A live band onstage, a non-existent fourth wall, and necessary audience interpretation of Cordwainer Productions’ American Idiot, helped make this production more than just entertainment, but rather epic theatre.
Co- directed by Dane Shumack and Jamie Schaffel, this energy-fueled rock opera was originally released in 2010 and follows the lives of three Americans’ coming of age and teenage angst.
The production includes every song from Green Day’s album American Idiot, and a few from their subsequent album, 21st Century Breakdown.
The action is non-linear, but explores very real and familiar themes that many young people face as they come of age. The show has limited dialogue and no intermissions, leaving the audience to interpret the action on stage for themselves. Not only this, the production featured a band on-stage, completely visible to the audience.
These theatre and anti-illusion techniques are typical of German playwright Bertolt Brecht and what is called epic theatre. Bertolt Brecht’s theory on theatre in the 20th century turned the theatre world on its head. Previously dominated by Konstantin Stanislavsky’s realist and naturalist theatre techniques, Brecht’s epic theatre worked against the normality of the time during the early 20th century.
Naturalism works to recreate the lived experience of the audience to create a portrait of reality. On the other hand, epic theatre works to provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on-stage and one’s own society. As Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And it did this primarily through storytelling, said Trent Professor Emeritus, Ian McLachlan.
“The primary difference is in the importance given to the idea of a story. It’s primarily storytelling theatre.
Everything about epic theatre is to focus attention on the story rather than the illusion of reality created on stage,” McLachlan said. Watching Cordwainer’s American Idiot, I didn’t get too emotionally caught up in the characters on stage, but rather thought about how real and close to home some of the issues were.
Certainly, some of the techniques used screamed Brecht, but it wasn’t inherently intentional, said Director Dane Shumak. “I usually actually reject Brecht but we followed the script in terms of audience addresses and the like, which gave it that kind of feeling – we fought against it via additions of catharsis through choreography, etc. Often, I seek to do the opposite – as opposed to alienate, to include.
When I break the fourth wall, in most productions, it’s to include the audience rather than to recognize the unreality of the piece. But the script was written in an inherently Brechtian way,” said Shumak.
Indeed, from the opening song, the whole cast jumped into action to deliver a methodically choreographed scene. Not only a visual spectacle, it opened the show by setting the scene within a punk-rock subculture.
The whole cast sang and dance with brilliant energy during this scene, which translated into reaching out and grabbing the attention of the audience.
The choreography, although excellently performed by the entire cast, did not add to the story and does not typically appear in epic theatre.
However, the choreography was an excellent anti-illusion technique, which helped the audience stay grounded in the idea that they were watching a performance rather than getting sucked into the portrait of reality.
This was also, as Shumak called it, “a pull from the closet kind of production,” as most of the cast’s costumes came from their own wardrobe.
Nonetheless, you felt emerged in the punk-rock subculture with the constant tears, plaid patterns, jeans and jean jackets, and sewed-in patches. Taking what they had and using them certainly did the job, a common theatre technique used in epic theatre as McLachlan explains.
“Only have the type of clothes people live in, not live with…. If you’re going to have clothes (in epic theatre), have clothes that are worn like real people wear their clothes,” McLachlan said. The most unique and most arguably Brechtian element of the entire show was the band playing in complete view of the audience behind the action of the actors.
Most stages have a music pit for the orchestra or accompanying music to play in. The pit is typically below and in front of the stage. However, for American Idiot, the band was on-stage behind the actors, providing a rock show at the same time as a well-choreographed musical.
Epic theatre strictly separates music from the action and makes the songs unique from the original. American Idiot did this and more as the story itself was lead through the music, leaving the audience to interpret the action for themselves.
The end result was a brilliantly told story through the performances of the entire cast and band members, and a modern day
example of epic theatre.