The sound of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre

For the second year in a row, UVic students are putting on a play entirely in German. The performers are Germanic Studies and Theatre students taking part in Performing German Drama, an experiential, student-driven course offered by the Germanic Studies Department. After months of practicing choreography and perfecting lines, the students will be able to showcase their hard work in a production of one of Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke, translated as “learning plays.” The class will be performing the plays Der Jasager and Der Neinsager, or, The Yay Sayer and The Nay Sayer.

Der Jasager and Der Neinsager both begin with a young boy, his teacher and three students setting out on a journey to save their village from a terrible epidemic. When the boy becomes sick, the teacher informs him of a long-held custom that demands that the boy be asked to consent to his death if he cannot continue the journey. Reminiscent of the style of choose-your-own-adventure books, each drama unfolds according to the boy’s decision of how to respond to the custom.

Brecht’s Lehrstücke were designed specifically for a concept of theatre as workshop, and their goal was to engage both the actors and the audience in a critical debate about the staging of the play, and in that process, to question the very society in which they live as well as to realize that tradition can, and should, be questioned.

“I want to try something,” says Theatre student and co-director Rain Mair as she untangles a 15-foot rope that will serve as the primary prop unifying the complementary plays. In a classroom that has been transformed into a stage, three students are rehearsing a scene in which they must support the boy, who has become too exhausted to walk. After the students have nervously recited their lines, co-director Mair hands part of the rope to each of them and begins circling the students until she is satisfied that they have been sufficiently squeezed together. Mair walks to the far end of the classroom still holding her end of the rope.

“Okay, now I’m going to try to pull you back,” she says, tugging the rope to demonstrate the strength of her pull. “I want you to fight against me while you read your lines.” What results is a cacophony of shouting and laughter — everything except a coherent delivery of the lines.

“Much better!” Mair beams proudly at her actors despite their jumbled German. “From now on, when you read those lines, I want to hear that struggle in your voice!”

The students try again without the rope, and this time they are undoubtedly more relaxed and confident — not to mention a little out of breath.

The students in Elena Pnevmonidou’s Performing German Drama class have embraced Brecht’s concept of the Lehrstücke and its emphasis on the process of rehearsal and learning through trial and error, collaborative workshop and critical engagement, as opposed to traditional theatre’s emphasis on a perfectly polished final product.

Taylor Antoniazzi and Elise Polkinghorne are both involved in the GMST 488: Performing German Drama production of Brecht’s plays. 

Der Jasager and Der Neinsager
Dec. 4 and 5 @ 8 p.m.
Merlin’s Sun Home Theatre (1983 Fairfield Rd.)
Tickets: minimum donation of $5Available on campus in the foyer of the Germanic Studies Department (second floor of the Clearihue Building).

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