It’s rare that a school assigned reading can make me cringe so badly that I have to put it down and walk away for a second. But that’s what happened while I was reading Peter Brook’s “The Deadly Theatre.” It’s not that I didn’t like the article; I actually found it very illuminating. It was that his cutting description of a certain kind of theater rang so true to some of the projects that I have personally worked on that even thinking about it was cause for embarrassment.
Before coming to ITP, I spent six years working for a LORT theater in Denver (I don’t wanna name names, but there’s really only one…) While the company occasionally did good work, just as often the product that it put out felt… tired. Obligatory. It was obvious that some plays existed, not because they were the play that people wanted to do, but because they were the plays that people expected to do. I remember taking a date to an opening night production of The Glass Menagerie that I had done a little bit of work for. After the show, we went to the lobby for the party, and everyone there was visibly deflated. The play didn’t feel like an accomplishment so much as it felt like one more box checked for the year. My date, who had spent a long time in amateur theater around town, turned to me and said, “This is the most depressing opening night I’ve ever been to.” It was at that moment that I realized just how deadly the work we were doing there truly was.
How can we avoid this Deadly Theater? At a certain level, working as a theater professional means that you eventually will be doing work out of obligation. Is it possible to avoid such a thing?
A couple weeks ago, I saw a show called “Date Me”. The show was a mish-mash of rom-com clichés, gay best friend and everything, molded into a contemporary live sketch show with a loose overarching narrative about online dating holding it together. The actors, doing what sketch comedians do, tried to compensate lack of depth with an increase in volume It was ultimately fine, but kind of tired. I think Peter Brook would call it deadly.
However, for me at least, the show really came alive during improv interludes (I think there were three of them over the course of the show). I don’t know how many felt the same way, but I found myself unconsciously exhaling a bit. While during the scripted bits it seemed like the actors were forced into the broad caricatures drawn by the script, during the improv sections they felt more relaxed, and like they could respond to the audience’s mood and go where they needed to go organically. It felt immediate.
If it feels like I’m advocating improv over scripted theater, I’m not. Lord knows there’s enough deadly improv out there. But I think it’s interesting that Brook’s prescription for “immediate” theater involved a lengthy rehearsal process on the part of the director. He bemoans the harsh Broadway rehearsal schedule that he feels doesn’t allow a director and an actor to find the right approach on their own, but rather just gives an actor time to learn rote moves, often pre-planned by the director. It feels like the approach that Brooks advocates is borderline-improv, in that he asks actors to try things and adapt to the audience’s response (in this case the audience being the director.) In this way, actors and directors can hopefully create a show that is simultaneously immediate and replicable.
In some ways, Brook’s approach reflects the ethos put forward by Elinor Fuchs. In Fuchs’ essay “Visit to a Small Planet,” she asks us to, before taking a deep dive into any details of a play, to “squint your eyes” and try to take in the “world of the play.” She asks us then to gradually understand the details of how this world operates, going from more general to more detailed. I think that Peter Brooks likes to treat directing and designing in the same way. He has to be in the room with his cast to understand the “world” in which he operates before he can really move on to finer details.
Immediacy is just as important for a designer as it is for an actor, but in many ways it’s harder to achieve. While an actor might worry about their performance growing stale, a designer’s work is usually canned from the moment the curtain rises on opening night. Does that mean that our field is doomed to be “deadly”? The trick, I think, is to be in open two-way communication with the director, and to be understanding and open to how the play is developing in the rehearsal room. Brook himself described a similar process when he wrote about designing some of his own sets. This isn’t an easy thing to achieve, either mentally or technically. Staying open and fluid during rehearsal is one thing for an actor, but another thing when you’ve spent dozens of hours working on one particular vision of a show, only to see that your vision no longer fits with the way the play is going. But this kind of flexibility is crucial.
Brook says of a stage designer that, “the later he makes his decisions, the better.” To be honest, I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve found that being prepared going into a rehearsal process is one of the best ways to stay fluid. It’s hard to be creative when you’re crunched for time. But I do agree that we need to arrive at conclusions alongside our ensemble, and that our work needs to fit in with theirs in order to feel complete. Stage designers are part of the performance, and as such we need to be able to adapt to the show’s needs, just like a performer does.