Heinz-Uwe Haus and Brecht in the USA: Directing and Training Experiences

Heinz-Uwe Haus’ new book illuminates the all-important many faceted role that the director plays in the creation of a theatrical work. “Directors in the contemporary theatre work are”, as Daniel Meyer-Dinkgraefe, the co-editor of the book, states, “at the very centre of a series of intellectual disagreements which have split the creative and critical world, and questions of judgement and evaluation are crucial to the creative decisions they must take.”(p.7) This book presents relevant material written in relation to Haus’ productions, specifically of Bertolt Brecht’s plays. This includes Haus’s notes for his casts, announcements of the productions in the media, newspaper reviews and academic articles about the productions, and reflections by cast members (both professional actors and university faculty) and designers (set, costumes, light, music). The material on the productions is then discussed in the contexts of approaches to directing, actor training, the academic debate of Brecht in the USA and historical and recent global developments. Haus focuses on Brecht as “a radical reformer determined to make audiences think – determined to drive home his points by any and every theatrical device at his disposal, demanding that audiences remain awake and critical, not hypnotized by the theatrical conduct”. (p. 54) The book documents the director’s successful application and propagation of Brechtian acting and directing techniques under American theatre conditions. “The consequences of this working is dazzling: it renounces all dogmatism”. (p. 112)

Haus explores both the theory and practice of directing, with particular emphasis on textual interpretation. Drawing on the experiences of a long and triumphant career, the revered pioneer of Brechtian theatre gives us a warm, full picture of the nature of his work. The collection is as rich in social and political context as it is in enlightening insights of the methodology of the profession.

Haus begins at the beginning: choosing the script. His own successes include such productions as Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Three Penny Opera, Mother Courage and her Children, The Life of Galileo Galilei, The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Goethe’s Faust 1. He describes his method of studying the scripts, and he illustrates the pleasures and perils of dramaturgical analysis. The book seems to be inspired by Theaterarbeit  (Dresden, 1952), the famous collection of working material from the early Berliner Ensemble, edited by Helene Weigel. The “model” of it formed generations of German and European theatre makers such as Harry Buckwitz, Manfred Wekwerth, Peter Stein, Roger Planchon, Giorgio Strehler and Peter Brook.

The rehearsals begin, and Haus traces this process through the blocking and to dress rehearsals, previews, tryouts and the opening. This, of course, is the heart of the director’s art, for he must discover the “use value” of the events in the script for the storytelling on the stage. The actors ability to visualize the situations, to find the necessary narrative actions is the essence of the rehearsal process. How to relate to the “emotional memory” of the audience, that is the question, Haus insists.  He urges that directors work from an informed perspective with integrity and imagination. For him it is central to life and theatre to be able to see and to be aware of life’s contradictions and to experience them in the performance. This encouragement was as the performance reviews show an essential tool in his way of training and directing American students and professionals. Mark Harmann, who observed rehearsals, describes Haus’ “technique”: “Instead of giving his actors answers, (he) encourages them – and I quote – to ‘go on chewing’, advice which is very much in the spirit of Brecht”. (p. 64) This spirit creates an epic/dialectical theatre making in which narrative replaces plot, the spectator is turned into an observer rather than someone implicated in the stage action, and each scene exists for itself alone. Terms like “breaking the fourth wall”, “gestus”, “alienation effect” and “thinking capable of intervention”, who have challenged an audience accustomed to Aristotelian theatricality, come to mind.

It is obvious, that Haus’ dialectical thinking is based on historical awareness. From early on in his childhood, he sought to develop theatre as a chosen niche “to escape” from the communist reality in the Soviet occupied part of his homeland Germany. As a young man, he recalls in an interview with Daniel Meyer-Dinkgraefe (p. 103), he was, naturally, animated by a transcendental ideal, not just by the desire to outlast the despised regime ducked away in hiding. At the same time he had the hope to serve the spectators and the colleagues working with him, to give them strength by appealing to the possibility of change. Meyer-Dinkgraefe concludes: “Fear of, and aversion against the regime led him to believe that theatre provided the space in which it was possible to resist the regime’s attempts at educating the citizens of the GDR in conscious denial of inconsistencies”. (p. 104) Commentaries of Guy Stern, Klaus M. Schmidt, Maria P. Alter, James Stark, Charles Helmetag and Laureen Nussbaum analyze the political context of Haus’ work as the first renowned director from East Germany to (be allowed to) direct in the USA. “The pressures of the Cold War, including the surveillance by the Stasi (the East German KGB) were always painful present. But experiencing ‘the land of the free’ immunized against the impact of the suppression at home. My work in the US strengthened my trust in the power of theatre as a basic tool for human resistance and survival”. (Haus, telephone interview, 02.02.20)

In the last part of the book, Haus presents his own directing notes for some of his best known productions. Central are four of his most influential works: 1. His first American production 1979 of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Annenberg Center Philadelphia, co-sponsored by a consortium of the Villanova, Temple and Penn University(PA), a “groundbreaking event”for Haus’ carrier. (Helmetag, p. 77) 2. Life of Galileo Galilei with the New Rose Theatre in Portland (OR), in the lead the African-American actor Shabaka from the San Francisco Mime Troup. 3. Good Person of Szechwan with the PTTP Milwaukee (WI), which participated at the North German Theatre Festival in Bremen (Germany) and “reminded the audience in Brecht’s homeland of the energetic theatricality of the early Berliner Ensemble productions” (TAZ, 20. 02. 1982). 4. The legendary Mother Courage and her Children, co-produced by the Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) at the University of Delaware, Haus’ International Classical Theatre (ICT) and the German town of Hasselbach at the former Pydna Cruise Missle Station, celebrating the anniversary of 50 years since the end of World War II. All this productions proved the “use value” of Brecht, if freed from constraints of ideology. The notes and essays help the reader to imagine the performances and their context.  Haus’ symposia on Brecht at US-universities too – usual in connections with his productions or guest professorships – broke through the taboos by which dogmatists (and dilletants) hoped to keep their idol holy, if unreal. After the fall of the Berlin wall 1989 a genuine criticism could proceed: the first conference about Brecht after the end of the Cold War in the US was organized by Haus in February of 1992 at the University of Delaware in Newark. Its title: Brecht Unbound.  All fractions of “Brechtians” sat for the first time on one “round table” to re-think and re-read the celebrated theatre inventor: John Fuegi, Charles Weber, Mark Silberman, Guy Stern,James Lyon, Dwight Steward, Karl-Heinz Schoeps, Gudrun Tabbert Jones, Klaus M. Schmidt, Thomas Nadar, Art Borreca, William Grange, Vera Stegmann, Reinhold Grimm and others.

To conclude: These collection is of enormous value to playwrights, designers, actors and directors; to scholars and students of theatre and performing arts; and to the general theatre-going public, who will find material to increase their perception and their appreciation of a specific way of theatre making. Haus’ theatre tries to be a true public forum for a democratically mature audience, a theatre of contradictions, as has been the theatre of the Greek antiquity, Shakespeare’s Globe and, last but not least, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble.  Haus’ work on Brecht marks a return to the theatre’s origins, where the acting or performance was the crucial factor. His approach is strict: “Theatre precedes drama. This historical fact has immense aesthetic importance for the ‘rules of the game’, known since Thespis, observed by directors at least the past hundred years. Brecht is one of them, probably the one most aware of its potential”(telephone interview, 02.02.20), as Haus has proven with his training and directing in the USA. The goal that the aim of the book is to reveal both the development of Haus’ theatrical and cultural positions as well as their evolution over time – before and after the fall of the Berlin wall – in response to changes in social/political context, aesthetic theories, and critical methodologies, has been clearly and well achieved.

 

 

  • Heinz-Uwe Haus and Brecht in the USA: Directing and Training Experiences, edited by Heinz-Uwe Haus and Daniel Meyer-Dinkgraefe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 2019, 326 p.

 

 

Afir Stojanova

 

 

 

 

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