Simplicity Onstage: Peter Brook on Battlefield

By Michael Paller

Here is a short section of my interview with legendary director Peter Brook, whose Battlefield is currently running at The Geary Theater through May 21.

I saw Battlefield in Paris in 2015. It struck me that the simplicity of the production was greater than that of The Suit, or before that Tierno Bokar (2004), let alone The Mahabharata or The Cherry Orchard. Here you have four actors, simple costumes that don’t belong to any specific historical period, and a few props, all supported by beautiful lighting and a drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori. What are you searching for in this lifelong journey of honing down? 

Director Peter Brook. © Ernesto Rodriguez.
You mustn’t try to make me into a philosopher with theories. It’s just the opposite. I’ve always said that I’m not an artist, I’m an artisan, which means that—like all artisans, from bakers to shoemakers to weavers—I try to do my trade better, which can be judged by simple criteria anyone can recognize. When you do something clumsy and wasteful and ugly, it’s less good than if it is finer and cleaner.

Over the years, I’ve never in my life consciously said, “We must look for simplicity.” One the contrary, as a young man, I plunged into all the joys of every sort of elaboration and used every device that the theater could give. And I gradually found that, while these devices were intoxicating and thrilling to use, there was a human quality that was covered up as a result. And as I gradually became more interested in the human being than in the machinery around him or her, I began not to eliminate, but to let things drop away by themselves, and I saw that something more was coming through.

It’s what happens if you’ve got an old picture you’re trying to restore and you know there is something there. You know that there is not only a tree, but there are also beautiful leaves on the tree, and they’re not coming through. So you clean it and clean it and clean it, and suddenly—you’ve done nothing, it was always there—it comes through. That’s the way we work. My collaborators and I encourage one another to have gags, to think up things to throw about in rehearsal, or suddenly say, “Wow, what a good idea!” That’s what happens at the beginning. And then gradually, as we go on, we see that last night’s marvelous idea is no good at all.

We do extensive previews during which we develop the work enormously. Before it was the fashion, we played to all sorts of audiences outside the theater as well as in the theater. Gradually we found that before this ominous thing called “the first night,” there had to be a long process not only with ourselves (which are what rehearsals are considered to be), but also one with an audience. And so the more we could bring in a few people, then a few more people, then gradually more people watching, the more it became a two-way process—and in that way, all sorts of rubbish fell away.

Battlefield runs from April 26 through May 21. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to hear more from Peter Brook? Join us for an In Conversation with the legendary director, his artistic collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, and A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller on May 1. Click here to reserve tickets. Or purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series. 

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