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Northwestern’s ETOPiA project is staging an innovative, “essentially theatrical” production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” in a lecture hall on campus.

The free production is directed by Brian Bell, who’s based at Germany’s National Theater.

“I had a parallel with another theatre company, a similar project to ETOPiA [Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts], and became friends with the Northwestern project coordinator Matthew Grayson,” Bell said. “I actually met his friend while working at the National Theater,” and Bell decided to offer to work with this group at Northwestern.

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ETOPiA’s goal is to integrate the sciences and the arts, and there is no better play to demonstrate this with than Brecht’s masterwork “Galileo.” Focusing on the interplay of science and faith in Galileo’s time, the Italian scientist is faced with the challenge of convincing the clergy of the veracity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. When Galileo’s work is vilified, he increases his challenges to the system until it becomes not just a professional, but a personal struggle.

“One of Brecht’s great strengths is that he was a practical man of the theatre. ‘Galileo’ is essentially theatrical,” Bell states. “We’re using puppetry, and video, and thirty costumes for three actors.” Bell said that the pitfalls of staging Brecht are to follow the traditional lines of Brechtian staging- “we think oh, we’re doing Brecht and we need to do these things-“ and instead, one should use innovative techniques as Brecht himself would do.

“If Brecht were alive today, he’d be using cell phones to make plays,” Bell said. This production of “Galileo” is staged in a Northwestern lecture hall, allowing for new staging ideas. “It’s interesting, letting us as theatre people activate a very passive space, where people sit and listen to one person talk. It’s also interesting to be doing a play about a scientist and the consequences of his actions where student scientists do this every day.”

“There’s the theatrical reality and the reality of the room. Brecht had all these little tricks for stopping people from getting emotionally invested- and we’re playing into that. But we didn’t develop it for the show, we just came to the room and said what do we have and can we use it…The big innovation is big theatricality and big ideas. Embrace things that are of the theatre. If you want realism, then watch a film.”

“Galileo” makes a big splash even today because of the starkness with which the Catholic Church is portrayed. “The Church is certainly not portrayed well, but it’s also that the Church was the government,” explained Bell. “It’s pretty interesting now because climate change denial, creationism vs. evolution, are problems. I’ve been looking for resonances between the play and what it would be like today. We’re presenting part as a CNN debate, and another bit like a FOX News panel.”

“I come from a very conservative family in Texas and they’re all coming to see the show,” Bell said. He seemed a bit concerned about this eventuality, but affirmed that he is excited by the prospect of discussion. “We’re living in a time in which power systems are toppling. These arguments happened 500 years ago and they’re not over. But there are no answers.”

“Galileo” runs November 13 through December 6 at Northwestern University, in Room L361 of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road. Reservations are recommended. For reservations and more information, go online or call 847-324-3296.

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