I’ve been thinking about the following quote from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space for a while now — can’t seem to shake it:
Once, the theatre could begin as magic: magic at the sacred festival, or magic as the footlights came up. Today, it is the other way round. The theatre is hardly wanted and its workers are hardly trusted. So we cannot assume that the audience will assemble devoutly and attentively. It is up to us to capture its attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin.
Now, I’m not going to make the mistake of claiming I fully understand Brook’s entire theatrical manifesto — and what else is it, really, but that? — but I do think I take his point correctly here. Theater was born in a very different world than the one in which it now lives. Magic has happily been reduced to superstition, its poor cousin, and illusion, which is really nothing more than the special effect writ large. Though certain politicians and religious leaders make it hard to believe, we live in an age of reason, at least compared to thousands of years ago… yet we still try to make plays for ancient audiences.
The people who come to our theaters today come with very different brains. If our art form is to remain relevant, it has to engage the modern mind. No, I can’t say exactly what that might look like, but I think Brook is onto something when he speaks about roughness, about the lack of trickery. We are utterly desperate for reality, and what is passed off as reality is thoroughly artificial. To distinguish itself, theater must be real — which is not at ALL to say it should be realistic. In fact, realistic is what it should not be, because realism in theater is always a kind of shell game, an attempt to divert an audience’s attention away from the fictions its constructed out of: actors, sets, costumes, lighting.
Better, I think, to leave the strings showing: to keep sets simple, revealing the mechanisms that underpin them; to write plays that don’t quite fit together, rather than adhering to conventions of plot and narrative;Â to under-act, adopting as much as possible the rhythms of natural speech. This “Theater of Empiricism” would treat each performance like an experiment; it would give away to all who might repeat the experiment the steps that were followed to perform it, too, so that other scientists might verify the resulting data. Â (I am suddenly struck by the lovely double-use of the verb “perform” in experimentation and on stage.) It would not be designed to trick anyone or to be ritualized. Its sole aims — like any experiment — would be discovery and the testing of hypotheses, nothing more.
I should very much like to be a part of such a theater.