“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate
I begin with forty words that, in 1968, altered the face of the international theatre. They were the first two sentences of Peter Brook’s then-controversial, now-seminal, book The Empty Space.
If I had my way, these two sentences would be committed to memory by every theatre major and professional.
About 350 years previously, Spanish Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega had made a similar, yet very different, assertion : “All you need for theater is two planks and a passion.” Both Brook and Lope shared an image of the bare essence of theater, the raw energy released by the collision of single elements. But Lope’s vision was entirely artist-centered: a minimal space (two planks) and an artistic vision (a passion); it was all about the creation.
Brook’s vision, on the other hand, is interactional. He makes the spectator an integral part of the art form: an empty space, a performer, and a watcher. All are needed. If the word “theater” comes from the Greek for “seeing place,” Brook recognizes that the artist must be seen in order to be an artist. Take away any of the three, and theater ceases to exist. (I would note that he doesn’t say anything about the performer and spectator sharing the same space–today, a digital space can also serve as the meeting space of watcher and watched.)
A year earlier, in 1967, perhaps at the same time Brook was writing The Empty Space, Tom Stoppard demonstrated, in many more than forty words, Brook’s concept in action in the Player’s monologue from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The company of players confront the title characters upset because R & G had slipped out of a performance they had been doing for them. The Player is beside himself:
You don’t understand the humiliation of it-to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable-that somebody is watching…The plot was two corpses gone before we caught sight of ourselves, in the middle of nowhere and pouring ourselves down a bottomless well.
There we were-demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance-and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin, unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don’t you see? We’re actors-we’re the opposite of people!…
We’re actors…. We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade that someone would be watching.
Brook and Stoppard understood where the power of theater resides: An empty space. A person in it. And one person to watch it. That’s it.
God, it’s so simple! And yet at the same time, so powerful.
So often, our inherited beliefs about what is required for “theatre to be engaged,” to use Brook’s phrase, serves as an obstacle to actually creating theater. We add elements without even thinking, because, well, that’s how we were taught it was done when we were in college. Plays are done in theaters, so if I want to do a play I have to rent one at ridiculous cost; plays require a set, costumes, lights, sound–all costing money. Plays require multiple actors, a director. Money, money, money. Which means I need an audience of a certain size, which means spending money on marketing and advertising. And I have to raise my ticket prices to cover all this, which means only certain people can afford to see my play, and…pretty soon we’re charging $800 to see Hugh Jackman do The Music Man.
We need to take a breath and meditate on Brooks forty words.
Brook isn’t suggesting you stop at those spare elements, but I think he is suggesting that we need to make every addition a conscious choice.
Consider Spalding Gray, who created powerful and poetic masterpieces with his words, a folding table, a microphone, and a glass of water. Think of John Leguizamo, who played all of the characters in Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, and Eric Bogosian, whose one-man shows were absolutely gripping. Heidi Schreck’s brilliant What the Constitution Means to Me.
Brook implies that maybe we should start in our mind from an empty space, an actor, and a spectator. And then consciously, purposefully add only elements that you believe to be absolutely necessary to make the production viable.
The fact is that unless you are literally homeless, you have everything you need right now to “engage theatre,” if you have forgotten your preconceptions and adopted Peter Brook’s starting point. You can clear a space in your living room, your basement, your bedroom, your kitchen. You can move a couple chairs there for a spectator or two and do a 10-minute play, or perform a story from your life, read a short story, or… Heck, you don’t even need an apartment. You could do a play in a park—how many have done a production of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story on a park bench in an actual park?
The only thing that is stopping you from doing this is the voice in your head that says, “That’s not the way things are done.” That’s not the way they taught me in college, in high school, at the conservatory, on TV.
Forget that voice. Remember Peter Brook.