In Peter Brooks’ “The Empty Space” and Elinor Fuchs’ “Visit to a Small Planet,” we hear an approach to theater which respects process above all else. For Brooks, this process happens in rehearsal through collaboration between director, actor, design. For Fuchs, this process happens through a careful approach of an unknown text – assuming nothing but what can be read on the page, we build a picture of a world in collaboration with the text.
Describing how his prepared blocking fell apart in rehearsal of his first large production, Peter Brook writes “…my pattern was much less interesting than this new pattern that was unfolding in front of me - rich in enthusiasms and laziness, promising such different rhythms, opening so many unexpected possibilities.” p.107 After agonizing over specific blocking – attempting to fully pre-visualize a scene with 40 actors so as to impress upon his coworkers his preparedness and experience – he realized that the each actor brought something for which he could not have possibly planned. This seems to me a lesson in the importance of consciously developing an artistic process, and respecting this process in our work. When presented with a scene very different from the one he had imagined, he chose to accept what was in from of him and refine it rather than fit reality to his imagination.
As we develop any idea into a fully fledged project, we must constantly throw away what we’ve created, reevaluate how and why we are working, and what the next steps are. For me, this is the most difficult part of any project. It is uncomfortable to face a ‘blank page’ on a project and once I find myself working within the framework of a concept, I am extremely reluctant to give that concept up. Peter Brook’s remedy to this seems to be to trust in your collaborators and in the work itself – attempt to look at the work each day with fresh eyes and without previous expectations and hopes.
As someone who tends to focus on detail more than concept, Elinor Fuchs’ “Visits to a Small Planet” was extremely comforting reading. It describes approaching a piece of theater or literature as one might approach a totally unknown society and species on a far-away planet. Before we can begin to understand the higher arc of a plot and before we can analyze characters and their psychology, we must understand the context of the world. This means that we must approach the world as though it were not our own, without assuming that any aspect about the physical or emotion world of the play matches our own. This is comforting to me because, while the essay was written for people teasing out concept and arc and psychology and whatnot from an already-formed play, it presents an alternate approach to developing concept.
Play – not theatrical, but work without clear goals or rules – can often lead to spontaneous discovery and exciting new ideas that would have been difficult to develop through a more orderly process. Fitting ideas found through play into clearly motivated conceptual frameworks, however, can be extremely difficult and make play seem useless or otherwise unnecessary. The approach in this essay – the anthropological observation of an unknown work – might prove just as useful for creating ideas as for understanding a finished work. We might observe ideas found through play for internal logic and pattern, and trust that if we do not find a pattern we understand, than the ideas are not at fault, but our understanding of them is incomplete.