Searching for the Real


It is ‘awards season’ and I always get excited during this time. It’s not the dresses or even who ‘wins’ but because I am genuinely pleased that good, wholesome films, plays and musicals are promoted all over the media and it is likely many people will see them. It is a time when stories with a message or a theme may affect people. The film industry is glitzy and not tangible to most people, but when the red carpet of drama presents subject matter that is about everyday life as well as major historical events, it is a triumph.  I found the awards season in 2010 particularly interesting in what it made us think about…

Those who control the industry are wedded to the idea that people want to pay money to escape from their lives, and that is often true. But sometimes new vitality in the cinema depends on the notion that real parts of life – real characters, real language – can rise up before the viewer and just sweep them away. They are knocked out by the novelty of seeing something deeply true, deeply recognisable, making it into the mythic reality of cinema for the first time.’ (Andrew O’Hagan, The Evening Standard, 29th January 2010). The film Precious rightly had a list of Oscar nominations to its name and unsurprisingly took the USA by storm. Mariah Carey, who plays the Social Worker of the girl Precious, is more ‘real’ in this acting role than in her day job as a pop singer. Paul Hunter of The Fahrenheit Twins Surrealist Theatre Company, says: ‘I much prefer a theatre where I say “We are hot and sweaty and this is hard work and I can see you and you can see me.” And that often can, oddly, be much more real than real life, where so often you have to pretend to be someone you’re not.’ (The Metro, 23rd September 2009 – well done Metro for printing this in a newspaper that is read by the London commuters often caught in the unreality of their own routines).

The fascination for me is how this is true of many actors: the theme or message they communicate on the screen or on the stage is more realistic and honest than what is communicated, or what is acceptable to talk about, in so-called real life. Ironically, within the framework of pretence and under the label of fiction and entertainment, we are presented with a picture of how people really are. I was in America when The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock was released and the critic Jim Ferguson from ABC-TV commented ‘A true story that’s so good, it seems like fiction’ (quoted in The New York Times, 24th December 2009). We’d do well to pay attention to ‘story’ in whatever format it is told and in whatever art form.

Scene from Precious (Precious with her Social Worker)

It seems that it takes creativity to bring us to our senses but is ‘creativity’ so very external? I will try to answer this. In Channel Four’s series The Bible: A History, various well known people are looking at faith in the modern world. I was particularly interested in Howard Jacobson’s episode (24th January 2010) where he was investigating creativity and religion. He said he wanted to access the imaginative necessity that drives people to believe and concluded that mystery, uncertainty and doubt were the very elements that make creativity: creativity roots us in our own drama. Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks goes further and says it is man’s search for God that is the driving drama in the Bible. Jacobson seemed to be saying that it was the creative process one goes through to find faith that is important and what one then does with this. He says: ‘Novels matter…because they show how each individual life feels to the person living it. Until we are able to enter into another’s understanding of himself, we are imaginatively deaf and blind. Not to be sure is not cowardice…not to be sure might very well be where you arrive, intellectually, after a lifetime of troubled and conscientious thought. In our unstable and too, too brutal world we need more people willing to admit they are unsure, not fewer.’ (Radio Times, p.31, 23-29 January 2010). I can’t do the programme justice here so it is worth seeing it if you can to see and hear philosopher AC Grayling and others.

So it strikes me that the ability to ‘wonder’ is key to our existence to be meaningful. As Jacobson illustrates, not to explore or to search is synonymous with not having an imagination and we can’t live without this. My point? The institutions of Belief (all religions) and the institutions of the Arts are more closely related than we think – the entry audition to both requires one element: imagination. I’ve explored this in previous articles so won’t go on too much here, but if we don’t search, we can’t ‘be’, and therefore don’t give ourselves the permission to be ourselves. And the searching (for what is real) is what makes good drama because it is an ongoing process. Children do it for the first few years of their lives and then they become teenagers and adults and forget how to play. They act ‘grown up’. I love the quote from the American actress Fanny Brice, 1891-1951, (famously portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl) who says: ‘Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then who are you?

Sir Richard Eyre wrote an article in The Independent (13th November 2009) giving us reasons why the arts are necessary. ‘The arts… are part of our life, our language, our way of seeing. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and each other and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don’t…Just because art doesn’t look or sound like we expect it to, it may be precisely why we need it – because it uncovers new meanings…There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art – as there is in every human. In art, reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy the chance to be commonplace. What’s human is unique, it can’t be digitised. The art of theatre is an expression of that humanness: it’s an art that can never dispense with its reliance on the dimensions of the human figure; the sound of the human voice, and the desire to tell each other stories.’

Art uses what is real and what is present: the human person, takes us into the world of pretence or ‘out of the ordinary’, in order to bring us back to what is real, or in the words of Bruce Springsteen, make us feel the impact of our own existence. Anish Kapoor said on Imagine (BBC1, 17th November 2009) that an artist doesn’t set out to make something beautiful just as the artist doesn’t set out to make something spiritual. But it does happen, and whether it is spiritual is to do with space and actually having very little to say. Kapoor doesn’t have a great ‘message’ to communicate from his work but he does dare to go where he does not know and hopes the audience dare too.

We don’t just need to explore what we know. Artists (of all art forms) are interested in the unconscious. The artist Odilon Redon says: ‘My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.’ One could replace the words ‘music’ with ‘drama’ of course. It is the unknowability of something that makes it interesting, as Eyre endorses above. Even if our questions are not answered, we need platforms from which to ask them and perhaps it is consolation that the ambiguities remain: to go back to the start of this article, it is the search that is important as this is what creates the journey – the journey being possibly one of faith or just a greater sense of what is actually real. Once an actor grasps what is real he/she can then communicate this in the ‘make-believe’ setting of the stage or the film set.

To finish, I will talk about the exhibition ‘Identity’ which was on at the Wellcome Collection in London (April 2010). There are eight rooms focusing on nine lives and one of these is the actress Fiona Shaw. There are two groups of actors. The first group believe they are the character they are playing, sometimes off stage too. The second group ‘just act’ with their true selves remaining, with a detached view of the impersonation they give. Shaw falls into this second group; she is a transformative actor – she says ‘the ones who can reveal something about the world that they could not as people.’ Her acting is, she says, a gradual process of ‘becoming herself’.

Courtesy of Prospect Magazine

So we have come full circle – we become real by exploring the unreal or the intangible. If we can do this or watch others do it, I do think we can benefit our individual lives as well as the world on a wider level: ‘Great civilizations are measured not by the rise and fall of businesses or the changing tides of commerce, but by the art that distils the tenor of the time and the spirit of the people. Our world is marked by upheaval and uncertainty, and the art that is being created today is challenging, reflecting that anxiety.’ (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Oregon, USA)

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