Of all the books in this project, I think this is the one I was the least excited about (and it was first, yay for me). Not that it isn’t an amazing book—it is!—but I’ve read it, conservatively, twelve times.
When I was 14, I went to visit my aunt in Buffalo. I had just directed my second project, a pair of one-acts, and although it was an unmitigated disaster, I was hooked. I knew it was what I wanted to spend my life doing. At that time, my aunt was married to a British theater director, and when I said I wanted to be a director, too, this grown up man looked at my tiny 14-year-old self and said, “Well, of course you’ve read The Empty Space,” in the exact voice that a normal person would use to imply that one would, obviously, have read The Cat in the Hat. When I shook my head in mute overwhelmedness, he went on a long rant about how I couldn’t possibly even call myself a director until I read Peter Brook. And then he walked over to his bookshelf, pulled his own copy down, and handed it to me with an encouraging smile. This is how he always was—equal parts unrelenting condescension and warm friendliness. Every time I pick up this book, I remember that moment. While I don’t agree with him that this book is required reading for a director, I do find that the ideas in this book are ever-present in how theater people contextualize our work.
I wish I remembered what I got out of this book as a young West Virginian teenager, whose experience of theater was limited to school and community plays, and the occasional Broadway touring show in Pittsburgh. What struck me this time through, as on every other re-read, is how the book offered me some new things I hadn’t noticed before. It’s short, but such a dense text that my brain can’t process all of it at once. It fixates on the parts that connect to questions I’m already asking.
As I read through it, certain parts sparked memories like old friends. I remember the first time I truly understood the idea that we can prepare all we want to, but we also have to be ready to set that aside and be vulnerable, exploring, guessing, listening alongside the actors (it was while I was working on JB, still one of my favorite directing experiences). I remember the time I made my coworkers at a technology company read it, after our team book club had worked through a stack of books on management in software development. One of my coworkers, responding to Brook’s call for a unique, specific, living theater said, “Yes, but how do you do that at scale?” and I said, “I don’t think that’s the right question. That’s like asking how you can LOVE at scale.”
Other parts, I thought, “How have I read this a dozen times and not noticed this moment?” Some of the passages were opaque to me before, and only now am I asking the questions they are wrestling with.
As is often the case with these “book reports,” I’m just going to drop in a few block quotes that struck me, this time through. I’m curious to hear others’ experiences with it.
Theatre is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind. A professional theatre assembles different people every night, and speaks to them through the language of behaviour. A performance gets set and usually has to be repeated—and repeated as well and accurately as possible—but from the day it is set something invisible is beginning to die.
As I’ve moved into a more professional level of directing, I’ve thought often about this exact fact, although I had forgotten that Brook wrote about it. I remember once I interned for a summer with a professional theater, and midway through a run of Macbeth, the actor playing the title role came into the performance with a new take on the character. His blocking remained the same, but the attitude he brought to the character was entirely different. Previously, his Macbeth was weak-willed and a little confused. In this performance, he was furious about his weakness, responding to fate’s intervention with rage rather than acquiescence. The effect was electric; the company, which had been performing this same play together for nearly a year, all responded to this shift. They were so present with him in that instant, his shift rippled through the entire production. It was one of the best nights I’ve ever had in a theater. When I told someone about this recently, she reminded me that this kind of change is a violation of the rules of professional theater. Once a play is set, actors aren’t supposed to mess with it (and, on many contracts, they can be fined if they do). I’ve had the experience of an actor doing something on opening night that they never did in rehearsal, leaving me frustrated and shocked. So I see the value of saying that we should keep the show as it is set. And yet, I also know the power of giving actors the freedom to respond to that particular night’s audience, to make new discoveries. I don’t know what the answer is.
[The director] will know that thought, emotion, and body can’t be separated—but he will see that a pretended separation must often take place.
This is a tiny one, and stuck in the middle of an excellent passage about how directors must change up what we are doing all the time, and speak to different actors in different ways. And let’s spare a moment of side-eye for the assumption that the director is male. But what struck me about this passage is that I’ve been doing a lot of work on how actors can integrate their inner and outer work. As I’ve worked with truly excellent and experienced actors, I’ve discovered that a hallmark of a certain level of actor is that they have unity between their body and their mind. They cease to think in terms of inside-out or outside-in, but instead find synthesis between them. I’ve wondered whether this duality is a necessary step, or if young actors could reach this level of unity even in the early phases of their training.
When a performance is over, what remains? […] The event scorches on the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are rightly blended, this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.
I know I’ve read this before, but I didn’t notice it until now. It’s like the mirror of how I direct. I usually know exactly one moment, one clear instant of what the stage will look and feel like, and I work backward from there. For Antony and Cleopatra, it was the ending moment, when the silk dance unravels the closing tableaux. For Duchess of Malfi, it was the moment when the Duchess is looking in her mirror, and realizes that the other person in the room—who she thought was her husband—is actually her brother, with a knife at her throat. For Jordan’s Stormy Banks, it’s the moment after the fire, when everyone is broken, but still gathered, still a family despite everything. I am curious, if it were possible to contact audience members a year after they’d seen one of my shows, would the single image they remembered be the same as the one I started with?
After The Empty Space (1968), Brook didn’t put out any more books for rather a long time. His next one is The Shifting Point, from 1987. I’m curious what ideas from that first book were still on his mind, nearly 20 years later.