Sunday, March 05, 2006

Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage. Posted by Picasa

Last Dance

On a very windy Saturday night, Mother Courage and Her Children was performed for the last time. It started a little late due to the overflow crowd--some 20 people had to be turned away. Every one of the six shows was sold out.

Congratulations to the cast, musicians, crew and staff, and everyone who worked hard to overcome the difficulties of a complex production, and to create a memorable night of theatre.

All of the lyrics that Lila Nelson set to music were Brecht's (as translated into English by British playwright David Hare), except for the song that closed each night's performance, sung by Lila and the assembled cast. This was Lila's original song, expressing the feelings of the cast and the production as their response to the play. Here are the lyrics to that song (courtesy of Lila Nelson):

Let Us Be Done

Big guns only speak one tongue
"The devil's among us, the old and the young"
Religion waits at the end of a spear
And satiates a God-loving fear

One day
One day we'll be done
Let us
Let us be done

Here's a story we keep tellin'
You keep buyin'; we keep sellin'
At the end there's an empty shell
Nothing to buy; nothing to buy and nothing to sell.

Let us
Let us
Let us
Help us
Help us

That's us
Let's go
We're all...that's...left...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

“The plays of so socially conscious a playwright as Brecht, who was dedicated to the task of showing his fellow human beings that the world must be changed through social action, also contain powerful poetic metaphors of human emotion. Mother Courage pulling her cart, Grusche in the Caucasian Chalk Circle crossing the swaying bridge over the ravine to save the child…these are poetic images of human resilence, tenderness and sensuality...”

Martin Esslin
An Anatomy of Drama

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mother Courage at HSU Production Reviewed

from Eureka Times Standard review by Betti Trauth:

If you've never experienced a play written by controversial German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, avail yourself of the current, stunningly staged HSU production of one of his most famous: “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

Never one to shy away from a theatrical challenge, HSU's always adventurous director John Heckel took it on. What's more, his cast and crew have come amazingly close to nailing the essence of a genre unique to Brecht.

The complete review is here.

"MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN is coming to be accepted universally as one of the important plays of the last half century.”

Eric Bentley

Bernadette Cheyne Posted by Picasa

Bernadette Cheyne on Playing Mother Courage

Is Mother Courage courageous?

After playing the role for three performances at HSU, Bernadette Cheyne answered:

" I think there are aspects of courage in the character, but there are so many contradictions. She's a fascinating character in that way. One of the things I've really worked for in this role is to embrace her contradictions."

Instead of imposing a single idea, Bernadette decided to play each scene with total commitment to the character of Mother Courage in that specific scene, according to what she says and does, as the character improvises her strategies for survival.

"I want to play her as she is in that scene completely, and let the audience decide how they feel about her. Maybe they'll like her at one point and really hate her at another. Sympathize with her in one scene, and then think she's a complete scumball in another. If that happens, I'll have really done what I intended."

As for the first weekend's performances, Bernadette found that playing the role takes all her energy (she is onstage for every scene) but that at the end she feels "relaxed" rather than completely exhausted.

Playing to capacity houses, she particularly noticed that audiences were getting the humor. "I think that has something to do with the David Hare translation we're using. He brings it out. It's great to hear people laughing at the irony of those lines."

Describing Bernadette Cheyne's "powerhouse performance." Betti Trauth writes in the Eureka Times Standard: "As Courage, Cheyne has both the polished, professional range and artistic depth to handle the portrayal of a woman who is not meant to be a sympathetic character."

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN resumes tonight---Thursday, March 2--at Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus. It will conclude its run on Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

THE COOK: Oh yes, you’re right, no question. I mean, on the surface it may look like an ordinary war, there’s all the usual features, looting and killing and plundering and so on. You even come across an occasional rape. But don’t let that fool you: it’s a religious war.

From Mother Courage and Her Children

Jabari Morgan at rehearsal. photo by Delayne. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 27, 2006

Missy Hopper in rehearsal. photo by Delayne. Posted by Picasa

Brecht is Brechting Out All Over

Interesting when sometimes you become aware of something or become involved in it, and suddenly you see references to it popping out everywhere.

That’s how it’s been with Brecht. For example, the latest issue of American Theatre magazine features an article about the hot trend of sound designers becoming composers for theatre pieces, but not for musicals exactly. More along the lines of plays with music—the chief inspiration noted is Brecht.

Then the back page “20 Questions” interview feature is with actor Tim Robbins, who is also a writer and director and co-founder of the Actors’ Gang, a theatre in Los Angeles. Its latest production is a new adaptation (by Michael Sullivan of the San Francisco Mime Troupe) of Orwell’s 1984. One of the questions is: Who’s your favorite playwright? The answer: Brecht.

Then I finally got around to reading Bob Dylan’s first volume of autobiography, Chronicles. It was completely riveting and revelatory. I tore through it until I was too overwhelmed, then put it down, and soon picked it up and tore through it again, etc. And towards the end of the book but returning to the beginning of his songwriting career, Dylan mentions going to a performance in New York of songs by Kurt Weil and Brecht, for their collaborative theatre pieces. He said he was transformed by the experience, especially by the song “Pirate Jenny,” which he subsequently analyzed to see how it worked. Dylan credits this song and this experience as one of the keys to his songwriting.

As I write this the HSU Accidental Brecht-a-thon is about to begin. The North Coast Prep's Young Actors Guild production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle begins at the Van Duzer theatre on the HSU campus tomorrow. And Mother Courage and Her Children resumes on Thursday at the Gist Hall Theatre, with its final performances on Friday and Saturday. The coincidence of these two productions was not planned, but it's going to be quite a Brechtian week anyway!---BK

Friday, February 24, 2006

In the Media...

Having Courage in the Eureka Reporter

The Accidental Brecht-a-thon in the North Coast Journal

Thursday, February 23, 2006


MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN opens tonight at the Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus at 8 p.m.

The production continues on Friday and Saturday nights, and concludes next Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For ticket details, see the marquee above. For more information on the play and the production, scroll down and enjoy.

Best of luck tonight---or is it break a leg---to everyone involved in the show!

MOTHER COURAGE: To hear them all talk, you’d think these people at the top waged war for the fear of God and in the name of everything that’s fine and noble. But just look into it, you’ll find they’re not that stupid. They’re fighting for money. And just as well. Otherwise the little people like you and me wouldn’t bother to join in.

from Mother Courage and Her Children

Kato Buss rehearsing as the Chaplain. Photo by Delayne. Posted by Picasa

The Chaplain: Kato Buss

Hi. I'm Kato Buss, a second year graduate student in HSU's Theatre Dept. I'm serving as Asst. Director/Dramaturg on Mother Courage in partial fulfillment of my thesis project, and I play the role of the Chaplain.

In preparing for production, I did a massive amount of research on Mother Courage, primarily using Brecht's Model and performance theories. I'm also a Grad. Asst. in the scene shop and played a large part in constructing the set.

However, my most important role maybe that of "cart jockey." While Mother Courage's cart was being made actor-friendly, I was in charge of moving and securing it. I'm happy to report that no actors were harmed during the making of this production.

I am very proud of HSU's production of Mother Courage and wants to thank John, Bernadette, and all the cast and crew for their inspiration, dedication and collaboration.--KATO BUSS

Greag Brown in an off-duty moment as a soldier. Photo by Delayne. Posted by Picasa

Joshua Stanfield Switzer rehearsing as the Cook.
Photo by Delayne. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

SERGEANT: Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? They haven't had a war here for such a long time. Without a good war, where do you get your moral standards from? Everything goes to pot in peacetime…Of course, as with all good things, it’s hard to get a proper war started. Once it starts, of course, there’s no stopping it, thank God.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

John and Lila on Artwaves

Director John Heckel and composer Lila Nelson were just on for the entire half hour of Artwaves on KHSU in Arcata. I thought it was great--entertaining and informative. Plus Lila sang and John got to "act": he read several speeches from the play.

John also talked about Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage, her commitment and energy in the role, and how this set the tone for the rest of the actors in the production.

Lila reminded John that her very first involvement with HSU theatre was writing the music for a production of one of Brecht's first plays, Baal. This was before Lila had even enrolled at HSU. Lila worked on many productions while an HSU student, as an actor and musician as well as on production crews. She graduated last year.

John recounted a visit to the Berliner Ensemble theatre in Berlin, where he saw Brecht's office and sat on his couch. He called this place one of the great shrines of world theatre.

John Heckel also revealed that this is likely to be his next to last production at HSU, and spoke of Mother Courage and Her Children as the latest in a series of major productions he's done in Gist, which included both parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America and two major plays by the Canadian First Nations author (referred to here down south as Native Americans), Tomson Highway.

If you heard the interview, either on the radio or over the net, what was your response?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lila Nelson  Posted by Picasa

Lila Nelson on Mother Courage

HSU's Mother Courage and Her Children composer Lila Nelson and director John Heckel can be heard on KHSU-FM at 1:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 21, interviewed by Wendy Butler on Artwaves.

The North Coast Journal's Bob Doran interviews Lila Nelson about composing for Mother Courage and Her Children on his Humblog.

Did you write songs (with lyrics) for the show or was it more like musical settings for Brecht's words?

I took the lyrics directly from the script, created melodies for the songs, provided some phrasing direction and created "musical settings" - I like that - for the pieces. And wrote a song for the finale.

Will you be performing as part of the production?

I play piano in the band. And sing a little at the end. This project has been unique in that I wrote the songs and then handed them off to the actors to sing. I am so used to having my primary instrument be the pencil and then the voice and usually guitar; so the voice becomes very connected with whatever I happen to be playing - guitar, piano. Accompanying the range of voices in the cast is a fun challenge. Piano is not my forte, however it has always served me as a compositional tool — so I stuck with it. Courageous, I know.

Read more here.

Lila Nelson rehearsing musicians for Mother Courage and Her Children at HSU. Photo: Delayne Medoff. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Greta Welsh as Kattrin Posted by Picasa

Selling from her cart to armies on a relentless road in an endless war, Mother Courage bargains for her living and the future of her children. For her, war is not a cause. It’s her customer.

Stephen Godwin (Eilif), Bernadette Cheyne (Mother Courage), Greta Welsh (Kattrin) and James Gibbon ("Swiss Cheese") in HSU production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. HSU Graphic Services photo. Posted by Picasa

With her livelihood at stake, and three grown children to protect, Mother Courage can’t afford false pieties or pretenses, abstractions or illusions. Yet her calculations may be the biggest illusion of all. As the business of war leads inexorably to pervasive ruin, she gets much more than she bargained for.

Mother Courage (Bernadette Cheyne) comforts her daughter, Kattrin (Greta Welsh.) Posted by Picasa

Both tragic and darkly funny, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN is widely considered to be the best play written by Bertolt Brecht, author of The Threepenny Opera, and one of the most controversial and influential playwrights of the twentieth century.

Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage. Photo by Delayne Medoff. Posted by Picasa

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht will be presented at the Gist Hall Theatre at HSU, February 23-25 and March 2-4, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm. This HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance production is directed by John Heckel, featuring Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage, with music composed by North Coast singer-songwriter and recording artist, Lila Nelson.

Lila Nelson leads the band in rehearsal for HSU's MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. Graphic Services photo. Posted by Picasa

“Of traditional tragedy, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN retains the sense of overriding fate, the sheer inevitability…Though her name is an irony, and she is, in the first instance, a coward, she also, in the last analysis, needs courage---needs it merely to continue, merely to exist, and this courage is there—inside her—when she looks for it. A human being, she has human resources…With the same good right as the aristocratic Rilke, Mother Courage can say: “Who talks of victories? To see it through is everything.’”

Eric Bentley

Director John Heckel shows how it's done.
photo: Delayne Medoff Posted by Picasa

The Director: A Natural Time

HSU Associate Professor of theatre and film John Heckel believes the time is right for a rare production of Mother Courage and Her Children.

“It’s a natural time to do it,” Heckel said. “The issues in ‘Mother Courage’ are prolific on the evening news and in the newspapers.”

He defines the core question as: “How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance, within a society of so much greed?”

Heckel believes students especially will find this play relevant. “They’re facing this profound question, how do I go out in the world to make a living, and still retain a sense of my own being?”

Others also face this dilemma as well. Heckel, who is also beginning a new career as a practicing psychologist with an internship at Catholic Charities in Eureka, says he hears echoes of these issues from patients suffering from depression and anxiety.

But there are no easy answers, as Brecht depicts one painful paradox after another that Mother Courage must face, with her fate and the fate of her children in the balance. “In the play, the overall examination of these problems are much more three-dimensional than in the usual political debate of one side against another side,” Heckel said.

But though the problems are searingly human, the ways Mother Courage and others in the play cope with them often work against the change that could lead to solutions. “In this world that Brecht constructs, we see multiple levels of people all trying to find their way through this world and make sense of it, and survive in it,” Heckel said. “But in how they do that, Brecht recognizes, they play a role in keeping the system in place.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bernadette Cheyne, Greta Welsh, Jolie Colby,
Stephen Godwin. Soldiers: Larry Mitchell,
Greag Brown. HSU Graphics photo. Posted by Picasa

Mother Courage at HSU: The Storytellers

Our Cast

Bernadette Cheyne
Greag Brown
Jessica Brown
Kato Buss
Renee Carney
Jolie Colby
Colin Cowan
James Gibbons
Stephen Godwin
Missy Hopper
Andrew Huggins
Calder Johnson
Jonathan Linton
Larry Mitchell
Jabari Morgan
Kalindi Rogers
Joshua Switzer
Greta Welsh

Our Musicians

Les Shiaman (cello)
Amos Soffan (horns)
Brian Godwin (drums)
Colin Cowan (bass)
Lila Nelson (piano)

Our Production

Director and Costume Design: John Heckel
Musical Director: Lila Nelson
Asst. Director: Kato Buss
Stage Manager: Delayne Medoff
Asst. Stage Manager: Kat Bruck
Scenic Designer: Jody Sekas
Asst. Scenic Designer: Lily Riley
Technical Advisor: Jayson Mohatt
Lighting Designer: Jim McHugh
Asst. Lighting Designer: Emily Blanche
Sound Designer: Everson Corrigan
Sound Advisor: Glen Nagy
Costume Advisor: Catherine Jenny Brown
Makeup Designer: Julee Giacomini
Makeup Designer: Jackie Smith
Property Master: Emily McPeck

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bertolt Brecht in 1935 Posted by Picasa

Coming Soon!

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, Bertolt Brecht's frank and darkly funny vision of a family's attempted survival on the tragic road of war, will be performed at Humboldt State University's Gist Theatre, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8, February 23-25, and March 2-4. Directed by John Heckel, featuring Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage, music by singer-songwriter and recording artist Lila Nelson. Presented by Humboldt State University Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Tickets are $8, $5 seniors, free to HSU students. Ticket information: 707-826-3928. Press inquiries:

Saturday, February 11, 2006

John Heckel at HSU Posted by Picasa

Mother Courage and the Idea of a University Theatre

In choosing the plays he wants to bring to the stage, Mother Courage and Her Children director John Heckel considers the particular role of university theatre. “It seems to me that there are particular kinds of plays and particular kinds of artistic expressions that universities can do, that aren’t going to be done anywhere else.”

University theatre can mount productions of a size and scope that only large regional theatres can accomplish. Because university theatres also have a teaching mission, they can look for plays of high quality that provide as many students as possible with opportunities for participation and creativity.

MOTHER COURAGE was an absolute natural: the size of the cast, the original music, the set design and costume challenges, the entire undertaking,” Heckel said.

“It was a consideration, too, when I did Angels in America [at HSU] I thought, how is anybody in Humboldt County ever going to see Angels in America, both parts? The only place that is going to happen is in a big city or at a major regional theatre, but it’s not going to happen at community theatres.”

University theatres also have more flexibility to respond to timeliness of terms of social (and student) concerns. “The telling of this particular story at this particular time-- if its going to happen, it’s going to happen in university theatres first. It takes more time for theatres in New York or the large regional theatres to gear up, and get the resources and the promotional hype together to make it happen.”

Heckel admits there were also personal considerations. “I have only a couple of years left with the university. I asked myself the selfish question, what can I do that I’m not going to have the chance to do when I leave the university? What haven’t I done that I would really like to do?”

One answer was Mother Courage and Her Children, opening on Thursday, February 23-25, continuing the following weekend, March 2-4, at the Gist Hall Theatre on the Humboldt State University campus in Arcata.

Mr. and Mrs. Brecht, playwright and the first and most famous Mother Courage, in 1939, the year Brecht wrote "Mother Courage and Her Children." Posted by Picasa

Mother Courage: Productions History

The opportunity to see a production of Mother Courage and Her Children is relatively rare. Bertolt Brecht wrote the play in in 1939 as World War II was beginning. Its first production wasn’t until 1941, though its official premiere was even later, in 1949. This production in Berlin featured Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, as Mother Courage. It is still considered the definitive production of this play.

But as critic Brad Bradley wrote, “Only one English language version ever reached a New York theater with more than 300 seats, and that was decades ago (in 1963 for about six weeks, starring Anne Bancroft, and directed by Jerome Robbins).”

Though such esteemed theatres as the American Repertory Theatre and the Shakespeare Company in Boston, Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company in New York have mounted productions, perhaps the most famous American version so far was one that never happened: to be directed by Orson Welles and starring Geraldine Fitzgerald in 1958.

However, these previous attempts may be eclipsed by a new production scheduled for this summer. The Public Theatre in New York announced that Meryl Streep will play Mother Courage in a new adaptation by Tony Kushner ( author of Angels in America) to be staged in Central Park. The announcement of this production, with Streep and Kushner in particular, signals the new relevance of this play to our times.

Long before that, and much closer to home, North Coast theatergoers can see Mother Courage and Her Children mounted by the director who brought Kushner’s Angels in America and Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters to the Humboldt State University stage. It opens February 23 at 8 pm in the Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata.

Helene Weigel in a 1951 Berlin production of "Mother Courage and Her Children" Posted by Picasa

Brecht Backgrounder

Born 108 years ago this February in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht studied medicine and served in an army hospital during World War I. His first poems were published and his first plays produced in the early 1920s.

By 1924 he was becoming a central figure in Berlin theatre, in a particularly frenzied and creative period in Europe and specifically in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Among the intellectual and political currents swirling around him were Dada, Futurism and Marxism, as well as the slowly growing influences of Nazism.

As a poet he was said to be influenced by Rimbaud, Villion and Kipling, and as a playwright by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. Asian mask theatre as well as Bavarian folk plays and fairground entertainments were also said to be influences on the development of his “epic theatre” style, with its use of music, titles and screens. Brecht collaborated with musical composer Kurt Weill in 1928 for his most famous play, The Threepenny Opera.

By the early 1930s, Brecht’s anti-bourgeois and anti-Fascist politics led him to the Communist Party, and exile from Hitler’s Germany. He first escaped to Scandinavia, where in a feverish few weeks, he wrote what many consider his greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children.

Brecht then escaped Nazi Europe to the United States in 1941, but after World War II, had to escape back to Europe in 1947 before the advance of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. In the U.S. he’d lived in Santa Monica, California, and was employed writing scripts for Hollywood (he’d collaborated on films in pre-war Germany.) Like other European exiles in Hollywood, he felt culturally isolated, intellectually starved and creatively stifled.

He returned to Berlin in 1949 to stage what remains the definitive version of Mother Courage and Her Children. Among his other famous plays written in the 1940s are The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (which will also be produced on the HSU campus by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, directed by Jean Bazemore, Feb. 28-Mar.3 at the Van Duzer theatre. )

Brecht lived in East Germany, though the Communists disapproved of his aesthetics and Western Europe and America disapproved of his politics. He did see some of his plays become triumphant productions, and he worked with the American theatre guru, Eric Bentley, insuring that his work would have a life in America. His poetry won a widespread readership. He died of a heart attack in 1956.

Mother Courage at HSU: Links

"The history of Mother Courage has been forever shaped by one production, perhaps more profoundly than any other play in the Western tradition. Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife and the co-founder of the Berliner Ensemble, gave the first German performance of Mother Courage at Berlin's Deutsches Theater in 1949, and after more than fifty years, her portrayal of the resourceful peddler who makes a living from the Thirty Years War remains definitive."
Essay by Gideon Lester.

"I suggest we approach Brecht's plays not through theory, but through his poems" a Conversation between Eric Bentley and Robert Hupp. New York, November 8, 1996. Eric Bentley was the first and most important link between Brecht and America.

Review of Steppenwolf’s Chicago production with historical background.

Review of Cocteau Rep production with some history.


Sparknote Bio


International Brecht Society

short bio with links

background with links

Brecht in L.A.

Brecht's FBI file

Bio with bibliography