I have always said that, as an actor and director, I’m from the Peter Brook school of thought. In his groundbreaking book, The Empty Space, Brook opens by writing, “I can take and empty space and call it a bare stage” (9). I love this image because it gestures towards what is irreducible about an act of theatre, an idea he develops right away. Indeed, Brook’s second sentence reads, “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 “(9). In our post-cinematic moment, audiences think they want more: lights, sound, sets, props. Of course, these elements are themselves great artistic tools, and I love them. But what if we didn’t have those elements? Should we cease creating on the stage.
Of course not.
In fact, it is my strong belief that these moments — say, when we don’t have an ideal space, a single lighting instrument, or the ability to produce sound — provide some of the most creative, enthralling solutions to telling a story on stage. In fact, I would argue that too many elements on stage can render an audience passive.
When the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V enters the stage just before Act 3 of that play, she is helping us to see the landscape and action since Shakespeare’s Globe in 1599 was, in fact, an empty space. The Chorus says,
Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the ravage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur. Follow, follow:
Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy,
And leave your England, as dead midnight still,
Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women,
Either past or not arrived to pith and puissance;
For who is he, whose chin is but enrich’d
With one appearing hair, that will not follow
These cull’d and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?
Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege;
Behold the ordnance on their carriages,
With fatal mouths gaping on girded Harfleur.
Suppose the ambassador from the French comes back;
Tells Harry that the king doth offer him
Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,
Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.
The offer likes not: and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
Alarum, and chambers go off
I love this speech for many reasons, but look at how Shakespeare has the Chorus use the imperative mood throughout this passage. There is an urgency here to help the audience overcome the limitations of this stage. But I think this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek on Shakespeare’s part. For the limitations — at least as we see them through a 21st-century lens — aren’t really deficits at all. What the Chorus celebrates here, albeit obliquely, is the capacity for people to use their imaginations — to “piece out our imperfections with [our] thoughts.” In other words, we are a more active, imaginative, and creative audience precisely because we don’t have every bit of reality handed to us. We don’t need it. The results of seeing theatre in such an empty space are wonderful because the audience, in many ways, is engaged to be just as creative as the actors. Theatre, seen in this way, isn’t something you consume so much as it an experience you live through.
Teaching creativity takes a lesson from this. It is easy to think that for kids to be creative they need all the supplies. But this is not so. Last year, I was teaching a “page-to-stage” English class. The idea was to think of dramatic literature as a play rather than only as words on the page. Good enough, right? But I wanted to experiment with different ways of having students experience plays in performance. On the first day, I played my class a radio episode of Dragnet from 1949. For all of them, this was their first introduction to Joe Friday and to radio drama. I got a few strange looks, but that’s nothing new for me.
I then told the class that they were to partner up and read the collection of one-act plays, Almost, Maine, and that each pair would each produce a full radio production of a one-act as a podcast (this was the moment when Serial was all the rage). I gave the class about two weeks to work on this, but that’s about all I gave them. I wanted them to figure everything out on their own. And, of course, they exceeded expectations on just about every front, and the results were brilliant: the unit was a hit, they learned the play well, they learned about storytelling, and on and on.
But I learned something that, as soon as it hit me, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of long ago: to engage a deep level of creativity, don’t give students all the tools — take some critical ones away. The play, Almost, Maine was written for the stage, and while it can be produced with minimal set, lights, and sound, the play takes the idea that an audience will see it for granted. And, sure enough, what I heard — immediately, I might add — when I said “podcast” was the question “how?”
I am increasingly convinced that by teaching with the question, “how?” in mind, we get to the idea of “what.” So, let’s not ask, “what is Almost, Maine about?” Let’s ask us how to produce the play with a crucial element off the table. When this problem falls across the kids’ desk, they start working on the solution; the act of figuring out how to do something can quite readily lead them to what the text is all about.
So projects are a great way to begin, for sure. But if the solution is too readily available to your students, take something away, and then charge them with working with only some of the pieces. They will fill the empty space you’ve created with extraordinary results.