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Friday, September 16, 2011

This Week in BAM History: Peter Brook, Barbra Streisand, and Africa

Peter Brook and son in Africa, 1973. 
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark from Lee Gross, Inc.
“Forgive the namedropping. But as we talked, Babs asked me about the director Peter Brook and his half-crazed journey through the Sahara Desert and Central West Africa. She was hoping to see one of the Brook productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—so what did it all mean?”

—Theater Critic John Heilpern on a conversation with Barbra Streisand about Peter Brook

On September 10th, 1973, director Peter Brook, along with about 30 members of his International Centre for Theatre Research (including Helen Mirren) landed at BAM. For Brook — who would go on to inaugurate BAM's Majestic Theater (later, the Harvey) with his epic production of The Mahabarata—it was the last stop of a three-year-long attempt to answer one question: “What are the common stories, [...] the shared outlines of story and character with which an international group of actors could work?”

In pursuit of an answer, Brook and members of the Centre (which included at various points Jerzy Grotowski and poet Ted Hughes) crossed three continents. After forming in Paris in 1970 and sojourning to Persepolis in order to study nonverbal acting techniques, in 1973 they looped across the Sahara in Land Rovers, playing in cities and small villages between Algeria, Mali, and Nigeria.

A wrap-up from the Centre reads:

“By relying very largely on improvisation it was possible to see directly and comparatively the nature of the laws that permit or obstruct dramatic communication. The aim of the research was to create test situations out of which rhythms, movements, attitudes, characters and incidents could evolve, with different degrees of active participation from the audience.”

In a Drama Review interview, Peter Brook elaborated:

We went to Africa because in the theatre the audience is as powerful a creative element in the primal event as the actor [...]. What is of total importance is that the Theatre phenomenon only exists when the chemical meeting of what has been prepared by a group of people, and is incomplete, comes into relationship with another group, a wider circle which is the people who are there as spectators. When a fusion takes place, then there is a theatre event. When the fusion doesn’t take place, there is no event.” 

In Africa, the actors began developing a theater piece based on the 12th Century Persian poem “The Conference of the Birds.” Arriving in the U.S. in June of ’73, the Centre collaborated with the Teatro Campesino and its director Luis Valdez; over two months, the two companies performed “The Conference of the Birds” and other pieces for migrant farmworkers across California. The Centre held workshops at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Colorado, then went to the Indian Reservation at Leech Lake, Minnesota, where it spent a week collaborating with the Native American Theatre Ensemble (founded in part by the late Ellen Stewart of La Mama). Before BAM, the Centre stopped at the National Theatre of the Deaf in Waterford, Connecticut, to further its research into nonverbal communication.

Once in Brooklyn, the Centre held impromptu performances for schoolchildren and community members all across the borough. The actors set up shop in BAM’s newly remodeled Lepercq Space; “The Conference of the Birds” was the inaugural production in the black box theater, which was redesigned by architect Edward Knowles (coincidentally the father of poet/visual artist Christopher Knowles, many of whose collaborations with Robert Wilson have been presented at BAM).

Lepercq space circa 1973.

Brook and the Centre would begin in the Lepercq at 10:30am with mostly private demonstrations and exercises. In the afternoon, an audience would be invited to participate in improvisation and debate. The day would culminate with an evening performance of “The Conference of the Birds,” which according to Brook was not so much a play but “a possibility." The idea was "to make, in a very special form, something that really comes from the people and the place—and everything that’s in the air at the time of the performance.”

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