Creativity Through Chaos

When Bobbin first asked me to become a member of The Horse in Motion, I instantly said yes. A chance to work with some of my closest friends from undergrad while doing what we love? It never occurred to me to say no. What I did not take the time to truly consider was the amount of hours I had just signed myself up for.

When we started out on the adventure that is BrechtFest, we began by reading. By reading a LOT. We read through more Brecht plays than I would care to count and began the painful but necessary process of narrowing the list down to only three. This translated to several long nights writing down pros and cons on huge black boards and fiercely debating the necessity of the plays we most identified with. We passionately squabbled over the topics we felt were mandatory for us to address through this piece; women’s equality, racial discrimination, minority representation, income inequality, white privilege, male privilege, white male privilege, you get the idea. Topics that daily haunt our facebook pages and news headlines. Ultimately, we were able to agree on three plays: Baal (Brecht’s first play), The Good Person of Szechwan, and The Threepenny Opera.  We also mutually agreed that the through line of this whole enchilada was “The Game is Rigged”, and yes, that does deserve to be capitalized. 

We chose Baal for its “fuck the system” seemingly appropriate millennial attitude, chose Good Person for its strong female lead who is unable to succeed in her society under the guise of her gender, and Threepenny Opera for its exploration of the low and high in society, and let’s be real, the music kicks ass. 

Then came the behemoth that was our script. We broke out into three groups (one for each play) and began cutting away without looking back and we continued to cut a week before we opened!  We continually asked ourselves if we were cutting the unnecessary fat or losing the artistic heart of the play’s essence; a line we walked down to the end. The script existed! Now we needed some seriously passionate people to actually be IN the thing. And we actually found them. The first couple of rehearsals showed us that we had not only found people, but talented, smart, thoughtful, dedicated people who have made the show what it is. I am immeasurably grateful and (if I may) a smidge proud. 

Having one foot in actor land and one foot in producer land was illuminating for such a huge undertaking.  Nothing but a pure and somewhat naïve passion could have supplied the energy to propel this machine forward. We were fortunate to find a venue that actually supported Brecht’s underground vibe: the Can Can Kitchen and Bar under the Pike Place Market and home to some of Seattle’s best burlesque dancers. We had stumbled upon something special here; as rehearsals and tech and performance were underway, I would often find myself gazing up through the ceiling of the lobby which also serves as the sidewalk above (like I said, the venue is quite literally under the market) through the thick glass panes cemented into the concrete. Through their opaque faces you could make out the outline of a pair of feet or a vendor’s cart rolling by. I couldn’t help but laugh at an all-too-real metaphor for an artist trying to make their way in large, bustling and overwhelming city. It got me thinking: artists are strange beasts. We stay up late, work insane hours, accept little pay, cry and laugh and glorify and despise our often self-induced poverty and all for what? For a slice of joy, I suppose. A single, often brief, experience or moment or memory that reminds us why we do what we do. Speaking only for myself, I have found that reminder in BrechtFest and surprisingly, or maybe not, I’ve found most of those moments offstage. (There is nothing like taking three loads of costumes, props and band equipment into a sketchy storage unit at midnight, in downtown to really bring people together). 

My grandparents recently visited Seattle to celebrate my sister’s graduation from law school; they are a product of a post-World War II upbringing and their traditional 1960’s family unit (Grandpa was a successful businessman, Grandma stayed at home and raised five children) shows it. They had the big white house on Main Street, the Buick, the neighborhood barbecues and Fourth of July gatherings, you name it. They were doled their share of hardships but nonetheless were the picture of the American dream. Therefore, I think they were a tad confused when I called them to up to say that I was majoring in theatre… there was a long pause on the other end of the phone line when I made this pronouncement. When visiting Seattle, my Grandpa leaned over at dinner and asked tried his best to politely ask why I had chosen to do theatre (trust me, it’s a question I ask myself daily). I sighed. How do I explain this to him? I thought about it and said “Well, why do you like breathing?” at this he laughed and responded, “Well that’s not the same thing, you have to breathe to stay alive” to which I responded “Exactly”.  The only reason any of us would endure the long hours and the almost nonexistent pay and the rejection is because the theatre is where we feel most alive, most creative, most challenged because those tiny slices of joy make all that other less joyful stuff worth it. 

And so, I raise my glass to Bertie himself. Thanks for the ride.

Hannah is the Social Media Manager for The Horse in Motion. She also serves The Seagull Project as a Producer and Fiscal Manager. 

Life is a Cabaret

Bertolt Brecht (with clarinet) performing with Karl Valentin at the Munich Oktoberfest.

Germany’s Weimar era was a time of cultural and intellectual proliferation, due to liberal social policies and the end of censorship. These fourteen years saw a huge expansion of artistic productivity in nearly every field. Art created in the Weimar period was fiercely political, and was often at odds with the (still relevant) issues of authoritarianism, big-business and bourgeois society. These values fueled the spread of German cabarets – where a combination of sex, drugs and politics created an environment ideal for social criticism and civic participation.

Cabaret had existed before this period; however it was much more focused on trite entertainment than political commentary. With the more relaxed censorship laws of the Weimar Republic, artists were allowed more freedom to explore taboo topics, the most popular of which were politics and sex.  This is the era represented in the musical Cabaret, where scantily clad dancers parody the Nazi salute amidst a cross-dressing emcee.  (Sidenote: it was during this period that the term transvestite was first coined and the opening of the first public gay and lesbian bars occurred.)

Bertolt Brecht, our illustrious playwright, frequented the “Literarisches Kabarett” —smaller cabarets that were dedicated to literary events. In 1922 he performed his song “The Ballad of the Dead Soldier”, in which the German Army unearths a fallen soldier and sends him back to the front so that he may again die a ‘hero’s death’. 

Berlin's famous El Dorado cabaret, in 1932 (above) and 1933 (below)

“The bitter work, which also attacked military doctors, churchmen, and chauvinist citizens, caused a scandal at its first performance, and Hersterberg had to drop the curtain until the audience quieted down. “—Peter Jelavich

It was his first and only cabaret performance. I’d consider it a wild success.

Cabaret was particularly effective because it successfully struck a balance between entertainment and political commentary. Performances were entertaining while at the same time thought-provoking. The combination of music, food and drama created an intimacy between performer and audience that encouraged participation. Cabaret performances often reflected public opinion, and were a powerful cultural indicator of public taste. 

Is it possible for the theatre of today to provide the same intellectual and social commentary? Do audiences want to see a satirical representation of the ‘welfare queens’ that the state of Kansas created legislation against earlier this year? (You should let us know if not.) And if so, well, who is going to pay for it?

Early in the BrechtFest process, Ryan Dunn, designer extraordinaire, was asked how he has felt that the game is rigged. His response – “There are people willing to pay a lot of money to create and attend the theatre. How come so many of us are here in the trenches, working for free?” I keep coming back to this. Do we need another multi-million dollar production of a multi-million dollar movie that did little to elevate our thinking in the first place? 

No. What we need is more cabaret.

Katherine Bicknell is a founding company member with the Horse in Motion and Audience Development Director with Annex Theatre. She loves to cook and until recently thought she did not like seafood. 

The Origins of BrechtFest

The following is a conversation with Jocelyn Maher, The Horse in Motion’s frequent collaborator and my roommate, on how we came up with the idea for BrechtFest. This interview took place in our living room over two bowls of Cheerios.

NM- So, first I just wanted to talk about how this project came about!

JM- How it started with a mistake?

NM- Yes - can you explain how it happened?

JM- Well… Was it last year? Two years ago?

NM- It was during Attempts on her Life. [Our last show we produced.]

JM- It was when a bunch of Seattle theaters were doing a Samuel Beckett Festival and I kept accidentally calling it Brecht Fest instead of Beckett Fest.

NM- Yeah and it didn’t click the first time you said it. You kept confusing the two, right?

JM- Yeah- and I said BrechtFest. And at some point it was like “Oh my God”. And it was you, Bobbin, and I in this room and I was like what if… oh my god, Breakfast! What if we just do it- it’s a festival of Brecht and it’s at breakfast time.

NM- Yeah, we all made eye contact at the same time. And we were like, “BrechtFest!”

JM- And we were like, wait a minute- this could actually work. And so we had that idea. Literally we had it almost 2 years ago. It seemed like such a pipedream.

NM- Yeah.

JM- Which we have somehow thus far turned into a reality.

NM- You know what’s so funny that I was thinking about, is that you and I actually have had some experience with Brecht. Which I always forget!

JM- It’s kinda shocking.

NM- But we’ve actually got a little experience under our belts.

JM- It’s true. But I actually always forget that I’ve done Brecht before. I think it’s partly because I’ve never seen it onstage.

NM- That’s true. I've never seen it performed either. No one does Brecht!

JM- Which is a shame!

NM- I mean yeah I think you are right - I think part of it is that I can’t quite imagine what it actually looks like.

JM- When we did Caucasian Chalk Circle our junior year I knew next to nothing. It was like a bare-bones crash course - “This is Brecht and his style is Epic Theater”. I don’t think that the Brechtian style was ever fully integrated into my performance of Caucasian Chalk Circle. I mean it was just very muddled. I just don’t think I understood fully the point of Epic Theater.

The summer before we were in “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the UW School of Drama, Jocelyn and I took a Brechtian Musical Theater class with Halldor Laxness during a study-abroad session in France.

JM- The summer before we met a bit of a Brechtspert of our own.

NM- We probably should be checking in with Halldor about our show.

JM- Yeah I am going to channel him and suggest that there be a lot of touching - a lot of feeling people up.

NM- A lot of touching. A lot of caressing chairs.

JM- I noticed Liza was doing a lot of it with you and I approved of it. Keep it coming.

NM- Its gonna be a very handsy show. What do you feel like you learned from Halldor in France? Is there anything you feel like you can apply from that?

JM- At the time, I’m not sure how much I was understanding the style - it's such a difficult concept.

NM- Yeah that’s me too, it's like what I was telling you about, that note Halldor kept giving us. Play the opposite of your character. If your character is poor, play him like he’s rich and just pretending to be poor. And at the time it just seemed like a weird Halldor-esque note to give, but now that I think about it that’s a very playable action. Its something we can use. And I remember plum trees!

JM- Plum trees?

NM- Yeah we had to memorize all those poems-

JM- Which we never used-

NM- Yep, and everyone had to memorize a poem about plum trees.

JM- And Halldor was just talking about sex all the time.

NM- I mean, that is Brechtian. It’s very lusty and carnal… Hedonistic. Especially Threepenny!

JM- Yeah I think it kind of speaks to the primitive animalistic desires of mankind, which derives all of these undeniable qualities that manifest in all sorts of negative ways.

NM -That was very impressive sounding.

JM- It was interesting coming into rehearsals - we were doing this whole thing dedicated to Brecht. We did all this studying and reading. But then it was like, are we actually ready to do this? Because we better know our shit if we are going to do this whole thing: a festival of Brecht.

NM- It also, like, it felt very scary right up until-

JM- That last intensive week before rehearsals. The Horse in Motion company members had weeks where we came together to work on the script – we called them intensives.

NM- Yeah the last intensive week, but even after that it still felt very daunting. For me, it was once we had our actors reading the script, it just made so much more sense. Once it was being read aloud and we had actual people.

JM- Also by marrying the theory and the practice - because you know the theory we learned in 302 [our critical theory class] gave me the impression that Brecht’s theater was supposed to be so cold and isolating. The message I took away when I was in college was that Brecht didn’t want his audience to have any emotional response. Because he thought that it was a cheap way to get his message across. But it's supposed to be political.

NM- Yeah that’s what Richard [E. T. White, a local theatre educator and “Brechtspert”] said: empathy yes. Not sympathy. And that’s huge. And I think that’s what people just assume - no sympathy, no feelings. Turn it off. Nothing. But that empathy thing is like, no, we just need to get the audience in a different way.

JM- And learning that how we can separate the awareness of the actor as opposed to the  awareness of the character - that can come from casting. It doesn’t necessarily need to be something additional.

NM- Yeah it’s like that dual thing where they should be watching you as an actor and you as the character.

JM- And a lot of it comes from designs and the casting - how do we make these stories relevant? Who are the people in power today? Who are the disenfranchised groups today? How do we put them onstage?

NM- I mean that’s gonna be the tricky thing for us - putting politics in it. But I know we have some good ideas about it.

JM- Good stuff.

NM- Great interview. Shaudi’s interview was so much better. This is great - all I’ve got is the story of its conception.

JM- So it’s a puff piece.

NM- That’s how I feel. I am the People Magazine of our blog.

JM- Well you know what, people read it.

Nic Morden.jpg

Nic Morden graduated from the University of Washington in 2012.  Nic studied LeCoq, the work of Tadeusz Kantor and Brechtian musical performance in Pontlevoy, France.  He recently co-starred in the horror film, “Dead Body”.  Nic was last onstage in “Attempts on Her Life” and is a co-founder of the Horse in Motion.

Singing is a Fight: An interview with Mahsa Vahdat on the role of the arts in social change

Photo by Tahmineh Monzavi.

Photo by Tahmineh Monzavi.

Our company is currently working with the plays of Bertolt Brecht, who wrote that the purpose of his theatre was to not only arouse moral objections to societal injustice, but also to discover means for its elimination. In his view, the role of the artist was essential in moving society forward: "It is precisely theatre, art, and literature which have to form the "ideological superstructure' for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age's way of life” (from Brecht’s “The Epic Theatre And Its Difficulties”). 

To explore this concept further, and get an idea for what it might mean to someone in today’s society, I reached out to Mahsa Vahdat, a singer living in Tehran, Iran (also: my cousin). Due to strict culture laws in Iran, it’s illegal for Mahsa to publicly perform or sell her albums there, but since 1995 she has performed as an independent artist in concerts and festivals in Asia, Europe, the US,  and Africa, often collaborating with American, European, and other Iranian musicians. In 2004, she participated in the album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil (an album which has got to be one of the best responses to something said in a State of the Union address ever). She is also an award-winning ambassador of the Freemuse Organization, an independent international organization that advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide. 

I started off by asking Mahsa what she sees as the role of the artist in combatting oppression and injustice. 

MV: An oppressive regime tries to limit all kinds of freedom and dictates the mind and even heart. Because in the spirit of true art there is a freedom and liberation, it can connect with humans in a free way. I cannot imagine if we did not have the great poets like Hafez, Rumi and Khayyam. These poets, who are also philosophers and thinkers, posed [a dissident vision of] the true value of human life while they were in a society full of restrictions and limitations. 

The presence of influential artists gives power to the people and dissidents and also strengthens a kind of unity.

SV: After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah decreed that women could no longer be allowed to sing solo in public, unless the audience was made exclusively of women. Do you remember your initial reactions to hearing that news?

Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

MV: When the revolution happened I was 5 years old, so in a way I was grew up with this limitation and obstacles. When I started to learn Persian vocal arts I just started because I loved it, I was not very much aware of restriction and censorship. I just loved to sing and loved to learn and study singing…Later, little by little I decided to choose it as my career, regardless of limitations, and started to do some private concerts, and then I understood what a difficult and challenging path I chose. But I had a hope for change and I was so determined, and this determination became stronger and stronger in my life, and the limitations made me even more motivated. Many times I became sorrowful in life, [wondering] why there is this censorship and why I cannot perform in my own country, but I could handle all these sorrows, and I decided to dedicate my life to this. Then singing was not just singing for me, it became also a fight.

SV: Has there been progress made since this initial decree? Have you been experiencing any more artistic freedom in recent years?

MV: There were some years that it was little better but just very minor. Iran had and has a lot of political ups and downs and in these ups and downs the main victim was art. An oppressive regime is afraid of everything. Such a regime understands the power of art and its influence, so when the fear increases then the pressure on art and music also increases, especially on females.

SV: From your interviews, and from the fact that you continue to perform Iranian music, I get the sense that you are optimistic that a progressive change in the laws of Iran will happen. Can you talk a little bit about this optimism that positive change is possible, and the extent to which it motivates your work? 

MV: I am always hopeful…I believe that I and some of other female singers have made many changes in Iran. Maybe we could not change the rule, but we could prove that artists can pass the borders that oppressive regimes put in front of them.  I believe that I motivated many other females to learn and keep the treasure of vocal art without any bright landscape in front of them, just as I was so inspired by the other female singers. I know that it is difficult and a big struggle, but I really believe in further changes.

SV: Your work is radical in many ways: it could be said that you \essentially break the law every time you practice your profession. I'm wondering how much this thought is consciously on your mind as you work. 

MV: When I create music I feel free because I want to be loyal to the deepest part of my emotion, so I create regardless of any feeling of being censored. 

In my daily life I have to follow some rules that I don’t believe in. For example when I go outside of my home in the street in Iran I have to have a scarf for [covering] my hair; I don’t believe in this but I have to do it because if not I will be arrested. But in creating my art I have tried to teach myself that I should be completely free. Freedom and independence for my creativity is so important that no power and restriction can take it from me. 

It is a big struggle for an artist but I am so determined to have this freedom.

SV: The members of our theatre company, The Horse in Motion, believe that the arts have a vital role to play in asking questions, proposing answers and facilitating the community building essential to addressing issues of social justice, peace and equality. We are also privileged to be making art in a country with relative freedom of expression. Is there any wisdom you would share or anything you would want to say to emerging artists like us?

MV: I think in our world now art has a big role in the issues that you mentioned. I have been involved with many dialogue-based projects, and I think art can create a kind of relationship between people in the world that is based on dignity and respect while politics mostly separate people from each other. Especially now we see that religious, racial and other kinds of antagonism are rising in the world, so the role of art is extremely important to connect people in a very simple way. All of us are human. 

Our songs and music and expressions about joy, sorrow, and hope are similar and this is reflected in our art. Through art we can be so close toeach other, respect each other and inspire each other. It can contribute to peace and justice.

Mahsa Vahdat’s upcoming project is an acapella album recorded in various locations worldwide, including Istanbul, Oslo, Wroclaw, South of France and others, with texts from historic and contemporary poets. She is also working on an album with some of her female Iranian vocal students. Find out more at http://www.mahsavahdat.com/

Photo by Danielle Barnum

Photo by Danielle Barnum

Shaudi Vahdat is a founding company member with The Horse in Motion and actor and music director for BrechtFest. If she had free time, she would spend it taking long nature walks and mastering the art of French cooking.

Brecht, Modernism, and the Danger of Reverence

Bertolt Brecht has been described so disparately to me that I can hardly keep the two constructions of his identity in the same headspace. On the one hand, you have the WWII-era creator of Epic Theater, the revered theorist famous for the Vermaschlermadingdong Effect (at least, that’s what I heard when my teachers said Verfremdungseffekt). The man who said that he didn’t want the audience to feel when they came to see theater, but rather to think about the issues that were being raised. Who accomplished this by creating a separation between actor and role, script and production, story and audience. 

The Brecht plays I read in college I frankly disliked. They seemed overly pointed, stodgy, and favored making a point over creating a piece of entertaining theater. This, coupled with the foreboding picture of a stuffy old dude with tiny glasses and a big cigar staring pensively out of a window that pretty much every Brecht source uses, was enough to alienate me from the guy. I didn’t give him much thought until the idea for BrechtFest came along.

When we decided to embark on our quest to create dynamic breakfast theater with three vastly different Brecht plays spanning his entire career (I just wish we were more ambitious…), I found myself desperately needing to reconcile what I want to say - my rage as a young artist, my bafflement at the current American system - with the way Brecht was portrayed to many of us in school. If we wanted to create revolutionary theater, why dredge up a dated German academic? 

Well, we did it anyway. And we’ve discovered that Brecht was nothing like the stodgy old theorist I thought he was. 

He was first a young Expressionist revolutionary, railing aggressively against the social restrictions of the Weimar Republic with Baal. Then, he was an avid fan of seedy cabaret theater, with its rampant sexuality, innovative performances, and boundary-pushing music. He himself performed in cabarets, and was by many accounts one of the most charismatic people in show business at the time. It was then that he created his own cabaret, The Threepenny Opera. And finally, after pissing off first Germany, then 

America, then East Germany all over again by being too Communist for the capitalists and too forward-thinking for the Communists, he wrote masterful epic pieces that railed against the flaws of the system and spoke to the impossibility of getting it right. The Good Person of Szechwan came out of this burning dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, which Brecht protested against all the way to his grave.

Now, I like this man a lot better – the hyper-charismatic, revolutionary, broke performer who tried his hardest to make a difference with the thing he did best: theater. The man who managed to piss off virtually every authority figure he came across, who loved to collaborate with as many different artists as possible, who could play the tuba. This man sounds like us. So why were we told something so different about this crazy German in our American university?

This is in no way a reflection on the classes we took at UW. After all, I learned who Brecht was, which is in itself a triumph. It has to do, rather, with the danger of revering a dead white male theorist simply because he is old, and dead, and white. Because Brecht created a methodology, and because his plays are brilliant, we fell into the trap that we do with so many old dead white men – we forget the men as people, and instead canonize their work, until the original point of what they were trying to do becomes obscured under lectures about their significance and examples of their notable productions. The irony is that the representation of Brecht in modern American academia is antithetical to the points he made.

Personally, I think Brecht would be furious if he knew that the system against which he was protesting had characterized him as a professor-type who formally passed down his ideas in cold, alienating theater. Instead, let’s do him a favor by looking at his work through the lens of experimentation, revolution and color. Focus on the cabaret performer, the young outspoken rebel, the radical kicked off of two continents before he died. By respecting Brecht in this way, perhaps we have a chance of doing his plays “as he meant them to be done”: throwing out the rule book, getting passionate about the state of the world, and having some fun.

Mary Hubert is a company member of the Horse in Motion and associate director and dramaturge for BrechtFest. In her spare time she writes for the South Seattle Emerald, power lifts, and is the Development Director of Annex Theatre.