Brecht in Church

In preparation for next year’s placement I have decided to start re-reading old theatre theory books and re-envision myself and the potential of theatre and ministry.  I’m starting with Shomit Mitter’s book ‘Systems of Rehearsal’. In his chapter on Brecht ‘To be or not to be’, I was struck by an argument he posed about the differences in the work of Stanislavky and Brecht.

Stanislavsky is famous for his naturalistic approach to theatre. An audience was to go and witness reality. The stage was a window onto life; hence the term ‘fourth wall’ to indicate that the audience sat where a wall to the house was meant to be. You could say Stanislavsky was the modern day Ricky Gervais with his mock-umentary style… but I’d have to kill you if you did! This, for Brecht, was destructive. It stifled the audience to except the world as it is and to ‘wallow’ in the inevitability of life.

For Brecht, theatre was about evoking change in a person.

‘I wanted to take the principle that it was not just a matter of interpreting the world but of changing it, and applying that to theatre.’ Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre

The theatre then is a place where an audience sits and reviews how life isled and to see the possibility for different outcomes. Stanislavsky taught the given circumstance; A leads to B leads to C, the path is set and you must walk it, whereas, Brecht saw that after A there were many paths to take and should be explored. The audience were opened up to personal change.

My mind immediately asked the question, what is theatre’s role in the church?

Are my reservations about ‘church drama’ stemming from my understanding of theatre?

It could be said that the ‘church drama’ that I have witnessed are Stanislavskian in style. They pose something as it is (or at least as the particular church thinks it is) and there’s no room for questions. A story, with its seeming inevitability, is put forward and that’s that. The audience are not welcomed in and given a real choice to make changes. This is difficult when the scenes portrayed are historical and the outcome has already been decided but an audience should still be present in the story and understand why an action is decided upon.

It makes me think of St Ignatius of Loyola and his practise of visualisation prayer where the practitioner is to walk into a biblical scene using his imagination and explore it for themselves. Many have criticised this practise as heretical as it means that our imagination can make up things not in scripture and develop theology away from Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, use of the imagination is natural human action and one cannot say with any assurance how they understand the very nature of God or the will of God without, in part, attributing it to the imagination. Theatre itself is imagination and so let us assume that using it is not ‘the work of the devil’ and push on in to its use in religion.

To inhabit a biblical scene is to live within the reality (or supposed reality) and so the audience/congregation must be able to imagine what it was like in that situation. This should include the option of choice and to change the situation. Reality is about choices and free-will, isn’t it? The giving of choice and free will does not, necessarily have to change the outcome. Brecht wanted audiences to dream of possibilities and to see characters as flexible and real not automatons set on one path. The biblical and non biblical characters shown in church dramas are often set on a course (often without any reason) which the audience/congregation must watch. This, I think, is the source of my frustration. As an audience/congregation member I want to be able to see reality not something outside of reality and this involves the potential for change, even if it is never realised.

Is the Brechtian approach to theatre a suitable alternative? I believe, in some part, it is particularly with its clear depiction of both character and actor at the same time rather than the ‘trickery’ of Stanislavsky. I like, however, the complete immersing in the reality which is often missed, I feel, in Brechtian theatre. Peter Brook uses Brechtian techniques but applies them to a mix of Grotowskian, Artaudian and Stanislavskian practises as well.

As I continue to read I get excited about the use of my previous study and formation in the theatre to communicate into my formation in ministry. My own theatre practise speaks into my ministerial practise and, I hope, vice versa.