Peter Brook, The Influential British Theatre Director
The Relationship between The Empty Space and, Form and Function
On Saturday, Peter Brook, the groundbreaking British theatre director, died aged 97. It is a grand age for a grand man to live to. I remember, when I was at school in 1966, his visit to the school, Manchester Grammar School, to talk about his vision for the theatre, later encapsulated in his famous book 'The Empty Space'. I was so overwhelmed by what he said that I immediately went off into Manchester, to the Library Theatre, where he gave a public lecture on the same subject.
His passion and vision were sparks that contributed to my going into the theatre, later that year, to work. My desire was to be part of the creative process onstage, to be able to understand and pursue a vision such as his empty space. It informed much of what I thought later about theatre and the process of lighting design.
Peter Brook's Vision
Many of his productions were celebrated for stripping theatre of superfluity and distilling the drama to its essentials, presented with a clear eye and an elegant touch.
His book, 'The Empty Space', was defining vision that changed many people's approach to the the theatre for ever.
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
In the book he described four styles of theatre performance:
This covered what was generally produced in commercial and most repertory theatres.
This was the potential for theatre to achieve transcendence for performers and audience.
This involved the absence of props and preparation in performance.
This was an elusive merging of tradition and innovation, possible outside the formality and normality of theatres.
I do not intend to go into detail on his views or his theatrical innovation, the links below do a better job than I could. What I find interesting, though, is how I can distil his ideas and apply to wider aspects of culture and life. Despite work in many deadly theatres I was always excited by his idea of breaking with convention and opening up areas to innovation in a way that rejected the preconceptions people generally held.
Form and Function in Architecture
Architecture has always been an area where conventions are being questioned and often destroyed. As I worked in the theatre in the creative area of lighting, I also worked in architecture in the creative area of lighting. In both I constantly worked to question the assumptions clients and designers had about projects.
I was always fascinated by the argument in architecture between form and function. I always saw this as an echo of the Brook's ideas, especially around innovation challenging convention.
Form is the idea that the shape of a building is created to fit a style that is accepted or fashionable. Function is the idea that the shape of a building follows the dictates of the interior functions of the building.
All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and each other.
Sullivan was the father of the skyscraper and advocated for the form, the look, of the building designating what it is and what it is for. The shape defines the the architecture. The followers of modern architecture believe that the defining aspect of a building is its function, which, therefore, should designate what goes on inside, the purpose of the building. Sullivan also understood this.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and things superhuman… that form ever follows function, This is the law.
Yoga and Meditation
In Yoga a similar dichotomy can be observed. The traditional view of Modern Postural Yoga is that the asana, or posture, is the defining aspect of yoga. BKS Iyengar was one of the main teachers that brought yoga to the west. He, along with Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga, learned their yoga at an early age for Sri Tiramulai Krishnamacharya. They saw yoga as a mainly physical regime that relied on proper posture to achieve advancement. This can be seen as the form view of yoga. Krishnamacharya's son, TKV Desikachar, taught what he said was a more accurate type of yoga practice. This approach advocates a practice that is solely related to the person practicing. There is no adherence to required outward forms but a focus on the acts of breathing and moving that are right for the person. This can be seen as the function view of yoga.
The convention that most yoga practitioners follow is that of form. The alignment of the asana is the critical element that must be studied and corrected. Images of beautiful women in extreme poses on Instagram is typical of this. Practitioners must mirror what they are taught by their teachers. Function in yoga turns this on its head and focuses on the person, who they are, what they feel and what they believe. The practice is then developed accordingly. This approach is increasingly being advocated by teachers, but practitioners find it difficult to understand and follow it.
The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.
I feel that challenging convention and delving into the heart of whatever area of life you are engaged in is the way to open it up to power of a vision and the power of innovation. People die inside when they stick to convention and develop a life based on what they think it should look like. Breaking out of this and living a life that grows from the heart and spirit of you as a person is exciting and is constantly changing.
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Generations of younger directors learned from Brook the possibility of respecting the poetry while ignoring the stage directions, to create an experience that somehow simultaneously has both nothing and everything to do with Shakespeare.
He certainly influenced my life. He will be missed by many but his legacy will live on, not just in the theatre but throughout life.