Thursday, April 30, 2009

The REAL NEA Announcement

Back on April 1st, I posted that I had received an NEA grant for my Less Than 100k Project. At the time, several of my readers suspected an April Fool's prank, and they were likely strengthened in this opinion from the post disappearing from my blog a few days later. Actually, what I had discovered was that I was not supposed to announce anything until there was an official press release by the NEA on April 30th -- today. Here is the official NEA release and the list of theatre awards. I am very honored to have been even considered for this, much less to have actually received it. It is my hope that this funding will lead to the creation of many theatres in small and rural communities across America, who are underserved by the mainstream theatre.

While there seem to be quite a few community-agnostics and -atheists among the theatre blogging community, and many more who feel as if the connection between artists and their community should be weak or nonexistent, I have great belief in the power of the arts to change lives, to grow and support communities, and to foster a better world. However, I think that that power comes from not only being an arts consumer, or even primarily from being one, but from being a participant in the arts as well. That's why the focus of the Less Than 100k will be on artists and community together.

I look for inspiration to people and places like LaMoine MacLaughlin at the Northern Lake Center for the Arts in Amery WI, Caryn Leake with CHOAS in Ottawa IL, Patrick Overton at the Front Porch Project in New Richmond WI, the Ukiah Players in Ukiah CA, Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio in Hale County AL, "Swamp Gravy" in Colquitt GA, the Community Arts Network that gathers so much information about community arts and works out of a trailer in NC, and so many, many other places where people give of their time and their creativity to create gifts for members of their community, and help others to share their own stories and creativity.

It is only in a post-Kantian "art-is-by-definition-useless" world, a world where art has become a product to be sold like deoderant rather than an experience and a means of connection, that such work is dismissed as "social work." But any acquaintance with the writing of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Robert Gard, Percy MacKaye, Augusto Boal, Lyle Estill, or David Diamond reveals a rich, largely untapped source of rich creativity and beautiful sharing.

In the post I made earlier today that included the TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert, Gilbert argues that this belief in an internalized "genius" possessed within individuals leads to illness for artists. I would argue that it also leads to illness for communities as well. Once only "special people" make art, the underground spring of creativity that supports humanity begins to dry up, and the result is not thirst but rather resentment at those who have diverted the spring to their own purposes. The deep suspicion and even hostility toward artists often expressed by "non-artists" reflects this unconscious resentment that the creative wellspring has become privatized, hoarded by the specially-trained "Creative Class."

It is necessary for regular folks to relearn how to sing, to tell stories, to play instruments, to paint murals, to carve statues -- in short, to contribute their creative energy to each other, instead of (or at least in addition to) relying exclusively on those who devote a greater amount of time and attention to those pursuits. More than anything, this has been the outcome of television and radio, who created the sense that art should be passively consumed rather than created. The days of telling stories or singing with a guitar have been replaced by Netflix and cable television. Like the escaped contents of Pandora's box, these evils have been relased into the world and connot be sealed up again. But at the bottom of Pandora's box one thing remained: Hope. Hope, like Community a much-scorned gift in this cynical world, has been dismissed by many. But it is from Hope that the Future emerges; and it is through Community that the Past is reclaimed.

As the gardener knows, his plants come from a combination of good soil, the efforts of the gardener, and gifts from Nature. Like the daemon or the Roman genius mention in Elizabeth Gilbert's talk, the success of the garden is only partly under the control of the gardener. One must rely on the gifts of Nature, and on the remnants of the past that lie within the rich soil.

My intention is to do my part to enrich the soil and plant some seeds. I don't know whether anything will grow, but I will do my part out of a faith in the value of the process, the goodness of the soil, and the benevolence of the Communal Spirit.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Mystery

Fractured Atlas linked to this Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, which seems to say something connected to what I said in my previous post:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Transparent to Transcendence

Today was the last lecture in my History of Theatre I course, and I wanted to do something that would tie 2000 years of theatre history together in some way that was portable, and in some way might have some inspirational value. This is what I said:

The birth of theatre is said to have occurred when Thespis stepped from the dithyramb chorus and declared “I am Dionysus!” This is the birth of the embodied metaphor that is what theatre is all about.

The difference between a simile and a metaphor is important to understand in this context. Simile: He eats like a pig; Metaphor: He IS a pig. One is descriptive, narrative; the other is transformative, a metamorphosis

Aristotle made this distinction between epic and drama, and it centered on mimesis. Epic – like Homer’s poems – were narrated, and the narrator shifted between characters and also maintained a presence as a storyteller outside the action. But drama is mimetic: an imitation of nature, a kind of impersonation.

The word impersonate comes from the word persona: a mask. From the Greek “per” meaning “through” and “sona” which means “sound.” Some have said this means “ that through which the actor speaks,” in other words the mask is something through which the actor speaks. I think it is more accurate to say that the persona is that through which the character speaks, through which the actor is spoken.

The mask brings the metaphor to life. “I AM Dionysus,” Thespis says, but without the mask, the magic doesn’t occur. Without the mask, he is a simile, LIKE Dionysus, because his face, the REAL Thespis that most everyone in the audience would know, undermines the declaration. But wearing the mask, Thespis is possessed.

Keith Johnstone in his book Impro (which I strongly urge each and every one of you to read – it is funny, powerful, and profound) talks about “Masks and Trance” and about masks having a powerful life of their own.

We had a Mask that had a thick droopy nose and angry eyebrows. It was a deep, congested red in colour, and it liked to pick up sticks and hit people. It was quite safe so long as the teacher knew this and said 'Take the Mask off!' sharply at the critical moment. Someone borrowed it once—Pauline Melville, who had taken over my classes at Morley College. Next day she returned the Masks and said that some­one had been hit on the arm. I had to explain that it was my fault for not warning her. (And I pointed to the Mask that hit people.) I once saw three similar droopy-nosed Masks—they were Kabuki Masks, and they were on the hanamichi (the platform that runs through the audience) and yes, they had sticks and were threatening people. Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask along to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Parks's laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. For­tunately it didn't, because the wearer wasn't very athletic. It really makes no sense that a Mask should be able to transmit that sort of information to its wearer. Once students begin to observe for themselves the way that Masks compel certain sorts of behaviour, then they really begin to feel the presence of'spirits'. I remember a Mask I'd just made. A student tried it out and turned into a hunched, twisted, gurgling creature. Then a latecomer arrived, picked up the same Mask, and the identical creature appeared.”

So the theatre is a process of invocation: “To call upon a god or goddess to ask for their presence.” And also invocation is a form of possession which I’m using in its neutral form to mean "a state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced by another.” Plato writes about poetic inspiration in his dialogue Ion: "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers...in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself.”

Wearing a mask, the actor as an individual is erased and replaced by that of another. This is important to understand, because it is an orientation that informs all of the arts that we have studied this semester (Greeks to Spanish Golden Age) And it is the orientation that is most difficult for us, as modern artists, to get our heads around. The play, the performance, is not about the artist themselves. The artist is a conduit through which a story is spoken. In other words, it’s not about you.Whether you are an actor or a playwright, it’s not about you. You are a conduit, a vessel through which the gods speak. Your job is to make yourself transparent, to offer no resistance to this possession.


The great scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell late in his life discovered a German philosopher named Karlfriend Durckheim, who said that the whole problem of life is to become “transparent to transcendence; so that you realize that you yourself are a manifestation of this. That you live the myth. That you live the divine life that is within you. Yourself as a vehicle; not as the final term but as the vehicle of consciousness and life. “Transparent to transcendence.” When that came into my vocabulary it just seemed to be the only thing necessary. My definition of myth now is: a metaphor transparent to transcendence.” And theatre, I would say, is “an embodied metaphor transparent to transendance.” We look through it.


The mask embodies this idea – it erases the individual and replaces him with another. Aside from Thespis, we have very little information about the actors in Greek theatre – their names have been lost, perhaps because they were unimportant – it wasn’t about them. Shakespeare didn’t publish his plays in his lifetime – why? Some say because he didn’t value them, but like the artists through the Italian Renaissance who didn’t sign their work, he may have seen himself as a conduit through which a story was told, one that existed in the moment of performance on only partially, and deadly, on the page. Without the persona of the actors through which his characters spoke, they did not exist.


The Greeks wore masks. The Romans wore masks (and when they didn’t, as the mimes didn’t, the morality of their work quickly deteriorated). The medieval mystery actors wore masks (at least some of them), and they very much invoked God and the people of the Bible to possess them. It wasn’t about them as artists. The plays were written by “Anonymous.” The actors were townspeople through whom the Bible stories were spoken. It was an act of worship to be so possessed, to be able to lend your face and body to Adam and Eve, to Jesus, to Abraham and Isaac, even to Satan.


And this erasure, this transparency to transcendence, extended to the theatre space as well. The spaces were neutral. They were a conduit whose identity as theatre was to be invisible so that other places could be invoked. At the beginning of Twelfth Night, the dialogue goes: VIOLA: What country, friends, is this? / Captain: This is Illyria, lady. And boom! We are there! Illyria has been invoked and has appeared. King Lear, mad and raging on the heath in a terrible thunderstorm, wasn’t provided with special lighting effects and sound effects. Instead, he said:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once, 1685
That makes ingrateful man!

The first line of the Second Shepherd’s Play is “Lord, but this weather is cold!” No mounds of snow necessary; no steam from the character’s mouth; just a place being invoked. The first line of The Oresteia is “You Gods in heaven – You have watched me here on this tower all night, every night, for twelve month.” The words are the mask that covers the literal face of the theatre with something else, someplace else.


The place – whether it is the theatre at Epidaurus, or a cart being dragged through a medieval town, or the Globe just outside of London, or a Corrale in a courtyard in Spain – is built to become transparent to transcendence. To not attract attention to itself.

The famous English director Peter Brook starts his wonderful book The Empty Space (another book that I wish every one of you would read) with these lines: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." That is the faith of the first 2000 years of theatre history: the filling of an empty space through magic.


In every aspect of performance throughout the 2000 years that we have studied this semester there is a sense of humility, of being humble, that is the opposite of our current “look at me – I’m an artist” theatre scene. We still invoke the gods, but we refuse to become transparent. The theatre spaces are now filled with stuff, no longer trusting that an invocation will work. The thunderstorms must be created, the craggy mountains must be built, the snow must be on the ground. And the actors no longer cover their face to allow for possession by the character. Now, when a “star” makes his or her first entrance in a Broadway show, the audience applauds. They’re not applauding the character, they’re applauding the actor as actor, the actor as personality, the actor as icon.


Perhaps, as Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale: “It is required You do awake your faith.” Your faith, as artists, in being transparent. Your faith, as artists, that magic can be invoked. Your faith, as artists, that it’s not about you, but about something much, much bigger than you.


For a long time in theatre history, and for all of the time we have studied this semester, its artists and its places were servants to something larger. To Dionysus, to Bacchus, to God. And their reward was transcendence. Perhaps if we learn the lesson of those who have gone before, we as artists can invoke them, we can renew the magic, can reveal the god speaking through the mask, the place speaking through the empty space.


Maybe that’s why we study theatre history – to remind us of things we’ve forgotten and purposes we’ve lost. To remember that once we served what was highest in humanity, and embodied what was deepest. Maybe, by seeing that again, we can lose ourselves in something much larger than we are. I hope so.