The Empty Space What it takes to build a greater WE
ULRIKE REINHARD BASED UPON PETER BROOK’S LECTURE THE EMPTY SPACE
When I first read Peter Brook´s THE EMPTY SPACE I was deeply impressed by his elegant english and the power of his words to create pictures in my mind. To me his message seemed very simple: Reduce what you are working on to the fundamentally important facts and only add things if they really do improve it; Otherwise get rid of them. Always keep the greater, long-term picture in mind; take responsibility and try to make connections.
Peter Brook was talking about the theatre when he said this, but I think it equally applies to any kind of interaction between individuals no matter where they are. His lecture on The Deadly Theatre – the first of the four that make up The Empty Space – bubbled with so many metaphors that were relevant to my own work that I couldn’t resist playing around with them. And by doing so, it gradually dawned on me that Peter Brook’s understanding of what makes good theatre is strikingly similar to what OUBEY expressed in some of his paintings on hardboard. A painted version of good theatre, so to speak. But not only that: his ideas of good theatre also resonate well with what Peter Kruse says in his Encounter with OUBEYs art. Which nicely closes the circle – in this magazine at least.
The Greater WE
As we point out in the first pages of this we_magazine, we believe that the Internet has the potential to change the world for the better and to build a Greater WE. A Greater WE in the sense that more and more people are working to raise the living standards of everybody in each and every part of the world, and that more and more people are not only feeling that they should do something but also shouldering the responsibility for what they do.
To create this Greater WE it’s necessary to realize and understand more broadly what its potentials are and how we can use them so that everybody really benefits. If we don’t, there’s the danger that we might soon realize that all we’ve done is waste our resources and efforts on the wrong things.
Towards the end of The Deadly Theatre Peter Brook says, “I don’t particularly mind waste, but I think it’s a pity not to know what one is wasting.” He gives an example which is not drawn from the world of art, and has no hesitation in “translating” it into his own theatre world – exactly what OUBEY did with sciences. What he says is, “In Mexico, before the wheel was invented, gangs of slaves had to carry giant stones through the jungle and up the mountains, while their children pulled their toys on tiny rollers. The slaves made the toys, but for centuries failed to make the connection” … to use the rollers for that purpose as well.
I believe that today WE are failing in similar ways. Many of us – for whatever reasons – don’t make the connection between economy and environment, between “the rich and the poor”, between business and social, between formal and informal learning. We don’t see the connections and patterns. It seems as though we are lost and wandering within this vast complexity. And it’s the same thing on the Web: we are pretty cool in building ego chambers and using the Internet as just another communication channel. But we’ve been pretty bad so far in engaging with the possibilities these new technologies offer us and building real alternatives to existing systems. There are indeed some hopeful signs – look at Wikipedia, Global Voices, Ushahidi, the way Iceland’s new constitution was written, avaaz.org and Greenpeace campaigns, and flash mobs in local areas – but we are still a long way off from a real breakthrough. We’re not joining up the right dots so that all of us can benefit. We keep on following the “same old ways” and are surprised when we find ourselves stuck in a dead end.
Why don’t we see these connections?
Why don’t we “feel” them?
Why aren’t we aware of them?
Have we no idea of what we’re wasting?
We better should Have. Just like the slaves.
The Internet – and art too, especially OUBEYs art – is a pool and tool to make these connections. At the same time it enables us to collaborate and find helpful answers without much money being involved. What the Net definitely can’t do is to make decisions. So it is up to us and us alone to make them. However, what the Net definitely can do is enable us to find better answers.
So how do we learn not to waste these opportunities?
How can we learn to see and realize what we are actually wasting?
How can we connect the dots and make patterns visible in our efforts to build and realize this Greater WE?
Empathize and engage
Peter Brook’s opening words in The Deadly Theatre put us on the right track: “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.” He emphasizes that add-ons to such a “reduced format” can and should be made – but only if they add value! He encourages theatre people to make such valuable add-ons, and gives many examples of how this can be achieved by fragmenting the overall totality of theatre into tiny little valuable components without ever losing sight of the bigger picture.
The same goes for the Web. It provides us with an empty vulnerable space. It’s an invitation.
Just like a painting invites you: look at me!
But a good painting invites you to do more than just look at it.
It invites you to engage. Perhaps to empathize with its creator. To make contact. To encounter.
I think that we need to take this invitation on the part of the Web very seriously. We need to engage and add only those things which improve the Web in the way Peter Brook describes. Improve it to help us to build the Greater WE.
Thus we need to empathize with those who take up this invitation to find out what’s valuable for them. And we only add it if we have the feeling that it really does add value. If not, we’d better leave it. That’s WE_thinking.
When we think as WE, it’s easy enough to find out what resonates on the Web, what’s important for all of us. Just like the actor finds out what resonates with his or her audience. And this is a foundation on which we really should build.
Some people may object that such thinking is naive and unworldly. It could well be – but I still firmly believe that this is the only way to get the best out of the Web. Otherwise all WE are doing is steadily digging our own graves. Just as Peter Brook says The Deadly Theatre is doing. And WE don’t want this. It’s a waste. WE can do better.
The ME and the We
If WE need to do better, the best thing to do is that I myself start to do better. It’s our own individual responsibility. We are left alone with it. Just as Peter Kruse says in his Encounter with OUBEYs untitled picture (see p. 33): “This is a shameless picture because it forces me to assume total responsibility for my own point of view …”
What we as individuals are for the Web, the audience in the theatre is for the play. Peter Brook is very clear in saying that it’s the audience’s responsibility to get good theatre, that the audience simply gets the theatre it deserves. And he gives us a case in point: “When the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear toured through Europe the production was steadily improving and the best performances lay between Budapest and Moscow. It was fascinating to see how an audience composed largely of people with little knowledge of English could so influence a cast. These audiences brought them three things: a love for the play itself, real hunger for a contact with foreigners and, above all, an experience of life in Europe over the last years that enabled them to come directly to the play’s painful themes. The quality of the attention that this audience brought expressed itself in silence and concentration: a feeling in a house that affected the actors as though a brilliant light were turned on their work. As a result, the most obscure passages were illuminated; they were played with a complexity of meaning and a fine use of the English language that few of the audience could literally follow, but which all could sense …”
The same play with the same cast of actors was performed later on in Philadelphia. English wasn’t a problem here as it was an English-speaking audience. But even so Peter Brook realized that much of the quality had simply gone. He wanted to blame the actors, but it was clear that they were trying as hard as they could, he said. It was the relation with the audience that had changed. In Philadelphia the audience was composed largely of people who weren’t interested in the play, people who came for all the conventional reasons – because it was a glittering social event …
So what does this tell us?
Even if we know little about the Web, if we love its possibilities, are hungry to connect and are willing to address painful topics – WE will improve. Painful topics such as lowering living standards in the minority (= western) world in order to improve living standards in the majority (= developing) world. Using less energy, driving less, sharing not stockpiling, balancing what is good for ME with the needs of the Greater WE.
So it is up to us as individuals to shoulder responsibility, take action and start to build the Greater WE. Waiting for our neighbors to make the first move won’t help. First of all it’s up to ME to leave my own comfort zone.
Go with the flow
Talking about an actor on stage, Peter Brook says: “Now the audience’s concentration began to guide him: his inflexions were simple, his rhythms true: this in turn increased the audience’s interest and so the two-way current began to flow. When this was ended, no explanations were needed, the audience had seen itself in action, it had seen how many layers silence can contain.”
Obviously the Web, like the theatre, isn’t a one way street; it’s an open self-organizing structure of relationships which challenges all participants to remain open, to listen carefully, to empathize, to stay humble and not to overestimate themselves. Within such an environment or atmosphere in a theatre all of a sudden strong relationships can emerge – just as they happened between the actor and the audience. Barriers can break down. But breaking down barriers requires self-reflection and personal leadership.
To go with the flow doesn’t mean losing the bigger picture or having no vision – much more it means taking small steps smartly towards it.
No compromise needed!
“… a shifting, chaotic world often must choose between a playhouse that offers a spurious yes or a provocation so strong that it splinters its audience into fragments of vivid no’s,” this is what Peter Brook says. In my view, this is nothing less than a call for the acceptance of contrary opinions.
And once again, this is what the Web offers us. Its chaotic and complex nature shows us multiple layers of differing opinions and solutions and we have to learn to disagree and to be comfortable with divergent viewpoints.
Yet it won’t be easy and it won’t happen harmoniously. Co-creating the Greater WE and a better tomorrow won’t work in some cozy consensus; it has to be compiled in eye-to-eye discourse. If people don’t agree, it might be better to branch out and continue working on parallel solutions in the hope that at some point the results might fit together again.
Written in the late 1960s way before the advent of the Internet, Peter Brook’s reflections on the elusive dynamics linking author and actor and audience in The Empty Space seem strangely to prefigure many of the issues which puzzle and confront our own Internet entangled times. In this short final essay there is no space to do more than briefly touch on the main ways in which his writing on the theatre parallels what is happening in the fertility of our own burgeoning netscape. This is the first time that such parallels have been drawn and I hope that, as brief as my remarks have been, they may shed some light on a by no means so empty space.
PETER BROOK is an English theatre and film director and innovator, who has been based in France since the early 1970s. He directed Doctor Faustus, his first production, in 1943 at the Torch Theatre in London, followed at the Chanticleer Theatre in 1945 with a revival of The Infernal Machine. In 1947, he went to Stratford-upon-Avon as assistant director on Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labours Lost. From 1947 to 1950, he was Director of Productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His work there included a highly controversial staging of Strauss’ Salome with sets by Salvador Dalí and also an effective re-staging of Puccini’s La Bohème using sets dating from 1899. A proliferation of stage and screen work as producer and director followed.
In 1970, with Micheline Rozan, Brook founded the International Centre for Theatre Research, a multinational company of actors, dancers, musicians and others which travelled widely in the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s. It is now based in Paris at the Bouffes du Nord theatre. In 2008 he made the decision to resign as artistic director of the Bouffes du Nord, handing over to Olivier Mantei and Olivier Poubelle.
ULRIKE REINHARD is consultant, author, visionary, free spirit and passionate digital native rolled into one. Her belief in the Internet’s ability to empower people and change our lives and worlds for the better drives all her work, whether it be investigating global movements or establishing grassroots self-help projects in Africa and India.