Olivier Theatre – Interview


5 November 1993, Olivier Theatre  – Introduced by the National’s Executive Director, Genista McIntosh

Genista McIntosh: A lot of years ago, when I was a child, I went to Stratford and saw a production of King Lear which completely changed my sense of what the piece could be. And in a sense it changed my life because it made me see that the theatre was a potential way of life. Some years later I saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aldwych Theatre, which also changed my life because the following year, going to work for the RSC, my first assignment was to work with the man who directed that production when he re-directed it for a world tour. I think probably in this audience and many thousands of miles from here on outwards, there are people who in some way would be able to tell you a similar story about how Peter Brook has touched or influenced or affected their lives. It’s a very great privilege to introduce him.

Peter Brook: I’m caught in a double trap – first hearing there are people whose lives I’ve changed but even worse, having spent years and years writing and talking about empty spaces, this vast Olivier stage is the most terrifying empty space I’ve ever seen. Just before we started someone said « Would you like a chair, a table, a glass of water? », and I was so grateful. If they would bring on the full set for the play for tonight, it would be even better. Anyway, here we are in an empty space, and one sees what a tremendous weight it puts on any performer, who has to find ways of filling it. I would say that there’s only one secret I know in working, and that is the old phrase, « Shoot first, ask questions afterwards ». I don’t think there is anything I can really share with you that is to do with the theatre, that isn’t somehow based on an experience.

So I’d like to know if you’d agree to do something now? [The audience agree]

I’ll ask you to do something very simple, without saying why, then afterwards I’ll try to say why. Of course, it’s no use unless everyone does it, yet at the same time there must be exceptions. I’m going to ask you to stand up in a moment, but of course, if there are people in the audience who say « Oh God, this is ridiculous, I don’t like this sort of thing » (and every time one does an exercise with actors, there is always somebody who grumbles, either out loud, or even worse to himself, but you can just see the lips moving). So if there are such people here, that can be accepted as part of life, as long as they’re not in a majority. If the grumblers are in a majority there’s nothing you can do, as with a group of actors, but if they’re a silent minority, still something can go on.

When I give you a signal, I would ask everyone to stand up, wait for a moment, then sit down together. [The audience does so]

Right, everyone has now performed a simple action. There is one question. Can what you just did be improved upon or not? Have we already reached the ultimate level of perfection together? If you really believe that it’s all that marvellous, we can go home with the wonderful satisfaction that a unique moment in life has been reached together. But if it isn’t the case, let’s begin to work. To do this better, there are two ways. One would be the sergeant major technique, which is to say to you « Now, all together, rise to your feet, count together – one, two, three – then sit down ». That’s the old army way. But there’s another way which can lead to something quite different. I don’t want to do more than give you a signal. But just adjust yourselves, the way you’re sitting, so that you’re ready without any waste of energy to be able to get up. Now, something else can help us, which is to say that everyone possesses peripheral vision. However you’re sitting, bring into your field of vision as many people as possible on either side. Know that you can feel the people around you. Third thing – listen. When I give the signal, stand up, wait and then find how to sit down again. We won’t say how long the pause has to be, but there is just one natural pause. Let’s see if we can find a natural timing instinctively, all together, without a leader. The first condition is to be completely prepared. The second need is that there shouldn’t be any unnecessary movement.

[The action is repeated]
Watching you, I assure you that was better than the first time. If we did this for even twenty minutes, it would be astonishing to see how it’s possible for a large number of people to become more sensitive, more alert, more perceptive to one another than when they started, just by each person making a very special effort himself. If we did this every day for three weeks, there would come a quite uncanny moment when an enormous group of people could in fact do quite difficult things together.

I said I would first ask you to do something, then say why. The reason is very simple. When a group is meeting for the first time, they certainly are not sensitive to one another in the whole of their body. I was very recently in Germany and I asked actors in the big German theatres, « Do you do any exercises? ». Either they said, « No, never », or they said « Oh yes, once or twice a week we have gymnastic classes and we work on our bodies ». But the interesting thing is that such classes help no-one except the individual, because the real exercise with a group of actors is not for the person by himself. It isn’t to make him cleverer or a better actor, or a better athlete or dancer. It’s to make a group more sensitive to itself. Something quite different. When one does exercises, it isn’t to make people more powerfully skilful, it’s to make everybody from the start quite simply more sensitive. Once a group becomes more sensitive, each person feels the reward. He begins to find (as does the director, especially if he does exercises with the actors) that as you study the work you’re doing, you are actually seeing this work better, more fully, than when you sat at home trying to do it all by yourself. Step by step, through exercise, through preparation, one begins to see that everything that matters in the theatre is a collective process. Then you come to the point where a group who have had time to prepare something meets a group like yourselves, who have come from all different corners and are sitting in seats.
Then you see that the most rewarding aspect of all theatre is when, in an extraordinary way, the audience also becomes more sensitive than it has been when it’s in the foyer or the street. That is what, to me, the whole of the theatre process is about. In big buildings, in small buildings, in the open air, in cellars – no matter where – with plays, without plays, with a script, with improvisation, no matter – it is about giving everyone who is together at the moment when there’s a performance, a taste of being finer in their feelings, clearer in their way of seeing things, deeper in their understanding, than in their everyday isolation and solitude.

That’s all the theatre has to offer, and if it happens it’s a great deal. All the rest is variations on that, but to me there is only one real test, one real way of knowing whether going to the theatre has been worth one’s time and money. These are very good standards. You go to the theatre – and in a way it’s very healthy that one should have to fight to get a ticket and have to pay for it; it’s very healthy if that gives one a real demand. And the demand is that having got there, into the auditorium, one has to have for a moment an experience that is different from the experience in the street and which makes one feel, for a second, that one is closer to the truth.

The great thing about the truth is that nobody has ever seen it and nobody has ever been able to say what it is. If anybody had been able to put into words what a truth is, the theatre wouldn’t have any reason to exist. But the theatre exists because it can take philosophers, who would cut one another’s throats because each one thinks he knows what the truth is; it can take politicians, each of whom tries to sell an idea of the truth; it can mix them with every sort of ordinary audience of all ages, and if, during the evening, something happens which brings that whole audience into one breathless moment where they don’t even ask themselves « Do I believe this or not? » it just happens, at that moment – there’s an experience which no-one can get by thought or by argument. It can’t exist on television, it can’t exist on film, both of which give other experiences. This is something which can only exist because a group of people are living something together.

« Shoot first, ask questions afterwards » is also experience first, and only afterwards try to discover what that means. That goes through every side of the experience, including rehearsal, preparation, even like tonight, talking about theatre. As I’ve no way of knowing, without your help, what really interests you, I’d like to hand this over for you to pick up the thread and help me to know what you’d like us to talk about now.

Audience question
It may sound like a silly question, but would you consider coming back to England?

PB One can’t help fairy tales arising, and there’s a sort of fairy tale that I have to explain again and again, which is that I left England in a huff! But it’s not true. I’m not an exile. For years I’ve been interested in working in many different places and conditions, and at a certain moment I discovered the tremendous richness and new possibilities that came when people from very different parts of the world worked together. The first experiment happened by chance in 1968, and it was so interesting that I decided to continue with it in 1970. It developed very naturally in the place where it had started, which was Paris, and I always meant, from then onwards, to come back to England. From working there we made many journeys and then felt we needed a base, and found a theatre that I’m very attached to in Paris. We work there and have a responsibility to it. And I’m still saying I’ve never left England. Of course I’m coming back and I’m longing to. Weeks, months and years go by, but that still remains the case.

You go to Glasgow, but we can’t see you. Isn’t there a proper space in London? We’re all dying to see your work.

PB I don’t know what you have against Glasgow! But I tell you, it’s very simple. We went to Glasgow in the first place simply because two people, Neil Wallace and Bob Palmer who were bringing the Tramway into existence, came when we were doing the Mahabharata in Zurich, with such enthusiasm, such passion and said « Come to Glasgow ». We go where we’re invited, we can’t choose. This was a pressing invitation. Of course we were delighted, and they did everything possible to see that we had the physical conditions this work needed. So naturally we were pleased to go there again and again. The offers didn’t come in the same way from elsewhere. But now, there’s a new work we’re doing in Paris about the mind, a work of research called L’Homme Qui, and we’re going to bring it not only to Glasgow but to various cities in England, ending at the National Theatre. But that is because Richard Eyre invited us.

When you get a group of actors together for a new production, on the first day, could you tell us briefly what happens?

PB I used, for years and years, to start by lining them up, showing them a model, and making a speech. Then one day, I noticed that not one of them was taking any notice of what I was saying. So after about twenty years I thought, « That’s not the way to start ». After that we tried many methods. In the sixties, with the international group, we did something which worked then, but everything must change according to its time. The international group came from all parts of the world to this space, and they’d no idea what was awaiting them or who they were going to work with. As they came through the door, I said « Close your eyes ». I then led them into the space with their eyes closed and put them together in couples. Then I said, « Feel the other person », so everybody did that and after about five minutes I said « Open your eyes ». When you have fondled somebody for five minutes with your eyes closed, you can be sure that a lot of ice has been broken. At other times we’ve had a big meal. In Paris we started a production of The Cherry Orchard with a big lunch and a lot of vodka. A marvellous technique for getting going. The best occasion was when we were doing The Cherry Orchard in New York. We had actors of all ages and I thought, I must start by doing exercises, but I know that 50% of them are not going to want to do it. If I say now, « Right, we all start doing an exercise », there will either be a very bad feeling or they’ll do it so badly that it isn’t worth doing. How can one lead people who don’t want to do exercises and have never done them, into it? Especially when you have a range from young actors who are bursting to do it, to old ones who have never done anything like this in their lives and think this is a very suspicious newfangled thing. How can one go about it? I came to the rehearsal room with no solution at all. It was freezing cold, in the middle of winter, and New York was frozen.

As I came into the rehearsal room, the stage manager said « A dreadful thing has happened, the heating is broken ». The actors were standing there, ready for the first rehearsal in their coats. Thank God, that gave the solution. I said to them, before we start, let’s do this [hugging and slapping yourself to keep warm]. Everyone began. Then I said « A little faster », then « Stamping with your feet », then « Let’s imagine there’s snow on the ground, make snowballs and start throwing them ». Before they knew what had happened, everyone was doing the fullest physical exercise for an hour and felt terrific. After which the idea of starting with movement was completely sold and we never had another problem.

Could you speak to us about, over the years, watching the acting process?

PB What I’ve learned and observed is that an actor, like every human being, has a very thin part of him which he uses all the time, and which he considers to be himself. And there’s a very deep part of him, which isn’t only the Freudian sub-conscious but something infinitely more than that. There is a vast area which is himself that he doesn’t know. If the actor uses too soon what he thinks is himself, he doesn’t go beyond that area. He invents, he creates, sometimes very strikingly, but within this narrow area that he thinks to be himself. If, by all sorts of methods of work, you can create a climate of confidence, security and trust, not only between the actor and the director, the actor with the other actors, but the actor with himself, by his feeling he can experiment and take risks, then a new process starts. The challenge of the role begins to open up what one actor once called a « number of drawers » in himself that he has never opened. This is something very simple and clear.
An actor takes a part, for instance a Shakespeare part, and before the first rehearsal, starts having ideas about it. « What can I do with this part? » And that always has in it a touch of superiority. I’m playing, maybe, Osric, or Rosencrantz, or even a part like Othello. I look down on him and say « A poor misguided man ». I’ve met actors playing King Lear who say « Well I had to find out why the poor old bugger did such an idiotic thing in the first scene ». If the actor does that, he is working from himself as he knows himself, and he believes himself superior to the part. But if you take the opposite view, whatever the part is, when you start, that part is greater than you, otherwise it isn’t worth playing. If you’re playing a fool, he is more richly foolish than you. If you’re playing a mean person he is more intensely mean than you. And if you’re playing a very rich and extraordinary character, that character has feelings and passions and depths that are well beyond you. If you believe that, then you are experimenting all the time, going towards the character, realising that you can’t reach the character. Then the character comes towards you and says « No, there is something that you thought you could never understand but you’re beginning to find it ».

We’ve heard how you’ve transformed other people’s lives, but could you say how your theatrical experiences have transformed you and why?

PB I can’t, because it’s a chain, like all experiences. Each experience is the beginning of the next experience, and obviously some experiences have more sides to them than others. When we started our Centre, and through the Centre had the experience of playing very naive little improvisations in the heart of Africa, that was an experience of life that marked all of us, myself and everyone else, as strongly as when we did the Mahabharata. To play that meant working on an extraordinarily rich, meaningful text, which touches on all sorts of aspects of social, political and inner life, and at the same time meant going out of theatres into life, and going to India. A good work brings you new meetings with new people. After the Mahabharata, the immediate need was not to do anything like that but Woza Albert with two actors, about a very specific condition in Africa. It’s not that I don’t want to answer your question, but that each experience makes possible the next.

With actors, do you often praise them? Are you often brutal?

PB I think you must praise sparingly and be brutal never. On one or two occasions over all the years I have tried the well known technique of trying to shake an actor, and have even, to my horror, once reduced somebody to tears and found that horrifying, disgusting, and not productive. So I don’t think brutality has any place.

You have empowered hundreds of actors, and in a sense a lot of audiences because of the kind of plays you put on and the way you put them on. Have you ever entertained the idea of yourself as someone who went out to people and gave them a strategy, empowered them to find the truth in their own minds or to glide smoothly from the pressures of their daily lives to a theatrical experience which might give them insight and make living that bit easier?

PB I think it’s a very important question. For ten to fifteen years around the 60s, this was a very central idea. People were going out in all directions, working directly in the community, to the point where the idea that a theatre was in any way a special place was being blasted open. The idea of an audience participating directly, being part of the theatre action became more and more widespread, and we did a lot of this at the beginning of our Centre. We played constantly for three years, but never in a theatrical context. We worked in different ways with people, with children, anywhere within a living context. I came to a conclusion, which like all conclusions is a personal and provisional one. That is there are special experiences which maybe can change a life, which demand special conditions, like exceptional concentration. When there is exceptional concentration, the experience can go farther. There are great liberating experiences. For instance now, with this big audience, there are lots of games we could play that would fill the theatre with energy. We could do vocal things, shout, sing, do a sing-song together that would give everyone a very warm, rewarding experience. But that couldn’t be as memorable and as special as if you all participated in another way. Because participating isn’t only joining in. I think this was the trap of 60s thinking, that joining in and doing the same thing as the performers is participating. There is another form of participation. The fact that an entire audience can be riveted in silence on one actor standing in the middle of this stage and saying a few words – for instance a soliloquy from Hamlet – but saying it in such a way that he touches everyone’s imagination. Each person listening is taken beyond himself and feels « Ah, this is something about my own deepest feelings that I’ve never known, and this person standing there is speaking for me and helping me to know something I couldn’t know without that ». If that happens, the audience isn’t just passive.

The audience is drawn in and is participating, and that becomes a special experience. I think this is really what one must demand of the theatre. One must respect and encourage everyone who wishes to improve social conditions by using theatre techniques. But you must recognise that one doesn’t rule out the other. A playhouse is not important in its own right; it is only valuable because a large number of people can see and hear at the same time. That’s why a playhouse where people are in a circle is better than a proscenium theatre. Because the relationship is more human. It’s the specialness of experience, which doesn’t often happen, that is the reason for this form of theatre having its place.

Audience question

My question is set in a context of our present period, when women do not have many positions of decision-making in theatre. I must also say I respect your work very much. My students every year read The Empty Space and the young women now (and I’m not trying to be politically correct) find the use of the words « him », « actor », « himself » to be difficult when they’re used generically. I tell them it was written in the 70s before these issues were raised, the ideas are excellent. However, here you are still today using language in that way, and I wonder if you could explain to me why you do that so that I can explain to them.

PB I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever, for once, with what’s behind that question. I say so not to make polemics with you but for something much, much more fundamental. I believe passionately, with you, in the meaning of attitudes and actions and don’t believe at all in the idea that by changing words and watching carefully one’s vocabulary, anything is changed whatsoever. In Paris, we have had at least twenty races, perhaps more, and at least two sexes, working together over twenty years. The action and the meaning of this action has been constantly to find what, between one human being and another, can create respect and co-existence and the possibility of working naturally together. Within this time – it’s a very interesting fact – nobody has at any point brought up racist questions in verbal terms. They have just worked together. To me that’s the only way that what is behind your question can be confronted: a genuine relationship through work, not words. I think everyone welcomes the fact that when a woman director or woman designer makes good work, one recognises them as pieces of directing or design, not as a good piece of work by a woman. I don’t think that any cast that works with a woman director feels either for or against on those grounds.

If they do, then all the words in the world won’t have any meaning. It is only through direct action that anything can be understood. If it goes wrong, questions can be asked. But the first thing is, once again, shooting first.

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