On Peter Brook and Temporality in Theatre Architecture


Peter Brook’s words have become to define theatre: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’ [1] It follows then, that there are three factors at work: the space, the actor and the audience. By using three examples — Orghast, The Mahabharata and The Majestic Theatre — this essay explores how Brook uses the interplay between the three factors when choosing a site and how the temporality inherent to his ‘empty space’ enlivens the relationships that exists in theatre.

We must first consider that any space does not exist without a context. The cultural and historical underpinnings must always be considered when thinking about any space as every society and era has their own contextualization for what a space is and could be. In a theatrical space there must exist a relationship between the actors and the observers, one that Brook has been quick to experiment with, and a wider definition that includes what is on stage and what is off, what is shown and what is not. It is not a surprise then, that his work has taken him out of conventional ‘theaters’ and into ‘found spaces’ like a rice silo, a cloister and a slaughterhouse among others.
Jean-Guy Lecat, a longtime collaborator of Brook’s, explains that ‘creating a space is not an objective in itself—a new space must first of all have been willed by someone, and this is what endows it with significance.’[2] The found spaces mentioned earlier are all imbued with a singular reason for existing and it is clear why Brook sought them out: entering a cloister is a short-hand and immediately creates a sounding board out of the audience. From the first step, they will be responding to the space more viscerally than they would to a more traditional, proscenium theater. They will be present and alert.

Brook’s choices for staging are supported by Lefebvre’s claim that ‘social relations’ should be considered as ‘concrete abstractions’ that can only happen in a space, which is to say that ‘their underpinning is spatial.’[3] Brook used this when staging Orghast, a version of the Prometheus myth, that was performed on top of the mountain overlooking the ruins of Persepolis and in a language constructed only for the play. By staging Orghast in such a remote location, Brook brought to the audience a feeling of alertness and readiness. The social relations that are somewhat unsurprising in a traditional proscenium-framed theatre were made suddenly alive by this new spatial underpinning.

It follows, that an invented language would add to this sense of unpredictability. The language of Orghast was described in an New York Times article:

 

The sound of the Orghast language—its rhythms, tone, texture as it reverberates and echoes all over the mountains ‐‐ is virile and austere, yet touched with pity and human suffering. The actors, speaking with totally new vocal techniques, produce a symphony of sound and word which underscores their international composition, and evokes the lost memory of the commingling of tongues for thousands of years.[4]

 

This language emerged to complement the setting – the forgotten ruins and tombs of a long-gone civilization. Brooke used the space, as he puts it, ‘not in theory, but as a tool’ [5] and the group ‘improvised passages from Orghast and Avesta in order to examine the acoustic properties of the site.’[6] Clearly, Brook and company arrived at the site and found the play in the space. The rock walls, mountains and the acoustic properties that amplified the actors voices all played a part in transforming an artificial language into something real, something forgotten. Orghast was devised in a dead place, but for something to die it must live and Brook’s work here could just as well be described as an act of ‘resurrecting.’ [A]

Orghast is a perfect example of site-specific work that actively participates and is created by the dynamics between the actors and the location:

 

 

The investigation happened on many other levels, for instance: how the silhouettes of the actors contrasted against the sky in the twilight; how the light at sunrise illuminated the tombs; how energy was concentrated; and so on. Everything was subjected to testing and experimentation in situ: sound, images, and what spectators could be expected to experience. The relationship of the site to people was in fact one of the most important subjects of the experimentation. (Not Nothingness, p. 143)

 

 

Brook’s approach was ‘akin to an architect’s careful assessment of the qualities of a site: its visible and formal features, its acoustic and aural characteristics, the slope of the ground, its potential for spatial propositions, its character at sunrise and sunset, the shadows of elements at various hours, and so forth.’ [7]

This all harkens back to Brook’s words about ‘the empty space.’ One needs it and one needs to fill it with work. For the actors it was ‘a period of intensive preparation that included training during dry, hot summer days, with lengthy acoustic tests at different times of day and at different heights on the cliff’ (Chora, p. 57). Similarly, the audience worked to fill the space with a long walk up rock and gravel to reach the ancient Persian kings. According to the actors, the aim was for the audience to experience ‘a succession of events, unexpected and inexplicable happenings in the presence of mountains that gave depth to the space’ (Not Nothingness, p. 177). The artificial language, the actors, the audience, the mountains and tombs all worked in unison and created a theatrical landscape that was wild and yet dependent on all three factors that Brook lined out in The Empty Space.

Satisfied, the group moved on to the second site, a mountain cliff and an ancient temple building known as the Cube of Zoroaster and found a different energy residing there. The actors again performed acoustic tests and found the results ‘uncanny’ and that ‘it was possible to converse in a normal voice at one hundred yards, or more.’ [8] Brook found the differences between the two sites inspiring, the first one being ‘a place of mystery, extraordinary for intimate work’ and the other one ‘epic, like Epidaurus, a place for big voices’ (Orghast at Persepolis, p. 106).

What had started out as an exploration and an improvisation was now being made real by the places they had visited. After the inspiring journey, the technical limitations had to be considered. A box to seat the audience in was drawn up, something that was ‘a startling design in its own right, but not in regard of the dramatic material’ (Orghast at Persepolis, p. 108).  This contrast between what they had just experienced in the tombs, on top the mountain cliffs and the act of adding to these natural spaces brought up an important question for Brook and the group: ‘what is the relation between this dramatic material we have to work with, and the place in which we are to perform it.’ [9]

They soon discovered that the ‘place’ had already been designed via the act of discovering it and now the empty space only needed to be filled. The idea ‘of a specifically built set became an excrescence that just dropped away’ since anything added to the space artificially would have been just that: an excess that had not been discovered through improvisation and exploration. They learned that the best they could do ‘in designing and lighting a set’ turned out to be ‘nothing at all’ (Orghast at Persepolis, p. 109) [B].

The Mahabharata was another of Brook’s performances that followed this path of discovery and rediscovery for both the troupe as well as the people watching. The audience had to travel to reach the Callet Quarry [C] before sunset, either taking the bus ‘through orchards of apricots, cherries and peaches’ until reaching the ‘white path of stones’ or docking a kilometer away from the quarry and continuing on for ‘an uphill walk on a dusty trail to the heart of the quarry in the golden light before twilight’ (Not Nothingness, p. 199). Similarly to Orghast, the travel to the site became a part of the performance itself so that the ‘start’ of the play was obscured and the performance folded itself out for the audience members during the journey to it.

This has been a conscious effort in Brook’s work – to communicate clearly with the audience – and he approaches space and architecture using the same basic principles. With The Mahabharata the worry was that people would ‘have that dread feeling’ of coming to see a ‘solemn, philosophical, classical event.’ Even in the journey described above we can see his effort to remove that idea and say: ‘No, this is something natural and simple that can speak to anybody anywhere, in their own language, which is how it is in India’ (Oxford to Orghast, p. 266).  Brook’s attempt was to tie the ‘place’ to the ‘people’ by making them journey to it, as he did before for Orghast. To make the audience appreciate their arrival in a very simple way:

 

Examining the experience with the eyes of an architect, one is reminded of the importance of

temporality in architectural events, of the fact that architectural meanings are always given in

time, and that properly considered, a well-modulated temporal experience can contribute

immensely to the revelation of wonder in an emplaced building, prompting the participant’s

sense of gratitude for being alive (Not Nothingness, p. 201).

 

 

This simplicity was then contrasted with grand theatricality as Brook ‘evoked every theatrical mode at his command’ finally bringing about ‘a montage of distilled images and architectural patterns, moving with rhythmic grace into the space, one after the other, like film frames, suggested both the timelessness of the universal and the presence of India’ (Peter Brook Casebook, p.386).

The quarry had ‘good general proportions’ and it narrowed down ‘as one advanced into the space,’ becoming ‘increasingly intimate.’ The theatre was placed at the inner end, ‘towards an unambiguously final destination.’[10] [D] It is clear that Brook tries to retain as much as possible the feel of discovering the ‘perfect’ space and almost always decides against changing what he finds naturally on location. This also helps the audience, as Brook brings them to a place of grand, theatrical visions, he needs the audience to be somewhat grounded. Naturality, or honesty in other words, benefits this aim and helps guard against a criticizing state of mind. Brook seems to want his work to be received directly and not to enter ‘into a state of non-understanding’ (Oxford to Orghast, p. 264). His choices in performance space reveal a need for a direct line of thought between him and the audience. Brook uses temporality to bring audience members to a state of alertness where they are readier to focus and simply live in the stories presented to them.

In both The Mahabharata and Orghast, Brook sought to bring out the basic, stable and inherent qualities in each space and when The Mahabharata was moved into an actual theatre, the same practice continued. The Majestic was an abandoned theatre building before it was remade for The Mahabharata. Here, Brook and his team used the acoustics to pin down their vision for the space in a similar way that had been done for Orghast and the quarry at Callet. Lecat notes that ‘feelings of totally subjective distance are linked to shape, colours and materials, and also – fundamentally – to acoustics’[11] so the ‘solution’ for the space was found in the distance between the performer and the audience. The stage was extended and raised out of the proscenium, thus providing ‘a sense of one shared volume.’ The building itself was repaired, but largely left in natural ‘ruin’ to bring out the ‘unified sources of energy’ from the ensemble. [E]

The renovation was closely tied to the production of The Mahabharata so the designers were limited not only to the colors of earth, water and fire but also by the building and Brook and Lecat’s modus operandi. Here, Lecat describes this approach:

 

 

The first thing to do is to try and to recognize what was aimed at and done by someone else in another period and another context: to seek to understand through the filter of culture, so as to avoid destroying the fragile equilibrium which remains after that place has lost its original function (Open Circle, p. 233).

 

 

It follows, that both Lecat and Brook approach space not only as architects, even though proper proportions play a vital role, but as actors as well as audience members. They test and retest the space via those roles which gives Brook’s work a wholly imaginative and fertile feel that enables ‘everyone to feel that they are in a living space’ (Open Circle, p. 250). To Brook, theatre buildings and performance spaces are temporal in nature and never like temples: concrete or permanent. ‘A theatre is a temporary, practical place,’ Brook notes (Open Circle, p. 250).

So, The Majestic was renovated with these ideas in mind and the resulting theatre had ‘traces of arrested disintegration on the walls’ (Open Circle, p. 148). The building earned both acclaim and criticism and demonstrates an interesting divide in how the public views an architectural building versus the temporary constructs made for specific performances. It was called a ‘costly “poor theatre”’ with an atmosphere of ‘feigned seediness,’ whilst others praised the ‘basic impulse to create an appealingly informal alternative to the prevalent proscenium theatres’ (Open Circle, p. 149). It seems that we demand an aesthetic warranty from architecture and do not do the same with more temporal buildings. In essence, The Majestic was renovated to perform an act of visible evolution, not to stand the test of time as a temple to be worshipped. The building was renovated to be reinterpreted and not as an absolute statement.

What we can see in Brook’s methods when working with the space in the Orghast, The Mahabharata and renovating The Majestic is how he leaves these spaces open, natural and largely undefined. Whilst there is clear specificity in both performances, Brook’s aim is always to make them ‘alive’ and nothing more. Alive ‘because of their colour, their texture, their proportions and, above all, their humanity’ (Open Circle, p. 153). He evokes and spurs imagination ’not by décor and scenery and realistic detail but by evocation and suggestion’ (Not Nothingness, p. 213). He is always preserving what he finds naturally through his explorations and leaving openings for interpretation.

Brook approaches every space with a quest to hold onto ‘the scars and wrinkles of all it has been through in over a century of ups and downs’ and is decidedly against what he deems to be ‘an impersonal sterility;’ he engages with ‘space’ through the actors as well as the audience, thus going ‘beyond a cinematic naturalism’ and encapsulating a very human, and temporary, energy in the architecture itself (Open Circle, p. 25).

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix A:

 

 

 

Appendix B:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix C:

Appendix D:

Appendix E:

[1] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 9.

[2] Randy Gener, “The Further Adventures Of Monsieur Space”, American Theatre, 2009 [Accessed 28 March 2018].

[3] Jane Collins and Andrew Nisbet, Theatre And Performance Design (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2012), p. 67.

[4] Iran. Stuanz, “Peter Brook Learns To Speak Orghast”, The New York Times, 1971 [Accessed 28 March 2018].

[5] Peter Brook, The Shifting Point: Forty Years Of Theatrical Exploration, 1946-87 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017).

[6] Negin Djavaherian, “Not Nothingness: Peter Brook’s “Empty Space” And Its Architecture” (unpublished Ph.D, McGill University, 2013). Subsequent references to this dissertation are given in the text as ‘Not Nothingness’, followed by the page number.

[7] Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell, Chora 7: Intervals In The Philosophy Of Architecture (Montreal: MQUP, 2016), p. 55. ). Subsequent references to this book are given in the text as ‘Chora’, followed by the page number.

[8] A. C. H Smith, Orghast At Persepolis: An International Experiment In Theatre (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 105. Subsequent references to this book are given in the text as ‘Orghast at Persepolis’, followed by the page number.

[9] David Williams, Peter Brook: A Theatrical Casebook (London: Methuen, 1994), p. 184. Subsequent references to this book are given in the text as ‘Peter Brook Casebook’, followed by the page number.

[10] Andrew Todd, Jean-Guy Lecat and Peter Brook, The Open Circle: Peter Brook’s Theatre Environment(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 131. Subsequent references to this book are given in the text as ‘Open Circle’, followed by the page number.

[11] Reimagining Theater, “Reimagining The Majestic Theater”, Bam150years, 2016 [Accessed 28 March 2018].

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