A year ago this week I hopped on a train and spent a few days in the quiet town of Carlingford, just shy of the border of Northern Ireland. We were off school that week, so I took some schoolwork with me and took walks and worked on a play and read some books on theatre theory. Made this video to document the trip, for those that never came across it, and like shots mostly filmed out a train window:
One book was buy a guy named Peter Brook. Now, most serious people will have heard of him, and I remember learning a bit about him back in my undergraduate theatre courses. But when you spend a dozen years or so doing youth theatre you don’t talk much about famous European theatre practitioners. You’re more concerned with just getting the kids close enough to the microphones so the audience can hear them.
But a big reason I took all that time off was so I could go study Serious Theatre, and that’s certainly what I had the chance to do. And Brook was brought up over and over again in class by multiple professors. The big quote I remember came from Patrick Mason, about how Brook knew “how to cut to the heart of something, and strip everything else away.” I heard firsthand accounts of his famous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Cherry Orchard, and after reading two of Brooks’ books, I’m starting to get an idea of what he was after. When it comes to teaching, at least, I too prefer to get rid of anything that isn’t essential.
Brook could have taken over directorship of any of Britain’s (or even Europe’s) most famous theatre companies, but instead he spent part of the 1970s wandering Africa and the Mid-East with a small troupe of actors and a bare carpet. They would lay the carpet down in a public space and begin performing different works of theatre. He was trying to distill the magic of theatre down to its essence, and along the way reinvigorate himself and his love of the craft. After his travels, he settled into a run-down theatre in Paris called the Bouffes du Nord and there produced many of his legendary productions.
Many people ask me what I’m up to, theatre-wise, these days. Some want to know if I’m going back to Limelight. Some wonder if I’ll take over a junior high program, or go to a high school, or start a new company. And I don’t really have an answer for any of that. I suppose at this point I’m traveling on my own magic carpet, working with different groups of kids here and there, studying overseas with some lovely and talented people, watching and learning from the different productions I occasionally attend. I applied for, but did not get, a high school position that was open. There were some certification issues I can’t really overcome at the moment (it’s a bit tricky to jump from elementary teaching to a high school scenario), but part of me wasn’t really sure it was the job for me. At a high school, theatre is about The Spring Musical, and in my final interview I told them that I wasn’t really a musical guy. Sure, I’d do a great job, but I didn’t have the passion that others have for that particular kind of theatre. If they really needed me, I was their man. Whatever’s best for the program and the kids at that school. But if they were interviewing someone that loved musicals, I told them that they should hire them. And so they did.
You see, I’ve done that already. I’ve directed a few musicals in my day, and produced many more, and I just don’t see any challenge in it. Limelight offered an infinitely more interesting canvas on which to paint. You could do a kids’ show one year and write a personal story with high schoolers the next. And while I miss it, I’ve also done as much as I probably could do with that organization, at least in its current form.
So for now I’m just spending my days with the fifth graders, and taking it easy in the evenings and weekends. The short theatre class I taught at Northwestern this summer was a lot of fun, and gave me an idea of where I can go with all of this talent, old and new, I have stored up in me. And so I’m following Mr. Brook’s observation he gives in his essay “There Are No Secrets”:
“We prepare ourselves by the options we reject until the true solution, which was already there, suddenly comes into the open. One lives within a pattern: to ignore this is to take many false directions, but the moment the hidden movement is respected, it becomes the guide, and in retrospect one can trace a clear pattern that continues to unfold…As always, one has to go into a forest and back to find the plant that is growing besides one’s own front door.”