Getting into trouble: Jenny Diver and Brecht

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Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Myself as Jenny Diver, in a skimpy black dress, legging and black heels. Standing in a sexy pose with a snarky smile on my face. I have my cane across the back of my shoulders almost like a weapon.

“Art is not a mirror in which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Last week marked the start of my rehearsals for the ThreePenny Opera which is being put on by Graeae Theatre, the New Wolsey, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I get the exciting challenge of playing Jenny Diver, Mack the Knife’s favorite whore. As an actor, this is an insanely exciting opportunity to be in a great show with a very talented group of people. As a researcher, it presents some interesting thoughts as well.

I have said previously that I like the idea of “trouble” in the academic sense of the word. This means spaces of tension or unresolved-ness where questions arise out of something being slightly strange or other than the norm. I think Brechtian theatre is an interesting style in which to play with trouble, because he has his concept of Verfremdungseffekt. This has been called the v-effect, alienation effect (when badly translated) and more recently either the estrangement effect or distentiation. A literal translation of the word is “to make strange”. The idea is that Brecht wanted to “distance” his audience from becoming too invested in the characters as he thought too much investment would distract from what he saw as the purpose of theatre: to invoke and inspire social and political change. i.e. by watching the play people would want to change the world and make it less corrupt. So an audience would follow and invest in a story only so far as they could learn from it. Trouble, as a concept, is not as inherently political. But it can be about making what seems “normal” or “real” strange by introducing things that are not of the norm into new spaces. For example, putting a bunch of disabled actors in a mainstream and widely viewed theatrical production, like the ThreePenny Opera, is outside of the norm for most people. (This is what Graeae does. It is a disability led company, so one might say they specialize in the good kind of trouble.)

I am diving into this trouble, or distentiation or whatever you want to call it through the hard skinned London prozzie, Jenny. I am a not-so-hard skinned USA-er who, by Brechtian standards, has had a pretty fucking easy life. As a disabled woman, I have certainly had to deal with my fair share of discrimination, but I have never reeeeaaally had to want for work, money, food, shelter, family or friends. I’m not rich, but I’ve always been cared for, and usually am able to do what I want in my life. I am very lucky. So playing Jenny is a bit of personal “trouble” because I am not a broken woman. I don’t have to have sex for money, I haven’t been in abusive relationships, etc. Of course, Brecht would say I don’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) fully embody her. I need to represent her. What that means and how that will develop in this whole process and rehearsal period will be extremely interesting. I feel like representation often exists in things like gestures, body language, costume, etc. I wonder how visual this process is going to be, and what kind of “trouble” I as a blind actor will come across.

Last week, we focused pretty much on the music… in itself a beast of a task as Kurt Weill does not make it easy for anyone. This week, we knuckle down into the acting, so all things will be revealed in good time…

For info on the show, and to see some publicity shots visit:

http://graeaetheatrecompany.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/573/

http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

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