By Janelle Fisher
On Friday, Nov. 4, students in the theater program at St. Norbert College (SNC) will take the stage for their production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.
April Beiswinger, associate professor of theater, scenographer and director of theater studies, said the play, which is a retelling of a Chinese folktale blended with the biblical story of Solomon, utilizes several artistic elements to prompt its audience to consider a wide array of issues.
“It is about what we sacrifice to care for something that’s greater than ourselves, and it’s about migrant stories. It’s about justice,” she said. “This play is beautiful, it’s poetic, there’s music, there’s dance in it, there is poetry and it gives us beautiful lessons about life.”
Beiswinger said this play embodies a common theme among Brecht’s plays of audience engagement.
“In this play, Brecht is talking directly to the audience,” she said. “It’s this particular type of theater that Brecht wrote using what he called the alienation effect, or the Verfremdungseffekt. And so, what he was doing was watching audiences in traditional theaters in the early 20th century and they would just come in, they would sit in the audience and be entertained — they became passive receivers of what was going on on stage. And Brecht didn’t like that. I don’t like that. I want my audience to be present when they’re watching our shows. I want them to really be there.”
An all-around challenging show
Beiswinger said Brecht’s style of writing to involve the audience and provide a sort of social commentary checked off two of the major criteria she and the other faculty of the theater department use to select shows.
“When we choose shows, we try to choose something that will challenge our students and our audience and that says something about the world we reside in,” she said. “We decided to do Caucasian Chalk Circle because it just kind of fit all of our requirements.”
To challenge the students involved, Beiswinger said, this play pulls together and expands on several theatrical elements which the department has touched on in past shows.
“We’ve never done a Brecht show before, so that was a new thing for us, but we’ve had bits and pieces because it’s the type of theater I like to do,” she said. “We also have a student composer working on the music, which is something we’ve never had before. We’ve done a little bit of musicals in the department, but never like this. There’s also bits and pieces of moving scenery. So it’s all of the types of theater we’ve done, just put together in a different form.”
Beiswinger said that on top of performing in the show, students fill out many of the technical roles associated with putting on a production as well.
“We’re a small program, so our students work on everything,” she said. “We have a student assistant lighting designer, the cast is entirely students from first years on up to seniors, we have student stage managers and assistant stage managers and I have a student graphic designer who’s doing the poster for us. We have a class that goes with the show, and if they’re in that class then they also build the set and paint and help with costumes. And we just hung lights this past weekend, so the students were there for that. We have moving platforms in the show and they’re learning how to do that.”
Having students so involved in the whole production, Beiswinger said, has many benefits outside of just the show itself.
“Our productions are steeped in student life,” she said. “And it’s wonderful because they kind of learn from each other and they work as a team and they see what is possible as they move through St. Norbert.”
In addition to challenging the students involved, Beiswinger said this show also challenges its audience.
“Audiences are kind of used to this type of theater — theater that comments back at them — but we’ve never done anything that is this concentrated on that,” she said. “It’s the same thing we see in audiences today that is sort of what happened in Brecht’s day. You just come in and want to be entertained, and that’s perfectly legitimate. We generally don’t need a lesson yelled at us 24/7. But sometimes we need to be aware of something different. And that’s what this show will give you.”
Rediscovering the joy of theater
Beiswinger said her favorite thing about being a part of this show has been watching the students involved rediscover their love of theater after COVID-19 kept them off the stage.
“It’s gonna sound weird, but we kind of forgot how to do theater as a group because of COVID,” she said. “COVID had a big effect on the ideas of what theater is and how we do theater. We’re getting us and the students back into that groove of ‘oh, this is what theater is,’ and ‘oh, I like doing theater.’”
Witnessing those realizations, Beiswinger said, is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.
“Being a teacher in the theater profession, it’s always amazing watching the students make a show their own,” she said. “Watching them take the project that starts as ours and making it their own, it’s the best part of my job — watching the students understand why we do theater and how we do theater and what an amazing gift it is to be able to tell stories to an audience. It always comes at weird times in our process for whatever show we’re doing, but it’s what makes it all worth it.”
Performances will be Nov. 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. with a special performance followed by a discussion with the cast and crew taking place Saturday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at https://www.snc.edu/performingarts.