The Johnny Depp Effect: Using Contemporary Film to Teach Brechtian Concepts

By Tweddle, Bronwyn | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Johnny Depp Effect: Using Contemporary Film to Teach Brechtian Concepts


Tweddle, Bronwyn, Australasian Drama Studies


As a central figure in twentieth-century theatre, Bertolt Brecht is included on most university Theatre Studies curricula. The underlying principle of the Theatre programme I work in at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, is a strong emphasis on the links between history, theory and practice. However, because of the number of competing topics which could be considered essential learning for Theatre students, the amount of time that can be allocated to each is limited. The context in which I currently teach Brecht presents a number of challenges: ideally, students should not only be able to read Brecht' s plays and understand their background and structure, but also be able to apply his ideas in a practical context. Brecht may be covered in numerous optional courses, yet the only time the students are guaranteed to encounter him is in a compulsory second-year Dramatic Literature overview course. In it, Brecht is allocated only three lectures and an active tutorial, which is structured to encourage experimentation with Brechtian techniques.

The limited time and the compulsory attendance requirement mean that the methods I choose to teach Brecht must be efficient. First, not all students are motivated about learning the material, so it must be presented in a way that captures their interest and seems relevant to them. Only four hours of class time on this complex topic means that a key goal of my teaching is encouraging them to continue their thinking and learning outside the formal classes and to explore Brecht further in practical projects. Second, ideas must be presented with clarity to allow students to differentiate the many theatre movements they encounter during the course. Third, students may bring certain common preconceptions about Brecht from their prior learning, which need to be overcome before they can apply his ideas. In addition, due to the size and composition of Wellington's theatre industry, my students rarely have the opportunity to see productions of Brecht' s plays, or plays using Brechtian techniques, even if they are regular theatre-goers, so the audio-visual materials I present must be memorable.

My strategy for teaching Brecht in a fast but appealing way is to use examples from contemporary films to illustrate aspects of Brecht' s famous Verfremdungseffekt - Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Sweeney Todd (2007), starring Johnny Depp; Matthew Vaughan's Layer Cake (2004), starring Daniel Craig; and Stephen Frears' High Fidelity (2000), starring John Cusack. This bundle of techniques aims for a 'making strange' of the familiar, causing us to question things that we take for granted by making them appear as 'unnatural'. Sometimes translated as a 'distancing effect', it allows us to see behaviours as being shaped by social class, economic factors, ethnicity and cultural preferences. Encouraging students to read films they have seen elsewhere in a new light, by 'making them strange', engages them with the V-effekt. While these films are not Brechtian in their over-arching dramaturgy, using moments from them to illuminate Brechtian ideas arouses students' interest in a way that the more 'authentic' films from Brecht' s Berliner Ensemble (BE) do not, and it opens up a dialogue about what 'Brechtian' performance is. This is not 'dumbing down' the material by drawing on popular culture, but simply using what appeals to students to serve their learning.

This article focuses on a specific student group: New Zealand undergraduates in a large, compulsory second-year course. I do not critique Brecht' s ideas hexe per se, but simply demonstrate that how I present them at an introductory level aims to arouse enough interest that the critique of his work can begin. Evidence for the effectiveness of my approach is based on verbal feedback from students and close observation of their behaviour in lectures and tutorials. Having taught this course for nine years, I have been able to observe the emergence of consistent patterns in attitudes to the material across this level of students, and hope that my discoveries will prove useful for those facing similar constraints. …

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