Walking the Tightrope: Reflections on Peter Brook

An abiding and surprising inspiration is there every time I have entered into a theater experience envisioned by Peter Brook. This English dramaturge is responsible for reinvigorating our contemporary experience of theater, re-interpreting classics from Shakespeare to Beckett through a theatrical vocabulary not tied to language. This shift from surface obsessions with rhetoric and stage dressing to feeling the action continues to bring textual experiences alive in what Brook refers to as a “Holy Theatre”:

  • I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.

In opposition to the “Deadly Theatre” pervading British theater in the 1970s, Brook decided to gather an international group of actors in Paris for what eventually became the International Center for Theater Creation. What fascinates me about Brook is how someone born in suburban London in 1925 to Jewish immigrants from Latvia has grown into a master in our time, one with an uncanny ability to fuse the avant-garde with bourgeois theater. Brook shared his approach to cultivating the “Holy Theatre” in a recent documentary about his approach to theater called, The Tightrope. For the very first time in decades, Peter Brook agreed to lift the ban and raise the curtain to allow his son, Simon Brook, to reveal on film the secrets of his approach to theatre. Filmed in total immersion of a week long workshop with five hidden cameras, The Tightrope plunges us into the intimate aspects of Brook working with his troupe of actors and musicians. Without disturbing the truth of the moment, the film reveals the magic of the “Invisible-Made-Visible” that takes place through the creative process. At the standing room only screening of The Tightrope, the crowd at BAM cinemateque were holding onto Brook’s every word, including his irreverent critique of “Deadly Theatre” that years later after its exposure in The Empty Space (1968), somehow still pervades most of our exposure to theater. Brook has been adamant over the years in refusing to allow any “flies on the wall” to witness his theater workshops. What this new film attempts is to betray the master’s interdiction by concealing itself from the actors partaking in the workshop at numerous hidden angles so the actors can simply “be” rather than “act”. It is a unique and personal film that takes us through the intimacy of a workshop, to realize how life itself fully lived is likened to the experience of walking on a tightrope. The awareness that permeates one’s entire embodied being is felt in traversing Point A to Point B–in between the story unfolds and we cannot escape it. Brook’s workshops–The Tightrope being one of many such exercises– allows him as a director to work with the “group mind” of actors to translate classic texts by stripping them away to their bare essence and then using that exposed core to facilitate what ritual theorists call a transformance, that is, a transformative performance. When you leave any of Brook’s productions, you have encountered a “Holy Theatre”— a moment where every grain of time is mined through its deeper spiritual intention, seeking to reveal the concealed illumination that courses through life. While Brook is more Gurdjieffian than Jewish in his philosophical outlook, there is clearly an abiding lesson here in his quest for “Holy Theatre”—to reveal that concealed illumination in the texts of our lives through masterful translation and teaching. Aside from guiding the future of theater and ritual performance, to me, this quest for “Holy Theatre” remains the core in the calling of an effective public intellectual, philosopher and rabbi.

About the Author
Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. serves as rabbi at Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is the author of Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013), A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry: How It Redeems Jewish Thinking (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2009).
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