In Conversation with Peter Brook
Get a front seat to a conversation with one of theater's most renowned directors. Peter Brook sits down with a live audience to discuss technique, the purpose of theater, and advice for aspiring theater-makers. Brook is interviewed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Oscar-award winning screenwriter for the 2016 film ‘Moonlight.’
Man: Will you come a little bit stage right?
Man #2: Places, everyone.
[ Applause ]
Hi. Hi, there.
How are you?
[ Both laugh ]
[ Laughter ]
Well, I am Tarell Alvin McCraney,
an artist and also a huge fan and student of Mr. Peter Brook.
[ Applause ]
And we are old, old friends.
We are old friends.
We met a long time ago in Chicago
when you did a production of "Hamlet"...
...starring Adrian Lester, I believe in 1999,
and I was a 19-year-old kid from Miami, Florida,
who sat on a carpet around the stage,
little carpet pillow,
to see that version of "Hamlet,"
which was 90 minutes, I believe.
Oh, yes. We thought that we'd do...
I looked at the place --
It's a play that I'd always loved.
I'd even done it on a toy-store theater
when I was about 12.
But I had a feeling that, for today,
there was a need to do something with a new impulse.
So I very dangerously did
a very, very compressed cut version,
which brought the play down to, what, something like 90 minutes.
And we played it in Moscow,
and, of course, the Kremlin had to give a party to their guests,
and in them I saw Molotov,
the one that we talk about in the play,
and I went over to him.
He had a glass of vodka.
So did I, which unfortunately we haven't got tonight.
[ Laughter ] Yeah, sorry.
All we've got is water I'll give you.
It looks -- That's the old trick, you know?
That's how Churchill won the war.
[ Laughter ]
He let the Russians drink that, and particularly Stalin.
Stalin thought that they were drinking toasts,
little realizing that Churchill had carefully filled his glass
just with water,
and as nobody can tell the difference
between vodka or water, he won the war.
But anyway, with "Hamlet," I went up to Molotov,
and went up to him, greeted him,
and I said to him -- this was a special party
he was giving for the actors and myself --
I said, "Are you coming to see the show?"
"Oh, no," he said, "I'm so busy, you know?
As a minister, I have such responsibility.
I can come here tonight,
but I couldn't come to see the play."
I said, "I've just seen your Soviet production of 'Hamlet.'"
I was taken to Baku to see it.
And there it was, oh, five hours long
because they put in full ballet from the Bolshoi Theatre,
full ballet, the full Tchaikovsky score, everything.
And I couldn't believe it.
And the actor took all his time,
"To be, or..."
So I said to Molotov, "You know, you can come and see our play
because you can come in
and get out in under 90 minutes."
He said, "Oh!"
He was very impressed, but he never came.
Well, the reason I brought up that play,
not just because it's the beginnings
of where I came into contact with you, but I also --
It's mentioned in the play as a piece that Stalin hated
and that Meyerhold loved
and didn't get a chance to stage,
and that the...
Something that you said to me around that time
that you say in the play is that,
"The humans discovered something -- boredom."
[ Laughs ] Which is true, yes.
And you always have seemed to work from this place,
a very -- and, if I may say, this play is so playful.
It takes on a very serious conversation,
but it has so much play in it,
and I wonder if you could talk to us about using boredom
as a way to distill,
because there has been a few times that I've been onstage
or was performing in front of you,
and you were like, "We're bored."
[ Laughter ]
That didn't hurt my feelings at all, but...
No, but this boredom is one of the best secret motives we have
because if you feel that something has bored,
you've got to do better.
And for me, when I'm in this situation, like tonight,
often happens with a big audience,
I'm talking, and I'm talking,
and I've got, you know, a little tap in me.
So if I'm tired, I sit back and turn the tap,
and words come flowing out.
And sometimes it has happened to me --
thank God not too recently --
but as I'm always very conscious in all the work we do --
and Meyerhold talks about it -- the presence of the audience.
What does he say?
He says an "echo chamber," the audience.
Yeah, for the actor.
Yeah, and at that moment,
when I'm talking, telling something,
perhaps an old tale I've told many times,
and I'm sitting back, enjoying it,
if I just see in the audience --
and this is, to me, the great sign --
I see someone sitting like this, and I just seethat.
Ah, that's the signal.
If that person is moving,
that means that they're getting bored.
And then, from that, you see some people doing that,
doing this -- and us, in a moment --
pouring out something, drinking it.
These are all danger signs.
So our great friend is boredom.
The bringing in of the audience
into a lot of the ways in which you work,
have worked over the many years, has been in multi-platforms,
many platforms, including the theater,
and I wonder how
this observation of the audience works
in, say, film and television,
or specifically in film, where, you know, you're observing,
because I've watched you watch people watch plays you make,
and that awareness, you go back and you go,
"Last night, this happened," and so that makes us tweak
and/or work on the play in a different way.
I wonder how that often can -- Does that translate to film?
Does it not?
Everything has to be tried and tried and tried again.
And so, not only for us, previews are very important,
but very early in rehearsal,
I insist on inviting perhaps just two or three friends
and a few more so that the actor,
even when he's just feeling his way --
or she, I must say -- when they're feeling their way,
they have that comeback, and gradually.
That's why, I mean, when we started, there wasn't preview.
I think that we've done a lot to bring this
because preview is, again, part of the developing process,
and it leads to more previews
and then eventually to this thing
that I'm afraid we're living tonight, the first night.
But I've never believed to allow oneself that this is our aim.
And Meyerhold says --
I felt very close when I read him saying
the story about all our work
is aiming and developing until the last night.
Yeah, I, too, felt very exposed by this play
because one time
Jared and I had decided that we were going to --
Jared McNeill and I were in a play
we were practicing called "The Suit,"
and we had...
We were just, you know, rehearsing some things.
We were going to audition for somebody else,
but we had "planned" a little skit.
We were like, "We're gonna come in
and do this, this, and this."
And you were like, "Stop!"
Because you could see that we'd planned it.
And one of the moments in the play
that we watched tonight talks about what we do as artists
and as people, in general.
We sort of try to plan a moment to the nth degree,
leaving no room for truth.
And joy that Meyerhold brings back all the time,
that even in the most serious play --
It's all in the word.
A "play" is just play
in that sense that it isn't happening.
But I remember, as a child,
seeing somebody being killed onstage,
and the children around me were saying,
"Oh, stop, stop! He's going to kill..."
I've seen that with movies, too, for children.
But when one sees that this is just part of the process,
And you asked about films,
and I think that in film is the same thing.
Today -- There was the cutting room.
The good days, when there was something
you could feel called celluloid, and you could actually cut it
and glue bits together and then unglue them.
But so important there was the same thing,
trying it out and feeling very early that people...
And you're watching the screen,
and you're feeling the people around you.
It's the same thing.
There is that exciting moment at the end of the play.
Who hasn't seen the play? Who just came for the talk?
Okay, I don't want... Oh, okay.
No, never mind, I won't say it.
No spoiler alerts, but there is a line in the play
that talks about something that we talked about in "11 and 12,"
which is the line --
They're about to have this amazing battle,
and one of the worshipers asks the other,
"What are we about to fight this terrible, bloody war for?"
And the answer given is...
"There's my truth, your truth, and truth."
I wonder why, in the writing of the piece,
you decided to take the article out of the last portion.
Those three came from a very great African writer,
Amadou Hampâté B, when we did "Tierno Bokar."
It was all something that this great, warm,
generous African had done.
And so what did you say we'd taken out?
The article. The...
Oh, yes, because with Marcello we tried it,
and we saw that to say, "Your truth,
my truth, and the truth" is not nearly as strong
as saying something that takes a slightly different timing,
and it's not -- because the truth is beyond that.
So that to say, "Your truth, my truth, and truth"...
Listen, can I ask you some personal questions?
-Why not? -[ Laughs ]
How are you feeling?
-When? -Right now.
I was very happy to feel the relationship
between the actors tonight, all of whom were --
there was no trace of this awful thing
called a first-night tension. -Sure.
No, it was a natural shared experience.
So I felt -- I don't know if you felt that.
[ Applause ]
There are these moments in creating work,
you are done with that period of working on the work.
For example, "Hamlet," for example,
this question about Meyerhold's work.
When does the appetite for working on the piece come back?
Why, in some cases,
do some works keep coming back to us to do?
That is really simple.
As long as it's playing,
one really feels that whatever point it's reaching,
it's all of us a shared responsibility to go on,
not to sit back, even if people praise it,
and thinking, "That's just a first step,
and it can be better," and that it has to go on,
not forever because it would drive everyone mad,
but to what, thank God, is a closing performance.
So that's the process for us,
and I think that
one has to be very simple
and never sit back on praise.
Never, if people write wonderful things about one,
or if there's people at the stage door saying,
"How lovely!" one doesn't...
I think that one has to be careful of not having an ego.
There's no place in our work for ego,
tasting that and saying, "Mmm! Mmm!"
That's the tragedy of stars.
There's no difference between a star actor
and, worst of all, a star singer.
You can see that they place themselves
in the most prominent place on the stage,
and they're there just for everyone,
and a spotlight on them, and, always, we come back,
always, that even if there's a big role --
I mean, if you're playing "King Lear,"
and you're playing Edmund,
whatever the size of the big role,
you're all part of, in very simple jargon,
is a team, and everyone knows that,
in a team, during the match, every single person counts.
-Yeah. -It's the same in the theater.
What about those of...
How many young artists are in the room?
How many of us are early-career artists?
I will keep my hand down.
I'm no longer an early-career artist.
So there's folks who are just starting out doing their work.
What about -- So there's the curse of the star,
but also there's the terror of the impostor.
And so what are some words
or some thoughts in terms of getting an actor --
and even in the play we talk about every actor is unique
and how to maintain that uniqueness and not plan
and to come in and to continue that joy.
How does one continue through the rigors?
Well, you've just -- there is nothing more splendid
than what is contained in this word, a "question,"
because question is questioning.
If question brings an answer and someone --
I can't bear it when we do a little session,
a working session,
and there are young people sitting there with a notebook,
writing something down, and I say, "Don't."
If something is --
if you go home and it's forgotten,
so much the better.
But if you haven't written it down,
if it's really meaningful to you,
of course it'll stay, and that's the whole process,
so that's it's all something alive.
It's a living process.
And if one just takes away from this awful thing,
Q and A...
[ Laughter ]
...just feeling very strongly,
there's something I don't need to worry you with,
but there's something in me
that is becoming more and more important,
and I think every actor, every young director feels this.
So if you can't get an answer,
and you look at Stanislavski's books
and the methods and all that,
you have to boldly try, try, try again.
Just need a new method.
And never believe you've got there,
nor that you've found an answer.
But a question is a questioning,
and that is something very precious.
That is your lifeline.
[ Laughter ]
When you started...
First of all, you snuck up on me
because the last time I saw you was a year ago,
and this -- I didn't know you were working on this.
When you started -- When did you start this process?
Well, I should think from the day I was born, I believe.
Yeah, yeah. [ Laughter ]
The questioning, all the first part of the play,
these questions, they're not mine.
There are some little bits like the bit about God
in the beginning, which I wrote,
but all the rest is the questioning of, really,
people of great talent.
Like there's Artaud,
who we haven't been able to bring in,
but who actually wrote something which is,
"It's only when I act that I feel I'm alive,"
and that many actors could...
Perhaps you could feel that at times?
But all of this is this living process
that we're a part of, and one can do a little...
I mean, you can do a little play,
it's worked in a small theater,
and then, six months later, you feel,
"Oh, I really could develop that better."
It's the same with the greatest things of all,
which is the plays of Shakespeare.
There is no end to the process.
You know, when I've done a play that's been successful,
and once there's a producer saying, next season,
"Look, if you could come and do this play again,
then I promise you it could make a lot of money."
I said, "But once something is finished,
the last thing is just warm it up again."
But with the passage of time,
you begin to see a completely new slant.
"Ah!" And that gives you a reason to go back to it.
That must be the way you work, though.
Listen, you brought up acting, which is terrifying.
They're always trying to get me to get back onstage.
We had this conversation at dinner
because the way in which, again, I found Peter and Marie-Hélène
was in an audition room for "The Suit,"
which is a play that's beautiful,
and if you haven't seen it, you should see it or read it.
And then what happened?
Oh, I got accepted to Yale for playwriting,
and then the production of "The Suit" fell apart.
And I said, "Peter, I got to go to school."
And Peter said, "Fine."
So he called up the dean and said,
"Well, Tarell was in a play with me, and now he's not,
so he's got to go to school now."
[ Laughter ]
Which was a really great gift because acting is really hard.
No, that isn't the complete story.
Oh, what happened? What else happened?
What am I leaving out?
We did this audition with Tarell.
We didn't know him, but we thought, "My God.
Here is a very, very remarkable young talent,"
and wanted right away
to put you in the play we were auditioning for.
And then we realized
that it would be wickedly selfish on our side
because, if you came to us,
you would have to give up something that,
in the long run, was so important to you,
which is going back to the studies and all that.
So we said, "Good.
Now go on with your studies."
And I think it was a good decision.
Me too. [ Laughs ]
Well, yeah, I sent -- I gave you a play,
and you said that it was remarkable,
so that I should continue doing it.
And then I developed even more stage fright
and have not since got back onstage,
except for last year -- or this summer --
when I did a play in Chicago, which then just reminded me
how much I don't want to be onstage.
You know, my greatest blessing
is that very early on
when I was a young person who wanted to do everything,
I discovered that I was a dreadful actor.
And it was so marvelous to discover that,
that I was never again tempted to be an actor.
Right. And I'm a good actor.
I just hate acting. Oh, yes.
[ Laughs ]
It's difficult because of the reason that you're saying,
which is that the actors
have to contend with the socializing of the world,
which most of us, from the time we leave our house
to the time we get to rehearsal,
are conditioned to not be vulnerable.
Right? To be strong.
Some of us more than others, right?
We're conditioned to -- to wall everything out.
And then we have to come into a space,
and our single job is to be open,
to be curious, to be joyful.
And that is a great stressor.
And I think sometimes, especially as young artists,
I find I have to talk my --
I have to talk artists down, have to say,
"Look, I know it was hard getting here on the subway.
I know it was hard, you know?
But somehow let us create this moment a safer space."
And I wonder, with the idea that theater is a dangerous weapon,
what at the core is --
why that safety of actor makes it so dangerous,
why that safety that we create makes it so dangerous.
There was a time when everyone was saying
we must do popular theater,
but has to recognize --
look 'round this place at the moment.
Theater, it's not an elite.
It's, by its very nature, for a small number of people.
The moment you see that, then people say,
"Well, do you think that --"
I've done political plays, social plays --
"Do you think this can change the world?
So that's absolutely ridiculous.
Look at the mess that the big leaders
are making at this moment.
What we can do -- because the space is concentrated,
the time is concentrated,
so there's a very special intensity
to the theater experience,
and that if it's really strong enough,
then even in one hour
people can have an experience just for them
that touches them.
And we've heard this so often, people saying,
"There was something in that play that left a mark on me,
and I've been thinking about it many times since."
I think that if we can manage doing that --
not for everyone, but if a few people leaving,
saying they haven't wasted their time,
something has been touched.
And that's food for thought, food for all sorts of things.
And in that way, a play is political.
I believe very much, with great faith,
in the principle that every drop counts.
And if, like tonight, if one of us,
just you and me and perhaps one or two people
who we hope won't even try to speak about it,
just go home, and something is there which remains...
That justifies theater.
I think one of the things that drew me
to continuing our work together is the rooms you assemble.
Every time I've walked into the room to work on a project,
I've met artists from many different levels
of tenure in the art,
people who have just started acting,
who have never acted before.
Writers who are asked to then perform.
People who make novels.
I wonder, in your --
when did you find that to be the way in which creating art
was really successful --
or not successful but interesting?
When did collecting people...
I would never think that we are creating.
I think that's too pretentious a word.
And "art" is too pretentious a word. -Got it.
But we are always on an expedition.
We're always traveling together.
And if for a moment
a small band of people can vibrate strongly,
thank God, that's marvelous.
But to then say, "Why don't you do this in a public park
with 10,000 people and with microphones?"
you know that that's not possible.
What did Meyerhold say?
That the theater is like a magnifying glass.
That's beautifully put.
And I have known, on occasions, people --
even people going towards a very dangerous operation
the next day,
and just the play has just helped them
not to have a sleepless night,
not to go into the operating theater terrified
but just with a feeling of confidence.
And they always said --
I have a friend of mine who said
that his aim as a doctor, very fine specialist,
he said, "My aim as a doctor
is not to cure all the diseases of the world,
but just, whoever comes into my consulting room,
and I know that often I must give them
the most terrible news,
but I aim is for them to leave the consulting room
feeling better than when they come in.
If I've told them terrible news
about how the disease is progressing
and they go out suicidal, I haven't done my job."
I think this is the same for theater,
that our aim is for...
whatever their preoccupations in the everyday world,
leave feeling a bit better for short time.
Is there nobody here who wants to ask us anything?
Oh, I was told not to do that, but, hey...
[ Laughter ]
You're running the show.
[ Laughter ]
I have great feeling for Chekhov
and of Michael Chekhov and what he's done,
but that comes into this enormous melting pot
where are so many talented people doing so much.
And I think that really just to pick on one person,
I couldn't do that.
And I know he's a very fine person.
Theater is a distilling of life for a very short time.
If we did this and really behaved like
the characters in a play at home,
I mean, it would make life intolerable.
[ Laughter ]
And that's why, for me, I've never known --
sometimes I hear actors saying,
"Oh, the audience tonight, they were just awful.
I said, "No, there is not such a thing as a bad audience."
The better the mixture.
That's why we started welcoming people
of different races, different languages.
An audience is the people who tonight --
I have no idea sitting here who any of you are,
how you've come together,
but I must feel -- we both must feel --
just that the only thing that is important
is what flows between us.
And we can't assume -- I mean, I talk now,
but I don't assume the responsibility,
nor do you, of making sure that you've got your money's worth.
We can just do our best.
And you can always say, "I didn't get my money's worth."
I think that we both agree all we can do at each moment
is to do the best we can.
I've always found --
you talk about a play that remains even today
very close to my heart, which is "The Ik,"
and that was very special,
about the tremendous suffering of a tiny tribe in Africa
that were being completely forgotten and abandoned,
and in fact they were still alive.
And one person came to me and gave me a pipe,
said, "If you sniff it, you can sniff...
...the life around the Ik."
And these are what we long for.
And in performance,
we're never, never, never
to have something that we want to sell to the audience,
We're not here -- we're not preachers.
None of that. We're just trying.
And the two great words are "shared" --
living "shared experience."
And that's why the director can be --
I hate the word "director" because it suggests this,
what you see in the old films,
the man sitting there with this big megaphone.
But the word...
Said that's a dreadful word
because it suggested the "putter"
that's telling the actors where to sit and where to go.
If one says that a director is the person...
Somebody has to have a sense of direction.
The director has studied the work
and feels that we should go this way.
Like a guide.
And then in rehearsal can feel like any guide --
"I've made a mistake.
We must go back and go that way."
That's how it has to be.
That's what I mean by a living process.
The director is set on working out what he has to say,
and that my own experience I can share with you is that
the best things in any production
I've been connected with from the day --
out of 10 other productions, 10 other possibilities,
this seemed to be the right.
There is a very mysterious living process
by which the true decisions aren't made by oneself,
they don't make by sitting and working out,
"What do you think I should do?"
No. All of that is clearing the ground for something.
And you must know it must come to you sometimes
in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, yeah. Yeah.
You can't find the answer.
It's like when you're trying to remember somebody's name,
and then you just let be.
What are the keys and ways
in which you stay open and curious
about the world around you
even though the world is pressuring you
to do the opposite?
That is a question,
if I gave an answer to it,
I would be doing a monstrous injustice.
If you have that question,
that, for you, in your field, in your way,
is something for you to carry with you.
And that's what one calls them -- "burning question."
So keep with it and don't think
that I could let you off the hook.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]