The Empty Space

Posted in moving on March 1st, 2011 by kellinewby

With all this searching, we’ve had to ask ourselves over and over what makes a theatre a theatre?

I walk into every space we look at and feel like the little bird in the children’s book that asks a wide array of creatures “Are you my mother?”  Some of the creatures are absurd choices; does the little bird really think the truck could possibly be its mother?  But there I am standing in space after space with wide, curious eyes saying “Are you my theatre?”

When I come home and think about it for awhile, my mind goes back to grad school.  Well, the good part of grad school: the books.

It reminds me of Peter Brook’s seminal treatise on modern theatre, The Empty Space, which I find myself returning to again and again.  In it, Brooks opens with:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.  A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

Later, in a chapter titled “The Rough Theatre,” he gets into a discussion of the kind of theatre you find anywhere.  “Salt, sweat, noise smell: the theatre that’s not in a theatre.”  He continues on to write:

I have had many abortive discussions with architects building new theatres–trying vainly to find the words with which to communicate my own conviction that it is not a question of good building or bad: a beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life; while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place.  This is the mystery of theatre.

Over and over in he book, he asserts that a theatre is not a theatre because of curtains and lights and chairs with nice fold up seats.

It reminds me of Konstantin, the lead character in the Seagull.  Throughout the play, Konstantin argues passionately that we need “new forms” and Act One features a play he has written.  Before the performance, he describes his makeshift stage on the shore of the lake in this way:

Now this is what I call a theatre!  A curtain, two wings, right and left, and then nothing.  No set.  Empty space.  The curtain rises and all you see is the lake and the far horizon.

We saw another space last week.  It had a Grail Shaped beacon at the top of it (forgive me this one Monty Python reference).  The building was colder inside than out; it has gone unused so long that the cold has soaked into the bricks and plaster and held it there, but there was a big group of us and we all saw the same thing.  And we all liked what we think it can be.

Tonight at a board meeting, the term “blue skying” was tossed around.  We blue skyed the most recent grail candidate.  We had  seen it as an empty space, literally stripped of everything that had made it what it was before.  The walls bore scars throughout in the shape of what had been there.  There were piles of trash left by the workman who had ripped everything out.  In other places, hangers still dangled in wardrobes and odds and ends lay in dusty piles on the floor, as though the previous owners had scooped all the garments out in a bear hug and run as fast as they could from the men with the sledgehammers and crowbars come to empty out the space.

We shuddered in our coats and clapped our hands together for warmth.  Juliana and I crawled through every nook and cranny but I saw the look in her eyes.

New Forms.  Empty space.  Blue sky.  And then, nothing.

She was asking the space, “Are you my theatre?” and so was I.