In 2011, a production of short Beckett plays that British theater director Peter Brook had helped conceive came to New York. Its actors filled a bare stage with clear intentions and strong emotions; the effect of watching them was of seeing a world built out of thin air. For the 50-plus years during which he had been staging such all-from-nothing shows, Brook refused to allow rehearsals to be filmed, believing visitors disruptive.
The recent documentary Peter Brook: The Tightrope, however, changes this. It was made in collaboration between Brook and his filmmaker son, Simon (whose previous works include 2002’s Brook by Brook, a film portrait of his father), with hidden cameras mounted throughout a room during a specially arranged workshop period.
The 87-year-old Brook remains seated in a chair to watch barefoot actors perform one of his most valued exercises: Each performer must walk across a carpet on an imaginary tightrope with such focus that Brook sees it, or else start over. The balancing act organically becomes a metaphor for theater — something to be done alertly and with the right amount of energy for each moment, neither anticipating what’s ahead nor looking backward. To fall off is to break from immersions in life.
Throughout the film — both within the workshop space as he addresses the actors and in occasional talking-head interviews — Brook offers himself as a teacher whose goal is to help his students discover brief, ephemeral moments of bliss.