Tag Archives: Paradox

The Clown in us all

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I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.

Lecoq

Lecoq

However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.

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‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’

Twist

 

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Plays show us to ourselves

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It was brilliant to see the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time do so well at the Olivier Awards last month.  The play is based on the book of the same name by Mark Haddon.  It is about a boy with Aspergo’s Syndrome and his journey to try and find out who killed the neighbour’s dog.  The Director of the play Marianne Elliot also described the creation of the play as an ‘experimental journey’.

poster Curious

It reinforces the need to invest in the arts – this play won 7 Olivier Awards and is a sure commercial success.  Its experimental journey in devising was truly worthy and it is a double journey as it takes the audience on one too.  Not only is it bringing money into the city but it is nurturing talent – that talent will grow and go on to develop.  It is what you call a domino effect.  Our creative culture is who we are and if we stop creating (or stop having the money to create) we stop being people because we stop understanding ourselves.

Curious

There is no ‘app’ on your smart phone to tell you how your soul is doing.  There never will be (thankfully) since we have to discover this for ourselves.  The writer Zoe Bennett talks of a distinction between eye sight and heart sight – or between sight and insight.  It takes time, effort and courage to have insight and everyday life rarely offers it.  Plays do offer it.  Actor Sir Ben Kingsley says ‘Without a mask I haven’t got a clue.  Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.’

Ben Kingsley

It is hard for people to be honest about themselves and others in real life for fear of judgement (and society does judge) – again the paradox of ‘make believe’ is that the truth about being human can be explored.

Super Human but still Human

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This is the moving element of these Olympics and Paralympics.  Most of us won’t win medals for living life but we can all draw from the sportsmen and women from this Summer.  Sebastian Coe touched on this in his speeches throughout the ceremonies – sport contains everything that is human – winning, losing, fighting pain, living triumph, making sacrifices and learning to love yourself as well as give a great deal to others.

Jessica Ennis on the Victory Parade on 10th September in London

The paradox is that in these athletes – from the UK and across the world, in their being super-human in their efforts and achievements, they are also simply being fully human and doing what is natural: most people crave meaning – London 2012 has provided this and at the same time brought us together in the process.

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.

Searching for the Real

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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)

Imagination and the need for Creative Space

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The London School of Economics Literary Festival is relatively new – I attended for the first time in 2010 and having heard just how many subject areas were covered in a short space of time I hope to attend the one in February 2012. In this article I plan to review the areas of the two talks I attended, showing how they had a natural relation to drama and possibly belief/spirituality.

‘The Imagined Mind’ was a joint talk between the Institute of Social Psychology and the Department of Anthropology, focusing on the need for imagination, now more than ever before in the digitised world we live in. In the world of Developmental Psychology, research shows that adults have strong emotional reactions to the untrue, e.g., fictional films. Such genres help us to develop our moral judgement.

For this kind of moral development to take place, therefore, we need an imagination: we use fiction to consciously or unconsciously help us make moral decisions and judgements about real life situations. It is through images that we explore other minds – fiction in theatre, film, art and literature provides these images. The author William Fiennes (author of The Snow Geese and The Music Room) explained that in his view there is no need to divide creativity and science. The more specific a story, the more general its message because we all draw different things from it – this, he said, is the transcendent aspect of story, whether the written word or performed word. Likewise, the Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach (author of Bodies and Fat is a Feminist Issue) explains that the analyst has to study her/himself in order to reflect on the patient. One must watch the mind being aware of itself. Every moment in fact is both a real and imagined one because we don’t see things all the same way.
I think this is the same process in theatre and faith.

It could be said that our minds have begun to work like the gadgets we use in society – our minds can be like computers, categorising into groups, and we find ourselves less able to cross-pollinate. We are in fact constrained in the world of ‘free choice’, simply because the creative space between ourselves and the outside world is vanishing. A commercial world has taken over and we face ‘prescriptions’ on how the body is, not what it might be (Dr Sandra Jovchelovitch), and the only medium left which gives us space (and indeed where space is a necessary pre-requisite) is the arts. Being able to interpret gives possibility, even if we discover some uncomfortable truths. As Thomas Dewar says, “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

‘Theatre of Action?’ was the second talk, given by theatre director John Caird (RSC, National Theatre, musicals such as Les Miserables) and playwright Matt Charman (‘The Observer’). The talk focused on the political nature of theatre in its search for truth. Caird cited the Preface to Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant’, 1898, as his springboard: “The theatre is growing in importance as a social organ. Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches; for modern civilization is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church. Public and private life become daily more theatrical…”

Caird’s belief is that one can’t look to the church or politics for the truth because both always have an axe to grind that isn’t the truth. Good theatre however does not have an agenda so can provide this kind of guidance because it is able to debate with itself about what life could be – a bit like the mind needing to have a conversation with itself in Orbach’s illustration above. Great plays trouble and confuse – they celebrate ambiguity. Charman points out that audiences do not want answers, rather they want an accepted space to ask questions. In Howard Barker’s superb book Arguments for a Theatre, 1989, he takes this further and says: “A braver theatre asks the audience to test the validity of the categories it believes it lives by…”. Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Hare’s Plenty tackle idealism but neither comes loaded with an agenda and instead they allow the audience to step in to the character and make them wonder what they would do. Each member of the audience has to imagine what it might do and this is what makes political theatre.

In an article on the film director Michael Moore (controversial because he offers truth), Andrew O’Hagan writes: “Moore has built a global audience by remembering one of the basic premises of cinema: it was not invented to sedate people (though it very often does) but to inflame them … It’s worth remembering that when he was a child, Michael Moore wanted to be a priest, and as a film-maker, and as a character on film, he is full of evangelical brio. He wants to tell the truth, and part of the joy of his film outings is in watching the efforts…that corporations will go to in trying to shut him up.” (Evening Standard, 26.3.10, pp.34-35).

Similarly, Sebastian Shakespeare in his article If a film is good, must it take pains to be true?, focuses more on the psychology that “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth” (Picasso) and illustrates again the need for imagination and for the audience to do the work – it’s not about the actors and writer (and could be likened also to the church and its congregation: it’s not just about the Bible or priest but what the listener does with the words): “In the end it doesn’t matter whether a film is true or not, it only matters whether you believe it to be true” (Standard, 5.3.10, p.15). Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter if the words of the Bible or a sermon are true or not (I happen to think it does matter but this is another article) – I am however talking about the psychological process and saying that being ‘truthful’ is different from the truth.

I’ll explain: The Hurt Locker, for all its Oscar glory, was said to have portrayed EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) troops wrongly. It is however a brilliant film and director Kathryn Bigelow deserved that recognition. In many ways, however, Avatar and District 9 are more truthful as they engage with geo-politics, oppression and exploitation, through the giant prawn figures in the latter and the blue creatures resembling humans in the former, in a metaphorical and allegorical way. The fact is, “the plight of the Na’avi is being replicated all over the world, from the Amazon to Angola”: we know the victims are not blue and flying on huge bird-like creatures, but we also know that we ourselves are destroying the planet and this message is even greater in the film because of the fantastical way it is told to us. It is simply a paradox not only that drama can be more truthful than anything we consider non-drama, but that “our imaginations are the nearest we can get to reality” (Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target, 2002).


So long as there is humanity, there will be need for drama, in the many ways it can happen.  After Avatar was released, statistics show that there was an outpouring of depression from people.  This is no coincidence.  People quite literally wanted to be part of that world of Avatar and not the one we all live in.

Bertolt Brecht said ‘Ghosts’ became irrelevant as soon as syphilis became curable. The play is not about syphilis Mr Brecht, and as Samuel Beckett replied, “You are human and there’s no cure for that.”