A Brechtian Life.

Bertolt Brecht was clearly a creative genius.

The innovative German playwright, theatre director and theoretician changed the face of theatre, fundamentally shifting the expectations of his audience with his techniques – which is, to me, the hallmark of genius.

But what fascinates me about Brecht is what I think was his passion for trying to take his audiences perception of reality beyond that of normal life, normal human perception.  Theatre was illusion; he encouraged his audiences to see beyond the illusion by exposing the structures that were creating/sustaining it, and in the process, delivered a message. He did this through the following theatrical devices, often referred to collectively as “Brechtian”, which he pioneered:

1)         EPIC THEATRE: Mostly episodic, plays were written as a seemingly disconnected, open-ended montage of scenes presented in a non-chronological way. The audience was thus left to arrive at its own conclusion of how the events were linked together. This fascinates me: finding connections between disparate events, as if there is an underlying reality linking them, that is hidden from normal, limited perception.

2)         THE STAGE: this was usually left bare in Brecht’s productions as a means of preventing the audience from experiencing a detailed illusion of reality. He often exposed the back wall, stage machinery, opened up the physical staging to the wings. Even the lighting grid above the stage was sometimes visible, so the audience could see how lights influenced the scene’s mood, and their own judgment. Again, fascinating. Part of my meditation practice is the idea that some part of you in daily life should always be kept in ‘presence’, in a mindful state, in order to avoid getting lost in thoughts or material considerations – i.e. the “illusion”. Mindfulness is, in many ways, a state of bareness, bareness of mind. The benefit of this is being able to rectify dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, by becoming aware of them.

3)         TECHNOLOGY & “HISTORIFICATION”: Brecht embraced the use of technological effects in theatre to break up a realistic setting. This of course had a purpose. Projections, for example, of text onto screens above a stage were used to force an audience to relate the action onstage to other historical or social events. This is called HISTORIFICATION – using an event in the past to make a comment on the present. Something that is as important in journalism, teaching and activism as it is useful in Art. Contextualising and connecting things, in order to understand the bigger picture…

4)         ACTING STYLE: Brecht developed his own acting style for his work, that went beyond the Stanislavsky system (where the actor identifies entirely with their character and represents the character from their POV). Instead, actors were urged not to empathise totally with their characters, but to stand outside them and illustrate their behaviour. The method enables the actor to demonstrate the character from a number of perspectives.  In my meditation practice, developing the capacity to become the ‘overseer’ or ‘watcher’ of ones own behaviour (and hence the behaviour of others) is developed, again to become aware of other ways of being that might ordinarily be hindered by our egos. And aware of what drives are behind our actions in the world.

5)         GESTUS: the most important message of the scene, clarified and delivered through everything an actor did in terms of gesture, stance, body language, facial expressions and intonations. Everything in a scene, indeed, every scene, had a meaning, a message, a purpose.

6)         THE ALIENATION EFFECT: A fundamental aspect of Epic theatre. Verfremdungseffect translates as “to make strange”.  And again, it involved making both the audience and actors keep a degree of critical detachment from a performance – to be the ‘overseer’.

Through these techniques, the audience was given an insight – it was given the opportunity to experience, co-create, and consider how the illusion was created, rather than passively absorbing the illusion of reality onstage.

As I said, Brecht was a creative genius.

So what makes A CREATIVE MIND? And how is it different from other kinds of minds?

In the ongoing process of accepting and stabilizing (as much as possible) my own bipolarity/sensitivity/general strangeness, I stumbled across an interview with Nancy Andreasen, professor of psychiatry at Iowa University. She is the author of The Creating Brain: the neuroscience of genius.

A number of things were illuminated for me in the interview – in fact, I found it profoundly comforting, and it made me feel less odd and alone.

Andreasen discussed some of the commonalities of creative minds she discovered:

  • They are very curious about all kinds of things, maybe a little iconoclastic.
  • They sometimes just perceive things in a totally new and different way, that other people are simply not able to see (especially true in science and math) – theses things seem obvious to them, but are radically different or weird to other people.
  • They are OBSESSIONAL – when they get their teeth into a problem/task – a piece of writing, a math problem, a computer science problem, a painting – they get so deeply into it that they may end up working all night on what they’re doing.
  • They often have had somewhat miserable childhoods.
  • An astonishing 75%, 80% of creative minds she studied had a history of mood disorder. Some of them manic depressive (bipolar), some just depressed. With first-degree relatives that had a much higher rate of mood disorder than the control group, and a much higher rate of creativity.

As part of her study, Andreasen conducted detailed interviews with a range of artists about their experience of the creative process. One of these was the prolific American playwright Neil Simon (The Odd Couple). On his creating process, he said:  “I slip into a state that is apart from reality…I don’t write consciously—it is as if the muse sits on my shoulder.” And physicist Richard Fineman was known for his intuitive process too. He would be given a very difficult problem, and write it on a blackboard.  Then he would stand before it, put his hands on his forehead and think for a few minutes, after which he’d write out the answer – without knowing precisely how he reached it – based on sheer intuition. Following this, it would take weeks, sometimes, to figure out all the equations that went in between the first one and the solution. “That capacity”, she said, “to see what other people can’t see is one of the hallmarks of creative people. To just go on sheer intuition and know something.”

I guess I found this information comforting because my own thought processes are not in any way, shape or form, orderly & linear. I have two siblings who are extremely adept at grasping concrete everyday subjects, with highly structured minds – a sister who is a Paediatrician, and a brother who is a Major in the Australian Defence Force. On the other hand, I – and to a large extent, my other brother – are their opposites, with opposite skill sets. We have both experienced many setbacks in life, in the world, directly related to this.  The mind I have been given works in ways I am still learning to understand. My process often involves me staring at a screen or page for extended periods of time, and answers emerging like lighting sparks from a nebulous cloud.

I have always been embarrassed by this – aware that I can come across as flaky, inarticulate or withdrawn at times, as my thoughts often emerge so scattered.  It takes me time to then interpret and organise them in a way that I can communicate, and writing helps with this task enormously (probably why I often communicate better on a page than verbally).  So, although I’m not some brilliant mathematician, and a dithering mess in the eyes of the world, hearing that Richard Fineman would just stare at a problem and “get” the answer, then sort out how he got there afterwards, is tremendously comforting. I had always assumed I had some sort of undiagnosed learning disability (although I probably still do 😉 )

There is one more thing that Andreasan discusses that I relate to profoundly: the feeling that I spend an abnormal amount of time observing in the world. She discusses this concept by relating something else the playwright Neil Simon said – about how he felt invisible, like a spectator, watching other people. That sense of being almost invisible is another thing that a lot of creative people have” she said. “They are ghosts that spy on the universe, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, and they are often very humble, unassuming people.”

Hmmm. There are perhaps some perks to being a spectator then, an outsider – even though it is often born out of a weird sense of homelessness in the world. I am just now starting to meet other people who feel the same way – which is certainly helping to ease the burden of involuntary eccentricity. One of my new comrades shared with me an Aboriginal proverb recently, that I think deftly describes the state of our perception:

“We are visitors to this time and place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, then we return home.”

And so, as Brechtian spectators, we observe – in order to learn.

How do we do that? For me personally, I listen. My natural disposition is to listen more than I speak. Socially this is not always advantageous, but it is the only way to gain true wisdom. Ever noticed how ignorance/big-ego always has so much to say? And how loudly

How do we grow? We open ourselves up to the experiences that will challenge our egos and make us aware of the space, the reality, behind and beyond all things. Knowing these experiences will take us outside of our emotional comfort zones, but finding the cahones to go through those experiences anyway. Coal only becomes a diamond under pressure.

How do we love? We try to do the right thing by others, and by the natural world (ecology), which supports our existence. Not just when it is convenient, or easy, or costs us nothing. And not just when it is the popular thing to do. We try to use what we learn to make the world better for everyone.

It is not an easy life. But other than the things we create, this process yields an unexpected, eternal boon: our sense of homelessness dissipating, as we find our true home within.


Some things that amused me this week 🙂

A comic fascinating me/reflecting all my fears – English stand-up Simon Munnery (venn diagram of my life, dude). On my mind as I prepare for art show & playwriting things:

And I cannot get enough of this clip, but I don’t know why – South Korean rapper PSY tearing up the screen GANGNAM STYLE. 1:54 – 2:02 kills me, every damn time [the earnest thrusting of the guy in the hat, oy. So much fun!]:



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