THE EMPTY SPACE 50 Years Later

A theater essay by Scott Klavan

The Empty Space, by the British director Peter Brook, was published in 1968, to both admiration and discomfort. Derived from a series of lectures begun in ’65, its description of the state of modern theatre, confrontation with the art form’s past failings, and encouragement of its future potential, was blunt, informed, rebellious, new. Appreciative critics of the period included Time magazine: “Theatergoers who care about the nature and destination of contemporary drama will be drawn to The Empty Space with ravenous interest.”

While traditional theatre companies and practitioners may have blanched at Brook’s critique of the status quo, the piece soon became a reference point on how to remake the dusty ancient stage, shifting uneasily into an age dominated by film and TV. As Adrian Noble wrote in a 1993 assessment in The Independent, the book “heralded an era of radical formal experimentation… Studio spaces, little black boxes, sprang up all over the country, allowing the classics to be explored in intimate relationship to the audience, and new writers further to deconstruct the well-made play.”

But that was then, and as Brook himself writes, “As you read this book, it is already moving out of date.” In 2011, an on-line commenter, then 27, crystallized the issue: “…I was born in 1984, the author has literally no knowledge of any performance I have ever seen in my life, nor have I seen any of the performances he describes. …it’s hard to relate his opinions about the state of theater to today….”  Fifty years later, is The Empty Space still relevant? How has the theater changed since its publication, and is it for the better or worse?

Deadly Theatre

The Empty Space breaks down the theater into four categories: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. Deadly Theatre is staidly bad, and the state of its reputation has grown dire: “All through the world theatre audiences are dwindling…the theatre not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains…” Theatre had bowed down to tradition, become intellectual, dully respectful, was not a “true experience,” and so, mediocre, simply unnecessary. He contrasts this with the possibility of a “living theatre,” a “theatre of joy.” In 1968, Brook placed some of the blame on economics. Strict budgets caused plays to rehearse for a paltry three weeks. “On Broadway ticket prices are continually rising” and the audience that can afford it is shrinking; “eventually one last millionaire will be paying a fortune for one private performance for himself alone.” Playwrights, critics, and audience are all culpable, all have created the problem, all can help solve it. But only if they can answer: “Why theatre at all? What for?”

Holy Theatre

Holy Theatre is “The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible,” a concept rooted in the spiritual origins of the art form. After the cruelty and animalism of World War II, audiences were yearning for the grandeur of the past, “a reaching back, to a memory of lost grace.” But by 1968, the world had lost a vital connection to a sense of otherworldly majesty, and “we now find ourselves rejecting the notion of a holy stage.” We were no longer looking out and above for transcendence; spirituality was nothing more than mundane lessons taught in Sunday School, “a middle-class weapon to keep children good.” Brook lauded theater artists of the time who still acknowledged “that the world of appearance is a crust…under the crust is the boiling energy we see if we peer into a volcano,” among them Antonin Artaud’s Theatre Of Cruelty, and playwright Samuel Beckett. They, like the exemplar Shakespeare, continued to seek “Poetry, nobility, beauty, magic.”  A modern audience, disillusioned with institutions such as the Church, shrugging off inhibiting concepts of respect and morality, still thirsted for a Holy Theatre to move and inspire them. But “where should we look for it? In the clouds or on the ground?” 

Rough Theatre

It may be up to Rough, or popular theatre, to “save the day.” Theatre performed in barns, the streets, crude, even obscene work that eschewed boundaries and time-honored topics and presentations. “If the holy makes a world in which a prayer is more real than a belch, in the rough theatre, it is the other way round.” The iconoclastic ‘60s bred a disrespectful culture, energetic and fun in its nose-thumbing irresponsibility. “[T]oday, roughness is livelier and holiness deadlier than at other times.” Brook praised Bertolt Brecht, whose plays challenged societal/political rules and attitudes, and became a major influence on the director’s innovative production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. But the Holy and Rough can exist together—something Shakespeare did with regularity—in fact, to exclude one is to limit the theatre anew. “[W]e must endeavor not to bamboozle ourselves into thinking the need for the sacred is old-fashioned and that cosmonauts have proved once and for all that angels do not exist.” Audiences of 1968 had seen through the artifice, and needed a new kind of magic: “We must open our hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin.”       

Immediate Theatre

In 1968, Brook wrote presciently that “we live less and less in villages or neighborhoods, and more and more in open-ended global communities.” But they have this in common: “Most people could live perfectly well without any art at all,” because it has no immediate value. The Immediate Theatre has a unique function; it is where “a living confrontation takes place.” To illustrate, in his final chapter, Brook presents practical advice for directors working to produce special, essential stage work. The work cannot be based solely on formulaic technique, nor the realistic emulation of life represented by the Method; it has to be a flexible mix. Actors in rehearsals should utilize improvisation, but always, the artist must return to the repetition, the technical, to combine Form with the inspiration of the Moment. “Then suddenly he bursts a barrier and experiences how much freedom there can be within the tightest discipline.”  Brook gives the example of psycho-drama in an asylum as a model for “necessary theatre-going.” The patients sincerely need the drama to improve their life, ease their pain. They leave the session changed. “When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself—then something in the mind burns.” But there is no one right answer. Regardless of all he has written, ultimately, theatre is transient, variable, inconstant. “Truth in the theatre is always on the move,” says Peter Brook. And that’s the fun, the play of a play.

Desperate Theatre 

In 2018, Brook’s four categories might be recreated to reflect our current theatre, and culture. Instead of a Deadly theatre, one dependent on established forms of a traditional past, at least in America, we now have a Desperate Theatre, one that, if it is aware of art history at all, does anything to escape it, living in dread of being exposed as corny, unhip, out of step with youthful 21st century attitudes. From the choice of which new plays are funded and staged—usually having to do with hot-button current events and socio-political issues—to the manner of staging—the constant, loud and busy use of tech, projections, heavily mic’ed actors in non-traditional positions, speaking in profile or back to audience—to the actual  writing—short scenes (and plays) with comparatively little dialogue, casually conversational and colloquial, there is a sweaty, fervent avoidance/rejection of what Brook calls “perpetual elements…fundamental issues that underlie all dramatic activity.” While this out-of-breath search for newness is often brilliantly executed, yielding electricity, surface excitement, something important is shunted to the side: “…if we try to simplify the problem by making tradition the main barrier between ourselves and a living theatre we will again miss the real issue.”

The economic deadliness that Brook describes has only worsened. Rehearsal periods are still scrunched and truncated, almost identical to the process Brook warns against in Empty Space. Ticket prices have skyrocketed beyond what the author could likely ever have envisioned. “Broadway is…a machine into which a great many parts snugly interlock. Yet each of these parts is brutalized…deformed to fit and function smoothly.” Money fear causes fear of failure; failure fear causes fear of risk, trust, growth. Brook’s world was lacking the “true unspectacular intimacy that long work and true confidence in other people brings about…”  Today, the unconscious discoveries an actor might make on-stage, if they have time and preparation to make them, are still frowned upon by producers as scarily unpredictable, untrustworthy. If bosses could put a videotape of the performance on stage and get away with it, they would. Here, 1968 and 2018 merge.

Corporate Theatre

Holy Theatre has metamorphosed into Corporate Theatre. The goal is no longer to delve beneath the surface, make the Invisible Visible, but to keep things where we can see and control them, eliminating unnerving surprises, keeping it all comfortable, familiar, distracting us from the terrors and perplexities that lurk beneath. There is nothing unseen, appearance is all. Death won’t happen and God has been fired, replaced by a benevolent CEO. Corporate Theatre is literal, as much funding of big-scale musicals comes from Disney and other conglomerates—unlike the “angels” and independent theater companies of ’68—and the play has become another means to sell a product that already exists. (Many if not most musicals are based on hit films or cartoons or TV shows.) And it’s philosophical. Characters live on-stage in fantastical yet prototypical “groups.” What are Mean Girls, anyway, really? There’s no such thing, of course, it’s just a lazy simplistic way to gather, sort, and categorize messy, complicated individuals. The hit musical from the hit film is making bank by playing off a modern collective cliché. Numerous shows share theme and message: “Outsiders” long to join in, and are “empowered” by their acceptance as part of the gang. The impetus is not really artistic, but financial. If characters can think the same way, so can the audience, and become ideal consumers, who can all be sold the same thing in the same way. (It would be refreshing to see a musical about a misfit who finally just gave The Finger to everyone and ran off stage mid-song as the lights went out.)  The “alienation” of the audience that Brook praised in Brecht’s plays is anathema to Corporate Theatre. Anyone looking for the “sacred,” for “nobility,” is a boring, pretentious, full-of-themselves Party Pooper, spoiling the fun, and profit. Theatre productions no longer “seek for an invisibility to interpenetrate and animate the ordinary.” No, the ordinary is just fine. Embrace it—oh, and together, let’s buy.

(Mean Girls and other current musicals, from Wicked to Waitress, catering to an adolescent sensibility, are basically saving the faltering finances of Broadway, while straight plays bleed money. But saving it for what purpose? Musical grad theater programs are plentiful, more diverse groups are on stage and backstage. The talent is huge, the enthusiasm strong. But as Brook asks: “Why theatre at all? What for?”)   

Smooth Theatre  

Rough Theatre is now Smooth. Certainly, there are few, if any, grass-roots companies that influence the art form in this country, and if some are successful overseas, they only come here in short-burst festivals and vanish back to Europe. It could be argued that the last home-grown theater group to make a mark in the U.S. and then internationally was Steppenwolf, which began in Chicago in the ‘70s. Rising rents and gentrification have kicked small theaters out of Manhattan and while young people still occasionally throw up a play, the beginning energy has shifted to the Internet, phones, and film. Theatre reviewers once able to promote fledgling groups have mostly been fired and their newspapers closed. The ubiquitous, admired tech of movies, video games, et al, is flat, even, easy to edit and clean, to make “perfect,” and that has taken the zest out of the notion of experimentation, and failure, that served as the motor for ‘60s work. In very recent days, political correctness and various forms of Me-Tooism have brought anxiety, even panic, silencing the “theatre of noise,” sweeping up the “dirt that gives roughness its edge”; scrubbing the natural “filth and vulgarity,” trying hard to eliminate theater and all art’s “socially liberating role.” Smooth Theatre has the field to itself.   

Whenever I Feel Damned Good And Ready Theatre

Which leads to Brook’s last section, Immediate Theatre; nowadays it isn’t all that urgent. We could call it: Whenever I Feel Damned Good And Ready Theatre, one that panders to its audience, fearing to jolt them out of sleepy complacency and self-satisfaction. The audience doesn’t bring a serious need into the building; it mostly wants a hiding place, a respite, pleasure. Need implies humility and the audience has been coddled into conceit. The crowds who cheer with delight at Come From Away get off on the performers’ undeniable energy, skill, commitment. All to the good. Like Brook, this writer feels, “entertainment is fine.”  But I would also agree when he says, “I don’t particularly mind waste, but I think it’s a pity not to know what one is wasting.” The audience has lost touch with theatre as necessary conflict, as something that will challenge, stimulate, bring something to a boil, touch something within a person that needs to be touched, now. Brook writes: “a shifting chaotic world often must choose between a playhouse that offers a spurious ‘yes’ or a provocation so strong that splinters its audience into fragments of vivid ‘nos’.” It’s all Yes now. Basically, all plays and musicals offer a high-priced show with the same unthreatening, non-judgmental, non-personal, quasi-soft-kind-of liberal political point of view. To keep the audience cheerful, petted, keep them coming back. Anyone who can’t afford the ticket, or doesn’t agree with a monolithic anodyne p.o.v, has long stopped going.       

Peter Brook is now 93 years old. His productions of Marat/Sade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Mahabharata, Carmen, and so many more, films of King Lear and Lord Of The Flies, enlivened classics, told old stories with vision and vitality, new ones with mixtures of erudition and earthiness. In his seminal book The Empty Space, Brook talked the talk; in life, on stage, he walked it. But fifty years after the piece’s publication, it seems the space is now not empty, but Too Full. With flashing lights, jacked-up sound, money and music, belting, bromides, a noisy panoply of diversions to keep us from truly experiencing, feeling, listening. Brook writes: “We have largely forgotten silence. It even embarrasses us; we clap our hands mechanically because we do not know what else to do and we are unaware that silence is also permitted, that silence also is good.”

To find a new path: let’s first be quiet.

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.

Scott Klavan reviews Angels in America at EIL

Scott Klavan reviews Fire & Air at EIL

Scott Klavan reviews Come From Away at EIL

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