I have always seen each professional engagement in an actor’s career as a new opportunity to learn and develop. What is more creatively fulfilling than immersing oneself entirely in the world of a play in a rehearsal process? But sometimes a project can be so all-encompassing that it goes beyond professional growth, and one is reminded of the power of theatre to change preconceptions and to dictate a change in lifestyle.

I have had such an enriching experience of late through my involvement with a production about the life of Bertolt Brecht. In playing the man himself, I have had to immerse myself in every aspect of his life, an experience I have found fascinating, inspiring and deeply personal.

Having only a smattering of GCSE-level education on Brecht as a practitioner, I came to his work with embarrassingly little knowledge of his far-reaching influence on modern theatre. My associations with him were academic and confused. Like many of us, his ideas had been explored inefficiently and without the requisite context at secondary level, and he remained a mystery to me – little more than the polar opposite to Stanislavski, and a man who for some reason wanted nothing more than to alienate his audience.

The term “alienation” is in fact the biggest misrepresentation of Brecht’s legacy, an error of translation which has been misunderstood the world over since its development with the Berliner Ensemble. Its negative connotations  bring to mind an audience completely detached from the action, sat isolated in the dark, disengaged and despondent – but this is exactly the opposite of what Brecht wanted from his theatregoers. A better rephrasing of the Verfremdungseffect is “to make strange”, a process used to highlight key moments within the drama in order to command the audience’s attention and force them to question it further. The last thing he wanted was an alienated public, but equally he was suspicious of an audience getting sucked into the Stanislavskian actor’s deeply emotional performance and missing the wider message of the play.

But by far the biggest omission in my patchy schooling on Brecht was the motives behind this reinterpretation of theatre practice. The notion that theatre must be used as a social tool, to galvanise its public into action is so key to everything that he did, and the wider historical context of the rise of fascism in his homeland is such an important factor in his life, that trying to understand him as a practitioner without it is useless.

He was a fearless activist, both eloquent and absolute, who seldom failed to speak out against injustice. In fact, the stark contemporary relevance of his plays is chilling. The central theme of Mother Courage for example: war being used by people to support themselves and exploit each other – it is just as true today. In fact, since it was written in the thirties, has there ever been a time when the world was entirely at peace? Indeed, has there ever been in all of human history?

The approach of “alienating” the familiar is to make us consider what is a received opinion in our culture and what is truth. As Brecht himself says: who mistrusts what is familiar? We are so used to injustice in the world that we come to accept it as the norm. Whether it is the fact that our shoes are made half way across the world by children who are exploited and die young, to the liberty of a free press and unrestricted lifestyle we enjoy in the West while the people of North Korea live in fear and oppression – these are facts that need to be challenged.

We are living in apathetic times, and I have been feeling recently that is time I became more active in the debate, whether it’s following intelligent comedians such as Robin Ince and Josie Long (who I reviewed in this column recently) or great satirists like Andy Zaltman, or supporting vital collectives such as UK Uncut and the Occupy Movement – it’s in these times of state-imposed restrictions that we must look to Brecht’s example and to our theatre to unite us.

With London’s liberal middle class audience demographic there will always be a degree of preaching to the converted in political theatre, but there are always companies working outside the status quo, taking their message to where it really needs to be heard. Undoubtedly many of these companies will have been hit by cuts and need our support now more than ever.

In the meantime, you can find inspiration not just from the great left-wing activists of the present, but from all kinds of sources, present and past. The message is always the same: Solidarity under oppression.

In life, we must never fail to question everything –  even if it means questioning our roles as actors and the role of theatre itself.

I, Bertolt Brecht will be touring the UK from 20 February – 31 March. Find out more here.
Image credit: Jeff Driver