Jun 26, 2018

The Empty Box | Excerpts on theater

I have decided to share with you a few excerpts from Peter Brook's book, The Empty Space, because I think it is crucial that we not only engage with the current conversations and activist movements surrounding the proposed demolition of the National Theater in Albania, but that we multiply the momentum of their resistance, the energy of this public force, by taking it even further - from performance to knowledge - to expand our understanding of theater, which is one of the 'other' creative disciplines that has been pushed aside during the country's economic and ideological transition in favor of the more marketable contemporary arts. To do so, many questions need to be asked and a rigorous historiography should be researched - if it hasn't been done already. It is high time we stop consuming information and start cultivating knowledge (e.g. situated, open source, etc). 

The text below is taken from two of the four Theaters of the book: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate, which was published in 1968. As it is posted here out of context and 50 years after it was written, I would recommend you read the book yourselves, in order to draw your own conclusions. 

"Karvani vigan i kulturës ecën përpara duke mbartur gjurmët e çdo artisti drejt një grumbulli me mbeturina që sa vjen e rritet. Teatrot, aktorët, kritikët dhe publiku janë ndërthurur në një mekanizëm që kriset, por kurrë nuk ndalet.
Teatri ka nevojë për një revolucion të përhershëm." 

The Deadly Theater

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged. Yet when we talk about theater this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word.
All through the world theater audiences are dwindling. There are occasional new movements, good new writers and so on, but as a whole, the theater not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains. The theater has often been called a whore, meaning its art impure, but today this is true in another sense - whores take the money and then go short on the pleasure. [...] In fact, were the public ever really to demand the true entertainment it talks about so often, we would almost all be hard put to know where to begin.
Anyone who watches the real successes as they appear each year, will see a very curious phenomenon. We expect the so-called hit to be livelier, faster, brighter than the flop - but this is not always the case. Almost every season in most theater-loving towns, there is one great success that defies these rules; one play that succeeds not despite but because of dullness. After all, one associates culture with a certain sense of duty, historical costumes and long speeches with the sensation of being bored: so, conversely, just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event. Of course, the dosage is so subtle that it is impossible to establish the exact formula - too much and the audience is driven out of their seats, too little and it may find the theme too disagreeably intense. However, mediocre authors seem to feel their way unerringly to the perfect mixture - and they perpetuate the Deadly Theater with dull successes, universally praised. Audiences crave for something in the theater that they can term ‘better’ than life and for this reason are open to confuse culture, or the trappings of culture, with something they do not know, but sense obscurely could exist - so, tragically, in elevating something bad into a success they are only cheating themselves.
Again with Shakespeare we hear or read the same advice - ‘Play what is written’. But what is written? Certain ciphers on paper. Shakespeare’s words are records of the words that he wanted to be spoken, words issuing as sounds from people’s mouths, with pitch, pause, rhythm and gesture as part of their meaning. A word does not start as a word - it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behavior which dictate the need for expression. This process occurs inside the dramatist; it is repeated inside the actor. Both many only be conscious of the words, but both for the author and then for the actor the word is a small visible portion of a gigantic unseen formation.
It is vain to pretend that the words we apply to classical plays like ‘musical’, ‘poetic’, ‘larger than life’, ‘noble’, ‘heroic’, ‘romantic’, have any absolute meaning. They are the reflections of a critical attitude of a particular period, and to attempt to build a performance today to conform to these canons is the most certain road to deadly theater - deadly theater of a respectability that makes it pass as living truth.
The opposing words ‘literary’ and ‘theatrical’ have many meanings, . . ., they all too often describe ways of warding off contact with disturbing themes.
‘Reality’ is a word with many meanings, but here it is understood to be that slice of the real that reflected the people and the problems around the actor, and it coincided with the slices of existence that the writers of the day, Miller, Tennessee Williams, Inge, were trying to define. In much the same way Stanislavsky’s theater drew its strength from the fact that it corresponded to the needs of the best Russian classics, all of which were cast in a naturalistic form. For a number of years in Russia, the school, the public and the play had made a coherent whole. Then Meyerhold challenged Stanislavsky, proposing a different style of playing, in order to capture other elements of ‘reality’.
All this brings us back to the same problem. The word theater has many sloppy meanings. In most of the world, the theater has no exact place in society, no clear purpose, it only exists in fragments: one theater chases money, another chases glory, another chases emotion, another chases politics, another chases fun. The actor is bundled from pillar to post - confused and consumed by conditions outside his control. Actors may sometimes seem jealous or trivial, yet I have never known an actor who did not want to work. This wish to work is his strength. It is what enables professionals everywhere to understand each other. But he cannot reform his profession alone. In a theater with few schools and no aims, he is usually the tool, not the instrument. Yet when the theater does come back to the actor, the problem is still not solved. On the contrary, deadly acting becomes the heart of the crisis.
When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason capable of change. The first step towards this change is facing the simple unattractive fact that most of what is called theater anywhere in the world is a travesty of a word once full of sense. War or peace, the colossal bandwagon of culture trundles on, carrying each artist’s traces to the ever-mounting garbage heap. Theaters, actors, critics and public are interlocked in a machine that creaks, but never stops. There is always a new season in hand and we are too busy to ask the only vital question which measures the whole structure. Why theater at all? What for? Is it an anachronism, a superannuated oddity, surviving like an old monument or a quaint custom? Why do we applaud, and what? Has the stage a real place in our lives? What function can it have? What could it serve? What could it explore? What are its special properties?

The Rough Theater (or Informal)

It is always the popular theater that saves the day. Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is only one factor that they all have in common - a roughness. Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theater that’s not in a theater, the theater on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theater in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes - that one generic term, theater, covers all this and the sparkling chandeliers too. I have had many abortive discussions with architects building new theaters - trying vainly to find words with which to communicate my own conviction that it is not a question of good buildings and bad: a beautiful place may never bring about explosion of life; while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place: this is the mystery of the theater, but in the understanding of this mystery lies the only possibility of ordering it into a science. In other forms of architecture there is a relationship between conscious, articulate design and good functioning: a well-designed hospital may be more efficacious than a higgledy-piggledy one; but as for theaters, the problem of design cannot start logically. It is not a matter of saying analytically what are the requirements, how best they can be organized - this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theater-building must come from studying what it is that brings about the most vivid relationship between people - and is this best served by asymmetry, even by disorder? If so, what can be the rule of this disorder? An architect is better off if he works like a scene designer, moving scraps of cardboard by intuition, than if he builds his model from a plan, prepared with compass and ruler. [...] At the beginning of electronic music, some German studios claimed that they could make every sound that a natural instrument could make - only better. They then discovered that all their sounds were marked by a certain uniform sterility. So they analyzed the sounds made by clarinets, flutes, violins, and found that each note contained a remarkably high proportion of plain noise: actual scraping, or the mixture of heavy breathing with wind on wood: from a purist point of view this was just dirt, but the composers soon found themselves compelled to make synthetic dirt - to ‘humanize’ their compositions. Architects remain blind to this principle - and era after era the most vital theatrical experiences occur outside the legitimate places constructed for the purpose. [...] The Rough Theater is close to the people: it may be a puppet theater, it may - as in Greek villages to this day - be a shadow show: it is usually distinguished by the absence of what is called style. Style needs leisure: putting over something in rough conditions is like a revolution, for anything that comes to hand can be turned into a weapon. The Rough Theater doesn’t pick and choose: if the audience is restive, then it is obviously more important to holler at the troublemakers - or improvise a gag - than to try to preserve the unity of style of the scene. In the luxury of the high-class theater, everything can be all of a piece: in a rough theater a bucket will be banged for a battle, flour used to show faces white with fear. The arsenal is limitless: the aside, the placard, the topical reference, the local jokes, the exploiting of accidents, the songs, the dances, the tempo, the noise, the relying on contrasts, the shorthand of exaggeration, the false noses, the stock types, the stuffed bellies. The popular theater, freed of unity of style, actually speaks a very sophisticated and stylish language: a popular audience usually has no difficulty in accepting inconsistencies of accent and dress, or in darting between mime and dialogue, realism and suggestion. They follow the line of the story, unaware in fact that somewhere there is a set of standards which are being broken.
Of course, it is most of all dirt that gives the roughness its edge; filth and vulgarity are natural, obscenity is joyous: with these the spectacle takes on its socially liberating role, for by nature the popular theater is anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional, anti-pomp, anti-pretense. This is the theater of noise, and the theater of noise is the theater of applause.

Think of those two awful masks that glower at us from so many books on theater - in ancient Greece we are told these masks represented two equal elements, tragedy and comedy. At least, they are always shown as equal partners. Since then, though, the ‘legitimate’ theater has been considered the important one while the Rough Theater has been thought less serious. But every attempt to revitalize the theater has gone back to the popular source. Meyerhold had the highest aims, he sought to present all of life on the stage, his revered master was Stanislavsky, his friend was Chekhov; but in fact it was to the circus and the music hall that he turned. Brecht was rooted in the cabaret: Joan Littlewood longs for a fun-fair: Cocteau, Artaud, Vakhtangov, the most improbable bedfellows, all these highbrows return to the people: and Total Theater is just a mix-up of these ingredients. All the time, experimental theater comes out of the theater buildings and returns to the room or the ring.

The Rough Theater has apparently no style, no conventions, no limitations - in practice, it has all three. Just as in life the wearing of old clothes can start as defiance and turn into a posture, so roughness can become an end in itself. [...] The Rough Theater deals with men’s actions, and because it is down to earth and direct - because it admits wickedness and laughter - the rough and ready seems better than the hollowly holy.

It is impossible to consider this further without stopping to look at the implications of the strongest, most influential and the most radical theater man of our time, Brecht. No one seriously concerned with the theater can bypass Brecht. Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theater work today at some point starts and returns to his statement and achievement. [...] He began working at a time when most German stages were dominated either by naturalism or by great total-theater onslaughts of an operatic nature designed to sweep up the spectator by his emotions so that he forgot himself completely. Whatever life there was on-stage was offset by the passivity it demanded of the audience.

For Brecht, a necessary theater could never for one moment take its sights off the society it was serving. There was no fourth wall between actors and audience - the actor’s unique aim was to create a precise response in an audience for whom he had total respect.
All this stems from a strict sense of purpose. Brecht believed that, in making an audience take stock of the elements in a situation, the theater was serving the purpose of leading its audience to a juster understanding of the society in which it lived, and so to learning in what ways that society was capable of change.
No actor can play a cipher: however stylized or schematic the writing, the actor must always believe to some degree in the stage life of the odd animal he represents. But nonetheless an actor can play in a thousand ways, and playing a portrait is not the only alternative. What Brecht introduced was the idea of the intelligent actor, capable of judging the value of his contribution. There were and still are many actors who pride themselves on known nothing about politics and who treat the theater as an ivory tower. For Brecht such an actor is not worthy of his place in adult company: an actor in a community that supports a theater must be as much involved in the outside world as in his own craft.
It is not as though the period of necessary debunking were now over. On the contrary, all through the world in order to save the theater almost everything of the theater still has to be swept away. The process has hardly begun, and perhaps can never end. The theater needs its perpetual revolution.

* * *
In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theater ‘if’ is an experiment.
In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theater ‘if’ is the truth.
When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theater and life are one.
This is a high aim. It sounds like hard work.
To play needs much work. But when we experience the work as play, then it is not work any more.
A play is play.


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