PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 8, The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Chris: Hello and welcome to the PMA Podcast. This is episode number eight. I’m your host, Christopher Christensen, and today we are discussing Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. It’s the opening play of the, uh, Fall 2017 here at the Schwartz Center, and, uh, it’s running September 21 to 23. Today I’m joined by director Beth Milles. Beth, welcome to the show.

Beth: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Uh, things are a little different today. Normally we’re in a studio, but today we’re hanging out in the first balcony of the Kip overlooking the stage and, uh, there are people working around us as we speak. Uh, play opens this Thursday. How are you feeling?

Beth: I feel good. It’s fun to be in the theatre. It’s very much in the style of Brecht to watch the work going on as we’re talking about the play.

Chris: Fantastic. Uh, since we’re sitting here and we’re looking at the stage, you want to tell us a little bit about it?

Beth: So The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play that Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1944. He wrote it in America while he was in exile from Hitler’s Germany. Um, and it’s an adaptation of a Chinese parable, a folktale, and our Caucasian Chalk Circle is a production of Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is an ensemble-based piece. We have 12 actors, and they are performing this play-within-a-play about goodness, I think, in contemporary society. It’s an incredibly timely play, as all Brecht’s work seems incredibly timely. I’ve been saying this a lot this week.

Chris: [Laughs] Okay.

Beth: Um, he was responding to challenges in society against government, against corruption, totalitarianism, fascism. All kinds of, um, ills in society where the needs of individuals were often ignored by the people who were in power to make decisions.

Chris: Okay. Any struggles? Any challenges in doing this play so far?

Beth: In making it? It’s huge—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] but we’re having an ama—I have a wonderful cast, and we’re having a wonderful time exploring the play. I chose the play, actually, a few years ago I knew I wanted to create this piece here at Cornell, and I had no idea what it would feel like to do it in 2017, and I would say just in the past two weeks alone there’s so much turmoil, sort of inherent—

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: [continued] social-political turmoil both on campus and in our world that it elevates our process working on the play, and it’s become an experience for our students to work through their experience of what it means to come of age in our current society.

Chris: I’m very interested in that. Can you talk more about that?

Beth: Sure. Um, Brecht’s plays—he, uh, encouraged a performance style that always called into attention of the audience the fact that the actors were performers, um, and challenges the modes of relaxed audience.

Chris: Okay.

Beth: Um, and so the students are constantly alive in their work while they’re performing. They never sort of get anesthetized into playing a character.

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: They’re always themselves and the characters, and then, in addition, the play is written as a play-within-a-play: a story about a parable—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] and the parable is used to give a message, but the message, I think, is often up to the audience to interpret.

Chris: Okay. I was gonna wait till later to bring this up, but since you’re almost there do you want to talk about epic theatre now?

Beth: I’ve always been fascinated by Brecht—the style of Brecht’s work. It’s highly controversial. I think every different theatre practitioner who works on a Brecht play has a different version of what epic theatre means—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] or what the style means. So, um, some of the focus of epic theatre would have to be in gestures and physical work that tells a story or betrays a story, but also the thing that I’m talking about which is never hiding the seams of a performance. Not hiding the trappings of a performance. So usually the stage is open, and you can see the workings of making a theatre piece as it’s occurring. I remember growing up in New Haven, uh, it—going to the work at Yale Repertory Theatre in the 70s, and one of my earliest theatre experiences was attending a Brecht play at Yale Repertory Theatre, and an actor entered behind my head, started performing, and it scared me to my core of my being and excited me, and engaged me, and since then I’ve fallen in love with this style which is meant to surprise and incite conversation in an audience and excite it.  

Chris: Have you done anything like this in the past here at the Schwartz Center?

Beth: Probably everything.

Chris: Everything? Okay.

Beth: As a director, I mean—as a director I’m always interested in the edges of what is expected—

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: [continued] for an audience, and I think engaging the audience to be part of the action is something that I’ve always been fascinated with and by in my work, um, but I haven’t had the opportunity to make a Brecht play here—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] and, um, as I said, again, the work and the style of the work, the work of his company—the Berliner Ensemble—the work of epic theatre, all the work associated with making a play that he has written is exciting, but to do that work with our students right now in the society we live in—

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: [continued] um, which can be challenging and stressful for our students is challenging and stressful. Again, as I said, this week there were two or three uncomfortable, unbearable events on campus.

Chris: Mhm, yeah.

Beth: Um, we are all struggling to make sense of these events, and so to be able to make a theatre piece about social change while this is going on, um, is a privilege, a gift, and very necessary right now.

Chris: Has there been discussion—open discussion—

Beth: Every day.

Chris: [continued] regarding those situations?

Beth: Every day.

Chris: Yeah?

Beth: Every day. I have very, um, aware, conscious, woken up, uh, smart, talented students who want to engage as human beings in society as well as make art—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] and they, um, I think lead these discussions. I’m always interested in encouraging students to come forward with how they feel, and what they’re interested in, and what they think is going on in a scene, and so that kind of spirit of collaboration has led the way in this work.

Chris: Who are you hoping to be the audience? Who are you hoping to draw in?

Beth: Ithacans.

Chris: Ithacans?

Beth: [Laughs].

Chris: Just Ithacans?

Beth: Yeah.

Chris: Okay.

Beth: I think that one of the bigger questions for all of us right now is what is the role of live theatre in our lives, and I—I returned last year after two years away. I lived in New Haven and I worked at the Long Wharf Theater, and it was an incredible experience. I was the Education Director, and um, I got to ponder the role of regional theaters and theaters in society often and firsthand. Ithaca is such a vibrant community of sensitive, smart, good people, um, but we’re all very busy, and our lives don’t always lend themselves to the attendance of live events anymore.

Chris: Mhm. Mhm.

Beth: We’re all very busy and our lives are different.

Chris: And this town has a lot going on.

Beth: Um, I guess part of—I haven’t directed in a large space in several years. I, uh, wanted to come back into the big space to have a bigger conversation and to remind everyone that we’re still here making work—

Chris: Mhm. Yeah, absolutely.

Beth: [continued] and that the work is vibrant and our students are smart and passionate and, um, explorational, and so I’m hoping that the audience—Ithacans—not solely Cornellians—

Chris: [Laughs].

Beth: [continued] not solely adults, not solely kids, but I hope everyone comes because the play is intended to engage the audience, um, in the questions of society at large.

Chris: Okay. Music plays a big role in this play, yes?

Beth: Yeah, so Brecht was a poet before he became a playwright. He was a dramaturg—he was many, many things. Um, but the play is interspersed with narration. There’s a narrator in The Caucasian Chalk Circle who sings, and tells the story, and comments on the story. We have presented this collaboratively. I tried to engage all 12 of our actors in sharing the storytelling part of our play, but uh, the music was composed anew by a longtime collaborator of mine—the composer Lewis Flynn from New York. He has done some work with me here before at Cornell.

Chris: Okay.

Beth: Um, but it’s kind of striking that the narration, though unsentimental or intended to be unsentimentalized in its performance, is very beautiful too. So that interspersion and that challenge, uh, or that inconsistency is very much a part of the intention of the work. There are these beautiful, um, swaths of narration or sung-through narration interspersed with scenes that could be horrifying, or surprising, or shocking, um, in the way that daily life can be horrifying or shocking at times.

Chris: Okay. Shall we listen to some sound clips?

Beth: Yeah! Definitely.

Chris: Okay. Uh, which one do you want to start with?

Beth: So, um, I think that you have several narrations here so let’s play “Those in the Center Come Home.”

Chris: Okay.

[Slow, melancholy piano music begins]

Lewis: [Singing]. As she sat by the stream to wash the linen she saw his image in the water, and his face grew dimmer.

Beth: And I should say that this is our composer singing in a demo all the voices.

Lewis: [continued, harmonizing with himself] as the months passed by.

Beth: He has sent this to us to learn.

Lewis: As she raised herself to ring the linen, she heard his voice from

Beth: Uh, and the music is played by our cast

Lewis: [continued] the murmuring maple

Beth: [continued] and sung by our cast.

Chris: Oh wow, so a very multi-talented cast.

Lewis: [continued] and his voice grew thinner

Beth: Yeah.

Chris: Oh, fantastic.

Lewis: [continued, harmonizing with himself] as the months passed by. Excuses and sighs grew more numerous

Beth: So these narrations intersperse the scenes and help to tell the story in a different way

Lewis: [continued] tears and sweat flowed faster

Beth: [continued] after a scene has landed

Lewis: [continued] as the months passed by. [Harmonizing with himself] as the child grew up.

Beth: [continued] and let the music progress.

Lewis: The child grew up.

[The piano music ends]

Chris: And I may have just played those in reverse order.

Beth: That’s okay.

[Upbeat piano chords begin]

Lewis: [Singing] The sister was too ill. The cowardly brother had to give her shelter. The autumn passed. The winter came. The winter was long. The winter was short. The people mustn’t know. The rats mustn’t bite. And springtime mustn’t come.

[The piano takes on a more melancholy tone]

Lewis: [Singing] Then the lover started to leave. Then his girl ran pleading after him. [Harmonizing with himself] Dearest mine, dearest mine. As you now go into battle, as you now have to fight the enemy. Don’t throw yourself in the front line. Don’t push behind with the rear line. In front is red fire. In rear is red smoke. Stay wisely between. Keep near the flag. The first ones always die. The last ones are hit. Those in the center come home. Those in the center come home.

Beth: So those narrations are intended to tell the story in a different way. You’ll hear that the lyrics are, um, very spare.

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: Um, and, uh, I was thinking when I was listening to it about this term—the term theatricality, that I think Brecht’s work is highly theatrical but not theatrical in the way that we would expect in a Broadway musical—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] where everything is, um, about lights, and sound, and set, and everything, and beautiful effects. This is meant not to, as I said before, not to hide the trappings of making a theatre, and theatricality is a body on stage, text, music, all those elements and how they come to play simultaneously. And so they’re very spare interpretations. A lot of the music is a capella. Sometimes it’s accompanied by snapping, or someone tapping on a can, or an actor just playing single chords on a piano. Um, but it’s meant to tell the story in a different way for a second, let us let go of what we’ve just seen and hear the story we've just witnessed in another—it breaks every rule actually [laughs]—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] of narration in the fa—in the way that you can sort of watch a scene and then it gets recapped, or the scene is introduced and then we see it, as opposed to letting the theatrical device of sort of a climax and then an event happen.

Chris: Okay. And then the other two we have are more traditional songs? Yes?

Beth: Um, no.

Chris: Or not traditional necessarily?

Beth: So, so uh, the story is broken into two parts. Uh, the first part is Grusha’s story. Grusha is a woman who works in the palace of the Governor Abashwili, and she takes Michael, the Governor’s Wife’s child—the Governor’s child—after riots have broken out because people just leave him everywhere, and she takes him and cares for him, and the second part of the story is the judge who tries the case—many cases—but the judge Azdak who ends up judging, um, her trial at the end of the play, and so it’s broken into two parts, not to give it all away—

Chris: Okay, yeah.

Beth: [continued] but I don’t think Brecht would mind [laughs]. Um, and uh, Azdak is one of the famous, iconic sort of theatre characters: the judge who is corrupt, or is he corrupt? Maybe he’s good. We don’t know. I think Brecht wants to always call these things into question and have the audience make their own decisions about it, but the tension of not knowing that creates the second part of the play. So this is one of his songs.

Chris: Okay.

[Jaunty piano music plays accompanied by finger snapping]

Lewis: [Singing] Sister, hide your face. Hide it! Brother take your knife. Take it! The times are out of joint. Yes they are. The noblemen are full of complaints. Why me? While the simple folk are full of joy. Woo! The city says let’s drive the strong ones from our midst. Storm the government, destroy the list of serfs. Tear it up! The masters are harnessed to the millstones. Those who never have seen the daylight come out. [Harmonizing with himself] Where are you general? Please, please, please. Please, please, please, please, please restore order. Order. Restore order. Order. Restore order.

[A loud note from the piano ends the song]

Beth: Okay.

Chris: [Laughs].

Beth: I guess I want to question back that word traditional.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely.

Beth: So this idea—I don’t think there is anything that is traditional—

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: [continued] or perhaps Brecht is utilizing all these traditions that we think are traditional and spinning them around and turning them on their head. It’s well known that actors often speak songs in Brecht. They don’t always sing them. Um, it’s more like a cabaret style of performance.

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: And, uh, that’s again meant to challenge the smoothness of how we want it to just be smooth and theatrical and have a good experience and let ourselves just sail away on the feelings that we would feel, um, from listening to someone sing in contemporary music, but, uh, that’s not what he’s doing.

Chris: Okay. Curious. Uh, these sound clips that we’re hearing now, are they actually going to be sound cues from the play—

Beth: No.

Chris: [continued] or will the cast actually be performing these?

Beth: Yeah. There’s no—there are no—

Chris: They’re all performed.

Beth: [continued] sound cues—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] like that in the play.

Chris: Okay. Alright.

Beth: Yeah.

Chris: And we have one last one.

Beth: Yeah, you have the other Azdak song.

Chris: Okay. Do you want to introduce it or just jump right in?

Beth: No, just play.

Chris: Okay.

[Piano music accompanied by snapping]

Lewis: [Singing] The offices are jammed, the officials are working in the streets. Working in the streets. The rivers overflow their banks and lay waste the fields. Lay waste the fields. Men who can’t take their own pants down are ruling countries. They rule countries. They can’t help the poor, but they eat eight courses. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. The farmers look ‘round for buyers but see only the starving. The starving! The weavers go home from their looms in rags. In rags! Is that right? Is that right? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes that’s right. [Harmonizing with himself] That’s why our sons bleed no longer. Our daughters weep no more. That’s why only the calves in the slaughterhouse have blood and the willows in the morning on Lake Urmi have any tears.

Beth: Right, and so the scene—Azdak’s first scene—scene five in our play, the beginning of Act II, is a lot of cases and a lot of beheadings, and a lot of things happen that are quite violent, and all of the sudden this song occurs in the middle of it, and the songs are about the ills of society, or about trying to help one another, or about what’s wrong, and yet it’s performed in such a surprising manner that it feels like it’s about something completely different

Chris: Okay.

Beth: Yeah.

Chris: Well we know who you want to come in. We know it’s Ithacans. What do you hope is the takeaway from this play when people walk out the door?

Beth: Well, I hope that people have a great time—

Chris: Okay.

Beth: [continued] engaging in the play.

Chris: Mhm.

Beth: [continued] and watching the sort of epic expanse of this story, but um, I hope they come back and see another play here.

Chris: Okay.

Beth: I think that that’s what I—I want people to either want to read more about Brecht, want to come back and see another play here, or send me an e-mail about what just happened [laughs].

Chris: Okay, fantastic. Well, Beth, thank you so much for being here on the podcast.

Beth: Thank you, Chris. It was my pleasure.

Chris: Okay, absolutely.

Beth: Thanks.

Chris: Thanks for listening to the PMA podcast. Performances of The Caucasian Chalk Circle are in the Schwartz Center’s Kiplinger Theatre, September 21, 22, and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and September 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at or at the Schwartz Center Box Office located at 430 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York.