Brechtian Alienation in Theater Performance

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Brechtian Alienation in Community Performance

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, (b.1898-d.1956), known commonly as Bertolt Brecht, was a German poet and playwright. One of his major contributions to theatre history was the “alienation effect” (From the German, “Verfremdungseffekt”). Brechtian alienation requires the removal of the “fourth wall.” This is a term that describes the “suspension of disbelief” by the audience that takes place during a performance. It is often thought that the audience looks in on the play’s action through an invisible wall, just as the audience during a performance is focused upon a procenium stage. This is a literal and figurative term. The audience pretends that the characters in the story are actually alive, living in their own world instead of actors performing on a stage. In order for the fourth wall to remain intact, the actors must also, in effect, pretend that the audience does not exist, by staying in character at all times and by not addressing the audience members directly.
Brechtian Alienation reverses this effect. Brecht wanted his audience members to be critical of what they saw, remind them that the play is not a reflection of their world. He creates a paradox. He aimed to remove emotion, specifically empathy, from the production and distance the audience from the players. He wanted actors to disassociate themselves from their role, quite the opposite of method acting. Brechtian Alienation is the constant reminder to all involved that they are participating in a play and not acting within their own reality.
What motivated Brecht? Primarily it seemed to be his own political ideologies.Brecht was asscoiated with the Communist party. Influenced by the Chinese and the Russian theaters, he hoped to create a theater where the audience was not distracted by the plot so much that they missed the political truths embedded in the piece.
Keeping Brecht’s intent in mind, finding examples of Brechtian Alienation in community performance is not difficult when considering the breadth of activities that can be classified as “community performance.” For example, the recent 2005 United States election debates between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Those events can be defined as a staged performance for the benefit of the community. The audience gazes in on a conversation b...

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... a way for audiences and performers to connect on a closer level. They are both experiencing the surreal, disassociating themselves from the performance taking place. They both become more introspective. The performance becomes a vehicle for self-understanding, metacognition.
Community performance is an excellent venue for self-examination and expression. Brecht attempted to inspire his audiences to think about larger issues and for that reason, such a style is beneficial to a community. A community is a living organism that must ebb and flow with the tides of change. Performance is a way for new issues and ideas to be brought to the forefront, ready for discussion.
Community performance can include political debates, social commentaries disguised as autobiographical self-debasing monologues as well as Renaissance Faires with their celebratory and informative performances. Each example can be said to include elements of Brechtian Alienation, even if they are not, perhaps, the performances that Brecht himself had in mind. However, the performances are important in that they force us to examine our own place within both the world of the theater and within our respective realities.
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