An important book for any theater major is The Empty Space by Peter Brook, director and cofounder of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
He divides the possibility of a stage or theater into four different kinds of spaces:
1. The Deadly
2. The Holy
3. The Rough
4. The Immediate
For years, this book was my Bible.
Not only in my theater work, but also in my life.
How do I make sure my relationships are immediate and real?
How do I keep students engaged and interested and avoid being a deadly teacher?
Are the spaces on the different stages I hold in my work and in my life holy and not just bland and empty?
Do I remember to remain rough and authentic, never conforming to what is easy and/or conventional?
I love, love this book. I could go on talking about it and quoting from it, but I will not.
I will just say you should read it, NOW.
In our hearts I believe we hold many empty spaces.
The question is what do we fill that emptiness with?
What we fill our heart with is the essence of our being.
“Ms., I feel empty,” she said to me in my class in Juvie.
“Well, empty is good,” I say.
“Empty means now we can renew,” I add.
“Renew what?” She looks at me with big eyes.
“Everything,” I smile. “Well, maybe not everything.”
I feel like that is harsh and bordering on arrogant.
“But a lot,” I say.
“No renewal. I don't care no more. I really don't give a fuck. What the fuck -- ever.” She shrugs.
“Well,” and I take a deep, deep breath, trying desperately to find the right thing to say, because she really DOESN’T give a fuck.
“If you have been filling your empty with crap like drugs, gang banging, and other bad stuff, well, you will feel like crap.
In the end, that stuff leaves you empty and sad.”
“Wait a minute,” one says.
“Weed makes you feel like the bomb! Nothing crappy about that.”
“Yeah.” Two others agree with her.
They think there is absolutely nothing wrong with walking through life high as a kite. Actually, for many of my girls in Juvie, that is the only way they CAN walk through life.
Oh how sad, not to want to sense, to feel, to be.
They understand that meth and other drugs are bad.
But sniffing glue, or computer screen cleaner (just learned about that) and weed, well that is “light drugs.” That is cool. It’s okay.
I have to say I know a lot of people who are not in Juvie, who think there is nothing wrong with being a little high a lot of the time. I would challenge that.
I look at my group. I am amazed that these girls can be so innocent and not innocent at the same time.
“Okay.” I redirect. “Do you think being under the influence and stoned is a positive thing? It affects how you function. It affects your brain and how you react and think. Hanging out smoking all day will maybe fill you up in the moment, but it will leave you so incredibly empty after. You want to feel and be able to think straight,” I say.
But as I said it, I knew my case was incredibly weak.
I am not speaking their language I think to myself.
“Ms., I don’t want to feel shit!” she says.
I sit there looking at these girls who have been hurt, used, abused.
I sit looking at these young girls. I know that some have done bad things, but believe me; bad things have also been done to them.
What am I saying to them?
Feel? Be present?
What am I suggesting that they fill their empty with?
The things I think are wise.
Something isn’t right.
When I am lost, I go to my art, because theater is my tool.
I tell them about Peter Brook.
I explain who he is. I tell them about the empty space.
I tell them that we need to fill the empty with love and belief and joy.
Dare to be rough, but not the rough they know. Take the rough road, the challenge. Be someone they think they couldn’t be.
Be immediate, in the moment. Try not to escape it.
React. Interact. Don’t pull away.
I tell them to have faith, be spiritual. Make your empty spaces holy.
And, most of all don’t kill your inside. Don’t hide and numb yourself with drugs.
I was babbling a little, but they were listening and they got it.
There was that tension in the room when you know you are reaching them.
I could feel their attention.
“Okay, Ms., I get it. Don’t fill the empty with shit and drugs and crap, but what about just keeping the empty ‘empty’? Can I do that?
Or do I have to fill it with that Peter dude’s shit ass ideas?”
I looked at this girl. In previous sessions she would sit quietly, looking into space, expressionless, seeming very hollow to me.
I look at her and I say, “Empty is fine, if you are not sad and depressed by it. Empty is much better than filling the empty with something that might hurt you.”
She looked at me and it was quiet.
Someone else said, “I had to work real hard to empty my heart from the crap people put in it. I think the empty is good.”
And then my girl said, “So, Ms., you just saying don’t fill the empty with weed?
This is a fancy anti-drug campaign.”
I laugh, and say, “No, it isn’t,” and I pause. And then someone jumped in. (I love, love when that happens!)
“No, Stupid, she is saying get the shit out, but think about what is coming in.”
And I add, “She isn’t stupid. You are right. Sometimes we need to just let the empty be empty.”
“Ms., the empty is being clean, not just from the drugs, but from all the emotions, and that’s good.”
“I think so,” I say.
I look at this group of girls, holding their empty so tight, trying to make sense of it all. I think about how we spend so much time and effort trying to fill the empty. Maybe, just maybe, we need to embrace it, not be afraid of it, and sit in it.
“You know, Ms.,” she said.
“Being here I got off the drugs. I am clean and I like being empty, empty of the drama and the high. I think in the empty I’m gonna find answers.”
I am blown away.
Her face lit up and suddenly she looked more alive then she did in the past few weeks.
“I just filled your empty, didn’t I?” she says proudly.
“No,” I say with a huge smile. “You just taught me to be okay with the empty.”
“I taught you? Now that’s almost better than weed, Ms.”
We all laugh out loud and are at ease.
Move over, Mr. Brook!
Today we are embracing the empty and letting it simply be empty.