The Kinetics of the Invisible

Acting Processes in Peter Brook's Theatre

by Matteo Bonfitto (Author)
©2017 Monographs 222 Pages


What’s the role played by the invisible in our lives? At what level can it be perceived when explored in theatre-making? Having as its focus the acting processes carried out by Peter Brook and his actors, this book examines many aspects of their practical work – from actor training seen as "poiesis" to the production of the "present moment" – and in doing so, it tries to recognize the nuances and subtle qualities generated by the invisible produced by them. However, the core of this investigation is that of trying to capture the invisible not as a vague sensation but in its dynamic and powerful manifestation.

Table Of Contents

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First and foremost, thanks to Prof. David Bradby, my supervisor, who has supported me during my PhD, offering constructive counsel on many issues related to my research activities.

To Alison Hodge, my advisor, who made me perceive acting practices as complex and stimulating sources of knowledge.

To Tapa Sudana, Yoshi Oida, and Sotigui Kouyaté, who are more-than-actors.

To Prof. Georges Banu, Prof. Eugenia Casini-Ropa, Prof. Jacó Guinsburg, Prof. Silvia Fernandes Telesi and Prof. Luis Fernando Ramos for the support and intellectual stimuli.

To Cassiano Sydow Quilici, for the generosity and observations that made this work more precise.

To Capes, institution which sponsored me.

To my family, for their unconditional love. ← 9 | 10 →

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The approach to Peter Brook taken by Matteo Bonfitto is as useful as it is original. Of the vast quantity of critical literature devoted to Brook so far, almost all of it concerns his status as director, and the problems entailed in assessing his creative contribution to the developing art of the theatre direction in the twentieth century. Bonfitto’s work takes a new approach: it seeks to explore and to understand the philosophy underlying the acting processes that make the work of Brook’s company so exceptional. Following this path, he is able to tell us a great deal about the various actors with whom Brook has collaborated over the years as well as about the director’s own theory and practice. In his emphasis on the collaborative nature of the evolving art of making theatre under Peter Brook, Bonfitto opens the way to a new and more fruitful understanding of what it is that makes the work of this world-famous director so distinctive.

Because Brook’s creative career spans more than half a century, it would have been easy for Bonfitto to concentrate on only a limited period. He might, for example, have chosen to examine only the work of the Centre International de Création Théâtrale at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris since 1973. But Bonfitto has chosen a more demanding option, which also turns out to be more rewarding. He begins his study of Brook’s approach to acting processes with the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ season held at the London Academy of Music and Drama in the early 1960s and goes on to assess his evolving ideas in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company during that decade. Only then does he consider the new departure that became possible when Brook established his international group in Paris at the start of the 1970s.

His study explores Brook’s ideas concerning the actor training, rehearsal process, and the devising of new work. He demonstrates that, unlike so many directors, Brook did not simply follow the needs of whatever production he was working on at the time, but developed a model, both complex and coherent, for creative practice in the theatre, one that took serious account of the ethical dimension as well as the creative imperative. In the process, he explains in detail the relationships between Brook’s own practice and that of great precursors such as Zeami, Stanislavsky, Artaud, Feldenkrais, and a number of inspirational contemporary directors whose work Brook admired, especially Grotowski. As a result of these explanations, he is able to demonstrate how Brook developed what he names a generative model of training. ← 13 | 14 →

Bonfitto’s study draws on a range of philosophical sources to inform a critique of existing published scholarship. He is also able to draw on his own first-hand experience of interviews and workshops with three of Brook’s main collaborators – Yoshi Oida, Tapa Sudana, and Sotigui Kouyaté. In this section of the book, which draws most heavily on his accounts of actors working with Brook, he is able to demonstrate most convincingly how the generative model proposed in this study operates. Writing in the first decade of the twentieth-first century, Bonfitto is alert to the current debates around the nature of acting. He questions the received idea, according to which an actor’s personality must be poured into his art, and asks whether great acting should not rather be seen as the surrender to a force that is essentially impersonal. This idea is treated in the light of Brook’s life-long engagement with the thought of Gurdjieff and his interest in Buddhist philosophy. His aesthetic sympathies are closely related to Zen thinking, and Bonfitto is able to show how this sympathy is translated into both an ethics and an aesthetics of performance.

For Brook, all theatre worthy of the name affirms a double necessity: to pursue disciplined inquiry into the inner life of man and the modes of performance most conducive to this research, while all the time remaining open to the world outside. This means that the discoveries of those actors who embark on such a journey of research with him must be tested, at regular intervals, by confronting different audiences and seeking feedback on their understanding of what has been presented to them. It is this acute sense of the two-way process involved in any theatre exploration that makes Brook’s work both so profound and so in touch with the concerns of communities in the present century. Bonfitto’s determination to investigate not only the ideas, pronouncements, and productions but also, and most significantly, the creative processes of Brook’s actors, is what makes this study truly ground-breaking.

Brook has written that he sees his whole life as one great journey of discovery; Bonfitto, too, has made a great journey from Brazil to London and to Paris and back to Brazil. His account of the minds, the poetry, and the creative processes he has encountered in his voyage is of vital interest to all those whom the future of theatre concerns.

David Bradby

Royal Holloway University of London

March 2009

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Silent sunset. Various unfamiliar sounds become slowly, but increasingly perceptible… their vibrations produce a visualization of mixed images. It is possible to smell different kinds of flowers… A man appears. His words immediately infuse the moment with gravity. There are three stones placed at the centre of a circle, they are similar but they do not have the same size. Another man, weightless, flashes across the space… the meeting between a boy and a girl changes the atmosphere completely… They do not simply move, they glide smoothly on the ground, covered with sand… A plot is being enacted. But what is happening is not just the representation of a story. There is something regarding the actions… something that permeates them and makes them dilate, float… Why do I perceive it this way? How do they produce this effect? … The musicians stop playing. The silence falls again, but this time it is different than before… I realise just now that it is dark…

These are fragmented personal recollections of an unforgettable experience: an outdoor presentation of La Tempête (The Tempest) directed by Peter Brook, which took place in Verona, Italy, July, 1991. That was the first time I saw Brook’s actors performing live. I was then touched by a stream of stimuli, sensations, and feelings for which I could not account. They have been kept somewhere inside me for many years, and I became an actor myself. Despite other significant experiences I have lived since then, both as a spectator and as a performer, that event remained for me a fruitful experience at which I needed to look back. In this way, the possibility of examining some acting processes put into practice in Peter Brook’s theatre represented an opportunity to return to that evening, when the time became fluid and the vision did not produce merely descriptive images.

So, let’s talk about the invisible… ← 15 | 16 →

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1.  From Intraculturalism to Transculturalism: Exploring, Expanding, Connecting

In general, Peter Brook’s artistic path in theatre is divided into three phases, as described by Marshall and Williams.1 According to this division, the first phase covered the period between 1945 and 1963, and corresponded to Brook’s professional learning period, during which he worked “in a varied theatrical context, exploring different forms and styles.”2 The second phase (1964–1970) – described by Trewin as the “theatre of disturbance”3 – was a period of professional revaluation and maturation. Finally, the third period encompassed the work developed by Brook and his actors since 1970, that is to say, since the opening of the International Centre of Theatrical Research (CIRT).

Among the various aspects defining the phases mentioned above, there is a specific process that can be observed in Brook’s work: a movement, in Patrice Pavis’s terms, from intraculturalism towards transculturalism.4 Actually, while between the forties and fifties of the 20th century, various questions concerning nationality and tradition called the attention of the English director, from the sixties on, the practical work he and his actors developed was progressively permeated by the aim of seeking values, principles and qualities transcending particular cultures in order to capture the universality of the human condition.5 In this sense, it is important to notice the values and potentialities he attributed to Elizabethan theatre, especially to Shakespeare. If, during the forties and fifties, Brook tried to “revive” the procedures, which he associated with Elizabethan theatre, in order to build his professional image as a director, then, after the sixties, ← 17 | 18 → he begun to perceive Elizabethan theatre and Shakespeare as the models of universal principles.6 Thus, the aspects related to a transcultural view have gradually permeated Brook’s speech and practical work since the sixties. Implications of this process will be discussed through this essay.

Due to the extension of the work produced by Brook in theatre, the division into phases mentioned earlier represents a useful tool for researchers to have a clear idea of the contrasts associated with his artistic path. Nevertheless, as described in the introduction, the acting processes represent the main focus of this research. As a consequence, it is possible to say that, on the one hand, the division into phases has an instrumental role, and, on the other, that such temporal boundaries related to Brook’s work can be questioned as soon as the division is analysed from the perspective of acting.

According to Zarrili, building a critical awareness in relation to acting implies the recognition of a dynamic activity involving “a complex, ongoing set of intellectual and psycho-physiological negotiations.”7 In this sense, while Brook’s path as a theatre director allows one to recognize the shifts corresponding to certain periods, the task of establishing the boundaries concerning his investigations into the field of acting is much more difficult. Marat/Sade (1964), for example, can be regarded as a production that marks the beginning of the second phase of his career. However, the complexity of Marat/Sade, in terms of acting, is already perceived in the work previously performed, The Theatre of Cruelty (1964). In fact, Marat/Sade worked as a catalyst of the processes put into practice during the experimentations presented at LAMDA theatre.8 Similarly, if one considers the exploration of improvisation processes done by Brook and his actors, The Theatre of Cruelty may be regarded as an extreme point of a continuum starting with The Balcony (1960) and Moderato Cantabile (1960) until King Lear (1962).

Therefore, as it was stated before, the aim of this study is not to reconstitute the theatrical career of Brook in general terms, but it is to examine some of the most relevant aspects related to the acting processes, as put into practice by him and his actors since the beginning of the sixties of the 20th century. In order to pursue this aim, three interrelated aspects will be discussed in this chapter: training, improvisation, and form. ← 18 | 19 →

Training as Poiesis: Broadening the Perceptual Field

In the Western world, despite the fact that actor training was systematized by Konstantin Serguêievitch Stanislavsky first, an attempt to produce consistent results in this area, through a combination of practices, had already been done before by other artists, such as Konrad Ekhof, who in 1752, created the Theatralische Akademie.9 It is interesting to see how actor training accomplished different roles through time in the West. If, until the work developed by Stanislavsky, exploring actor training followed, in most cases, utilitarian needs, preparing the actors to perform characters, later on, the relationship between training and production of artistic results became much more complex. Gradually, the actor training has increasingly involved the procedures related to the work on oneself, which was supposed to precede the artistic creation. Thanks not only to Stanislavsky but also to François Delsarte, Edward Gordon Craig, Adolphe Appia, Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, Meyerhold, Evguéni Vakhtángov, Jacques Copeau and Dullin, among many others, the actor training reached a value in itself through time: “training does not teach how to perform, to be skilful, or to prepare oneself for creation.”10


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 222 pp., 33 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Matteo Bonfitto (Author)

Matteo Bonfitto is an Italian-brazilian performer and an interdisciplinary researcher. He studied at Bologna University and received his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London. His artistic collective – Performa Teatro – presented performances in Brazil, Chile, France, Scotland and Italy.


Title: The Kinetics of the Invisible
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222 pages