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March 29, 2011

Propeller: What would Brook think?

By Leslie Stainton

Peter Brook’s The Empty Space published in 1968, has long been a touchstone for anyone who cares about the theater.  The book came up last night during Carol Rutter’s energetic talk at the UM Museum of Art (UMMA) about the Propeller Theater Company and its uniquely “rough” style of performance. Rutter, a professor of English at the University of Warwick and UM grad, admits she stayed away from Propeller for more than a decade because she thought they’d be too “adolescent” for her tastes. She finally went two years ago, “and I thought, where has this been all my life? I’d finally grown up enough to find all the childlikeness and playfulness of the ensemble delightful.”

Rutter calls Propeller a perfect example of Brook’s idea of “rough” theater, which he describes as:

Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theater that’s not in a theater, the theater on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theater in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes.

It’s the Elizabethan stage, Punch and Judy, plays in prisons and on streets. Risky theater that lives by its wits. Theater stripped to its essence—which is to say theater as acting.

Rutter says, “What I like best is to see actors at work. I don’t want the production to get between me and the actor.” Propeller “asks actors to be the material of their own production.” That’s to say they’re not only characters and chorus, but the scenery itself. Instead of a door, you get a pair of players holding a doorknob. You get the wonderful, whimsical apparatus of the theater: false noses, garish tights, tutus and wigs, buckets of blood. Presentational—not representational—theater.

Rutter: “You’re so close to the story.”

Pit this against what Brook calls “the deadly theater,” which we’ve all seen. Conventional, commercial, safe plays, staged in trite, often sentimental ways. Old jokes, predictable effects, creaky machinery, overproduced sets.  “The Deadly Theater takes easily to Shakespeare,” Brook writes:

We see his plays done by good actors in what seems like the proper way—they look lively and colorful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just as they are supposed to be in the best of classical theaters. Yet secretly we find it excruciatingly boring—and in our hearts we either blame Shakespeare, or theater as such, or even ourselves.

Rutter talked last night about a recent RSC production of Lear, which had an ensemble of 23 actors, ten of them spear-carriers, “doing zilch. Like cabbages.” Great in its heyday, the RSC—and they’re not alone—has become brand-name theater, Rutter believes. Lavish, heavily subsidized, unable or unwilling to take risks.

Too big to fail.

“Which is why,” she says, “we who want Shakespeare to live forever will always need companies like Propeller.” Maverick companies with anarchic ideas, free to play and to fail. Rough theater.

“What does Shakespeare gain from this collaboration?” she asked toward the end of her talk. “Those are questions I leave to you.” Comments welcome…



Leslie Stainton is the author of "Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts" (Penn State, 2014) and "Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999)." She'll read from "Staging Ground" at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 7 pm.