Was there any point…?

October 1, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in arts council, arts funding, arts promotion, creative process, creativity, culture, Ensemble, flow, improvisation, performance, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | 3 Comments
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The decision to set up DUENDE and stage the “The Shattering Man” was one I took last November. I was spending a holiday alone in a cottage on the side of a mountain in Cumbria. Nothing but lots of books, walking, quiet, endless heavy rain (it was the time of the floods in Cockermouth) and a wood burning stove. I did a lot of thinking. In that thinking, watching the flames flicker and listening to the rain fall, I decided. The decision was a coming together of thoughts that had been floating for a while but which, in that moment, found their shape. The project grew from a place of deep personal desire, need and belief.

Ten months later, Eilon closed the show with the line “my flame is flickering still” and the beautiful, wordless, ethereal singing of the ensemble fell to silence and the stage sank to darkness.

Some of the journey from start to finish is charted in this blog.

Now, nearly a week after the show closed, the ensemble dispersed to the edges of the world, the inevitable sense of loss starting to lose its sharpness, I wonder, what was the point of it all? What was the need that spoke to me in front of the fire that wet autumn evening?

Certainly it was not for the sake of fame or fortune that I set up the project. It has cost a lot of money, both for me and for all of the other participants. Not many people saw the show, and while I hope that those who did will recognise the huge skill of the performers, I fear that they are likely to see in me someone who is committed to working in uneconomic ways on uncommercial product. As such, the funds I have put into the project are not an investment for they are unlikely to yield any return.

Pointless then?

Of course I don’t think so. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to have spent my time and money.

There are all sorts of ‘justifications’ advanced for the making of theatre. Most of them talk about theatre’s ‘use’ or ‘function’. Theatre is seen as being valuable when it conveys a ‘message’ (though the value of the product to any individual depends on whether they agree with, or are convinced by that message). Theatre is seen as valuable when it allows one community to speak of itself to another. Theatre is seen as valuable when it enhances the self-esteem or educational achievement of those who participate in it or attend its performances. Theatre is seen as valuable when it allows a society to present its official version of its ‘cultured-ness’ to itself and to the outside world. Theatre is seen as valuable when it is a vehicle for ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ debate. Theatre is seen as valuable as entertainment or as therapy (through ‘personal growth’ for participants or catharsis for audiences.)

All of these ‘functions’ of theatre seem perfectly valuable to me. I’ve worked in many types of theatre and find fascination and challenge in all of them. I accept and value the rich ecology of theatre and think that every ‘type’ of performance enriches every other type – if only by providing something for people to react against.

But is theatre worth anything in and of itself? Is the experience of an audience and live performers being together in a room one that has intrinsic worth, regardless of the ‘content’ of the work? Is the fact of sharing communication between people who did not, prior to the performance, know one another, a worthwhile end in itself?

I believe it is. In fact I believe it is the single most important justification for engaging in the process of making theatre. All the other ‘functions’ of theatre can be effected through other means – perhaps not as neatly, but they can still be effected. If you need to communicate an ideological perspective, you can write a manifesto. If you want to tell your community’s story, you can blog or record music. If you want to engage in conceptual speculation, you can work through any aesthetic structure, or write learned or incendiary articles in appropriate places.

But if you want human beings to be in a room with other human beings, sharing an experience at the moment that it happens, then you need to bring those people together at one place and time and craft an experience for them to share. That’s the heart of theatre. It may involve sharing outrage, realisation, emotion, laughter, bewilderment, intellectual stimulation. But it must involve sharing, communication, collective experience.

So what was the point? The point was to create an experience for myself, for my collaborators and for audiences – an experience of collective communication. Of course I take full responsibility for WHAT was communicated, for the content of a script I wrote and a performance I directed, but, underneath those ‘meanings’ I see something of even greater importance – the very act of shared experience that is the root of theatre. I believe in the intrinsic worth – indeed the crucial importance – of the act of making and performing theatre.

This is an old argument, one that’s been raging for centuries. Often characterised as being for or against the idea of ‘art for ¬†art’s sake’. A similar debate rages in the educational world – is education worthwhile in itself, whatever is being learned, or is it only worthwhile as an aid to the student getting employment? Unsurprisingly, I believe in the intrinsic worth of education as well. What we learn, what we experience, what we share, what we understand (both intellectually and on non-verbal levels) IS who we are. Activities that enable individuals, groups, communities and entire societies to experience the complex glory of the world in more depth, with more appreciation and more sense of their own ability to interact with and affect that world (or at least affect how they react to that world) are intrinsically worthwhile.

So, that’s why I do what I do. I believe in theatre.

The genesis of this particular project was in a primitive place – sat in front of the fire being warm while storms raged on the other side of a thin piece of glass. In that place I identified a deep need in myself. That’s how it should be, for the need that theatre answers is a primitive need. However sophisticated we think we have become, if we lose the ability to sit, attentively with others and share experience with them, we have lost something central to our humanity.

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  1. Total agreement. There’s no other communication to match being in the same roomspace and sharing air and vibrations
    At times during the piece I couldn’t tell the location of the sound source. Voices and bodies (movement) were one and the same thing….internal and external resonances mixed, separated, mixed ………endlessly changing…… then still and silent so that you could hear your heartbeat

  2. Wish I’d been there and experienced it too. Good intentions and then the demands and schedules of life and all that. Its important to make time for rare moments like these; to stop, share and dwell in our human-ness.

    Really good and inspiring to read you’re still very much doing what you need to do John.

    • thanks Sara – it is terrifying to me how unfashionable – to funders, promoters, academics – the idea of theatre as an intrinsically valuable thing has become. It seems we are in a time that does not believe in or value deep communication, at least in the theatre – an age that prefers ‘adopting a position’ or having an opinion over sharing an experience. I’d like, nobly, to claim that I’m trying to ‘keep the flame alive’, but I don’t suppose I am. I expect I’m just doing the thing I think I need to be doing….


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