One of Stefan Brun’s earliest memories is of his grandfather putting on a puppet show in his folks’ living room in Munich. “There was a puppet here and a puppet here,” Brun says as he holds his hands up on either side of his face, “and his head was in the middle. He was a very funny, expressive man.”
Brun’s grandfather was the German actor and director Fritz Kortner. During the days of the Weimar Republic, Kortner won accolades for his portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III, and he appeared in the first production of Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities. But just as the Jewish actor began to break into films, the Nazis came to power. “My grandfather’s image was used by Goebbels as a symbol of the sort of horrible Semitic actor that they were trying to get rid of,” says Brun. His grandfather fled to America, where he passed the war in Hollywood. Eventually he returned to West Germany and became one of the country’s leading directors, diligently attempting to purge German theater of all traces of Nazi aesthetic: bombastic performances, stagy tableaux, the emphasis on spectacle.
Decades later Brun’s carrying on his grandfather’s legacy, finding a career in theater and developing an obsession with Brecht–Germany’s most prominent anti-Nazi playwright. When Brun’s family relocated to Champaign-Urbana in the early 60s–his father, Herbert Brun, headed up the University of Illinois’ electronic music lab–his mother remained in close contact with Brecht’s family, whom she would visit on her frequent trips home. Brun says he was seven when he saw his first play at the Berliner Ensemble, the theater Brecht founded in East Berlin after the war.
But despite his early exposure to theater, Brun didn’t find his calling until he moved to Chicago. While at Columbia College he met Scott Vehill, and in 1981 they started the Prop Theatre in a former strip joint on Lincoln Avenue. For the next five years Brun held down a series of day jobs–bartender, security guard, counterman at a restaurant–while devoting evenings to his art, working sometimes as a lighting designer, other times as a director. He directed another Brecht play for the Prop, The Exception and the Rule, and a musical, Careening Is a Skill, in the early days of the Curious Theatre Branch.
But Brun’s big break came in 1987 when he was invited to intern at the Berliner Ensemble. Though he jumped at the job, his experiences were mixed. “They were doing great productions of Shakespeare–I loved their Troilus and Cressida–but their Brecht was hidebound and moldy. But the mood in East Germany was not good then. There was a general stagnation in the country.” Still Brun got to work with the company’s artistic director, playwright Heiner Muller (Hamletmachine).
Brun found Muller hard at work adapting Brecht’s great, unfinished play, Fatzer: Demise of the Egotist. Written mostly between 1927 and ’31, Fatzer was lost for many years among the tens of thousands of papers in the Brecht archive; the play wasn’t rediscovered until the 1970s when Muller, prohibited by the East German government from staging his own controversial plays, began rooting around Brecht’s papers for something new. “Fatzer was to Brecht what Faust was for Goethe–this huge project he worked on where he never felt under pressure to finish completely.”
Set during World War I, Fatzer concerns a marauding band of army deserters who wander across war-torn Germany and end up starting a revolution. Brun was fascinated with the play, but he was frustrated by Muller’s approach. “The play is about young men in their late teens and 20s. Muller cast old men for the roles, men in their 40s and 50s. You need men full of energy and violence to make the play work.”
Fatzer was not a great success in Berlin, but by then Brun was already translating it into English “to understand it better.” For the next ten years his career as a director flourished in Europe. “I keep getting jobs because I ask for small budgets,” says Brun, who’s 35. “I’d tell them I’ve done theater in a little storefront in Chicago. I ended up doing a show after hours in a department store. I put on a show about a strike–Frank McGuiness’s prolabor play Factory Girls–behind the gates of a chemical plant.”
Brun moved on to larger shows, including a well-received German-language production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and he also had a gig directing 19 episodes of a TV soap opera. But whenever he got a chance he returned to his translation of Fatzer. Eventually Vehill got wind of Brun’s new translation and proposed to stage the play’s North American premiere.
“And here I am,” Brun says and smiles, almost ten years after leaving the U.S., “directing at the Prop and sleeping on a mattress in a corner of the office.”
Fatzer: Demise of the Egotist opens at 7 this Sunday at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway, and runs through April 28. Show times are 8 Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 Sundays. Tickets are $12 to $15. For more info call 486-7767.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.