Brunch with a Theater Icon

If you took a theater class in college–particularly one in playwriting–I’m sure you’re familiar with “The Empty Space.” It’s essential reading for anyone who cares about theater or writing. It defines four types of theater: The Deadly, The Holy, The Rough and The Immediate. It’s opening sentences are classic: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

“The Empty Space” is written by Peter Brook. If nothing in the previous paragraph rings any bells, perhaps you’re familiar with the black and white film version of “Lord of the Flies.” He directed it. He also directed legendary productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (where the actors flew over the audience), “King Lear,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet” (which came to BAM just a few years ago). His “Marat/Sade”–available on DVD (from Netflix and Amazon) is one of the most staggering, disturbing, exciting and remarkable productions I’ve ever seen on film. (Sidenote: you can download Judy Collins singing a medley of music from it here on iTunes. (click only if you have iTunes.))

Which is all to say that Peter Brook is one of the most important living figures in theater and (bragging alert!) I had brunch with him today!

Well it wasn’t just me. You see, my teacher Carol Rocamora (a brilliant Chekhov translator, and author of a new book on Vaclav Havel) wrote a play based on Chekhov’s letters that Brook directed this past year in Paris and London. Now he’s in town directing a piece at Columbia and Carol being the wonderfully generous person she is invited us over today to meet him for brunch. We were all ecstatic and nervous as hell.

But there was no need to be nervous. Brook is a sweet, unimposing man who conveys a radiant warmth and an otherworldly charm. In fact, he’s the most unhuman person I’ve ever met: he had the presence of a deity descended from a cloud. See for yourself:


(I don’t need to tell you that he’s the one in the denim jacket.)

He spoke to us about (what else?) theater and the importance of improvisation. He found it problematic that our program separates out the writers, directors and actors and thinks for any piece to work all three figures need to play in creative harmony. He asked us about our work and our themes and listened kindly as we told him. (My plays frequently feature pregnant women, but I’m not sure that’s a theme.)

Carol delivered a gorgeous spread of bagels, smoked salmon, quiche, salad, fruit, and asparagus. I didn’t observe what Peter ate but I did notice he added soda water to his tea. Is that common for Europeans?

Before we end this post that’s not really food related (can I just consider myself off the hook when exciting things like this happen?) I think it’s worthwhile to apply some of Brook’s theories to the food world. After all, there’s deadly dining the same way there’s deadly theater.

Let me quote Brook for a moment: “The Deadly Theater can at first sight be taken for granted, because it means bad theater. As this is the form of theater we see most often, and as it is most closely linked to the despised, much-attacked commercial theater it might seem a waste of time to criticize it further. But it is only if we see that deadliness is deceptive and can appear anywhere, that we will become aware of the size of the problem.”

Replace “theater” with “dining experience” and you have an interesting parallel to the prevalence of mediocrity in our food culture. We’re well aware of the commercial offenders–the Chilis, the Fridays, the Olive Gardens–but it’s those in-betweens, those restaurants that portend to serve “gourmet” food when they’re really serving you bland formulas on well-worn plates that are truly deadly. Calvin Trillin calls a restaurant like this “La Maison de la Casa House” and writes: “Its food will sound European but taste as if the continent they had in mind was Austrailia.”

Pete Brook probably doesn’t need me preaching the gospel of Peter Brook and applying his theories to food. He’s made his name. But if you get a chance to read his book or to watch “Marat/Sade” (I actually recommend the latter first, though–fair warning–it’s definitely not for everyone: it’s graphic and features insane asylum inmates acting out the French Revolution under the direction of the Marquis De Sade) please do. I hope you enjoyed this account of my lunch with a theater icon.

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