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Pop-Rock Mother Courage updates Brecht for contemporary world

April 4, 2016
Photo by J. Adam Fenster

Play featuring program’s first commissioned musical score runs April 7 to 23

Even for a composer known for his innovative work in new music and modern opera, the challenge given to Matt Marks ’02E by Rochester’s International Theatre Program was intriguing: how do you make music that explores the brutality and sacrifice of war?

After working with students both in the College and at the Eastman School of Music throughout the spring semester, Marks and Nigel Maister, the Russell and Ruth Peck Artistic Director of the International Theatre Program, will share the results when a Rochester-commissioned production of Bertolt Brecht’s antiwar drama Mother Courage and Her Children begins its run on Thursday, April 7.

Widely considered to be one of the theater’s most powerful antiwar statements, Brecht wrote the play in 1939 as a response to the rise of fascism in Europe, setting the story in another era of civilizational turmoil: the Thirty Years’ War. The play is an unsentimental depiction of a mother of three children who tries to negotiate a living in the midst of violent upheaval.

Marks, a Brooklyn-based composer who is in residence this semester at Rochester, was drawn to the contemporary resonances in Brecht’s play.

“When we first talked about doing this play, we were getting reports from Europe about Europeans being very open and welcoming refugees. And now, as the play is about to go on, it’s the opposite—now the borders are closing,” he says.

Maister commissioned Marks’s score as part of the program’s “New Voice Initiative,” an effort to commission new works for the theater and to expose students to the living, creative process with artists in residence. He says that although the play is rarely performed on American stages, its story is “uncannily timely and deeply resonant.”

The play “deals with concerns which are profoundly resonant not only in terms of what’s going on in the Middle East, and the resultant migrant crisis, but also with our current election-year discourse,” he says.

The production opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in Todd Theater and continues through April 23, with matinee performances at 2 p.m. on April 10 and 17.

For ticket information, visit, the program’s box office.

Called the greatest play of the 20th century by stage director Oskar Eustis, productions are comparatively rare, in part, because the title role is so demanding. The character of Mother Courage has been called the “female King Lear” due to the wide dramatic and comic range required; the role has been played by Anne Bancroft, Fiona Shaw, and Meryl Streep. Bridget Haile, a graduate of Harvard University and the New England Conservatory, is playing the title role in the Rochester production.

Mother Courage is an immensely challenging play,” Maister says. “Not only are the scale of its production and its themes enormous, but the text mixes comedy and tragedy in tricky, often devastating ways. It’s funny, and terrifying—entertaining not only as a beautifully crafted dramatic story, but also as a profound meditation on the cost of war: on society and on the innocents swept up in it. It explores all this by examining the struggles of a woman who profits off the war in a way, as she sees it, to protect her family—and who, in the process, destroys her family.”

For Marks, the project also represented a chance to get to know students as performers from the beginning of the process, working with thems to write songs appropriate to their voices. The production also uses a rock band of Eastman students as the orchestra.

“As opposed to a lot of musicals where I just write something and then find the people for the parts, with this we essentially found the people we really wanted to work with for the characters, and then I tailored the parts to their voices,” Marks says. “I met with all of them, heard their voices, heard different styles they could do, and got to know them personally, and then I worked on the songs and developed it with them.”

A musician who routinely earns accolades for his work as a composer and performer, Marks is a founding member of Alarm Will Sound—as is Maister—an acclaimed new music ensemble that has its roots at Eastman. During Marks’s tenure as an artist in residence, he also has been teaching a class in the Department of Music on the history of sampling.

Marks’s residency is supported by the West Family Trust Visiting Playwright Fund, a fund established on the recommendation of Ellen W. Harris ’69. (Harris died recently and the production is dedicated in her honor.)

Additional support has been provided by the College Dean’s Office and the Institute for the Performing Arts. General theater production support is made possible by the Ellen Miller ’55 Endowment for Theatre Productions, which was established in 2010 at the request of Miller’s son, Matthew. The fund honors her memory and is intended to foster the creative production of material during undergraduate years and later in life, regardless of the professional paths pursued by those who participate in the productions. Ellen Miller completed a bachelor of arts degree in French at Rochester in 1955. The endowment provides for general support of the International Theatre Program and allows for sustained support of the program’s major productions.

“I’m really excited to be back in Rochester working with U of R students, and working with students from my alma mater, Eastman, to do something that’s very close to my heart—which is kind of weird music theater.” Marks says. “It’s totally not something I would have expected to do when I was an undergrad majoring in French horn.”

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Category: The Arts