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Summary: Berthold Brecht’s Techniques in Improvisational Theatre

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Improvisational theatre is a collective action of creating a play – an unscripted form of theatre, where the actors collaborate to produce a spontaneous story. In conventional theatre, the audience usually is a silent spectator, while in improv theatre, it is engaged in making of the play by suggestions, reactions, and sometimes even asked to join on stage. In short-form improv, the whole play consists of short scenes, which are based on games, and an actor has to play multiple characters throughout the whole show, or even just one scene. This allows the audience to see them as both themselves and the characters they play, and because all this changes so often, neither the actor nor the audience can emotionally identify with the character. Both of these elements – an active audience and the acting style of detachment, are core concepts of Berthold Brecht’s theory. Brecht also made the term verfremdungseffekt or the “alienation effect” popular, which means to keep the audience aware that the play is a production, not reality.

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In improvisational theatre, techniques similar to those introduced by Berthold Brecht are being used, and are what makes it a more accessible, free and entertaining form of theatre. By describing these concepts and comparing them to improv theatre show elements, I will try to explain why people enjoy it so much. Stranger Things Live! was a full length show performed by Stranger Things Have Happened – an international improv comedy group from the Netherlands, that was recorded on September 1st, 2012 in Oosterpoort, Groningen. This show consisted of 7 games and an introduction in which the narrator is already making a connection with the audience.

‘A happy character does not need to be played by a happy actor. The same goes for a tragic character’. Brecht reassured that actor’s emotions don’t always have to blend with character’s emotions – they can be co-present. On the stage, actors do not only present the characters, but also themselves. In Brecht’s Epic theatre this technique was used to stop the spectators from identifying with the characters emotionally so much that they wouldn’t be able to critically react to the things happening on the stage and for the actors to speak facts as they are. Short-form improv usually consists of brief scenes built on various game structures, but the point is that games and characters usually live and die with a particular game. The game-based structure of the show allows for the actors to create multiple characters, show different kinds of emotions, and pass on more information. The actors are not, as Brecht says, trying to be a character, they’re consciously presenting it. The detachment technique makes the show more fast-paced and provides genuine, accessible entertainment. The characters are completely based off actor’s imagination and they say the first thing that comes into their mind, and they often laugh, or act surprised themselves, even if it doesn’t fit in the scene or character, which reminds of the presence of the actor.

In Brecht’s Epic theatre, he wanted to show how things everyone thinks are natural, are actually constructed by social processes the people have gone through. He felt like it’s important for the audience to compare what is happening on the stage to what is going on in today’s society. To compare or ‘point out the differences’ is a deployment of Verfremdung – to make the familiar strange, to deform everyday situations in a way that they become shocking and the audience is able to look at them from a different angle. The first game of Stranger Things Live! – Squeeze the Duck – makes the actor change the most recently said line/action. One of the main Brecht’s goals was to show that human behavior is alterable, even though it’s dependent on social factors, which is what is done here. Even though this is a comedy improv show and it doesn’t pass a serious message, it does display multiple possible solutions of the same situation, just by changing the reaction to it. Since in improv everything is spontaneous, it transforms everyday situations so people would look at them in a silly way, laugh or just change their mindset about them. Although, not all performances are comedies – directors such as Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook direct politically oriented theater pieces with incorporated improv elements – it helps to pass on information in an unusual way. Even in the Stranger Things show one of the scenes is about the Battle of Waterloo – it’s an alienation of a historical, political event – in comedy improv it’s made funny.

In the game Murder Mystery, the actors of Stranger Things Live! are not allowed to speak, and the situation given in the beginning, is interpreted and given further by each actor involved. This is similar in the scene Deaf Translator as well, where an actor is visually portraying what the other actors are talking about. Brecht liked to illustrate a story of perspective from many different viewpoints as the retelling of the story would also differ, which is what happens in this scene. The situation throughout the game changes, because of how each actor saw it and re-showed it to the next. He also emphasized the idea of difference and suggested that it’s concerned with discontinuity and interruption. The theatre is no longer about stability, but change, it’s no easy consumption. In Epic theatre, alienation was continued by series of disjointed episodes, since that removes the buildup of suspense. Therefore, the switch between the smaller scenes within the show works as a v-effekt, because the characters step out of their imaginary characters and the next scene is again produced with the help of audience. To keep them conscious of the fact that it is a theatre play, not reality, all Stranger Things Live! actors are always present on stage and the switch to characters also happens in front of spectator’s eyes. The stage doesn’t have any props, except the chairs for actors.

The role of the audience is important in multiple non-traditional forms of theatre – it is not about a passive observer anymore. “Forget the audience” is a phrase often used to help new actors feel comfortable on the stage, but it creates the forth wall Brecht wanted to break. He designed his plays to provoke an unequivocal response in the audience, and he says that the attitude is a critical one. He does not shape the response of his audience and he counts on those who are productive – people who are active, who can produce new ideas or new approaches to problems. With this he emphasizes the effect he wants to have on the audience – to actively process and react to statements made and questions asked on stage, develop their own thoughts about the events on the stage, and not get emotional. Improv theatre shows are participatory performances – the spectators constantly need to be involved in the play to control it, give ideas, sometimes even join on stage. They must stay conscious. Brecht also introduced a ‘smoker’s theatre, where audience members would smoke cigars, to make the atmosphere less tense. A relaxed audience is ready to be entertained and to think. Most of improv theatre shows are performed in bars, or other casual settings where the audience is free to get drinks and snacks, sometimes smoke and feel laid-back to form a loose atmosphere so it would be easier for actors to form a dialogue with them later on. The people watching Stranger Things Live! are sitting on the floor, laughing all the time and feeling relaxed. In this show the final game Quote Notes involves the most audience participation, since they suggest sentences or words to write on pieces of paper, which then the actors would read during the next scene; the audience is central to how it operates. Many improv shows attract a younger audience, because a lot of them begin late, and the ticket prices are mostly very cheap, because the production of improv is low-cost. Improv theatre’s audience is smart, verbal, and is looking for something different from traditional theater, for stuff to do, not just watch. For this reason, Stranger Things Have Happened hosts an improv comedy jam every Monday, where anyone can participate in the show as an actor.

Improv theatre is becoming more widely known and interest in live improv is growing for multiple reasons. The audience is amused by the actor’s ability to come up with lines on the spur of moment. They also take pleasure in displaying their own cultural competence and ability to add their suggestions. Participatory culture defines modern society; the spectator is no longer silent and likes to be involved in the production of the play. Improvisers themselves say they like short-form improv, because it provides genuine, accessible entertainment, instead of long-form’s self-indulgent meandering. It allows them to show their true selves. They like that they can be themselves and perform different characters from their imagination. The detachment from one, consistent character allows both the actors and the spectators to enjoy the show. Doug Sheppard, a performer and producer, has said that “Improv is worth watching because it is the only theatrical form (and close to the only art form) where the moment of inspiration, the moment of creation, and the moment of performance are all the same moment.” People like to see the production happen in front of their eyes, and they are aware of it. Stranger Things is an example of that, because their shows are often sold out and the jam sessions are well attended.

Even though Brecht used his plays to teach a message and tried not to hide it by emotions, but improv theatre is more often comedy and pure entertainment, there are visible similarities by the techniques that are used. Alienation effect and acting technique of detachment releases the buildup of suspension, stops the audience from getting emotionally attached to a character and therefore makes it easier to get the message or enjoy the performance, and actively process and participate in what’s happening on the stage. Also, the play is produced right in that moment, on that stage. The minimalistic setting of the stage and ‘a smokers theatre’ allows the audience to stay relaxed and remember that the play is a mere production, not reality.  

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