Actor Kathryn Hunter heard the news of director Peter Brook’s death, last weekend at 97, in a telephone call from his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. Then Hunter, an Olivier Award winner who played the witches in Joel Coen’s film “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” set off across London for Shakespeare’s Globe.
“I’m playing Lear, which was, of course, Peter’s great, great play,” she said the other day, describing herself as overwhelmed at his loss after many years of working with him, including in New York. “As I was cycling in, I felt and almost saw a huge great light, and I felt it was Peter’s spirit.”
That sort of mystical event seems apt for Brook, who over his long, globe-trotting career attained a kind of guru status – not least through his nine-hour landmark production “The Mahabharata,” a 1985 adaptation of the Sanskrit epic, and with revered texts like his 1968 book of theater principles, “The Empty Space.”
London-born and Paris-based, Brook directed nine shows on Broadway, most famously his “Marat / Sade” in 1965 and his enduringly influential “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1971. In recent decades in New York, he was a favorite questing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Theater for a New Audience.
Friends and colleagues who worked with him on this side of the Atlantic, and theater makers who never met him but looked reflexively to his tenets – including openness and presence at the time – spoke by phone this week about Brook’s impact as an artist and a human being. These are edited excerpts from those interviews.
The actor on being cast, as a replacement, in “A Midsummer Night‘s Dream, ”in which he made his Broadway debut as Snout the tinker.
One day I got off the subway. I found Peter standing alongside me, and we set off to cross the road when the lights were pedestrian lights. Peter said, “How are you?” I said, “Actually, Peter, I’m not very happy.” And he stopped dead, right in the middle of Seventh Avenue, and he turned to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “What is it? What’s wrong? ” By then, the lights had changed, and the traffic was roaring down Seventh Avenue. He said, “No, no, tell me. I want to know. ” I had to take him by the arm and almost drag him out of the way. We would have both been knocked down. What I mean is that when he turned to me and said, “What is it ?,” there was no question, from the look in his eyes, that I was the only thing of importance at that moment. And that impressed me very, very much.
The director – who said he revisits Brook, via “The Empty Space” and films of his work, each time he stages a classic – on vivid first impressions of Brook’s artistry.
I grew up in a farming community in downstate Illinois, the land of corn and soybeans. And when I was 12 years old, in 1966, I opened up America’s magazine: Life magazine. And there was this spread of “Marat / Sade” that was terrifying and gorgeous – a two-page spread of an image of beheaded aristocrats. Just a few years later, I saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on its American tour. It remains to this day the most mind-blowing experience of the theatrical event, of how theater can be made: circus, magic and absolute clarity of a text, and joy, actually, and surprise – again, terror. He really did, I think, change the way we look at Shakespeare.
The director on what Brook has bequeathed.
He really catapulted us into the modern era of how we experience space when we sit down and collaborate. And that theater is a collaborative form, and that the greatest and ultimate collaboration is between the performers and the audience.
Tarell Alvin McCraney
The playwright and screenwriter on witnessing Brook “model a life as an artist” at his Paris base.
He was consistently workshop playing, and I would find time to go do them. I spent the last however many years that was, 15 years, basically being a part of this ad hoc company around the world, which many people were. I always left it feeling very full. Like I had done a retreat, almost, in theater. Sometimes I would write, sometimes I would act, sometimes I would just watch. Sometimes I would move a set piece. And we always shared a meal. No matter what, there was a break so that we could be human beings and have a meal.
Peter would attract a whole room full of folk. But the room understood that there was a space for everybody here. He was showing us that that is the practice: You have to practice making room for everyone.
The actor-director on Brook as challenge and inspiration.
Reading “The Empty Space” when I was in college gave me the confidence to know that the theater that I wanted to do was legitimate and important. For me, that was the bible. I actually went to Paris a couple months ago, and I was going to meet him in person and have some lunch, and he was too ill. But Peter will be alive for a long time. He presented another path.
Karen Brooks Hopkins
The former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the magic dust that Brook sprinkled in 1987 by staging “The Mahabharata” there, for which BAM converted an old cinema into what is now its Harvey Theater.
When you run an arts institution, you need great artists to work there. And Peter Brook made our reputation. I mean, there were others, too. But Brook, “The Mahabharata,” it just locked it in. It changed the whole Brooklyn thing, from people not coming to people knowing that this was the place to see something that would blow your mind that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
The artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, Brook’s frequent New York stage in recent years, on first pursuing him in the early 1970s.
I decided to go out to Aspen, Colorado, and track down where Peter Brook was staying. I waited in the Hotel Jerome, and he came out. I said, “Mr. Brook, I wonder if I could audition for you. I’m a great admirer of your work. ” Instead of dismissing me, he stopped and looked at me. Then he said, “What have you done?” I said, “Well, I’ve just graduated from drama school, so I don’t have any professional credits.” He just shook his head, gently: No. Didn’t say a word. But the troupe that he was with, I got to know some of the actors. They would invite me to rehearsals. So every time they came to New York for years, I would go to these rehearsals. And he let me watch.
The director on bringing Brook and his production “Tierno Bokar” to Columbia University and Barnard College in 2005.
One night, Peter was sitting on the aisle about halfway up, and right next to him was a student on his cellphone. The show started and the kid did not put away the cellphone. I just braced myself for Peter walking up the aisle where I was sitting in the back row and saying, “What is going on with the cellphones?” I didn’t let him get any momentum. I went down to him afterward and said, “It was good tonight, right? It’s so beautiful. ” And he said, “Yes, the most interesting thing happened. There was a boy sitting next to me and he seemed very engaged in the play and also on his phone. And that was so interesting to me, ”says Peter,“ that both of those things could be true. ”
On Brook giving her the courage to direct “King Lear,” which she did to acclaim for Theater for a New Audience in 2014.
I felt very interested in the play. I also felt like, who the hell do I think I am? I was kind of paralyzed by that. We were in Paris for some reason, so I went to his apartment, and we talked for like half an hour. He was like, “What interests you about the play? What do you feel connected to? ” You can talk about those plays for hours with people, and we didn’t. It was light. He was like, “Oh, well, you have to do it. There’s no way to find out the answers to the questions that you have unless you do it. ”
Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni
The actors, who are a married couple, on their yearslong collaboration with Brook.
Hunter It was slow and it takes time, because what he’s looking for is not product. It was more about peeling away anything that was obstructing what is essentially you, so that you could really share something very fine and mysterious with the audience. When we’d go away and work with other people, coming back to Peter, I’d feel: I’m a very crass, crude person. I have to sensitize myself again.
Our last production, and Peter’s last production, was Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in French.
Magni We did a version where Willie appeared and was not hidden. Peter wanted to see the relationship between Winnie and Willie.
I now resist a lot when I’m in a rehearsal room when I feel there is too much of a concept before you start to work. He allowed us a journey. With failure and with accidents and with bumps. But at the end, we would have come up with the stories. He was sending us the message: Go inside yourself. Be true.