23 August 2011

Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research

[Peter Brook, the British stage and film director with an international reputation for innovation and experimentation and the author of The Empty Space (1968), a book that had tremendous influence on almost every Western theater artist in the 1960s and ‘70s, has recently returned to New York City and Lincoln Center. Just as he did in 1981 with La Tragédie de Carmen, Brook’s has adapted a famous opera by paring it down to what he considers the essentials. This time, it’s Mozart: Brook’s production of A Magic Flute was at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

[Brook began his directing career with a 1943 production of Christopher Marlowe’s
Dr. Faustus at the Torch Theatre in London. He followed that in 1945 with more contemporary fare, Jean Cocteau’s 1934 Infernal Machine, a retelling of the Oedipus story, at the Chanticleer Theatre. Brook directed all around England, gaining considerable acclaim, joining the Royal Shakespeare company as a resident director in the early 1960s. He remained with the company, directing Shakespearean plays and other classics, often in innovative stagings, as well as contemporary works, perhaps the most famous of which was the RSC production of Peter Weiss’s theater-of-cruelty script, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (known universally—for obvious reasons—as Marat/Sade) in 1964. The director’s famous circus-infused version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented in 1970, influencing nearly every other director who saw it—or even heard about it. Brook, who also directed several films (many based on his stage plays) and wrote six more books since The Empty Space, was at the height of his renown when he decided to abandon the life of a successful and sought-after stage director, move to Paris, and form an international theater research center.

[This article is a brief analysis, however superficial, of some of Brook’s early work with his International Centre of Theatre Research, covering the period from its start to about 1974. Among the impressions revealed are the influence of some of Brook’s most significant inspirations: E. Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.]

Few theoreticians of the craft of acting have had the conviction to abandon a financially successful career in the commercial theater and strike out to put their theories into practice on a grand scale. Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) did so, but they had the advantage of state-supported programs to release them from the worry of financial backing. Peter Brook (b. 1925), however, did so without the support of his own government, and even removed himself from his native England in order to carry out his experiments in the training of the actor. In 1968, having obtained private funding, Brook and Micheline Rozan gathered together an international group of young theater people in Paris and established the International Centre of Theatre Research (known as CIRT, for the French name, Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale) in the Mobilier National, a former Gobelin tapestry factory on the Left Bank. The company, as it eventually evolved, was made up of fifteen to twenty actors from Iran, Mali, France, Greece, the U.S., Spain, Portugal, Japan, and Morocco; five directors from England, Romania, Armenia, and Germany, and one Swiss designer. Brook himself and Ted Hughes, an English poet, completed the company. Except for the period from 1968 to 1970 when CIRT removed to London because of the 1968 student riots in Paris, Brook’s company remained disconnected from his original base of operations in England. In 1974, CIRT took over the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a theater near the Gare du Nord in Paris’s 10th Arrondissement, where the company has remained. In 2008, Brook, then 83, resigned the artistic directorship of CIRT, handing it over to Olivier Mantei, then director of the Opéra-Comique, and Olivier Poubelle, a theater entrepreneur. (Rozan, then about 80, also stepped down at the same time.)

Because Brook believed that privacy was an absolutely necessary element in the training regimen, the working sessions at CIRT were closed to visitors except for specially scheduled, prearranged experiments opened to a specific audience. No public “performances” were held at the factory. Indeed, Brook’s work in those years wasn’t performance-oriented in any way. If an experimental performance developed out of one of CIRT’s exercises, Brook might select an audience of Paris children (one of his favorite audiences) and invite them to participate. In other cases, the company might go into the rural suburbs or workers’ districts of Paris and present its work to an audience of unsophisticated, theatrically naïve spectators. On three occasions, CIRT took its work on international tours in order to test Brook’s theories regarding language and communication: Shiraz and Persepolis, Iran (1971); Africa (Spring 1973); and New York (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fall 1973). After the BAM sessions, the Centre ceased to function for several years, terminating Brook’s training experiments.

Though Brook’s foremost purpose for establishing CIRT was to train his ideal actor, a combination of acrobat, juggler, singer, dancer, and clown, he was also committed to the development of a universal theater, and therefore had theories not only on how to train an actor, but on how to relate to an audience, how to construct a piece of theater, and how to stage a performance. These theories necessarily affected his program of training for his company and consequently the work that came out of that program.

The general belief upon which Brook based his concept of the ideal theater was that the world of experience is divided into two parts: the everyday world and the imaginary world. In adult society, according to Brook, the two worlds are separated arbitrarily, whereas children, when they play, pass effortlessly between the two worlds, accepting the fact that the everyday world has elements of imagination and the imaginary world has elements of the everyday. In the adult theater, as in adult society, this blending isn’t accepted: when the curtain goes up in the theater of illusion, so does the finite division of the everyday world from the imaginary world. It was Brook’s contention that this arbitrary separation was both untrue and unhealthy. He advocated the coexisting relationship as the healthy one and the one that, in art, would revitalize the theater. With the acceptance of the free flow between the imaginary and everyday worlds, the adult actor would be able to accomplish the kind of free use of space in adult theater that is characteristic of children’s theater. For Brook, the division of these two theaters was as invalid as the separation of the two experiential worlds. In Brook’s ideal theater, the actors would be capable of passing back and forth between the two worlds for an audience equally capable of accepting that transition.

Because Brook wanted a theater in which the distinction between the everyday and imaginary worlds was blurred, he also required a special relationship between the performers and the audience. Whereas he previously looked upon the audience with an aggressive, even assaultive viewpoint, as exemplified in his 1964 production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, Brook now considered the audience as a partner in the complete experience. To aid in this interplay, Brook looked for what he called “a walking theater” wherein the audience, instead of remaining static, would move about and experience the presentation from various angles. (This was 16 years before the Royal Court’s presentation of Jim Cartwright’s Road, called a “promenade” production where the actors and the spectators occupied the same space and moved among one another. Seven years before Brook spoke of this concept, playwright John Arden wrote about a day-long event, with spectators coming and going and “rival attractions” offered in the atmosphere of a “fairground or amusement park” with “all sorts of thematically-relevant interludes” intermingled; he called this “a kind of ‘promenade theater’” in his preface to 1963’s The Workhouse Donkey. In 1967, Arden and his NYU theater students presented such an event, entitled War Carnival, in New York’s East Village.)

Furthermore, the CIRT presentations weren’t to be set down and repeated at a specific time and place on a regular schedule. In Brook’s theory of a universal theater, a piece should ideally be performed in as many different milieus as possible, appearing unannounced at irregular times in different places in order to make it available to as many diverse audiences as possible. (Today we recognize this practice as guerrilla theater, a term coined in 1965 by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.) Repetition, both in rehearsal and in performance, was the bane of art to Brook. Ideally no work should ever be obligated to a replay at all, unless in the estimation of the performers/creators, it still had something to offer. Even then, of course, the second performance must not be a mere copy of the first, but perhaps changed entirely as it went along. (In the United States, experimental director Richard Schechner took up Brook’s initiative with the Performance Group, most notably in Dionysus in 69, 1968, Makbeth, 1969, and Cops, 1978. Earlier, however, the Living Theatre had pioneered an improvisational technique in its productions such as The Connection, 1959, and The Brig, 1963. Joe Chaikin, an alumnus of the Living, followed some of its practices with the Open Theater, most noticeably in Viet-Rock, 1966, and The Serpent, 1969.)

With these ultimate goals for the theater well in mind, Brook established CIRT and created a training program to develop actors for his ideal theater. The Centre wasn’t to be a repertory theater or an acting academy, but a laboratory devoted to experimentation and research, with no particular end in mind. (This, of course, is reminiscent of the Teatr Laboratorium, which Jerzy Grotowski, one of Brook’s principal influences, founded in 1965 in Wroclaw, Poland.) Brook was quite adamant in stating that CIRT wasn’t designed to prove any preconceived beliefs or to find specific answers to specific questions. Brook was as concerned with discovering the questions as he was with answers that developed. For this reason, the Centre’s company was selected for its diversity in background and training as well as nationality. They were all young, in their middle or late twenties and early thirties; came from varying training programs; and had varying, but not vast, experience in performance. There was no common language, an important factor in Brook’s experimentation with language and communication, though French and English gradually became the lingua francas of the company. One of the most vital criteria for inclusion in the group was that each entrant must bring something to share with the others. Since there were no trainers, no teachers or instructors—Brook himself was often a participant in the experiments—the exercises were each led by one of the company who was best qualified to do so.

As important as the diversity of the parts was the cohesiveness of the whole, Brook envisioned his theater as a communal experience, and required a high degree of “ensembleness” from the company. Brook wanted a group so connected, so integrated “that a move from one creates a tremor from another; an impulse from a third, an immediate chain-reaction.” In order to be so connected with their fellows, however, Brook believed that actors had to be finely attuned to themselves first. Most of Brook’s exercises and experiments were directed toward this end. The dance, acrobatics, and singing were, on the surface, a program for training the actors’ bodies and voices. But at bottom they were designed to develop in the actors the ability to relate so organically to their own bodies that their thoughts and actions became one.

One of the areas in which Brook and the company concentrated very heavily was the use of language, speech, and sound. In order to connect more organically with language, Brook experimented with speech in various ways, searching for a method of communicating on a direct emotional or biological level, without resorting to intellect. Ultimately, he was looking, he said, for “a form of theatre which makes the same impression anywhere in the world without reference to language.” In his search for a universal dramatic communications system, Brook had his company study ancient languages such as Latin and Greek, and various modern languages such as a Malinese (African) dialect and Japanese. (In 1974, Andrei Serban, who had studied with Brook at CIRT, presented Fragments of a Greek Trilogy at La MaMa E.T.C. using similar language techniques.) The CIRT troupe studied these languages not for their linguistic properties, but their sonorous qualities. The Malinese and Japanese languages were used in native songs taught by the company members from those countries. In further linguistic exercises, the CIRT company used English, often Shakespearean lines, and repeated them at great speed or at a slowed-down pace to exaggerate the sounds that made up the words and to disassociate the meanings superimposed on them. In other instances, one word was stretched out to seven or eight seconds to explore all its sonorous aspects.

Brook’s most ambitious attempt to remove theater from the shackles of conventional language, however, was his use of invented artificial languages. The first such language used in his experiments was Bashtahondo, a language made up of syllables contributed by the members of the company, each contributing one syllable. The name of the language was the first four syllables of the new language. A large number of the company’s exercises were conducted in Bashtahondo to restrict the reliance of the actors on verbal communication. The culmination of this experimentation was the development of CIRT’s experimental piece Orghast, performed at Shiraz and Persepolis, Iran, in 1971. For this piece, which was based on a combination of Zoroastrian and Greek myths concerning the theft of fire, its worship, and the eternal warfare between father and son, Ted Hughes, CIRT’s poet-in-residence, created a new language, also called Orghast, from words and sounds culled from Sanskrit; Persian (Farsi); Greek; Latin; and Avesta, the ancient Zoroastrian ceremonial language.

Neither Orghast nor Bashtahondo were developed in an attempt to find a theatrical Esperanto, a universal language into which all CIRT pieces could be translated. It was Brook’s contention that human beings should be able to communicate with one another without regard to their mother tongues, that a form of basic, biological communication is possible based on sound which has meaning such as music or the grunts and groans by which primitive humans communicated. In dealing with English, the company was searching for “the primal impulse in the sound of a word, what informed it at its coining before it became tarnished with semantic associations . . . .”

Equally as important as CIRT’s search for a universal form of communication between performer and spectator was their work in enhancing the actors’ communication with their colleagues. Various exercises were devised to develop the members’ abilities to respond to each other organically—without the necessity of verbal communication. In one exercise toward this end, a group of actors, each representing separate parts of a particular person, including the invisible functions such as voice and subconscious, tried to create a coherent whole of the parts. This exercise was designed to develop in the individual actors the sensitivity to each other as separate parts of a unified entity, harking back to Brook’s concept of an ensemble company. In another exercise which developed the actor’s attention to implication and innuendo, one actor was being interviewed for a job and the rest of the company acted as extensions of that actor’s personality, speaking what he or she “meant” as they understood the replies to the interviewer’s questions. A third exercise used to develop an actor’s awareness of another’s movements and impulses was a mirror exercise wherein a pair of actors stood face to face and tried to duplicate the movements of each other simultaneously as if acting as a mirror for each other. Sometimes one actor would initiate the movement, sometimes the other would do so, and sometimes neither would be the initiator.

Improvisation was also used extensively by the CIRT trainees to train the actor to respond truly to the actions of other actors. These improvisations were conducted in Bashtahondo and, when the situation became confused or began to pall, Brook altered the circumstances by introducing some new element such as reversing the characters, advancing the time, speeding up the lapsed time of the action, heightening the rhythm, or adding characters. One thing they were searching for was a sort of philosopher’s stone of improvisations: a set of characters that could be rearranged into an infinite number of situations. They came up with The Difficulties of a Bridegroom about a “shy lover’s travails.”

The props used in these improvisations were as restricted as was the language. Most common among CIRT’s props were bamboo sticks, derived from their use in Japanese theater as a means of achieving “Zen calm.” The sticks were used in varying ways as extensions of the body, voice, and psyche to contact the other actors, measure an actor’s relationship to space, and elicit non-verbal responses form the other actors. Another such prop was a simple box which the actors explored in improvisations in which they were to discover the various possibilities of the box. In both cases, Brook’s idea was to require his company to expand their awareness and knowledge of simple, common objects so that the actors could approach more realistic objects on a set with enhanced sensitivity. This seems clearly to be an application of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarization process he sought.

A fourth concentration for Brook’s trainees was self-awareness. To help achieve this, CIRT borrowed an ancient Chinese martial art exercise, T’ai Chi, an exercise in which simple movements are executed very slowly and gracefully with the knees slightly bent to cause all the muscles to balance against each other. T’ai Chi was used to still the spirit in preparation for bodily awareness. For further development of such awareness, an actor was required to make a gesture, then remain still for up to a half an hour trying to recall the exact gesture. Then the actor attempted to reproduce the gesture exactly as originally made. This was a test of “muscular memory” as well as an analysis of the gesture’s meaning.

CIRT’s concentration, then, was in four major areas: communicating with the audience, relating to other actors, relating to objects, and relating to oneself. Did any of this work in practice? According to many critics, in the final analysis, it didn’t. Either communication broke down entirely, or the performers had to resort to standard verbal communication. In so far as the search for a universal language was concerned, one constant problem was that even the artificial language Orghast eventually came to depend on the environment for its meaning. The variables of the circumstances—place, space and acoustics, specific actors, and so on—had a definite effect on the language, and couldn’t be separated from it. Furthermore, Orghast was capable only of conveying feelings and emotions and couldn’t deal with abstractions. In this respect it limited the play’s creators’ ability to communicate with a sophisticated audience.

Brook’s theory that repetition brings sterility to art, though it may theoretically be valid, caused a conflict involving Brook’s biggest problem: striking a balance between freedom and form. He felt that, as it was absurd to prepare dinner party conversation beforehand, it was equally absurd to rehearse what an actor will perform on a stage. It then remains a question of how to arrive at a disciplined, quality performance when dealing solely with freedom and spontaneity. Part of the art of acting is selecting behavior; selection is obviated if there is no rehearsal.

Another difficulty in communicating with the spectators, Burt Supree of the Village Voice found, was “the feeling of a mystique operating here that oppressed me.” He went on to explain:

The company never acknowledged the existence of an audience. No contact. I suppose they were concentrating, but the utter humorlessness of the situation, the holiness and exclusiveness, made things very difficult for me. I found myself hardening my heart against what was going on and had to wrestle throughout the day to keep myself open to the company’s work. It was a constant concern.

As for performers who could adapt to new and unplanned circumstances and react as an integrated ensemble, Walter Kerr of the New York Times found the CIRT company unresponsive and stiff. At the BAM sessions, Kerr found:

When Mr. Brook suggested that the company might try dividing the performing area into Hollywood and Broadway . . . the company sat immobile for a very long time trying to think through that one. It never did. Eventually a few performers rose and made use of the same leaps and hop-steps they’d been employing all day, ‘finding’ nothing new, nothing distinctive, nothing illuminating . . . . Spontaneously, the happening didn’t happen.

Furthermore, Kerr found that these actors, presumably finely tuned and in touch with all their organic resources, couldn’t function beyond the limits expected of any run-of-the-mill performer: their “physical vocabulary” was “extraordinarily limited”:

Though the performers were constantly flirting with mime, they weren’t skilled mimes; though they had taken pains to release their bodies, they weren’t dancers, or anything like; and when it was time to enunciate simple-enough sentences, they proved not to be the trained actors either.

In the final analysis, Brook’s experiments seem to have produced only one fact: they didn’t really work. At least not for most observers, if the critics are any indication. The very fact that Brook tried is of course significant, and the results, even if they’re viewed as failures, cannot be ignored. What he seemed to have discovered in the end was that no one can entirely reconcile absolute freedom and spontaneity with discipline and form. Brook tried to have both, and ended up losing the one necessary element to all theater: the spectator’s attention and awareness. This, it would seem, was the final, and sole contribution to the world theater of Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research.

[The experimental period of CIRT ended in 1974, and Brook and his company returned to more audience-cognizant performances, changing the company’s name to the Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT – International Center for Theater Creations). After Brook directed his own version of La Tragédie de Carmen at Lincoln Center (1981), in 1985 he and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière adapted the great Indian epic The Ramayana for the stage. Brook followed that with more conventional fare, from classics like The Cherry Orchard (1981) to new works such as Woza Albert! (1989). In 2004, he presented Tierno Bokar, a stage adaptation of a biography of the Malian Sufi sage, at Columbia University. Recently (5-17 July), Brook’s staging of A Magic Flute, his rendering of Mozart’s opera, was on stage at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

[I saw
Tierno Bokar in April 2005, though I didn’t care much for it. I’ll post the report I wrote on the performance then in the next few days. Come back to ROT if you’re curious about my response to this Peter Brook production. (Among the other works mentioned here, I have posted reports on Arden’s War Carnival, 13 May 2010; the Living’s Connection, 9 July 2009; and Serban’s Fragments, 9 April 2011.)]


  1. I believe that Peter Brook is may be the only one director/practicioner who still did not betray Theatre... Grotowski is dead...Who knows where is Vasiliev? Lecoq? Who else left to keep theatre - Theatre? I would be happy to clean the floor in your International Centre, mr Peter Brook... Just to be sure that I do something useful in Theatre... I am Russian, and I want to believe that I serve theatre - but I am afraid that cleaning floor there is more honest and noble...

    1. You have an interesting perspective, if a little pessimistic. Thanks for commenting.


    2. Barba is still there working in Theatre Anthropology. Grotowski is dead, but his disciples still investigate Poor Theatre. Also Brecht disciples are doing this.
      I do respect Peter Brook, a lot, for me his one of the greatests. But if you support Brook's work, saying that he's the only one who hasn't betray theatre seems wrong to me. It's just that he's very visible in the media. But there are tons of people investigating and supporting theatre and not only new people.

    3. Thanks for commenting, Ms. Álvarez. Your argument, of course, is with "Anonymous," above, not with me, so I have no response.