by ED RAMPELL
[dropcap]Before[/dropcap] the curtain lifts on live stage productions in Los Angeles, thesps sometimes deliver a garden variety of announcements: Locations of fire exits; pleas for donations; requests to turn electronic devices off; and the like. But along with these mundane verbal notifications, William Missouri Downs’ The Exit Interview (An Existential Comedy) includes a not-so-run-of-the-mill “warning label” (as director Sirena Irwin calls it), enthusiastically vocalized by members of the Buzzworks Theater Company costumed as over-the-hill cheerleaders:
“This play contains Brechtian alienation devices.”
During the two-acter, which also contains madcap merriment and music, the cast explains what Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdungseffekt: the “alienation effect” that is a hallmark of the stage techniques of the revolutionary German playwright who wrote The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage (arguably the greatest antiwar play ever). During Exit there are numerous other references to Brecht and his theatrical modus operandi, which heavily influenced 20th century theatre. Speaking with Downs, he adds that Exit is “one of the few plays out there that has a lot of fun with Bertolt Brecht; in fact, it’s the only one.”
So why is Buzzworks Theater Company staging this production? Are Exit’s cast and creative crew casting aspersions on Brecht? Making fun of the leftist dramatist? Parodying the Marxist maestro and his methodology? Are the Buzzworkers buzzing Brecht?
Going For Brecht + +
To find out what Exit’s intentions are, I interviewed the play’s dramatist, reached by phone at his Wyoming home. Asked if Exit was ridiculing or upholding Brecht’s “alienation effect,” William Missouri Downs (who has the Brechtian initials of WMD!) responds: “I’m supporting it,” albeit “in a very comical way… I’m taking his ideas to a new comic level. I think I do it with great respect; I’m not mocking him.”
Exit’s director — Portland, Oregon-born Sirena Irwin — echoes the playwright’s sentiments: “Oh, I don’t think anyone is mocking Brecht… This script is not about mocking Brecht, it’s about supporting the ideas he was exploring.”
Downs studied Bertolt Brecht at grad school: the University of Illinois and UCLA.
“Of course, Brecht is always taught by PhDs, and I don’t mean to insult them, but to intellectualize Bertolt Brecht does not help you to stage him… Then I’d watch plays by Brecht… and they’d over-intellectualize what Brecht was trying to do and of course it failed. When you over-intellectualize the staging of a play it fails… One day I just got this idea of having a great deal of fun with Brecht.”
Not accidentally, Exit’s protagonist, Dick Fig (Davey Johnson), is an academic and Brecht scholar who has been sacked and is undergoing the eponymous exit interview which college administrator Eunice (Catie LeOrisa) is giving him as a school shooting erupts on campus.
Irwin also studied Brecht when attending San Francisco State, majoring in international relations and theatre. She declares, “the entire play is a Brechtian exercise.”
Indeed, the alienation effect appears several times throughout the Exit experience. Before the house opens, Exit sneakily leaves the Lounge Theatre’s dressing room door open, which subverts naturalism by clearly showing actors preparing to play parts in a play, thereby, Irwin says, “exposing the artifice of theatre.” In addition, the masked gunman (Ryan Phillips) hangs out in the Lounge’s lobby while, before he treads on the boards, a mascot (Rich Hutchman in a rodent’s costume) carrying an illuminated sign stalks potential ticket buyers on the sidewalk outside the playhouse on Santa Monica Boulevard. There is also a scene wherein a stage manager-type character (which has sometimes been played by Downs himself when he’s been present at other productions) announces “rewrites” for the play, which actors must “learn” onstage.
Thus, “this whole play begins by engaging and exposing what is at work,” relates Irwin.
And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor: Defining Brecht’s Alienation Effect + +
Harkening back to undergraduate days, Iowa City-born Downs recalled “lectures on Brecht and what ‘alienation’ is. It didn’t make a lick of sense to me until I started studying it myself, and when I did I went, ‘Oh, this is so simple — it’s not a highly intellectual concept.’” So what exactly is this estrangement device and its purpose?
According to Alistair Hunter, artistic director of the Other Theatre Company, “Brecht wanted to change the audience’s experience in the theatre… He very much wanted audiences to know they were in a theatre and that these were actors playing parts. He wanted a non-Aristotelian drama.” He refers to the structure the Greek philosopher set forth in Poetics, wherein Aristotle espoused what has come to be known as the “classical unities” of time, place and action.
“The Epic Theatre approach included a montage, a series of sequences, a fragmentation, contrasts, contradictions and interruptions,” explains Hunter. “Brecht didn’t want audiences to be caught up in the emotion of the characters in the traditional sense… but be able to have some self-reflection and a critical view of what’s going on onstage.”
Hunter also explains that Brecht theorized that “the catharsis that happened in a traditional theatre experience left the audience complacent. Brecht wanted his audiences to have a critical perspective in order to recognize social injustice and exploitation, so he moved them back and forth from the theatre to the world outside, and he used various techniques to remind the spectator that this is a representation of reality, not reality itself.
Brecht’s subversive end goal in deploying the alienation effect was, by making audiences focus on the plot and characters, to create a Lehrstück, or “learning play.” Through this device, viewers are encouraged not to be passive spectators but rather actors who act to change the world.
For Downs, Exit is a Lehrstück pondering existentialism, religion and — specifically, through the overzealous character of Eunice — the self-help bestseller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. And with Wayne Wilderson’s newscaster, Downs also lampoons FOX News.
Towards an Unsafe Theatre: Farcical Realism + +
According to Downs, about a quarter century ago, after realizing he was “a very bad actor,” he started writing plays.
“Then I got tired of writing plays and earning no money, so I applied to UCLA film school, got in, got an MFA in screenwriting, sold a couple of movies that were never made and wrote some bad television shows”— including the late ’80s/’90s sitcoms My Two Dads with Paul Reiser, Amen with Sherman Hemsley and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith.
Disillusionment with Tinseltown led Downs to eventually return to the legiti stage, where he’s now written 25 plays, and had over 150 productions.
“I go back to television now and then when I can, but my heart is in the theatre.” Downs’ plays have been produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, Washington’s Kennedy Center and regional theatres. His newest work, How to Steal a Picasso, opens at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre in early 2016 and he’s directing the Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of Stupid Fucking Bird in the spring.
Downs contends, “Theatre has got to reassert itself as theatre. So many plays I see are just straight plays, sitcoms on the stage… People like safety. Well, the theatre should be a place that isn’t safe. And that’s certainly what Bertolt Brecht believed. It shouldn’t be safe — you should be thinking, not drawn into it to the point where you forget yourself, but [are] thinking about it afterwards. When was the last time you went to see a Batman or 007 movie and had to go to a bar afterwards and sit down talk about it: what did it mean? And the theatre too often today is the exact same way.”
He may have coined a term for the type of play Exit is, saying, “I’m writing ‘Farcical Realism’ — realism with a little philosophy stuck in.” He describes himself philosophically as “a deist and Epicurean,” and acknowledges, “I’ve received flack because of [Exit’s] subject matter — and here it is, a comedy. But the vast majority of people immediately get it. I’m not trying to laugh at school shootings, I’m using it as a catalyst to force the seriousness and the comedy of the play.”
Irwin points out that “Brecht was very politically engaged and many of his plays dealt with what happens, what surrounds, war. This piece is about a very upsetting element in our culture… and how we can try to get to a place where this isn’t happening.”
In 2013, through the National New Play Network, The Exit Interview had a rolling premiere at six Equity houses (including San Diego Repertory Theatre) and was published by Samuel French. It is currently on the boards at Lounge Theatre 1 at Theatre Row in Hollywood. Downs says he expected Exit to be a flop of epic proportions but, it has turned out to be his second most produced play.
Sounds like the perfect Brechtian denouement.
NOW PLAYING: THE EXIT INTERVIEW, through November 15 at the Lounge Theatre.
Bertolt Brecht scholar Dick Fig has been terminated by his university and is having an excruciating exit interview with Eunice – a decidedly droll administrator. Downs’ witty play ricochets through Brechtian interludes, a pair of politically-radicalized cheerleaders, a pompous newsman, communiques from God, and debates on religion, science and politics before reaching its surprising conclusion.