Bits of Brecht
Playwright's poetry is the focus of a production at UAlbany

By MICHAEL ECK, Special to the Times Union
First published: Thursday, April 8, 2004

In the winter of 2001, Tannis Kowalchuk found herself riding on the subway with her nose stuck in a book of poems written by playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The Brecht book was left behind by a friend who left Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks, along with a pile of CDs and other books; being a theater artist, Kowalchuk gravitated to the Brecht first.

The dust from the twin towers had barely settled, and as the train rattled on Kowalchuk immediately saw connections between what was happening on the page and what was happening on the streets above.

She decided the time was right to create a play out of Brecht's verse, and "Ten Brecht Poems" -- which will be performed Tuesday at the University at Albany -- was born.

"I was reading the poems on the subway and I realized that they could have been written today," Kowalchuk says. "Brecht was talking about the disparity between rich and poor, about the profits of war and about the way that German culture was changing when Hitler was coming into his power. It struck me that there were some obvious parallels between pre-World War II Germany and Bush's America."

Kowalchuk is the co-founder and managing director of Highland Park's NaCl Theatre (North American Cultural Laboratory). She hoped to create "Ten Brecht Poems" along with her collaborator and NaCl co-founder and artistic director Brad Krumholz, but he was not as taken with the idea as Kowalchuk.

"Brad wasn't as excited as I was," Kowalchuk says, "so I said, 'OK, I'll ask someone else to do it with me.' "

She found that someone in Leese Walker, the founder and artistic director of Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble.

The two met at a theater conference in Maine not long after Kowalchuk had discovered Brecht's poems.

The play, a co-production of NaCl and Strike Anywhere, marries the women's styles to create a physical, overtly theatrical piece which Kowalchuk calls "a Brechtian vaudeville."

"It's very presentational," she says. "Each poem is announced with a placard, and for each poem we've created a different kind of performance style. There's quite a lot of singing and dance and some interesting use of props, puppets and objects."

Most of the poems Kowalchuk chose were written between 1929 and 1944, and feature titles like "Great Babble Gives Birth," "From a German War Primer," "Article I of the Weimar Constitution," "The God of War" and "Motto."

She says the production lets the audience find the links between the poems and our current state of affairs.

"It asks the audience to think; it doesn't tell them what to think."

Kowalchuk admits that's not the way "Ten Brecht Poems" always worked. In early workshops, Kowalchuk and Walker tended to hit the audience over the head. "We had originally incorporated more direct images and songs related to our current politics today, but we found that the audience felt it was too dogmatic and direct. They enjoyed making the connection between what's going on today and what's going in the poems on their own."

"That was the feeling I had when I first read them, too, but I had forgotten that."

Over the past year the duo has been touring "Ten Brecht Poems" to colleges and theaters, with a strong response at each stop.

Following the 45-minute performance, Kowalchuk says she and Walker like to engage the crowd, although not in Brecht's traditionally confrontational way. The dialogue helps underline the points of the play, and it also helps the actors keep things sharp.

"We always have a discussion after the show," she says. "It's a good forum for people to ask questions or make comments about the play."

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