In 1972, English theater director Peter Brook packed a bunch of actors into a bus and set off into the Sahara Desert to try one of the most audacious theatrical experiments in history. The international company—including a young Helen Mirren and the Japanese actor-director Yoshi Oida—went on an 8,500-mile journey across Africa, showing up at settlements large and small to perform stories for audiences who didn't share the performers' languages or their constellation of cultural reference points. A typical theater company performing a typical play has enough trouble getting through to its audience—how do you perform for a bunch of strangers in a faraway country when you don't even know what they find funny? Or scary? Or insulting?
Brook was trying to unearth a root of theater so fundamentally and universally human that it transcends cultural context—which sounds half-mad, since the past several decades of critical theory have been insisting that we are products of our context—while at the same time telling stories specific enough to keep people's attention. As local director Valerie Curtis-Newton puts it: "Going to other cultures to make work and leaping over language—that's pretty freaking bold!" Twelve years ago, Curtis-Newton was chosen to participate in a workshop with Brook that had a career-altering impact. She remembers everyone feeling awestruck—"He's little," she says, "but his presence is very big"—until he began by saying that "the big job was to make sure that whatever we do, to not let it be boring. We were like, 'Oh. Yeah! We're all in that gig together—we're all working on that!'"
The rest of Brook's career has been an extension of that inquiry into big and small, scope and simplicity, all while keeping people's attention. He has directed some of the richest texts in world literature: the Persian epic poem The Conference of the Birds, legendary Shakespeare productions (his Lear left critic Kenneth Tynan sputtering in awe), a nine-hour adaptation of the Mahabharata. At the same time, he introduced a revolutionary simplicity that put renewed faith in the audience and its imagination. The first lines of his theater manifesto The Empty Space are gospel to many young theater-makers: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged." Curtis-Newton didn't stumble across Brook until grad school, but The Empty Space hit her hard. "I realized I'd already been doing it," she says. "I came up with a small African American theater company in Hartford with no money. We were a hermit company, using whatever space people would let us use. I didn't know that's what I was doing, but when I read his books, it spoke to me." As did his way of negotiating universalism and specificity to find a politics of humaneness in the balance—a few years ago, for example, Curtis-Newton directed a production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons at Intiman, set in the Central District with an entirely African American cast. "That's how you know that play is universal," she says. "I changed not a single word of Miller's text to make all those characters African American. They shared a sense of family and the kind of secrets families keep."
The last time Seattle saw a Peter Brook production was in 2001, when his Hamlet came to the Mercer Arena in Seattle Center, which had been reconfigured to accommodate the show and 794 audience members. (Six months before it arrived, the Seattle Times reported that Hamlet would cost an estimated $1 million to stage. The Seattle Repertory Theatre, ACT, Intiman, and the Empty Space all chipped in to bring it here.) That visit left a significant stamp on the Seattle theater community—including the workshop Curtis-Newton mentioned, which local director Sheila Daniels also attended and remembers vividly—but a marketing report from the time laments that "our biggest challenge" was that people didn't know who Brook was. "Based on preliminary feedback from staff members, board members, and random sampling," the report says, "public awareness for the work of Peter Brook was not high."
Whether we know it or not, Brook's influence on the way we see and make theater is deep. "It's kind of like asking what influence Sir Isaac Newton has on astrophysics today," says Jerry Manning, artistic director of the Seattle Rep. "From Anne Bogart to zoe | juniper, you see it—this stripping down to bare necessity." Sheila Daniels describes Brook's influence as "profound" in a way some younger directors might take for granted. "That director whose work you love?" Daniels says. "They're making work in a manner Brook encouraged." He championed, among other things: stripped-down design and an insistence that every design element contribute to the telling of the story, the potential of the audience's imagination, a focus on the actor's whole body and not just the voice, the idea that complicated does not necessarily mean complex, the use of "found" spaces like warehouses and barns, and multiethnic casting.
This spring, the Seattle Rep will present The Suit, Brook's adaptation of a short story by Can Themba set in apartheid-era South Africa. In the story, a man discovers his wife has been cheating on him and, as a punishment, forces her to treat her lover's suit as an honored guest—feeding it, singing to it, taking it out for walks. In an interview with the Guardian, Brook compared Themba to Chekhov, who made domestic scenes in drawing rooms reverberate with much larger forces beyond their four walls. The Suit, Brook says, is "a powerfully bitter story" set in "a powerfully bitter situation," but it keeps a surprising lightness and effervescence—including live music and an onstage party—that leaps over what he calls "the blockage of political theater, which was making an angry audience leave the theater even more angry. And that doesn't do any good to anyone."
Which is not to say The Suit is apolitical—critics from the Guardian to the New York Times have noted that this story of domestic unhappiness reflects the oppression of its setting, and, in the words of Ben Brantley at the Times, "Even as it draws you in like the gregarious host of an intimate party, this story of adultery in apartheid South Africa is quietly preparing to break your heart."
"I'm wary of how so much of our theater lacks politics," Curtis-Newton says, "and I'm very hungry to see The Suit. Politically, it sits in a place I understand. As [Lorraine] Hansberry said, 'Let our audiences be so spent in the amphitheater that they welcome the pamphlet and the debate.' That's what I like about Brook. He's not afraid to have a point of view."