I read this book by accident as part of my endeavor to read all of Peter Brook’s published work. It was miscatalogued as being written by him, but actually, the authors are Andrew Todd and Jean-Guy Lecat. This was a happy mistake, though, in that I learned a lot from this book, so I’m glad I read it.
The Open Circle examines the spaces where Brook’s International Center for Theatre Research performed from its founding in the 1960s through the end of the 20th century. A lot of the book focuses on their home base, the Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, but it also details the spaces where they toured and how they changed those spaces to accommodate the nature of their playing. In addition to lots of diagrams and photographs, the core text is offset with excerpts from interviews with Brook and his collaborators, which give a sense of how the spaces felt, not just how they looked.
They spend a lot of time on calculating the distance from the actor to the farthest audience member, the rake of the seating and the impact this has on how the space feels, and the materials that the audience sees in the space—the back wall, the flooring. They make the argument that the maximum acceptable distance between actors and audience is 20 meters (about 65 feet). In an early experiment, they determined this outer bound, and Brook at the time ascribed it to “the ability to maintain eye contact with the actor in what he called a ‘feedback loop’ of awareness.” Decades later, neuroscience confirmed this exact phenomenon. It reminded me of Lia Wallace’s work at the American Shakespeare Center, on the role of eye contact in creating empathic feedback loops.
As I was reading, I kept noticing corollaries to my experiences in Elizabethan-style spaces. The authors and interview subjects kept referencing the importance of the audience being all in one space together, able to connect with each other. They described proscenium spaces as “two-room” theaters, a term I had not heard before, but found entirely apt. The proscenium space places the audience outside of the action, in a position of looking through a window into another world. The circular or three-sided audience arrangements Brook favors—much like the ones used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the Elizabethans—invite the audience to collaborate in the act of creation. My favorite quote from the whole book is Brook describing this phenomenon. It’s long, but worth sharing.
If one supplies a world apparently complete down to all its aesthetic details, a totality of information, a “real” image, the audience has nothing to do, accepts the illusion, and becomes totally passive. If, on the other hand, one uses two pieces of wood to suggest a forest, or a puddle to suggest a mighty river, there is work to do all of a sudden—the immensely pleasurable work of allowing one’s circuits to complete the picture for oneself, in the moment. This also serves to reinforce a sense of community in the audience—each member must use his imagination as an individual, but, the picture completed, one senses a shared work, a shared experience, and a genuine participation in the play which goes beyond the simplistic 1960s notions of generating a sense of shared purpose by encouraging the audience to run into the performance space, taking part in the action so as to feel they are “participating.” When one appeals to the imagination, the sharing is momentary and invisible. It is the ephemeral creation of a common perspective without the imposition of perspectival scenery, and it is all the more precious for that reason.
If there is any lesson from “original practices Shakespeare,” that’s it. Creating space for people’s imagination is a clearer invitation into the work than asking them to stand up and be a prop in the actors’ scene.
One of my favorite things about the book was toward the middle, when they were beginning to tour shows that they had developed at the Bouffes. Jean-Guy Lecat went to cities around the world, touring spaces and listening to their energy, to find the right places for the show. Often, he rejected architect-designed theater spaces in favor of quarries, abandoned factories, in one case a boat house. They must have had extraordinary budgets, as they massively edited these spaces, but his process of getting a sense of the energy of a place was just fascinating to observe. Both he and Brook spoke about the problem with even very beautiful purpose-built theaters. Brook describes what they are looking for as “neither a set nor aseptic nothingness…[something] warm, human, framing the action, filling the imagination, yet imposing no statement.” Again, this makes me think of the Rose, the Globe, the Blackfriars. All of these spaces that are alive with potential—beautiful in their own right, but incomplete until actors are creating stories on their stages.
One thing I keep thinking about, reflecting on the connections between these spaces and the Elizabethan theater (which, incidentally, Brook was totally aware of—when the foundations of the Rose were discovered, he immediately wanted to see them overlaid on the floorplan of the Bouffes), is that the Elizabethan-style spaces I know the most intimately are obsessively symmetrical. The Bouffes isn’t, and actor Yoshi Oida believes that this is part of what makes the space alive: “The Bouffes du Nord is not symmetrical; there’s a subtle difference in the color of the right and left walls, so there isn’t a stable balance. There are other small differences, such as there being no doors under the left balcony.”
This lack of perfect symmetry, subtle yet noticeable, is, I think, a big contributor to the Bouffes as an alive space. Symmetry creates stasis; its subtle unbalancing creates movement. Both this description and the book’s title make me think of the ensō, from Zen Buddhism: A hand-drawn circle in one or two lines, expressing a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. It may be open or closed; if open, it allows for movement and development. I first learned about this symbol when Zac Nafziger made it the central theme of “Welcome,” a piece he designed for the fellowship hall in my church. Zac wrote: “The enso symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and the void – in this case, specifically designed to pull a warm & cool spectrum into the swirling image inside the fracturing background – symbolizing both our connection & impact to everything around us.”
This “open circle” is what theater has both the possibility and the responsibility to be. It’s not ever complete, it’s growing and welcoming new voices and new development. How can our spaces better create this? The next time I direct in one of these beautiful spaces, can I subtly destabilize that symmetry to create more space for the audience to join us?