Taking the stage for the first time in a year, acting students at the University of Montana are recreating a German play about the perils of greed, war and capitalism, but with a twist.
“Telling a story on the stage, that’s what I love,” the show’s director Shane Lutz said. “And I love telling stories. I love sharing stories, I mean that’s what theater really is. It gets back to our original roots as people, as a species.”
“Mother Courage and Her Children” is a musical extravaganza that makes a somber topic fun. And the introduction of film to the stage is a unique solution to the challenges of theater in the COVID-19 era. The actors are social distanced at all times and wear masks throughout the show, which works with the smoggy setting of war-torn Europe.
“If there’s a play to do during coronavirus, it’s this play 100%,” Lutz said.
This show will be the last production Lutz, a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of Montana, directs before graduation. He said it’s a beast of a play, so he was trepidatious about taking on the task of directing it. But with a lot of prep work, help from a faculty adviser and a talented cast, he pulled off something he’s proud of.
As the title implies, the musical is about a woman named Mother Courage and her children. It’s set during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe as Mother Courage drags a cart across the continent trying to make a profit amid the perilous poverty of the time. Mother Courage is constantly faced with decisions between profit, wealth and her humanity.
Lutz explained that the show follows unextraordinary characters, like a cook and a prostitute, living lives the best they can during unimaginable circumstances. It’s commentary on the way war twists humanity and the role capitalism plays into that. But it’s also fun. There are musical numbers and humorous storytelling.
“You can reach people with comedy much easier than you can reach people with serious conversations about political issues, especially in 2021,” Lutz said. “I think even though these conversations are so important, we need to talk about them, a lot of us are exhausted of having these conversations and theater like this allows us to talk about it in a way that we’re not used to.”
Lutz said there are musical numbers with pink flashing lights and people in feather boas where they’re talking about war and death. It’s an ironic thought-provoking sort of entertainment.
“Only about halfway through do you start to say, ‘wait a minute, I don’t think that this is fun. This is dark,’” Lutz said. “And it tricks you, it tricks you.”
“Mother Courage and Her Children” was written by Bertolt Brecht, a playwright from the WWII era. He wrote all of his plays as political commentary on subjects like fascism, capitalism and war. And even though the play was written roughly 80 years ago, it’s still relevant today.
Lutz said he couldn’t put on a play about the events of the last few years, because people have emotional attachment to those subjects and opinions. This play reaches them because it’s about a war most people don’t have any attachment, too, so it lets them connect the dots of how the greater meaning may impact our present-day dilemmas.
“We can then say, ‘wait a minute, but that happens today,’” Lutz said. “It looks different. The name is different. The appearance is different. But it’s the same thing. And throughout the play you see that over and over and over again where he’s drawing our attention to these people’s lives, that are just as similar as ours, that Mother Courage makes the choice and so do we.”
The play was adapted for an English-speaking audience by Tony Kushner, and Lutz, who is almost fluent in German, read the original piece to get ideas for Brecht’s vision.
Lutz put in a lot of work to make sure the show could be performed in-person on a stage again, after COVID-19 stopped his 2020 show in its tracks. He figured out how to make sure the cast were always 6 feet apart and took on the task of filming and editing the whole thing for people to stream from the comfort and safety of their home.
“It was really easy to get used to everybody wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart from each other,” said Kendall Seibel, a senior acting major at UM and the lead of the play. “I think maybe the weirdest part might have been not doing it live. Because when you see it live, you see it in the audience and everybody can just look at you from 15, 20, 30 feet away. But when you film it you can’t hide anything.”
She did say that filming the play helped her with her acting though. They filmed all of their rehearsals, just in case they got canceled because of COVID-19, and she was able to re-watch her scenes. She said she was able to see the way her performance looked, which helped her to better understand feedback from the Lutz and her peers.
“So, when we first started recording those rehearsals I’d walk in and be like, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?’” Seibel said. “And it’s really revolutionized the way I do theater, personally.”
Lutz was excited that he got to be part of recreating what theater could be, as he adapted to the pandemic. Filming the show added another lens through which he could tell the story.
“Especially post pandemic, everything is up in the air. So, this is the perfect environment to be in,” Lutz said. “It’s a laboratory for experimentation and creativity and I really love that.”
Seibel said playing Mother Courage was her biggest role to date and she was shocked, ecstatic and a little scared when she got the part.
One of her favorite parts was when Mother Courage swindled some soldiers in the opening scene of the play. She said it informed the way she played the character from the start, as she got to know the morally ambiguous side of her.
“Even though Mother Courage is the protagonist of this play she is a deeply flawed individual,” Seibel said. “She has very skewed morals. She uses people. She manipulates people to get what she wants. She intentionally puts her children in harm’s way to get ahead in life. And she’s not the only one who’s like that.”
She also enjoyed a scene near the middle where Mother Courage contradicts her own statements about the horrors of war in a song about how the war can’t be so bad if you make money off of it.
“So, it’s just a complete 180 and that for me was really fun to perform,” she said.
Seibel sometimes struggled with figuring out how to play her character’s lack of remorse or grief over some of the bad decisions she made, but it was a growing experience for her as an actress.
Seibel hopes that people watching the play from home will have an open mind about the funky, unorthodox show and try to get something out of it. And Lutz really hopes people start to think about the failures of capitalism.
“If people walk away just a little more class-conscious, that rich people are not your friend, they are not your allies, the 1%, they are not here to help us. If people walk away with that than this play was an astounding success,” Lutz said.