by Chloe Ekker

Pirate Jenny's Circus (photo by Andrew Alexander)
Bronwyn Steinberg says, while growing up, she was taught the importance of education and of the role of theatre in conveying messages.  This has become the mandate of her newly-formed Counterpoint Players and its first play, Pirate Jenny’s Circus.  And , boy, never has learning theatre theory been so fun!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bronwyn thoroughly studied Bertolt Brecht, the inspiration for the new tragic-comedy-musical… extravaganza!  Bronwyn says she got the idea for the play after she participated in The Ark, a three week program during which they studied an era in theatre history… it happened to be Brecht! “I discovered in reading and actually getting to know his works, and not just his theories, that Brecht is so much fun,” she says.

For all of you out there who, like me, have very basic knowledge in theatre theories here’s a crash course on Brecht.  Pronounced “brecked” (“bresh-t” pour les Francophones) the playwright, poet and director was born in 1898 in Augsburg, Germany.

“His main goal was to make the audience think and to make political statements,” explains Bronwyn.  In this play about artists trying to make their place in the business, the main question, says Bronwyn, is whether someone can succeed in a world where they can’t fit in.

Brecht also believed in not letting “the audience get tied up in watching a story and feeling all wrapped up in a fairy tale,” Bronwyn adds.   Yes, the concept does seem a little bizarre for a festival titled Once Upon a Fringe.  “I think that gives us a little more of an edge,” she says.  “We’re part of this theme but we’re also critiquing it, which is also Brechtian in its own way.”

The cast also had their share of homework to do.  Bronwyn assigned them all Brecht plays to read and, in six weeks, they helped collectively write the play.  “Some of the weekends within those weeks we were together the whole time,” she says.  They even went on fieldtrips!  “We actually went out of town to my family’s house in the mountains so that I could get everybody away from their lives and they could think about the show for three days.”

Bronwyn says she doesn’t consider herself a playwright.  “I don’t know where I would have gone if I sat down just as a playwright and tried to write.”  On the other hand, she says guiding the creation process came naturally to her.  “This show would have definitely never happened out of just my brain – it came from the collective brain.”  Yet another very Brechtian thought.

Now, don’t think the play is a lecture on Brechtian theories.  “It’s a fun story!” says Bronwyn. “Who doesn’t want to know what happens to circus performers who become pirates and then sing a bunch of goofy songs and do some great choreography,” she asks with almost an “arr matey” kind of accent.

But ye be warned!  You will have to participate.  In the end, Jenny turns to the crowd and asks them to decide her fate with a vote.  Breaking the fourth wall, explains Bronwyn, is only one example of Brecht’s influence on the play.

“We had actually scheduled a TBA rehearsal for half way through in case the audience chose the same thing three times in a row,” says Bronwyn.  But, so far, it’s been a tie between the two possible endings.  “I was so excited about it.”

The audience is usually afraid to participate, says Bronwyn.  We forget how fun it was to yell out “he’s behind you! Look behind you!” when the bad guy sneaks up on the good guy.  We also learn audience behaviour, she says.  “We learn that all we’re allowed to do is laugh or clap.  I wanted to challenge that.”

And for those who can’t make up their minds, here’s a tip: “We’ve been toying with the idea of doing both endings on our last show on Sunday,” says Bronwyn.  But that wouldn’t follow Brecht’s philosophy and he might not be very happy with that.  So it isn’t a 100 per cent sure yet.

Bronwyn says her team has grown a lot as artists by putting into practice and experimenting with what they’ve learnt about Brecht’s theories.  “That’s already a huge victory,” she says.

And if the audience knows absolutely nothing about theatre theory Bronwyn hopes they will still be asking themselves questions like “Why didn’t they have a proper ending?  Why did they make me chose? What does that really mean? What does that mean – for artists who are on the fringe, who can’t quite survive in a dominant culture?”

Bronwyn Steinberg’s Pirate Jenny’s Circus has its final performance on Sunday June 28 at 2:30 pm in Venue #1 – Alumni Auditorium.