Interview with Peter Brook

To then address the subject of theatre “magic” from a director’s perspective, there are some simple questions, like when an actor disappears into his role, where does he or she go?

PB: Well, there you are touching the great mystery, the great paradox of theatre. If you have a bad actor, he disappears entirely. And this is the way you can tell a bad actor. A bad actor is swamped by his role and so he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. So he can leave the stage feeling that he’s given the greatest performance of his life. He has been carried along by a flood of emotion that has caught hold of him, and he is lost. So when he leaves the stage, and perhaps the director says to him, “that was dreadful,” he is surprised, because he has lost all self-awareness. He has become his role. But he has become like a racing car where the driver turns into the car so there is no longer anyone driving it.

However, the greater the artist, the truer the actor, what happens is that his personality gives way to his individuality. In other words, the personality – which is a lot of external habits and mannerisms which we all recognize one another by, which we live by – yield to the role. But within the role – and the image I’ve used is like a hand within the glove – the true individual is totally conscious and filling the space, so he doesn’t disappear. One can almost say that he appears, the more completely he has surrendered to the role. And that is why a true artist reaches this paradox: every fiber of him is invested with the role, and yet within in it, there is a space of complete freedom in which he is fully in control.

I made the most interesting discovery once in Africa, when I went to one part of Nigeria to the Yorubas, where they practiced possession in the way that happens in so many of the countries of the world. In every country from Haiti, South America through to other African countries, when somebody is possessed they lose consciousness, they’ve no idea what happens to themselves. Except among the Yoruba, where the opposite is true. It is considered that the higher the level the person reaches, the more he is totally conscious when he is possessed. So that ultimately, when he is totally evolved, he is possessed by a god and yet he is totally there to everything that happens. And at that point, this mystery of possession, where you are and you are not, becomes reconciled into one person.

One of the exercises I like to do with actors is to ask them to hold up their hand and clench their fist very, very tightly. And then I say to them, “supposing that we take a photograph of that clenched fist, can there be any difference between your fist genuinely clenched because you are angry, or now clenched tightly as possible because I’ve asked you to clench it?” And of course you can see that there can be no difference, not only externally, but even internally. A clenched fist is a clenched fist. Exactly the same way, the actor should so totally invest his role that whatever angle you put your microscope on, you shouldn’t be able to detect two levels.

And in fact, this is one of the ways in which third-world actors, if I can use that old-fashioned phrase, in other words non-Western actors, are so often truer than highly cultivated English, French, German, or American actors. Because in the case of the cultivated Western actor, you can actually see that the man is performing. In fact, actors will get great acclaim for being recognizably themselves doing it very cleverly. Which is why a lot of Western acting is busy and demands a lot of superficial activity, which signals to the audience that the actor is working hard. And that is an essential mode of virtuosity among Western actors.

Now when we recently did the Tempest, we had in the two main parts of Prospero and Ariel two African actors. And one of the reasons was that in that play, I felt, one should go beyond this – this is not a play for virtuosity. And in each case, for instance the African actor playing Prospero, because he had been brought up in the forests of Africa, for him magic is an everyday reality. When he was playing Prospero, it was impossible for anyone, for any of us, to see a difference between the man and the imaginary man. They became the same thing. But all the Prosperos I’ve known – and I’ve known many in the Western theatre – you can always see a performer trying with artifice – perhaps with false beards, false noses, a false voice – to create an artifact of a magician. Now you can choose between the two forms of theatre art, and I personally believe that the art which vanishes completely is superior to the art of virtuosity, where you’re conscious of the skill of the performer.

To ratchet that up one more level, beyond the individual performer, there are certain times in even a simply good play, when the cast will sort of congeal [Yes.] into a living, intuitive whole or awareness. [Yes!] Can you as a director intuitively participate in that unity, and what do you think of that state of group mind?

PB: That is what the director is for. More than anything else, the director is there to create that. Certainly he is not there to use the actors as instruments to project his own personal, private visions. That is not what theatre is about. Films, yes. Theatre, no. Theatre is there to do exactly what you have just said – ratchet this up to another level. The process of rehearsal is to take a group of people who are not unified, and through a series of practices, bring them to the point when they become what we in our own private jargon in our theatre call “a storyteller with many heads.” So that it is like one man telling a story, except this comes through many colours of many personalities.

How do you deal with conflict that may arise in a group while working on a play?

PB: All the work of preparation is to make it possible for conflict never to be unhealthy. In almost all the situations I can think of, conflict in rehearsal is something completely healthy which is the meeting of the different viewpoints, which leads to something valuable. The first way of creating conflict for a director is for him to refuse other people’s ideas or interventions. The moment a director feels that his idea or authority is threatened if somebody dislikes one of his own ideas, the seeds of conflict are there. But if the basis of the preparation of the work is that everything is an exchange all the time, then a large part of conflict is automatically eliminated. Normally there shouldn’t be conflict in the negative or destructive sense. That doesn’t produce good work.

The other way of avoiding conflict is very carefully to avoid working with people who are clearly there to make trouble. That is a reason why, for instance, after having worked for many years in grand opera, I never would work again with an opera singer, until I could work with one who is a different sort than the famous great opera singers, who arrive at the hall for one rehearsal, and with whom it is obvious that the only ground of discussion is conflict. So the best way of avoiding conflict is to avoid not conflictual issues, but conflictual people.

Supposing a conflict-free group – I guess more common analogies are sports teams or bands, jazz bands for example, where players don’t have to refer, don’t need peripheral vision to know what’s going to happen next. I mean, there’s a certain point where it synchs and, as you said, you are expressing a single reality. [Yes.] With what alchemy does the director create this?

PB: You mustn’t forget that people often falsely relate a theatre director to an orchestra director. And you can immediately see why this is a false analogy, because the great moment, the moment of truth, is the moment of performance. At the moment of performance the conductor is there. You can’t do without him. You can’t have a conductor rehearsing an eighty-piece orchestra and saying on the day of performance, “I’m sorry, I’ve got flu. Play without me.” Because the result with any orchestra we know would be very inadequate. In the theatre exactly what happens is that the director rehearses so that he can withdraw. So at the moment of truth, which is the performance, the directing body is the playing body. They are one and the same thing. They are directing themselves. So you have a choice: either holding them together by drilling them into a very, very rigid form, so that even though the director goes, his shadow is there, like a sergeant-major, holding them to the form he has drilled into them; or the other, which is the director is there to induce a state in which, when the time comes, this body can fluently, flexibly and in all freedom, create a form which they are all part of, and which they are all inseparable from.

To what extent are these bodies limited? Can they be extended to the audience?

PB: If the performance is good, there is a moment when the audience ceases to be a thousand separated individuals and becomes what every language reflects: a single entity – The Audience, The Public. They were the spectators and they become The Audience. And that fusion happens either in laughter or in silence or eventually in applause, if the performance is going the right way. And the pleasure for an audience is, in fact, at a certain moment finding itself part of a whole.

Why is so little written about this phenomenon? It seems so important psychologically as a model of what human beings are capable of in terms of unifying, even if just for a moment, to recognize their common coevolution or whatever. To have that sense of unity in total difference. But I don’t hear musicians talk about it. I don’t hear actors talk about it. I mean, I don’t hear people bring it out as an explicit, important fact of reality that this happens.

PB: I think that this is the only fundamental function that the theatre can have, One has to accept that fragmentation and conflict are part of the human lot. And one also recognizes that the aspiration to go beyond that is also a part of the human psyche. And so this healing process of the fragmented social body – which has to exist – can only be brought about by moments of reminder, and that’s what the word “communion” really means. That you don’t try to reform the world, you don’t try to establish a paradise now. You only attempt to remind yourself and others that a communion is a highly desirable possibility for mankind. And this is the meaning of public performance.

And my own conviction is that in our time, in the theatre, professionally and technically, enormous importance has been given to debates about the role of the writer, the education of the actor, the need or not need for a director, without recognizing that something infinitely more important is at the root of that, which is the nature of the relationship between performance and audience. And that what gives theatre its justification, its reality, is neither more nor less than the audience.

And the subjective experience they take away from it?

PB: Well, I think that if they take away a subjective experience that’s all very well, but on rare occasions it is possible for them to take away an objective experience. Objective because it is beyond their individual subjectivity and, eventually, beyond the overall subjectivity of that block of people who makes up that particular audience.

When these effects begin to occur, somewhere in the process you hear a lot of actors or orators or other stage people speak of the charge at the stage, or the hot bask of the audience. Do you think there’s an actual psycho-physical aspect to that concentration of attention on a play, on a person?

PB: Oh, of course. Of course. It is as clear as playing in darkness and switching on the light. Everyone in the theatre knows that what you see and experience at the last run-through of a play is nothing compared with what happens when the same work, perhaps a few hours later, is suddenly surrounded by a thousand people. The moment those thousand people are there a chemical process, a physical process, a magnetic process comes into operation, and there is a flow of energy. And the flow of energy starts through the play by the actor working upon a passive ground, which is the audience. But the moment he starts working on that passive ground, he excites it. Excites it, I mean in the technical sense, he awakens something in it. What he awakens is the awareness of that audience, and that produces an energy. We don’t need to express in specific terms what that energy is, because that is beyond our instruments. But an energy is produced, an energy that flows back in many, many different ways towards the stage. This energy will first of all encourage the actor, and then it will go beyond encouragement. It will inspire the actor. The more it inspires the actor, the more he gives something back to the audience, which will be inspired in turn and will give something back to him.

And this is why earlier on I said the theatre is a process. Comparable to cooking. It’s not just a hot bath that the audience gives; it is a heating process by which the collective temperature rises, and like all temperature that rises, it goes through changes of state. The state changes only at certain points. So at one moment it will be like water, the same substance, and then suddenly it’ll reach a point when it turns into steam. Now in the same way, a theatre performance will get more and more vibrant, and then suddenly there will be a change of state and it becomes an experience of another quality.

Certain ancient philosophers or the religious anthropologists of their day have noted that when people come together for a common moment of devotion or dedication or whatever, that they not only recognize in themselves a certain degree of godhead or numinous inhabitance, but that there are things that happen, over and above the content of the ritual or ceremony… I mean “Phenomena.” In all your years of directing have you ever had any experiences within a play, an audience situation, that were somewhat other?

PB: Oh yes, because any play, from the lowest to the highest, is never an end in itself. It is a support. It is a basis. And overtones are being produced. Harmonics are being produced all the time. And there are moments that you can only call moments of grace. Moments of grace are moments when something way beyond the support suddenly comes to existence, but without the support it wouldn’t have been there….

Personally, I just don’t understand why these phenomena haven’t become a major, major focus within universities, within churches, within political circles…

PB: Those are the times we live in. One has to recognize that humanity goes through waves like a performance. That there is a beginning, a middle, an end, and the general level of thought, understanding and concern rises and falls, And I think that today it is universally recognized that, in a process that started a long time back, we are in a period when we need desperately this Age of Aquarius, because even the sense of a spiritual basis to life has been swamped. Now, today, the world is in perhaps the worst state it has been in a long time. For the Indians, it is no problem because they say we have entered the “Black Age,” the “Age of Kali.” But we can see this is truly the case. And we can only pray and hope that the Age of Aquarius won’t let us down as being the moment when mankind is so sick of descending, that having hit rock bottom, the interest you speak of will be re-awakened.

Okay, on to the world as stage: recently there have been a lot of so-called planetary benefits – Band Aid, Sports Aid, Art Aid – where prominent professionals dedicate a work or performance to some global problem. I haven’t heard of such things in the directorial world, whether for film or theatre, But if you were to dedicate a work to the planet or some of its ills, what do you think would be appropriate?

PB: I think that if you are director, one of the things that you have to learn is realism, because you are working in a very realistic field. So you have to have a dream and you have to link that dream to all the elements of practical reality. And because of this you realize that you have a possibility of perhaps introducing something real and positive within Your own field. And your own field is exactly the number of people who are present around a particular performance. The moment you see this, you realize this is where you must concentrate your energy. So that, as I say to actors very often, “We may be in all twenty people. If we find, having worked on a particular subject and played it for a long time, we have actually introduced something of value to twenty lives, this is enormous. And we have to be very, very proud and content that we have managed to get that far. ”

If we go along with a dream that we can stop wars, change the movement of the planet, we are lost in the same tragic naivete that leads to revolutions that fail and other global calamities. What one must do is not cultivate one’s garden as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist, but introduce all that one wishes to introduce into the widest field into one’s own area, where, like with acupuncture, a true touch can reach an actual nerve. And that’s why my answer to you is “within our field.”

Brook's film

Finally, you did the Mahabharata, and, I believe, one of your first, if not the first play you produced, was Faust. And throughout your career you have produced many works that addressed the interface or dialogue between good and evil, or sane and insane, or numinous and profane. Over the last five decades, how have all these plays and pondering affected your own sense of right and sanity?

PB: By giving me the good sense not to answer that sort of question. [Laughter]

– End –

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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  1. dani karmakar said:

    This interview had published in kolkata’s theatre magazin. Bengali translation.Do you know?

  2. We wear different costumes till we’re dead—
    but if you rip apart the fibers in your head
    you’ll find we’ve all been woven
    from a single thread.

    THANK YOU for a profound dialogue with the great Peter Brook. His erudition and clarity have been and will continue to be a lighthouse to all us storm-tossed fellow sailors…

  3. Of all the brilliant splendors and alluring vices of baroque France, why would the stern philosopher Pascal dub theater the most dangerous of all social or artistic seductions? The answer is simple: though the period is known for its wildly opulent court festivities, its mania for gambling, and the worldly “gallantry” (as it was then decorously called) of its salons, none of these diversions exercised so forceful a hold on the public as did theater. As Pascal’s remark makes clear, the stage captivated audiences with what seemed a perfect reflection of life, an image of human emotions “so natural and so subtle” that it could equal, and even best, the real thing.

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