Songs for the Struggling Artist

That Thing Playbill Said About Peter Brook
July 20, 2022, 12:30 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process, space, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

If you’re not a theatre nerd, you may not be aware of the stature that Peter Brook, theatre luminary who recently died at age 97, had with us theatre folk.  His book, The Empty Space, is the sort of text your theatre friends are likely to wax rhapsodic about. It has changed a lot people’s lives and inspired many a theatre maker to make more artful, high minded art. The Empty Space encourages us to both be simpler and more exacting in our work. He talked about how theatre is as simple as an empty space in which something happens and also, you better really think about what happens in there, especially for your audience.

It felt like Brook was always challenging the field to boil itself down to a more essential state. He was our theatrical philosopher. He held the ideals for the field. If you got distracted by all the nonsense of show business, you could always turn to Brook for a dose of idealism and aspiration. I know many a theatre maker who, when feeling despair about what to do next about their theatre career, would re-read The Empty Space to refresh their sense of purpose. He was a beacon for a theatre of art. I have often been surprised when people who I imagine to have sold out, who don’t seem to care about the art part, who seem to be just leaning hard into the business or entertainment, suddenly pull out their copy of The Empty Space and get dreamy looks on their faces. Brook was good for the theatre’s soul, I think.

All of this is why I found it kind of hilarious that, when he died, Playbill tweeted only one thing about Peter Brook, which was that he had three Tony Awards. Of all the things there are to say about Brook, his Tony awards seem to me to be the absolutely least consequential. Of all the many ways he mattered, the Tonys may have mattered least.

Now, it is a credit to the Tonys that they managed to honor an artist like Peter Brook at some point. But awards are almost always behind the curve. Like, the MacArthur Genius Grant went to Lin Manuel Miranda, not in his early days when he was lugging his keyboard around for his first musical, but years after Hamilton became a hit. Awards often miss the genius moment and I don’t even know what Brook’s Tony Awards are for and I don’t care. I have some guesses. And most of them are probably from his early career. Cool. Pat yourself on the back, Tony Awards! You chose well that year. Those years? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Not to most of us. Not to all the theatre geeks clutching their copies of The Empty Space to their chests.

Peter Brook made some exciting theatre. He made shows that people talk about decades after they happened. I’ve seen work of his that I loved and work that I thought really stank. And it’s not as simple as the early work is good and the late work is bad. I saw a fairly recent show of his a couple of times (because I know one of the actors) and it was so simple and full, all at once. Then in the same period, I saw a show of his that I just didn’t care for at all, so I just tried to forget it as soon as I saw it. I respect his failures somehow. Like any artist, Brook wasn’t a genius all the time. But his importance to us, as a field, is as someone who held the line for art, not just some guy who won three Tony awards one time. We don’t have many of those line holders left. We lost a beacon. We lost a lighthouse.

* My favorite piece about Brook in the wake of his death was THIS one by Helen Shaw. It really speaks to the complicated legacy a great theatre maker leaves behind.

Screenshot of Playbill’s Tweet. I mean…

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