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December 7, 2001

Q&A with New Theatre Faculty Christopher Owens

Christopher Owens is the newest faculty member in the Department of Theatre. He has worked as a director in regional theatre for 20 years, staging over 100 professional productions and heading three Equity theatre companies. He has served as a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University and Dickinson College and a guest lecturer at Wheaton College. In summer 2001, he staged An Exception Should Be Made (a new play about William Saroyan), which played on the "Fringe" at the Edinburgh Festival.The Good Woman of Setzuan is now playing in the UMBC Theatre through December 9. For reservations and information, call (410) 455-2476.Bertolt Brecht was one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Tell us about his work, and why it resonates with today's audiences.CO: The question is, will it resonate with today's audiences? Brecht was a very political writer. His whole idea of theatre was to get the audience to think and act on those thoughts rather than be swept away by emotion and empathy for the characters. As a story, Brecht was not looking for the Greek ideal of catharsis, that theatre would have a sort of purging effect, and that everyone would go out of the theatre feeling in some way better, even having seen a tragedy.Brecht, on the other hand, wanted to rouse you, to excite you, to incite you. So his theatre, which constantly strove to remind you that it was theatre – that it was storytelling – utilized placards telling you what this next scene is about or musical breaks in it – music that was not intended, like the American musical theatre, to further the plot or develop the character. Brecht wanted it to be jarring. He wanted it to stop the action and stop you getting too sucked into the world of the characters, and to remember the message, and a message that was often very political. His politics were essentially Marxist, and his plays all espoused basically a communist ideal of the world, trying to create a more equitable, classless society. Doing Brecht today, you have to eventually deal with the fact that that ideal, that communist economic system, has collapsed in the majority of the world. Places for whom Brecht was often the champion in the Soviet Cold War era now are changed to at least some variation on the capitalist economic system. Even the China from which he drew his inspiration for The Good Woman of Setzuan is finding some mesh of capitalism and their old system. So consequently, that becomes the challenge of doing Brecht here.Now, Brecht does still write good stories that suck you in, stories that make you care about the characters, even if those characters break out once in a while to talk directly to the audience and remind you of some message within the play. So, I think that those stories still resonate, that though the Marxist ideal may not be the obvious answer anymore, class struggle and economic disparities exist in huge measure throughout the world. And the questions that The Good Woman of Setzuan particularly tries to address are: What are we going to do about this? How are we going to help our fellow man and prosper at the same time? They're still relevant questions.Why did you choose this particular play, The Good Woman of Setzuan?CO: A couple of reasons. One, the faculty wanted a piece that utilized a lot of our students. This show's got 36 characters. It happens that I do it with 22 actors, but that's still utilizing a large amount of our department. In the show there's one character who has to disguise herself as a male counterpart in order to survive in the society. Brecht suggests doing the male role with a mask. Immediately it struck me that the situation would actually be more credible if you used masks for all the characters. Mask training was a part of my world when I was a younger actor. I studied with Pierre LeFevre, one of the best known mask teachers in the world when I was at Juilliard, and I loved it. It was a very freeing experience. And I've used it throughout my career, sometimes not even in performance but simply as a rehearsal technique. It allows 36 characters to be done by a smaller number of actors and it fits nicely into some of the disciplines of the Chinese theatre as the traditional Chinese theatre is performed in extreme make-up that simulates a mask-like form.Tell us something about the play.CO: Well, as I said, it's an examination of a conflict between ethical and economic systems. That sounds very dry but it's not meant to be at all. The gods – whatever the gods may be in this occasion – descend down to this location. We start in pre-World War II China, looking for somebody who's good here. It's hard to find somebody who's good. The poverty of the situation has now forced people into things that are not what we would consider completely ethical. The only person who will take the gods in is this one prostitute in Setzuan. They reward her for that. Besides having sort of achieved their particular mission, they decide to give her money. They make it clear that it's for the rent that she gave them overnight and not for sexual favors but, at the same time, this allows her to buy a business and join the capitalist system. Other people then here of her fortune, and like with lottery winners, come out of the woodwork to ask her for shelter, food, money and everything else. She is truly the good woman of Setzuan in a lot of ways, wanting to be generous. However, this begins to destroy her and her business. There's only so much you can give away and still continue to run things.So these dilemmas that she's faced with turn her into a hard-nosed businessman, learning to say no and learning not to be charitable. All of these things go against her better nature. Her solution to that is to create a whole new character for herself and she invents a cousin of hers, a male cousin to take her place and run things, get the business back together, and gain enough money so that than the good person can come back and be charitable once again. So this dichotomy of how do you help your fellow man and prosper within this capitalist world is a struggle that creates the disguise and a mystery as one person disappears and the other one comes in, because obviously her female character and her male character can't be together at the same time. She (the character) is a good enough actor to mostly pull this off, so that plot element also engages our attention. It's a great challenge for the actress playing that particular role, to create that other male character that can credibly fool the rest of Setzuan during the time when he takes over and whips the business back into shape.We're talking about Brecht wanting theatre to be about theatre, and now we have an actor acting as an actor in the play.CO: Exactly. So that the character has to play a character. That switching back and forth is difficult, not always successful, and eventually leads to one personality taking over another one, and that too is an interesting element for the audience to watch.With most works of art, an understanding of the times or circumstances in which the work was created can enhance our appreciation or understanding of it. Is there anything that would be helpful to know about The Good Woman of Setzuan or Brecht's circumstances when he wrote it?CO: Well, he started writing it early in the '30s, and eventually it got done in 1938. Now, during that time period was his fleeing the rise of Nazi Germany. He found his way eventually to the United States. The impetus for the play actually was a visit in 1935 to see Chinese theatre. He borrowed what worked for him. A lot of it he loved, because the Chinese theatre is anything but realistic. It relies a lot on traditions and symbolism, an understanding of certain conventions by the audience, and transparent theatricality. He wrote about how much the Chinese actor was always aware of the impression that he was creating on the audience, rather than the Stanislavski ideal of being so immersed in the character that you're unaware of the audience.Many people may not realize that the students who will appear on stage have to go through an audition process to gain roles in the play. What are the auditions like?CO: Well, for me it's particularly interesting, because I'm coming in here knowing nothing of any student's previous work. I was very much a blank slate. All the students in the department did a day of prepared monologue pieces for me. Because the show is musical, I'd also asked them for sixteen bars of a song, which was terrifying for some people and okay for others! It was really just like a professional audition process, which was good for them to do, and good for me to evaluate.But they're behind masks. That must present certain opportunities but also certain challenges to the actors.CO: Well, part of the audition process was in mask as well. A very limited number of students have had training in that discipline, but there's a lot that I could tell by putting a neutral mask on them. I gave them short, purely physical scenes of action to play with each other and looked for who could release themselves into that. Who could find a way to do things in a clear and yet simple physical manner? The masks that we have allow speaking – they're over the forehead and cheekbone, but it still limits a lot of expression of the actors, so you have to act in a very different way……because so much of communication, culturally, is through our eyes. So the actors would have to learn, I assume, to communicate through physical gesture.CO: Yes! It's a whole new technique. So, as we began the rehearsal process for this show, I did a week of classwork before we began actually rehearsing the play, trying to get people to understand how they were going to have to work on it. You're right, you don't have the capacity for the same kind of facial expressions, which generally the actor takes to mean, “Oh, I have to do much more to communicate.” The reality is that you've got to do less. You've just got to do one big thing instead of four little things. The toughest part in mask work is increasing the size of your bodily communication while distilling and getting rid of those extraneous movements that muddy what you're trying to do. In most of acting, one of the worst things to do is to watch yourself act. Mask work is one of the occasions where you use a mirror to try to understand what you're doing.It's almost counter-intuitive, but very simple.CO: Yes. It's great. I think it's a great technique for the actors, and it's great for Brecht here too. It's broadly theatrical, yet at the same time it's very disciplined.

Posted by dwinds1 at December 7, 2001 12:00 AM