The Empty Space of Street Theatre

Peter Brook's 1968 book “The Empty Space” examines theatre from the perspective of a multiple award winning theatre director. He examines four points of view on theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, and Immediate. This is an attempt to apply this book to my own work in what is possibly the “Roughest of the Rough”: the street. Though many of my performances do not currently take place in the street, it's where I learned, and whether one's performance takes place on the closed-off street of a major festival, the thoroughfare of a county fair, or at a renegade pitch in front of a busy train station at rush hour, I think many of the points will still resonate. For the purposes of this essay, any outdoor theatre performance characterized by an audience that must be gathered, did not purchase tickets, and are prone to leaving at any time will be called “Street Theatre”.  

To summarize the book in one sentence: Deadly Theatre is bad, Holy Theatre is transcendent, Rough Theatre is revolutionary, and Immediate Theatre is the goal.

Brook's writings on Deadly Theatre echoed a lot of concerns I've had over the years about the state of Street Theatre. Life and death are clear categories in terms of a person, but in terms of theatre are more difficult to distinguish. Performers often imitate the old ways, mimicking sounds, mannerisms, jokes, or even entire routines of previous generations, who in many cases were just imitating those before. What results is a photocopy of a photocopy, the quality getting progressively worse and more removed from the original source (the “life”) which created it. Adhering to tradition is not the only problem, as any Street Theatre artist knows, economic concerns are another barrier to creating living theatre. The immediate need to make money from one's art encourages short-cuts, borrowing heavily from the past, and uninspired gimmicks, while discouraging the artistic examination and work that may seem like a fruitless endeavour, but is ultimately necessary to create something more alive.

“Theatre is a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind.”

This is to say that once a routine is set, or even an entire show is solidified, it slowly starts to die. I've had conversations with Street Theatre artists about how a show can only be performed a certain number of times before it loses its spark. There are many examples where a show which seemed fresh and unique, after having been repeated hundreds of times over several years, fails to make the same connection it once did. At the Stratford Theatre they discuss how 5 years is about as long as a particular staging can live. I really related to this: the first few years of creating my Street Theatre show were full of exploration and discovery, the next couple were a process of solidifying the act, and then I started feeling something was off. I was beginning to sense the decay of what was once my pride and joy.

Brook touches on the fact that people don't go to the theatre anymore, not because they can't afford the tickets, but because they have been let down too often. This is the problem many Street Theatre artists encounter when attempting to gather a crowd. Even worse in this case, the ticket to enter is free! But the public has been burned too many times by Deadly Street Theatre to take another chance with their time and attention. We know that “good theatre is only as good as the audience”, and this creates a negative spiral: the audience arrives with low expectations, the performance suffers as a result, and the audience leaves with even worse future expectations. Unfortunately we cannot coach the audience before our performances, so we're stuck with who we have, good or otherwise. The only thing we have control over is to ensure that our performance, once it begins, is an earnest attempt to create true living art, and not subject the audience to a repetitive and “Deadly” act.

“Incompetence is the vice, the condition, and the tragedy of the world's theatre on any level.”

Criticizing bad theatre can seem harsh, but Brook sees it as vital. Without challenging it, we fail to improve the entire ecosystem. We may not even know what we like, but by pointing out what we don't like, we can reduce the moments where pleasure can turn to boredom, which in theatre can happen in an instant. This is what makes theatre in general so difficult. The audience can't just skip past the chapters they don't like, they must sit through it... or walk off. One of the hallmarks of Deadly Theatre is the viewpoint that someone has already found out and defined how a particular play should be done, or for the Street Theatre artist, that the perfect way to perform a routine, or an entire show has already been figured out and must now be copied. We've all seen someone (or even done it ourselves) copying another person's routine, without the same impact. What's happened is that the truth brought to the original routine has been snuffed by the imitation, disappointing both audience and artist. We must constantly challenge the stock routines, the old jokes, and the repetitive formulas, in an effort to create something new that will inspire an audience and re-invigorate the form.

“A stable and harmonious society might need only to look for ways of reflecting and reaffirming its harmony in its theatres. Such theatres could set out to unite cast and audience in a mutual 'yes'. But 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 'nos'.”

Written in 1968, the truth of this statement jumps off the page in 2021. In a world that is divided in so many ways, if the majority of an audience leaves a Street Theatre performance thinking “that was good”, did anyone leave thinking “that was excellent”? Most Street Theatre audiences just offer the “spurious yes” at the end of the show, which is in part by design of the artist (to appeal to the broadest base in order to get the most tips), but I wonder if it's necessary, or even desirable. If a performance were to be strongly provocative in one way or another, would the loss of one side of a half-hearted audience, make up for a smaller, but thoroughly more engaged and committed one (the 'other side')? Even if the money in the hat were slightly smaller, wouldn't the impact on the audience in an artistic and cultural way compensate? What could Street Theatre truly do, if properly focused, to face the challenges of our shifting and chaotic world?

Holy Theatre, or “The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible” describes that condition of art where it allows the viewer to recognize the parts of life that escape our senses, the magic experience beyond the ordinary. It can be seen as a reality deeper than the fullest form of life, or a buffer against reality itself. I'd like to share an example of Holy Theatre I've experienced in Street Theatre with the following example, from a group called Mute Streetmime who played at the Toronto Buskerfest in 2014. This was for me a great example of a transcendent Street Theatre performance:

Brook shares exercises designed to create Holy Theatre, from a project called the Theatre of Cruelty. He would impose difficult conditions in order to push the actors to communicate through actions, sounds, or even feelings. It's understood among Street Theatre artists that a variety of different venues creates a better performer. Travelling abroad is always encouraged to broaden one's horizons. Different cultural contexts, the inability to use certain tools of the trade (music, amplified voice, specific props), language barriers, challenging environments of all kinds, are similar to the experiments Brook conducted with his actors. For example, arriving to a new venue and realizing that the use of one's native language is off the table, is a make-or-break moment for many artists. The use of movement, gestures, or non-verbal sounds can become like objects they can use and experiment with, opening an entirely new door of expression. The artist becomes like a sculptor, selecting which tool to use and finding out what meanings they convey.

Another aspect of the Theatre of Cruelty experiments which has a direct relation to the world of Street Theatre, is how they used physicality inspired by Meyerhold's bio-mechanics, to create unique experiences, for example, having Hamlet swing above the audience's head on a rope while delivering his lines:

“When a man flies over the audience's head on a rope, every aspect of the immediate is put in jeopardy – the circle of spectators that is at ease when the man speaks is thrown into chaos: in this instant of hazard can a different meaning appear?”

The dramatic instant of hazard created by the performer flying high above the audience, occurs in many Street Theatre performances, but do we examine all of its possible meanings? Each moment like this is an opportunity to present the drama in a new and unique way, rather than simply mimicking how it's been done in the past. The goal of the shocking moment, and of Holy Theatre, for Brook and others is to fill the audience with a charge of energy and liberate them from the recognizable forms in which they live their daily lives. There is an opportunity in a shocking moment to relate to the spectator in a different way, but we must apply that to a purpose, otherwise the effect just wears off, or has no impact at all.

The higher purpose of Holy Theatre is discussed in relation to various theatre figures of the time, with the point that it demands intense work, rigorous discipline, and absolute precision. There is also a tension between being esoteric, or popular. Street Theatre artists, when asked which shows they like to watch, often present very different artists from those who are frequently seen at major festivals and events. The fact that the most booked acts do not come up in those conversations is evidence of the tension between being esoteric or popular. I'd borrow from the language of comedians to say that these esoteric artists are 'playing to the back of the room'.

“The model, as always, is Shakespeare. His aim continually is holy, metaphysical, yet he never makes the mistake of staying too long on the highest plane. He knew how hard it is for us to keep company with the absolute, so he continually bumps us down to earth.”

The objective of Holy Theatre is to open oneself up, exposing one's secrets, which is a sacrifice from actor to audience, laying bare what daily life ordinarily hides. We must build this into our work, while being careful not to turn away the majority of our audience by staying too long in this realm. Striking a balance between what is possible while adapting to the circumstances can be seen as a primary objective of Street Theatre. It's possible to find a way to express our sense of universal truth, while at the same time coming back down to earth to make a joke, to ask for money at the end of the show, or to comment on a heckler's interruption.

“It is always the popular theatre that saves the day.”

The Rough Theatre was the section of this book that inspired me to write this essay. To me, Street Theatre is as rough as it gets, and it gets looked down upon. The reverence given to “circus and music halls, cabarets, and funfairs”, as the place where every great attempt to revitalize theatre has explored, was a breath of fresh air. Often criticized as a less serious version of theatre, Rough Theatre is described by Brook as revolutionary in nature, unashamedly about making joy and laughter, while having an electric charge of rebellion and a militant energy to confront society's great hypocrisies. Standards of theatre may broken, costumes are often lacking, and there may be distractions, but the audience follows along all the same.

There is something about dragging out the beaten up road case, filling it with dusty props, and washing dirty hands at the end of a show that is so refreshing, and it's described in this section perfectly. The roughness keeps Street Theatre humble, keeps it real, and there's something great about that. Still, I had to pause and ask myself, am I fulfilling the promises that Brook and others see possible here? Are today's Street Theatre performances revolutionary in nature or are they similar to the bread and circuses which appeased citizens during the fall of Rome? Is there an opportunity missed if the court jester doesn't poke fun at the king of the day?

“The defiant popular theatre man can be so down-to-earth that he forbids his material to fly. He can even deny flight as a possibility, or the heavens as a suitable place to wander.”

This is one of the drawbacks about Rough Theatre, that because of the commitment to its roughness, there are areas which seem out of bounds. This really stood out to me as someone who has rejected Holiness on many occasions. I've given up on so many ideas too quickly, before giving them a chance to flourish. I've even enlisted people from outside the Street Theatre world to review my work, and fought against their recommendations on the grounds that the street just won't accept it. The Rough Theatre practitioner is thus encouraged to keep their edge, but to try those ideas requiring a bit more work, that will allow their art to touch the Holy plane for a moment.

I'm reminded of the distinctions which occur in the Street Theatre world, for example the “pure street” (people just walking by where shows rarely/never happen), a “street pitch” (an established Street Theatre spot where people might expect shows), to a “street festival” (a closed street where people come to see shows). Things that may fly at a street festival may never get off the ground on a street pitch, and so on. Sometimes the commitment to being down-to-earth can lead Street Theatre artists to make decisions that prevent them from getting to a higher level. Sometimes the decisions are warranted, but I think there may also be moments when the defiant Street Theatre artist may be letting their perception of the harshness of their environment unfairly shape what is possible.

“The relationship between a man and the evolving society around him is always the one that brings new life depth and truth to his personal theme.”

Brook discussed how Bertolt Brecht used alienation in theatre, a technique designed to pull the audience out of being a passive observer, challenging their state of illusion, and encouraging reason and awareness. This idea of breaking the frame, reminding people that they are watching theatre, while continuing to engage with it, has the effect of encouraging an intellectual response to moments that may be provoking emotionally. To Brecht, an actor should be keenly aware of the politics of the day, and be focused on relating their work to the needs of the changing world outside the performance.

A feature of Brook's work as a director, was his minimalism on stage. Reducing all superfluous distractions and leaving the viewer to observe human drama in clear detail was the most compelling theatre of all. He discusses how the emptiness of the Elizabethan theatre of the sixteenth century was one of its greatest freedoms. Actors could easily shift the audience's focus from the external reality at play, to the internal psychic existence of the characters, both of which are still worth exploring today. Street Theatre artists have the same advantage, and can drop all unnecessary details, allowing us to take the audience on journeys from the epic and visionary, and then back to reminding us exactly where we are. This section suggests that one way Street Theatre might approach fulfilling the promises of the Rough Theatre ideal, is through the interplay between individual and society. There are always opportunities to restore a sense of real magic and beauty to our art, despite how these concepts might seem hollow or “Deadly” to both ourselves and the audience. One might argue that the future of Street Theatre depends on it.

Immediate Theatre is Brook's recommended form of theatre, and he is open about how his advice should be taken with a grain of salt – it's based on what he's learned up to the point of writing (in 1968), and with the personal context he sees the world through. He reminds us that there are no formulas or specific methods to create the ideal theatre, that it's all just practice.

“The focus of a large group of people creates a unique intensity – owing to this forces that operate at all times and rule each person's daily life can be isolated and perceived more clearly.”

The uniqueness of theatre is described here in contrast to cinema, in that cinema is, like the usual stream of consciousness, a replaying of events from the past. Theatre is always taking place in the moment. This is what makes it seem real, and can also make it more disturbing. Brook notes how theatre is often subject to more censorship, because governments instinctively know there is a dangerous electricity that can be created in a live event that is different than a book or a film. This is what has drawn me to Street Theatre from the start and it's nice to see it discussed in the same way from a renowned director. Striving to create a real moment and pulling people into it with you, is not easy but when it happens it's as close to magic as I've ever experienced.

The goal of a great actor is to reveal things about themselves that might otherwise be hidden. These things come about through the rehearsal process, observation, and dedicated practice. The discovery of them does not follow a straight path. Brook discusses various techniques used to push the actor's boundaries. Improvisation games, are designed to show actors where their bounds of freedom are. For example, when giving someone a prompt to respond to, almost instantly the mind takes over, and fills in a memorized response from the past, which didn't exist in the moment but is a lie pasted over the buried truth. With good technique an actor can pass off the Deadly as alive, but with expert technique they can birth something new every time.

“The one thing that distinguishes the theatre from all the other arts is that it has no permanence. Yet it is very easy to apply – almost from force of critical habit – permanent standards and general rules to this ephemeral phenomenon.”

This is another example of how this book echoes the conversations I've had over the years with Street Theatre artists. I've heard it described as 'being in the moment', 'going with the flow', or 'dancing for a dragon with a thousand eyes'. We've all spoken about the perils of 'going on auto-pilot', or 'just saying the lines'. These ideas all encourage us to focus on the ephemeral nature of theatre, and to never force the alive experience into a dead box of rules or memorization. Theatre is an art form that only exists in front of an audience. A sculpture can be created and finished before anybody sees it, but Street Theatre can not. It actually requires a relationship with the audience in order to be. So an openness to the changing and evolving relationship with the audience is essential to keep it alive.

Brook hopes for the creation of a theatre that feels as necessary to the audience as it does to the artist, one in which there is only a practical difference between the two, not a fundamental one. To do this, the artist must challenge the audience, while recognizing we are also one with them. The goal is to create a memory, a picture, or an idea that stays with them forever. Something that amends their thinking for life, not just a moment. This has been the theme throughout the book, that in a society of conflict and disharmony, vital theatre must be a thorn in our side, encouraging the growth of something new.

The book finishes with a formula I found wonderful: Theatre = R r a.

Repetition: the week after week process of grinding which brings creative change. There is no great theatre without extremely hard work and practice. Through repetition we obtain freedom, but this repetition alone contains a 'Deadly' element. As we repeat, so we decay.

Representation: Reconciling the contradiction, to present something from the past, as new. Not as an imitation, but as something that is created in that moment. For a repetition to evolve into a representation, something else is required:

“The spectators may just stare at the spectacle, expecting the actor to do all the work and before a passive gaze he may find that all he can offer is a repetition of rehearsals.”

As any Street Theatre artist knows, sometimes you're just being stared at, and the performance fails to take off in the way you know it can. I remember seeing one audience member seated throughout my performance with their back turned, yet watching my entire performance through the selfie camera of their phone! Talk about expecting me to do all the work.

When the audience brings an active interest and life to the performance, they assist. The final part of the formula.

The French word for watching a play is 'to assist'. “J'assiste a une piece”. Through the eyes and focus of the audience, repetition turns into representation. The representation includes both actor and audience, and creates a special world in which each moment is different from ordinary life, a world which it is lived more clearly, intensely, and joyfully. Over the years I've watched hundreds of Street Theatre performances and used to hear statements like: “this show is only as good as you are” or “if you give me energy, I give you a good show”, and considered them manipulative attempts to encourage undeserved applause. Later in my career, I realized that nothing is more true, and that the audience is so much more directly involved in the work than they realize.

“The audience assists the actor, and at the same time for the audience itself assistance comes back from the stage.”

It feels like the conclusion of this book leaves the key factor out of our hands. How can we encourage our Street Theatre audiences, unwitting as they may be, to assist us in turning our repetitive endeavour into a representation of deeper truth and exploration? I think the answer can only be by diving deeply into the hard work, spending all the time we can on discovering a truth worth their assistance. By rewarding those who breathe life into our performance with the very best effort we could give, by truly fulfilling our role as an artist and helping them see the world in a different way for a moment,  we can assist them as well. Then in the same way the negative spiral previously occurred, where audiences expectations lower after having been burned by Deadly Theatre, a positive trend might occur instead: after taking a chance and being pleasantly surprised with a transformative experience, they might be encouraged to give the next one a try. 

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