OBSERVER
IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS
September 18 1977
By JOHN HEILPERN
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK


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This is Katsuhiro Oida. He is a Japanese actor. He is in the middle of the Sahara because Peter Brook took him in search of the miraculous. (Cover)

To the astonishment of many people, the world-famous director Peter Brook and an international troupe of actors suddenly left their centre in Paris to emerge again in the Sahara desert. There, without the use of language, the actors performed before stunned audiences. It was the beginning of a particularly strange and intriguing adventure which took the expedition through the remote villages of Africa until it came full circle, ending in the Sahara where it began. Overleaf, in the first of two extracts from his book 'Conference of the Birds' which is published tomorrow by Faber and Faber, John Heilpern introduces the cast list of this amazing journey.


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Exercises in the desert: Peter Brook.


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Katsuhiro Oida, Brook’s leading actor, improvises for villagers.

No one, not even Peter Brook, knew what was going to happen on the journey.

It had to be so, for nothing like it had happened before. There was no precedent. We had a map, though. The route began in the Sahara Desert and went through six countries - Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Dahomey, Togo and Mali, 8,500 miles. And there were one or two markers on the map -special areas to head for, like Oshogbo in the heart of Nigeria, destined to be the most traumatic shock-encounter of the journey. But apart from the broad outline of the route, nobody knew what they were in for or where they were going. So the nature of the journey went to the core of Brook's work. It would be an improvisation in the dark. Maybe there would be some light. Brook likes to begin work in empty spaces and voids: the Sahara Desert.

Also, no one in the group had any idea what would be performed. They hadn't prepared a three-act play or anything. There was no planned programme. In fact, nothing was planned. No one, including Brook, would know what might be performed until they arrived at a village and laid out a carpet in the village square. Even then you couldn't be sure.

So the actors were in another void, though they were more accustomed to this one. They had a safety net, even if it was of the flimsiest kind. A year's work on Ted Hughes' poems had given the group a shared reference, a subculture almost, that could be drawn on for inspiration. For instance, they'd strung together several of Hughes' poems involving boxes and something horrible. This was called The Box Show. Another was about an ogre that gives birth to other ogres. This was called The Ogre Show. But they were in a rough, scarcely begun state. If you’d asked any of the actors what was supposed to happen in these shows, they couldn't have told you much. There was no mystery about it. It's just that they wouldn't have remembered. Well, they didn't when it came to it.

But I knew that Brook was hoping to develop one particular show in Africa-the Persian masterpiece, 'The Conference of the Birds'. It's the story of a journey. And like many allegorical poems of the East the journey is a symbolic pilgrimage. A long search is undertaken only to find that what you're searching for can be found on your doorstep: Mecca is where you are. It's the Catch 22 of Islam. Without the journey you never understand that you needn't have taken it in the first place.

One of the fables in the story is called The Lost Key: 'Man lives in a state of imagination, in a dream: no one sees things as they are. To him Who says to you: "What shall I do?" say to him: "Do not do as you have always done; do not act as you have always acted."


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The troupe.

Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and 30 actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another. These are the eleven actor: Katsuhiro Oida, about 40 years old, the senior member of the group, a gentle and disciplined Japanese, watchful, very inquisitive, with the dedication of a monk. As an actor he has incredible dexterity. It would seem he can do anything. Often when a show might not be going too well, he'd be called upon to save the day. Yet when he first arrived in Paris he had never improvised in his life, could speak only Japanese -and had not even heard of Brook. The famous French actor and director, Jean-Louis Barrault, invited him to Europe in 1968  for a special experiment in theatre that Brook was involved in. But the student revolution put an end to it. Barrault fell from favour and Katsuhiro Oida rejoined Brook when he began his centre two years later. No other actor can match his commitment and staying power. It is he who puts the actors through the torture of many of the physical exercises. More, than any of the others, he has a deep sense of personal search.


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Brook with Ayansola.


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Liz Swados, the group’s composer prodigy.


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Bruce Myers changes for a show.


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Natasha Parry.


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Malick Bagayogo, the actor from Mali.

For 20 years, he trained in Noh Theatre technique under one of its great masters, Okura. He trained too at the Zen temples, praying and meditating. Each day be rose before dawn, cleaned the temple, worked in the fields, sitting and praying until midnight. When his father died at an early age, he ventured into commercial theatre and films to support his family. He's quite famous in Japan, though he'd never mention it. It's strange: he was the only actor in the group who wasn't keen to go to Africa. He said that he'd miss the central heating. He's known as Yoshi.

Andreas Katsulas, 26, a giant American-Greek, born in St Louis, the son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois. Katsulas would be terrific playing Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men', but it wouldn't be type-casting. He's emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with 'the mystical shit'. He does a job. His father always said: 'Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don't do any more or less.'

His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn't do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to land it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place. His family, many of whom live in Greece, is working class. His mother makes salads in a hotel kitchen. He paid his own way through school, ending up with a drama fellowship at Indiana University. When Brook was recommended to meet him, Katsulas had scarcely acted in the professional theatre. Incredibly, he's the second member of the group who hadn't heard of Brook. He says he joined the group because it gave him a free trip to Paris and paid well - 125 dollars a week. His family are always saying to him: 'When are you going to get a real job?'

Natasha Parry, who had heard of Brook if only for the reason that they're married. They met 2O years ago when he was directing opera. Apprehensive, spendthrift, private, dark, beautiful, she's acted since she was 12. The daughter of a Russian who fled the Revolution and is said to be related to Pushkin, her father was a gambler and newspaper man. Like Brook, she doesn’t seem to have had much formal education. Instead, she was quite a reputation in films and traditional theatre, playing opposite such leading men as Orson Welles, Gerard Philippe and Alec Guiness –all a world away from the current work.  And she brings to it the most wonderful qualities of pain and tenderness. She touches people. Yet she becomes fearful and tense, a stretched catapult tensed for failure. Others are like this.

She almost didn't make the trip. Just before we left for Africa she went into hospital for a minor operation, There was a danger she mightn’t be fit in time. It was a tough journey. But when I visited her in hospital she was taking swigs from a bottle of vintage wine, surrounded by many maps, learned books, articles on mysterious tropical diseases, dictionaries, pamphlets, tape recording of various African languages, and a small harp. 'Oh, miss,' said the nurse, bustling in with the steamed fish. 'You do look like Leslie Caron' She was fit.

Bruce Myers, 30, who made history when he was expelled from Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk on stage while playing Napoleon in 'Man of Destiny'. What to say about him? I’ve known him for so long. It was quite a coincidence, amazing in its way. Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I've known all my life. 'Don't laugh,' Myers said to me when we were 14. 'I've decided to be an actor.' He was supposed to have been a lawyer, like me. Also, his mother has a cousin, who has a daughter, who's married to a boy, whose sister is married to a man, who is the brother of Peter Brook. I do not think this influenced Brook in any way.

Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa he took a leading role for a short while in Brook's production of Midsummer Night's Dream'. He was filling in for an actor who'd fallen ill and had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one the finest achievements he'd ever seen on the stage. Then he lost it. The old fears returned. His favourite expression is 'Write it off.'

Myers had virtually given up the when he joined Brook. He left the Royal Shakespeare Company after three years because he found himself in a state of terror on stage. He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains. One day a movie was being shot in the lakes and Myers signed as an extra. It was directed by Cornel Wilde, renowned for his in-depth portrayals of Chopin and D’Artagnan. ‘You know,’ he said to Myers, ‘you could be an actor if you really tried.’

Helen Mirren, 26, a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her -part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol. I’m not certain the English know quite where to place her, the national temperament tending to prefer English Roses. However, she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money. 'Time was,' thundered an outraged newspaper, 'when actresses did it for art.'

She's famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, two movies for Lindsay Anderson and Ken Russell, and some massive publicity usually labelling her as 'The Sex Queen of the RSC'. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can't resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. 'Oh, don't let's talk about serious acting,' she's been known to say to earnest journalists. 'Let's talk about my big tits.' Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn't decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can't have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer. Make no mistake, she's potentially one of the most exciting actresses alive.

She was the last recruit to the group, joining the work only two months before Africa. And the group didn't accept her overnight. She was an outsider for quite a while, depressed and threatened. When she's vulnerable she can be curt and stand-offish, mannered almost. Sometimes she can't cope, like the rest of us. There's a melancholy side to her, which takes people by surprise. She's a hippy in a sense, often talking of 'freedom' and 'love' and 'togetherness'. She spends pars of her time living in a vague commune outside London. When she's on form, when she's confident and happy, she's unbeatable. I've known her for a few years now. She lived with my family in London. 'For Godsake.' I used to say to her, 'you're not wearing anything.' She'd genuinely forgotten. Or didn't think it mattered.

François Marthouret, born in Paris, aged 29, the son of an engineer, charming, attractive, said to be the handsomest actor in France, mischievous, clever, he will say of someone in the group: 'He is without one shadow of a doubt the worst actor in the world -but I love him.' He's invariably late for everything, though no one can possibly take offence for long. Occasionally he suffers terrible pangs of remorse, going in for public soul-searching of a philosophical nature. Also he enjoys being part of the French tradition of romantic poet existentialist figure. ‘Wasn’t it Baudelaire who said, “Everything with passion” he might announce unexpectedly. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t Baudelaire. Perhaps it was someone else. Ah, Baudelaire…’

He’s well known in France mainly as a television actor in lengthy Dostoevsky serials. He's made a couple of films. Along with Mirren, he has that mysterious gift known as star quality. He's fun. Also, he refuses to go with the group on their journey to Persia, objecting on political grounds. He worries, goes down with stomach complaints, cuts out of the work entirely during a crisis. He says he does so for his own sanity. You can believe him. He was one of the actors who reached breaking point in Africa.

Lou Zeldis, 30, tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He's a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends.He’s been busted a couple of times. The first time, Betty Grable bailed him out. The second, he was jailed for six months in downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he's listening with his eyes closed. If something nasty happens, he dances.

And he began life as a dancer, touring in productions such as ‘Hello Dolly’ and 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.' He really loved it, too - roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint. His finest moment came in one of the most extravagant flops in the history of theatre. It a show called “Wonderworkd” for the World’s Fair in New York. He played Neptune. The set changed into an underwater nightclub and he emerged from the water at the end of a swimming routine to announce:'I am Neptune. Welcome to my underwater nightclub.' He wore a coral crown, a pearl beard and a fishnet gold cape embroidered with pretty fishes. Erté designed it. ‘I looked,’ says Zeldis, 'superb.'

He decided to join Brook's group because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I think he may have had his doubts since. Most of the actors have. It's part of the nature of things.

He spent his childhood in California and Japan where his father, a distinguished pathologist, worked for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. He lived in Hiroshima. ‘Don’t provoke him,' one of the group told me. ‘A part of him seems to be in despair.’ He drifts, and is all right, living in the moon.

Michele Collison, 29, a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6ft 1 ½ in., weight 180 lb before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you've missed one of the great theatrical happenings. She tends to feed herself the fantasy of Earth Mother, and others feed off it. But she likes life to be easy, says things to please; can be tough and resilient, a medium, changed by the people she happens to be with. She's a perceptive, nice and easy paranoid. She's very serious and conscientious about the work. It gives her life a sense of purpose.

Before she joined Brook she went through the same sixties dropout scene as Lou Zeldis, lived in communes in the Colorado Mountains and Haight-Ashbury, made a porn movie, tripped her way round the word, She's the outstanding musical talent in the group: once sang in nightclubs around the Caribbean always closing her act with the lyric, 'You're not a dream, you're not an angel, you're a man. • I'm not a queen, I'm a woman, take my hand.' She was brought up by a Roman Catholic grandfather, an Irish immigrant. Her father, a magician, died four months before she was born.

Sylvain Corthay,  30, the one member of the group who might be instantly recognisable as an actor. He has the dark bearded good looks and resonant voice of the traditional Shakespeare actor. One could imagine him striding on as Fortinbras, tying up loose ends. In fact, since studying at the Sorbonne he’s spent his life  in experimental theatre, once forming his own group, directing as well as performing. He’s worked with Barrault and was the only actor to have visited Africa before when he toured the cities of the French-speaking countries with jean Vilar. But that was a traditional theatre tour, culture to the underdeveloped nations of Moliere.

There’s a neatness and order bout him. He can be taciturn and introvert, given to brooding. The son of a Spanish mother and Swiss father, he spent his youth among the family's sheep farms and wine groves in the South of France. 'You mustn't be too hard on Brook,' he said to me unexpectedly. 'He doesn't find personal relationships easy. You see he's rich and privileged, like me.'

Miriam Goldschmidt, 25, German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years died in a car crash.

One time during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. 'I don't want to come on last,' she snapped. 'It's the story of my life. Shit to last!' People thought she was joking. Before joining Brook she acted in traditional theatre in Germany and Switzerland. She gravitated towards the research centre, sitting uninvited, just watching the work. Brook asked her to take part in an improvisation. And invited her into the group.

Malick Bagayogo, 28 years old, though I suspect he might be rather more, temperamental as a vain woman over such pressing matters as age, a fine actor from Mali with delicate ebony features, usually dressed to kill in silk shirts and Cuban heels: a city dude. But if there's part of him that's become more of a sophisticated European since he came to live in Paris seven years ago, his background is extraordinary.

Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school - he can still scarcely write - until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment lasted three years. Though some of his family are now high-ups in Mali's military regime, his father was a poor country farmer. When he was 11 years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer, who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils, which have since been taught to the group. Sometimes, he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down, before it's gone for ever.

Brook told me there are two things you must be careful never to ask Bagayogo to do - play a slave or a drum. If he suspects he's being used or patronised, he doesn't work. He's spoilt, a gentle and disorganised man, fond of naps in the afternoon, and sometimes in the morning. When tempers are short, the others tend to resent him for this. But he's the one actor in the group capable of working totally in the abstract - turning an improvisation inside out, forcing the work closer to Brook's long sought-for world of invisible powers. He's an instinctive actor. Talk and theory fall on deaf ears with him. But he possesses a very special gift: an inner eye.

He came over to Europe with Mali's National Theatre, stayed to work in Paris with an African group and was introduced to Brook, by the great Polish director, Grotowski. He's the third and final member of the group who hadn't heard of Brook before he joined him. Still, three out of 11: could be worse. '  .

As well as the actors, several others went on this journey in search of the miraculous. There was a doctor, the French wife of Bagayogo, who was going to be needed far more than any of us imagined. Brook's personal assistant for several years, Mary Evans, typing out each day's progress like an official diarist, A young and lonely Frenchman, Daniel Chariot,
sent out by the French government to observe the work, scribbling down urgent notes like Gogol's madman.

Others, such as Ted Hughes and a five-man film crew, were to join us en route. The expedition was crewed by a team of specialists from an English firm called Minitrek. At one stage, Brook wanted to handle the mechanics of the journey from within the group itself. If that had happened, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. I remember one discussion when Brook was leafing through a pamphlet called ‘Camping for beginners’ there was talk of everyone travelling in a specially equipped bus, like a rock group. Myers was supposed to go on a crash course in car maintenance. There were even romantic ideas about everyone sort of hunting for their
Own food. Sylvain Corthay, an open-air type, sas said to be pretty useful with a bow and an arrow.

Minitrek normally handle short trips to Africa for tourists who like to camp and play Big White Hunter. They’d never mixed with actors before: an omen, Also they prefer to travel by the book –rules, regulations, time-schedule: another omen. There was one expedition leader, one camp master, one cook and one mechanic responsible for five Land-Rovers and a Bedford truck. Three additional drivers, specially skilled in desert crossings, had been hired to get us from Algiers through the Sahara.

The cost of the expedition was 60,000 dollars. The journey was to last almost three and a half months: 100 days.

Finally, there were two important new recruits to the group –a bewildered African called Ayansola, a man of many parts, crazed spirit of Africa who played the talking drum and spoke no language that anyone else knew. This made it a little difficult for Brook to tell him what he wanted him to play. Sometimes he didn’t feel like it anyway.

And there was the wild prodigy of a composer, the American Liz Swados, brought over from New York to transform the work. She's beautiful in a weird sort of way. She has a Modigliani face which means that it's long. And it was to get longer and longer. But you've never met someone as talented. She doesn't sleep much, drove Brook practically into the ground, has been known to have her unsettled moments, kicking sweet old ladies in the street. Anyway, I love her. 'She's 22, and I'm hers for life. There's a lot of hope in Swados.  Mind you, one or two of the actors thought she  was a self-centered egomaniac. Don't listen to them. I like actors but sometimes they don't know their arm from their elbow.

All of us left with our treasured possessions. But as well as the personal baggage there was a box of musical instruments, a case of white costumes, 24 bamboo sticks, many empty cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes, and a magic carpet.

Next week: The heart of Africa.

END