Erwin Piscator: Multimedia Pioneer for the Theatre

German theatre director Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) may not have been the first person to use projected images or film in stage plays, but he was certainly a pioneer in this area and one of the first to do so successfully. All this makes perfect sense when we consider Piscator was the dominant theatre director in Berlin in the 1920s.

Piscator’s innovative productions made use of machinery, newsreels, film clips, photographs and audio recordings to create an experience of total theatre. (Drama Online)

Piscator’s early career was a period of heightened creativity. The German theatre was experiencing a number of stylistic shifts and influences including expressionism, political theatre and the beginnings of one of the most significant forms all 20th century drama – epic theatre.

Films, used as background scenery, projected images of places and people from a variety of historical periods and subjects on screens, all for the purpose of better explaining present social circumstances (Crawford)

It is no accident Erwin Piscator was responsible at this time for many of the didactic techniques Bertolt Brecht would later develop further under the umbrella of epic theatre. Still images and projected film on screen during stage plays was one of many devices Piscator employed in his work, aiding in delivering messages to the largely proletariat audiences.

He collaborated with fellow German, Bertolt Brecht, on two Berlin theatre productions in the 1920s – Rasputin (1926) and The Good Soldier Shweik (1928). In these and other works such as Hurrah We Live! (1927), Storm Surge (1926) and Storm Over Gottland (1927), Piscator employed various forms of media as director.

… (in) The Good Soldier Schweik, Piscator used filmed sequences, cartoons, treadmills, segmented settings and other devices to draw strong parallels between the dramatic events and recent European history, thus arguing the need for social and political reforms (Brockett)

The men were not just colleagues, but became longtime friends. Brecht was even a groomsman at Piscator’s wedding. Although the two were later to fall apart over disagreements about the extent of the use of emotion in the theatre, after both being in Berlin in the 1920s, they were soon to both be continuing their work in America in the 1940s.

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Piscator arrived in America in 1939 and became the resident director at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, New York, upon its establishment in August 1940. For nearly a decade, here Piscator continued to experiment with the use of projection, film and other media imagery in the theatre before returning to Germany.

Resources:
Brockett, O., History of the Theatre.
Chambers, C. (Ed.), The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre.
Crawford, J.L., Acting in Person and in Style.
Drama Online, Erwin Piscator.
Wickham, G., A History of the Theatre.

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