Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Arts as Illumination of Truth: Preaching to the Unconverted (but not on religion)

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It seems a natural urge to look for meaning…it’s a commonly held view amongst scientists, artists and religious people that enchantment comes naturally to us – the interest in meaning comes from imagination.  Curiosity makes us scientists, believers, artists, actors…  I’d go so far as to say it’s dangerous to not be curious and to question, because it means you are not open to other people and other ideas.  Art is not just about us and pure entertainment, it is a social tool to embracing others.  Art is about all of us, whoever we are.

Some art illuminates real life – some art in doing this, gives people a voice – because in real life some voices are crushed.  Harvey Fierstein, writer of the book La Cage Aux Folles on which the musical is based, says:  ‘Let’s be clear about this.  The characters in La Cage Aux Folles are living their lives out loud and having a wonderful time.  They are respected in their community.  That is still not the case for many people today, and there are still politicians and religious leaders who make a living out of preaching hellfire on this, and as long as that is the case, La Cage has a role to play in the world.’

Douglas Hodge as Albin in La Cage Aux Folles singing 'I Am What I Am'

The singer-songwriter Don McLean refers to himself as a ‘reporter’ as he writes his songs.  There are so many singer-songwriters, composers, writers, artists, who do seem to have this quality – I’ve mentioned some of them in previous articles.  Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Coope Boyes and Simpson and Ralph McTell I would add to this.  They offer a commentary on life….sometimes a way in to thoughts that we would otherwise not consider – like La Cage – yes it’s a feel-good, wonderful musical but it is more importantly about identity and being proud of who you are.

Likewise, fiction in novels is a way in round the back perhaps…we don’t always get at truth or honesty via the obvious way: ‘There’s this idea that autobiography is more truthful than fiction but I believe the opposite can be the case.  In fiction, you are constructing a truth, whereas in memoir you are trying to find one.  And sometimes the thing most in the way of that truth is yourself.’  (John Burnside)

See the quote from Oscar Wilde on the ‘About’ page on this blog…

Challenges of Words

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At a Master class organised by Radius (Religious Drama Society) the play ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ was explored. Sheila and Brian, the married couple with severely disabled daughter Joe, struggle daily to communicate and find the right words to come to terms with their situation.  Unsurprisingly I started by reading the play through and getting an initial picture.  I then read again and made notes about Sheila – what she said about herself and about others, and what others said about her, to build up a personality – what does she feel about herself, Brian and her situation?

We met with the director three times in advance of the Master class.  We chose one scene from the play which we would perform as a work in progress.  I was fully aware that I needed to bring an awareness of the baggage of 1930s to 1960s Britain to the role.  Sheila was born in the early 1930s, grew up through a world war and came out the other end in a much poorer but more stylised (people might say ‘stuck’) era to that of now – her and Brian married in 1956 and having researched the period, I read that 1955 was a year that seemed to push Britain into the much more expressive 1960s.  In 1955 Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ opened the floodgates and 1956 was the year Elvis Presley entered the British Top 20 chart (itself a 50s invention).  They have been married 10 years as the play opens.  I collected photos and slogans of the 1950s era to try and construct Sheila’s world – her background and what would have influenced her in her teenage years and how she felt when she met Brian, and then whilst Joe was growing up – what would have been going on around Sheila – how did people of the time view someone like Joe? – both then and now, known as a spastic.

From the very first read-through, we were encouraged to look at the thought behind the lines – the inner life of the characters.  What is Sheila thinking when she says things?  What memory is she activating?  We each built up an emotional memory of the characters and on the day itself, when people were watching, the director placed us in improvisations with each other, previously unrehearsed and new to us on the day, picking up on scenes not in the play itself – these were to give us imagined situations from the characters’ pasts which we could draw on…the past therefore giving us the reality of the present.  Lines suddenly then carry with them emotional rawness that they didn’t on a first read-through because we now knew the significance of those lines and what they referred to.

an actor playing Sheila

The director had said from the beginning that a good place to start was what does a character believe in?  In fact the more I thought about this, the more I realised that this is how we understand each other in real life – someone’s beliefs form them as a person – beliefs about religion, politics, human life itself.  The next question was what is the character afraid of?  What do they want, desire and need?  What do they really want, desire and need?!  (How many of us in real life say we want one thing but mean something very different?).  What is the obstacle to what the character really wants, desires, needs?  What do they do to remove the obstacle/s? I was therefore armed with these excellent questions from the director to give my Sheila a life outside the play – to look at her and then step into her. What this in-depth examination of character does is to bring the play itself more alive.

In the ‘bigger picture’ of the play, the theme of what it is to be human resonated strongest with me.  Sheila says of Joe, ‘she’s only one kind of cripple.  Everybody’s damaged in some way.’  Whether ‘damage’ is the right word is another question.  There is a lot of pain in the play – thoughts of what could have been and the reality of what is.  The scene we did was the one where Brian takes on the role of the vicar who comes to visit Sheila, which for a Radius audience was particularly relevant, but the play overall is about the human spirit (which is also what Radius is about), its fragility and susceptibility to losing faith in everything, not just God.  Sheila’s great line (not in the scene we did): ‘faith isn’t believing in fairy-tales, it’s being in a receptive state of mind’ sums up Radius well – both actors and audience got much out of Master class and reinforced the message of Radius: exploring faith and/or the human condition through drama; and as always – going well beyond religious faith per se.    www.radius.org.uk

Sometimes silence says it all – the puppet has the final word

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I was profoundly moved by the puppetry company ‘Little Cauliflower’ and their performance of ‘Street Dreams‘ at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  ‘Street Dreams’ is a about an old man (a puppet) who lives on a rubbish dump, using the material around him to survive.  He is tormented by banana skins (on sticks operated by humans) who randomly fly around him.  There are no words during the performance, just live music played by the same people who operate the puppets.  At one point, the old man decides to leave the rubbish and go in search of green pasture.  He uses his umbrella as a boat (and as a flying machine like Mary Poppins) to move himself on.  However, the grass is not always greener on the other side and he soon misses the buzz of the rubbish dump and his beloved banana skins.

The audience see every thought and emotion of the old man in his face – he is the only human puppet in it but he is everyman.  It is a play about old age, being alone and working out what it all means.  It is totally beautiful and enchanting…by saying nothing, it says everything.

Old Man and the mysterious yellow glove who shares the rubbish dump with him

The Arts and Theology: Creativity, Communication and how the Arts can save the world

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‘The arts are part of being human’, says Jude Kelly (BBC Radio 4 Loose Ends, 26.7.08), former director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, now at London’s Southbank.  And I think a great many people would agree with Kelly if they thought about the arts in their broadest sense.

Looking back on my study of theology I realise I did it because of an unstoppable urge to look into the human condition and communicate my curiosities.  University was a safe, thriving and raw environment to do this.    Likewise, I went to drama school three years later in 2006 to do the same thing (I also happen to enjoy acting).  Both subjects contain one central paradox: by studying both, I felt more anchored in the world and therefore more able to face it but at the same time, less able to comprehend it.  With drama especially, I escaped from the world by immersing myself in an imitated reality (which paradoxically often represents reality in a more honest way than reality itself) but at the same time sought to understand it (the world).

Isn’t this one of the reasons why people go to the theatre? – as an audience member you watch a play to briefly dismiss reality but by watching ‘real’ people on stage, some thing in some way will resonate with you.  David Hare in his terrific book ‘Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’ has the same thought:  “It is hard to understand why anyone would choose to go into the theatre in the first place unless they were interested in relating what they make happen on a stage to what is happening off it” (p.108).  As a violinist, I also agree with Daniel Barenboim when he says of another arts discipline: “music provides the possibility, on the one hand, to escape from life but, on the other, to understand life much better.  It is one of the best ways to learn about human nature.

Investigation into anything can be troubling, even if ultimately fulfilling.  But it is unavoidable; we do it just by being.  But why was I so interested in thinking about life via two potentially emotionally draining disciplines?  I didn’t need to choose them and moreover, I didn’t need to ask questions at all about humanity and the meaning of life.  Or did I?

During one of my Alexander Technique classes at drama school, I got talking to my tutor about this.  She reassured me I was not alone and explained that her teacher, Walter Carrington, a pupil of Alexander, had a choice to either become a Jesuit or a teacher of Alexander Technique (used by many people, not just actors and musicians).  He chose the latter because he felt he could still reach people through creative work on posture and balance; a less explicit way of bringing people to their centre, and yes, allowing them to be present – a desire I would say all people want for themselves whether people of faith, actors, a combination of these or nothing to do with art or belief at all.  We all search, some less obviously than others.

Alexander Technique in action

Joseph Rowntree (we’ve all had his sweets), another pupil of Alexander, said we all desire the Unknown and that the Unknown is approached via creativity.  The Known on the other hand is simply ‘habit’.  The latter is unfortunately the category we fall into because of the pressures of daily life.  If we wish to have mortgages and bread on the table, we succumb to patterns to earn our wage and ‘stay safe’.  We have routines that are often un-enjoyable – we knock ourselves out in order to live (funny irony that) and we call this being alive.

'The Commuters' sculpture at Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, Texas USA

Alexander Technique is employed for this reason with actors, to release them from habit and find neutrality and honesty with which they can approach their craft.  Another paradox: the stage is the home of pretence, yet there exists no more of a genuine, unrehearsed place to be, and where any element of routine in fact results in the worst acting.  Every moment is new as if for the first time, and cherished.  Life is not a rehearsal and the stage and film set is the forum for ‘stuff’ that goes on in life.

Most people assume my main interest has to be religious drama but this would be too much of an easy link.  I am interested in anything artistic that challenges us to think how we treat the world and its contents, and if in the process we ask “Is there a God?” or “Is there something rather than nothing?” then fine.   There is an argument as to whether or not Beckett’s plays are symbolic or not.  Sir Peter Hall says Waiting for Godot is, and when he directed a production of it during the Cold War, it carried with it overtones of this period (much like Miller’s The Crucible during 1950s America).  Other commentators say that Beckett is not symbolic but is about actualities and possibilities. In Godot, he literally writes about the human ‘state’: what is it to wait?  What are we really waiting for?  What is it to wait – when there is the possibility of nothing happening?  And in Godot, nothing does.  Is it a play about nothingness where we see characters in a state of anxiety and despair?  It is absurd, tragic and at times funny.  So is this not something?  This is not nothing.  There is stuff happening here and if we were not living as hectic lives as we possibly could (yes sorry folks, routine), are Estragon, Lucky and Vladimir not us?  Take away our routine and we would be searching and waiting for something to happen (and I’m talking about ‘social life’ routine as well as work – take away the pub and the office, and anarchy would reign).

Take Lucky’s speech which goes from a “crazed jumble into one of unmissable significance.  Despite our hopes, moral pretensions, scientific advances – everything – humanity continues to ‘stink and dwindle’, ‘waste and pine’.  Even the smug, bullish Pozzo is left cramming his hat…over his ears in an effort to avoid the truth.”  (Benedict Nightingale, The Times, April 2006).  Symbolic or not, because of its absurdity and unreality, Godot and other plays less ‘real’ paradoxically become terrifyingly lifelike.  Hare calls this “artistic paradox”: “that by telling lies we reach truth” (p.73).

It is not for nothing that Plato thought music should be banned because it could bring audiences to a state of frenzy.  Barenboim again: “music teaches me that you cannot separate the heart from the head.  If they don’t go hand in hand something is wrong” (Radio Times, September 2001).  I recall the amazing Stephen Fry at one BAFTA Award Ceremony earnestly saying how films and the arts were so necessary in a world like ours; keep creating, he said, as this is humanity at its best.  Hare says: “The world is not tired.  Our reactions to the world are not tired.  What becomes tired is the deadly habitude of our descriptions of that world.  The artist exists only to externalise what we all do internally anyway.  By making the descriptions new, we do not create alternative worlds.  We remind people of the breathtaking beauty of the original” (p.86).

The artist David Hockney at his “Life, Love, Art” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006/7 remarked: “What an artist is trying to do for people, is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.”

Sharing.  Yes.  But what do humans do most?  Answer:  Conceal.  Emotionally and culturally.  And these stunt us socially.  We live in our own bubbles as individuals and as groups, but we don’t break out of those.  We don’t even think about the impact of the “way we live now” on others.  All art forms can burst bubbles.  We should let them.  Continuing the theme of sharing – what about the “bringing people together” aspect of the arts?  It does do this, as much as any church, in fact these days, more so.  Big names in all artistic fields have used their talent to do this in order to send a message.  I don’t say Bono is the Pope – but neither do I say the Pope is more important.  They are different.  But because of the urgency in their art and the way it is related to the common man, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Sting, Bono, Annie Lennox, Bob Geldof, David Hare, Harold Pinter, Al Gore, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen…have made our ears prick up at some point or another in relation to Vietnam, Africa, Iraq and so on, because of their artistic clout.

In a National Theatre Platform (9.11.2005), director Declan Donnellan talks about all of us living out our humanity positively: actors are people who automatically do this since acting is really about “being”, not pretending.  Good religion is about this too and the phrase “living out humanity positively” is certainly heard amongst theologians.

Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about this very experience: George has lived in his art and put life on hold; I am suggesting we put neither life nor art on hold and use one to enrich the other: “an acceptance by the younger George that attachment to people in the form of love is as crucial to life as art” (Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, 24.5.2006).

Life in art and Art in life in 'Sunday in the Park with George'

My conclusion is nothing surprising: neither religion or the arts can be studied or lived in a vacuum.  People are less scared of theatre.  You can go for a good night out and in the process be presented with a range of issues that you can think about, or not.  There will always be an entertainment aspect I suppose; I’m not sure you would call a sermon entertaining (although whether you would call films like Boys Don’t Cry or Saving Private Ryan more entertaining than a sermon on eternal life I doubt).  The director of the second of the two films, Stephen Spielberg, says that you can pay psychiatrists a lot of money to work things out for you, or you can pay a film director to do it instead. He has a point. But I am not slamming Ministers of Religion or Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists: the theatre is not therapy and nor is religion.  I think they are both more if appreciated properly.

These two disciplines remind us who we are and what we are not.  Going to see the film Crash may not halt your racism if you’re racist, by seeing Matt Dillon exhibiting this characteristic in front of you.  But as soon as we form an opinion about a character, we need to remember that “realistic fiction” is no oxymoron, but facts, told as story  – so the arts can make a difference.  Take this next example: without the West’s ruthless hold on those countries it knows to be at the mercy of its trade and so-called development, films such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond would not exist; in an ideal world the hellish subject matter in the films would indeed only be fiction.  Sadly it is not – these films are nothing less than brutally real.

The Constant Gardener

I’ll leave it to two other much more eloquent and experienced people to illustrate this with Sir Richard Eyre’s quote from his Foreword to Arthur Miller’s autobiography ‘Timebends’: “he [Miller] wasn’t a political play writer, nor was he a moralist; and he was only a realist in the sense that he was concerned with the realities of the forces that affect people’s lives rather than the superficial appearance of reality…If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society and art ought to be used to change it.  Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern.”

Everyday Drama in Art in Oregon, USA

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In 2009 I spent some time in Portland, Oregon, volunteering as a Gallery Assistant in the Art Museum there.

‘M.C. Escher and Paradox’ was an exhibition which within the pictures contained the everyday drama of life.  Each picture was a stage.  On this stage were people in a scene – most of the time not communicating with each other.  It reminded me of the world we now live in.  The stage of the theatre is a place where people communicate.  The stage of life – as in these pictures – is a place where people do not.  In this article I wanted to explore the theme of ‘encounter’.  Opposites, incongruities and tensions all have to be dealt with and faced and this is something the Church of England is having to do a great deal of at present.  I would venture to take this further and say that the characters in Escher’s pictures represent the divisions in the Church at the moment both internally and with other members of the faith.  I want to show that whilst Visual Art is not Theatre per se, it is a presentation of the drama in daily life – whether it is dramatic or un-dramatic is probably down to the viewer to decide.

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch printmaker who crafted hundreds of prints from woodblocks of impossible worlds, hard to explain without looking at his prints.  Yet to look at his worlds they seem logical and neat.  The fact is, his worlds are beautiful and perfect to look at but display an uncomfortable tension because of this: the viewer knows they are not.  He intermingles different worlds – of sky and earth merging purely by the transformation of shapes where one thing becomes another.  To look at the surface of these prints is to see one thing and to look within is to see another as the volume of the print takes hold of you.  There are multiple vanishing points as he experiments with depictions of infinity.  He suggests possibilities yet never can they be possible…the suggestion of a reality is the itch that keeps you looking at his work since his worlds should be real and yet are dysfunctional.

Annette Dixon, Curator of the exhibition, says: ‘Escher’s work is rational and logical, yet strange and incomprehensible.  Though bizarre, his morphing forms evolve systematically.  Though uncanny, his interpenetrating worlds seem orderly.  Whether suggesting the perfection of the harmonious, or the shock of the incongruous, paradox is central to his work.’

The characters in the impossible worlds are disconnected and unaware of each other.  Escher is really saying something here: our world now is impossible because people are these things.  The characters in the prints bump into each other because they don’t notice each other – they move in different directions to the same destination but never get there because the structure they are in (and have built) contradicts their chosen path.  I cannot help feel how appropriate Escher’s pictures are to our post modern, cranky society – we can’t see how tangled we are because we fail to talk to one another or see the hostile structures we have created (including the boundaries in religion which only we have made) go against our nature.

I’d like to quote from the Declaration of Creative Rights by Oregon Poet Kim Stafford, Oregon Arts Summit, May 2009.  The quote draws the theme of encounter with the other – whether fellow human or God, together with the need to be done through Drama and the Arts.  The last line is particularly inspirational.

We hold early Creative Experience to be indelible, and that all children need be offered, equally and abundantly, certain Rights that secure access to the formative Encounters of Art—and that among these are making original Work, savoring creative Practice, and the Pursuit of one’s own generous Vision and articulate Voice. At every Stage of our state’s history we have recognized the power of creative citizens to encounter, to consider, and in Good Company one with another to resolve by Insight, Wisdom, and Work together any difficulty that may confront us. And just as a River, in order to thrive in passage through the Tangle of Civilization, must begin pure at its source of Oregon Origin—Applegate, Rogue, Umpqua, McKenzie, Santiam, Chetco, Siuslaw, Trask, Deschutes, Malheur, Grande Ronde, Wallowa—so must a Child begin with pure encounter in the Ways of the Maker, the Inventor, the Architect of personal Image, Craft, Hue, Print, Dance, Drama, Song, and Story.

However poetic (hyperbolic, you may say) this is, it does ask us to return to our roots: clearly the artistic ones but I read something grander in the last lines as well.  If we become unable to nurture our creative energy, we destroy the Creator in us and shut ourselves off from civilized communication.  With the Arts and charities being hit hard in the economic downturn, we should remember that the giving of bank bonuses or the endless amounts of time we spend in our office jobs passing papers around and staring into computer screens, was never and will never be the thing that unites people in life, and that such a self orientated culture was certainly not one we were cut out for.

Desert Island Plays

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As an actor I played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible by Arthur Miller at drama school, used a speech by Kyra in Skylight  by David Hare for auditions and aspired to play Sheila Birling in An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley.  These plays are my desert island plays – not because I want to re-live my acting moments on a desert island but because these plays provide a complete spectrum of the capacity of human nature at its worst and at its best.  They have common themes of conscience and responsibility – on a social and individual level; being true to oneself and living that way.  But these plays do not present these themes as clear-cut but with their nuances and ambiguities so that we can have a true emotional connection with the characters.

Daniel Day Lewis as John Proctor is an image that will stay with me and tugs at my heart strings at the thought of it so much that I would want the play with me to have Miller’s great language right there to read and hold on to.  It is an affirmation of standing alone as yourself – perhaps more helpful when you feel you can’t stand alone – ie, trying to live with the injustices and intolerances of society which you perhaps wouldn’t be so aware of on a desert island – but nonetheless, you would be reminded of the true anarchy of the world you left behind where all too often the Danforths rather than the Proctors of it have the monopoly of power.

They are all empowering plays and though they do a damn good job at shaming humanity – with this they also show that actually it is much sexier to be moral and considerate of others.  Sheila Birling’s transformation is conducted in such a head strong manner that her father’s behaviour becomes completely unattractive.  Priestley brings you round to the side of Sheila with the menacing digs by the Inspector where to not be like her is an uncomfortable prospect.

Kyra’s dig at Class (and many other things) does all of the above things and she has some cracking good monologues which I could just shout at the top of my voice – which I often want to do in reality about the same things she shouts about but can’t.  There are no barriers on this island for being me.  These are just a selection of the plays I love…and I’ve not mentioned musicals yet (there are many I love…like music, where to start…).

Other favourites include After the Dance by Rattigan (the National Theatre production with Benedict Cumberbatch, picture below, blew me away) and The Caretaker by Pinter.  I suppose what attracts me to these plays (they are not a bundle of laughs) are the fact that they are both about broken people trying to carry on living…the plays make you feel human – it is ok to feel lost.  When Jonathan Pryce played the caretaker in the Trafalgar Studio’s production, he delivered a perfect portrayal of pathos.  The three characters in the play appear lost, they have hopes for the future but don’t get it together.

Jonathan Pryce as the Caretaker

The characters in ‘After the Dance’ are literally trying to carry on dancing when life instead demands sitting down to talk things through.  They are performing when they need to be being; being truthful with each other before it is too late.  The play is about the dangers of people ‘performing’ their way through life and the shock to others when that performance stops to reveal the real person behind that.