29 March 2007
Every so often I read a book that want to immediately memorize, internalize, then proselytize everyone else around me to do the same. This had not happened to me for a while, until I ran across The Open Circle: Peter Brook's Theatre Environments by Andrew Todd with Jean-Guy Lecat.
I hesitate to admit it, but I am too young to have experienced the groundbreaking early theatrical work of director Peter Brook. Brook's work as founder of CIRT has explored many different ways of connecting the actor and audience, and it is this work that is the focus of The Open Circle.
The title of the book refers to Brook's preferred theatrical arrangement: the audience surrounding the stage nearly full way around, with the stage set at the "storyteller's" position towards one edge of--and extending into the middle of--the circle. We follow the development of this idea through CIRT's early tours of Africa and the middle east, and the adaptation of their home theatre, the partially-ruined Bouffes du Nord.
The main body of the book describes the development of the Bouffes du Nord, as well as the many "transformations" of spaces that CIRT accomplished taking their shows on tour. These chapters are particularly engaging becase Mr. Todd compiled the information from copious notes by Jean-Guy Lecat. Lecat was the principal theatre designer for Brook, and travelled ahead of the CIRT company to scout out new spaces they could use (within existing theatres or in "found spaces" in unused buildings/quarries/etc), and oversaw their transformations into "Brook-ish" performance spaces.
The descriptions of the building transformations are very personal, almost tender in their recollection. The passion that Brook, Lecat, and others have for making a genuine connection between actor and audience is evident. I could not help but feel jealous for all the opportunities they had to craft intimate and engaging theatrical spaces around the world. My personal favorite episode is the description of Jean-Guy Lecat up at the ceiling of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in NYC, tearing down sound-absorptive materials with his bare hands while the music director down below shouted instructions (p.92).
This book shows a primal, almost feral approach to theatrical design. It illustrates what theatre spaces look like when they are stripped down to the raw features that bring the audience and actor together. This truly resonates with me. The entire goal of each transformation-of-space was to connect the audience to the story: there is a focus on keeping everything to a human scale, using organic materials/shapes/spatial relationships that serve to make the audience feel a part of the story.
Acoustics are discussed throughout. On p.143, Lecat is quoted as saying:
Many of the major transformations of space--such as the installation of raked seating and overhead elements within the Ostre Gasvaerk warehouse--show detailed and thoughtful attention to enhancing speech clarity.
It is not surprising that there are several passages showing disdain for acoustic "experts". In fact, a recurring theme of the book is that many architects and other design professionals falter when they design theatres: they end up producing grand monuments that look good in magazine photos but can not support intimate theater. In the world of acousticians, I believe that there is also corollary. There are not many of us out there who focus on theatre, and really understand what is beneficial. The widely-coveted pinnacle of nearly every acousticians' career is to design a concert hall--a music space!--that is favorably compared to the great halls of the world. Music halls are extraordinary acoustic spaces, and I adore working on them, but there is also something uniquely touching about crafting the acoustics of a space for telling stories using the spoken word.
Theatre acoustics often seems to be the bastard stepchild of the professional acoustics design world. It is often reduced to a simple question "can they hear?" and it is left at that. We have all sorts of monikers for music-space acoustics, but very few for theatres. This often results in "simple" (in a bad way) acoustic spaces where the voice may be heard, and understood, but there just is no "life" to it... what a miserable place to hear a play! There is a minority of us, however, who believe that the "vocal presence" described by Jean-Guy is a very subtle yet easily perceptible characteristic... and it is hardly limited to "can they hear?". A theatre can be a venue for many people to gather to listen to a story told by a few, yet still feel be intimate: there is eye contact; there is the sense of being all together in one room; there is the audible sense that storyteller's voice is being carried right to the listener yet is being heard by all.
Many of my favorite theatre experiences have been in spaces where I think Brook would feel right-at-home (some here in my home Chicago include the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Lookingglass Theatre, even if they are "new" and not "transformed" spaces). It was refreshing and strangely joyful to read an entire book that eloquently described the genesis of spaces that embody many of the best aspects of theatrical design.
As an aside, Jean-Guy Lecat is currently engaged in a "transformation" of the venerable Abbey Theatre in Dublin that will debut on 10 April 2007. The story goes on.
Peter has said that 'When one sees properly one hears better', and we also know that when one hears well one also feels closer. The 'presence' of an actor is almost always linked to his or her vocal presence...