Peter Brook keeping the passion alive

Acclaimed British director brings 'Sizwe Bansi is Dead' to Festival.

peter brook 88 (photo credit: )
peter brook 88
(photo credit: )
"I hate nothing more than general statements," acclaimed director Peter Brook told the nearly 150 people crowded into The Lab theater in Jerusalem last week. "And I have nothing general to say, thank goodness. So I will take questions from the audience." Brook, whose career spans over 50 years, is internationally recognized as one of the world's greatest directors. He is well-known in Israel, too. This year, he brought his play, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a political story about the evils of apartheid in South Africa with universal import about human cruelty and identity, to the Israel Festival. Last year, he was awarded the $1 million Dan David Prize for his life's achievements. Brook, 81, seemed to be directing himself, providing the audience with a real-life experience of his unique combination of craft and genius. With humor and patience, he responded generously to questions from an adoring audience for over an hour, each question an opportunity to teach and inspire by example. Brook has written numerous books on the sociology, philosophy and practice of theater, but, when asked for direction, he insists that there are no rules to follow. "You must seek that which is real and true, for the actors and for the audience." "In staging, for example, there is a moment in which actors facing the front and addressing the audience would be absurd. There is a moment where two people who should be intimate are far apart." "If you have a total respect for an audience, you become aware of what holds the audience and what loses them, you develop your awareness of rhythm and space, and it is in this way that you develop your tools." To a long-winded question, he answered, "Ah, but you must see that economy is always part of being full of meaning. Even in the most naturalistic theater, the time is limited. "But how do we keep the passion alive, day after day," a young ingenue-like student asked. "Ah, yes, the passion... Every phase can be merely banal. But two people are talking to each other, they are expressive human beings. And if you look and listen, and bring the best of yourself to their two lines, whatever they say, there is an infinite richness of humanity. And you, actors and directors, will find something that will be more true and something that is less true. And you must present that which is more true. Every time." An aspiring director asked him about the balance between an actor's intuition and one's knowledge as a director. "I start from the position that we're both wrong. The actor has feelings. But feelings are like pencils, they must be constantly sharpened. Everyone can start with gross, coarse feelings. Beginning actors feel great - but what value is there in their feelings? If you really persist, and accept that the actor and the director can help each other, you will reach the point at which you will both be able to say, 'Ah, that is what the intuition was trying to teach me, but I was not yet ready to listen.'" He is well-known for his work with actors, but stressed the audience's central role, describing a "resonance" between the actors' work and the audience's inner life. "The audience has an irreducible presence: its culture, its sensitivity, its experience of life, its quality of attention, the intensity of its perception." He segued into a lesson on movement. "If I very slightly move from my seat as if I were going to make some statement... now, don't laugh," he admonished the audience, "perhaps I will." He didn't make a statement, but the audience was captivated. "Ah, you see, there is a silence of expectation. It will not last for long. It is this moment of grace that has brought us together." Theater, he said, is truth. "Theater is a place where we live a moment with greater intensity than in everyday life, and so everyone taking part, the actors and the observers, have something that can be touched. Real theater brings together the known and the unknown. If there is nothing unknown, there is no point. If it is only poetic, it is not believable. "The people who make theater bring something unknown into the open. We do not explain it - that is the job of everyone else. In theater, what one calls the truth can unexpectedly appear and enable us to live with two points of view that normally couldn't live together. "Everyone knows that sudden moment of silence - that moment of ah! has no name, but it is the moment of truth. This is one of the reasons, he explained, behind his production of The Man Who, a play based on the book by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in which he and the actors studied PET scans and other neurological phenomena. "This play teaches us how totally unaware we are of the most fundamental things in are lives. What are we? What the hell does being alive mean? The unknown mystery of human life is the great part of theater, and if you recognize this, then you can see what potential our form has." A concluding question asked how Brook continues to produce "true" theater as art become commercialized, and theater is forced to serve merely as a palliative in the face of bleak political realities. "There's nothing wrong with people enjoying themselves," he retorted, somewhat surprisingly. Then he continued. "With television around, anyone who wants to stay home and laugh, to experience entertainment on its most simple level, can do so. So theater does have the possibility of waking up a bit to the questions of basic human identity." Theater, he said, must go beyond political commentary. "Commentary is merely a simplification. In theater, we have the rare possibility to go beyond that simplification and live questions for ourselves, with passion and humor. We can go beyond hate, beyond bloodshed, and ask what human life is worth. "Theater pays homage to the human situation. Theater offers a glimpse of generosity, without which human life is not worth living."