Theater of Empiricism

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; 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.  (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.

9 thoughts on “Theater of Empiricism”

  1. Hm. I agree that changing the vocabulary around which we do our work will probably help a great deal. I’m working through a book, “The Art of Film Funding,” that is giving a lot of really helpful ideas. I’ll try to distill them once I’ve made some more progress.

  2. Brendan McCall

    Stimulating blog post, Gwydion.

    Your vision of a “theater of empiricism” reminds me of a collaboration I did last year with New York-based artist Aaron Landsman, with his site-specific theater work “Appointment”. While each performer is also the writer / creator, there are certain guidelines that underlie each appointment-theater piece that is made. This is true regardless of the performer´s location, nationality, language, style, or content of the piece.

    I think Aaron´s concept is fascinating, as it makes a theater-work something that can be devised within a certain frame or prescription. For example, if one follows his “recipe”, one will certainly have a piece that is absolutely your own; while simultaneously distinctly in the “Appointment” category.

    It seems as though there are more and more strategies and ideas that theater artists are coming up to expand the form, and to keep theater evolving as a discipline, an art form, and a profession. It´s an exciting time!


    Brendan McCall
    Founder & Artistic Director
    Ensemble Free Theater Norway

    1. Thank you, Brendan. I’ve been having a quick look at “Appointment” — at least what I have found online — and it looks fascinating, though I’m sure I’d have to experience it for myself to fully appreciate the work.

      This is, for certain, an exciting time for theater. I think all of our recent talk about whether there is “too great a supply” of theater is simply masking the fact that things are changing, and that change is frightening. But I think the changes we’re experiencing as an evolutionary shift. I do not know what theater will be even 50 years from now. But I do know it will continue, in one form or another…

  3. Pingback: Theater of Empiricism | Gwydion Suilebhan « NeoVaudeville Evolution

  4. Keith Russell

    Thanks for reminding me of “The Empty Space.” I haven’t read it since college and my Directing class but I became of fan of Peter Brook at that time. I think that there is a time/place for both illusion and reality when it comes to theatre. Specifically I’m thinking of the musical “Mary Poppins” where Mary exits floating over the audiences head (sure you can see the strings if you want but there is still the illusion). That versus the simple reality of “The Lion King” – where you can see the actor behind the mask. I think the simplicity is usually the best way to go, and easier to understand across all cultures. If you look at any of Peter Brook’s work now, that is where he has gone to. A carpet in the middle of the stage and that is your playing space for “Hamlet” – nothing more. Everything is in the words, the language and the acting. It is pretty brilliant if you ask me.

    1. Glad to have brought the book back to your mind!

      I’m very wary of illusion. I mistrust it, and I think modern audiences are beginning to feel the same way. This is why we are culturally obsessed with films that involve heroes peeling back one falsity after another to get to reality: everything from the Bourne Ultimatum to Inception. We really want to know who’s behind Spider-Man’s mask, and what reality is when we see it starkly.

      If Brook has indeed gone in that direction, I love him even more. A bare carpet: if I could do all of my work that way, I might try it.

  5. Have been wrestling with this idea of “real” for sometime, and you’ve given me more thoughts to be tangled up in (or to tango with?). Definitely eschew “realism” but embrace “real,” which for me is about authenticity of experience and exchange… and I think taking full advantage of the live-ness of theatre. This is why I have developed this healthy obsession with the role of the audience in performance and “audience integration”. No longer thinking about the show as done and then it is performed, but always learning and growing the show as it is being performed. The first part of the experiment is how do we fit these ideas and players together in a contained space and time, and what is our best guess at the effect it will have on a group of people. The second part is observing what that effect is and cycling it back through the performance… and allowing the work to expand and evolve.

    1. Oh, I love where you’ve taken this. It brings to mind the question of whether the observer (the audience) can influence the results of the experiment (the play): as with the measurement of the spin of an electron in Schroedinger’s thought experiment.

      Okay, I’m done geeking out about physics.

      I think you also make a very important point with regard to audiences. The relatively recent Isherwood and Marks articles notwithstanding, theatrical trends are quite clearly moving toward “audience integration,” and I think this makes sense. We have now, as a species, spent 10-15 years on average interacting with the internet, a medium in which we create narratives by our clicking and typing choices as much as we experience them. The reins of the narrative are handed back and forth between ourselves and the websites we visit throughout a browsing session. If theater does not respond to the native fact that audiences are coming to expect that possibility, it will become less relevant.

      I need to make that my next blog post, and perhaps I will.

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