved.