The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.

Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.

Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.

This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee.  If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right. 

In Defence of Freedom of Expression…

If I were to propose a single essential requirement for a democratic state, it would likely be the right to freedom of expression. For, when stripped of the ability to express ourselves unhindered, what do we become? To deprive a person of this right is to steal away their personhood: to consign them to the divergent cognition of the nonhuman animal. One difference between humans and other species is our ability to reason and self-reflect, and self-expression is a result of such. When someone is robbed of this right, they might as well – at least in cerebral affairs – be a slug.

Thus, freedom of expression is a danger to the totalitarian ruler – and with the arts being one of the most inspiring, influential and universal means of expression, a savage clampdown on creativity is one of the first attacks on liberty that an autocratic state will undertake, as evidenced by the behaviour of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.  In 1966, at Chairman Mao’s behest, the Cultural Revolution – in which remaining elements of historical Chinese culture were forcibly purged – sprang into action in a storm of violence and abuse, a period which led to the persecution and deaths of prominent Chinese playwrights such as Wu Han and Tian Han.

So the question of how theatre – and the arts in general – both suffers and survives under totalitarianism is potentially of educational interest to the average Westerner, unaccustomed to the censorship that has prevailed in other countries and cultures. Prior to the Nazis’ rise in Germany, Expressionism (or Epic Theatre) had taken hold as an artistic movement, and was particularly associated with themes of individualism and rebellion against authority. Unsurprisingly, the architects of National Socialism were not at all pleased with the influence of such drama, and quickly directed their jackboots towards the stage. While plays sympathetic to nationalism and militarism were encouraged, Goebbels enforced regulations to obstruct “ecstatic theatre amateurism”, whilst Hitler snarled that expressionistic art forms were “sickly aberrations of the insane and depraved.”

As a result of the anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi ideology, the Third Reich was also determined to remove all traces of Jewish contribution and influence to cultural life; of the many “anti-Jewish decrees”, one passed in 1934 banned all Jewish actors from performing on stage or on screen, temporarily aborting what had been a rich theatrical presence in Germany from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. With further draconian regulations on the content of plays – and other depictions of art – the creative evolution of German theatre was inevitably interrupted and stifled.

Their Russian cousins were not faring any better. The Bolsheviks arguably brought as much oppression to Russia as the Tsarist regime they had replaced, and the beginning of Stalin’s reign precipitated severe restrictions on artistic freedom.  The propagation of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable art form, and the intolerance towards contrasting philosophies, led to mass repression and purging of all art deemed undesirable. Novelist and dramatist Daniil Kharms – whose creative proclivities favoured the avant-garde, surrealism and absurdism – was arrested in 1931 and branded “anti-Soviet” due to his unwillingness to allow his work to become propaganda for the state’s materialistic ideology. Mikhail Bulgakov – closely aligned to the Moscow Art Theatre – found a number of his plays banned throughout the 1920s, the final nail in the coffin coming at the end of the decade, when the government decreed a prohibition on the publishing or staging of any of his work. In an act of desperation, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin, pleading with his leader to allow him to emigrate if the USSR had no use for him as a writer. Describing himself as “doomed to lifelong silence”, he spoke plaintively of the effect such censorship had on his health –

“overtaxed, unable to survive any longer, hounded, knowing fully well that I shall no more be printed and staged in the USSR, driven to nervous breakdown…I appeal to the humanity of the Soviet Government and request that I, the writer, who could be of no use to his country, be magnanimously set free.”

One of the most lengthy expositions on the state of art under Soviet oppression was written by Isaiah Berlin, who returned in 1945 for a visit, having not been in the country since leaving as a child. ‘The Arts in Russia Under Stalin’ is a fascinating insight into the withering of culture under a dictatorship. “State control was absolute,” observes Berlin. Next came the purges – instigated by Nikolai Yezhov in the late 1930s – in which many writers were killed. Some of those who managed to escape exile or state murder were so internally tormented by their situation that they committed suicide – including poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

“The most eminent survivors,” writes Berlin, “sit silent and nervous for fear of committing some fatal sin against the Party line…it left behind it painful and humiliating memories from which the survivors of this terror are never likely completely to recover.

Yet Berlin’s screed also contains pockets of hope for an eventual evolution of theatre and writing, noting that the Moscow Arts Theatre “nevertheless preserves a remarkable standard of individual acting and of inspired ensemble playing”, and praises the performances from smaller city theatres in Moscow and Leningrad, which “perform classical plays with verve and imagination.” He also expressed hope that the Russian public’s “child-like eagerness and enthusiasm” for literature and theatre could possibly foster a future in which the arts could again run unrestricted:

“If, therefore, political control were to alter at the top, and greater freedom of artistic expression were permitted, there is no reason why, in a society so hungry for productive activity, and in a nation still so eager for experience, still so young and so enchanted by everything that seems to be new or even true, and above all endowed with a prodigious vitality which can carry off absurdities fatal to a thinner culture, a magnificent creative art should not one day once again spring into life.”

Perhaps above all else, this analysis by Berlin can stand as a testament to the power of theatre and other arts to incite innovative thought and ideas, and as an example of the ubiquitous human need for creativity to run free and unfettered. We invest our very being into works of art; as writing, acting, music and painting act as necessary liberators from physical ‘reality’, thus an unconstrained cultural environment is synonymous with personal liberty.

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

A Day At The Donmar…

HDC’s social calendar normally includes at least one or two excursions to London per year, and the first of these took place last Saturday, when a group of us headed out to attend a two-hour workshop at the Donmar Warehouse, followed by Steve Waters’ new play Limehouse.

Any of the club’s social outings is of course something to be looked forward to, but this occasion particularly stood out for me because of its workshop component. As a group that takes pride in its resolution to maintain a professional approach to our work, this was an opportunity for us to learn directly – and borrow inspiration from – those working in the field of theatre.

If weather can be taken as an augur of what’s to come, then the sunshine and unusually warm temperature (for April) heralded a fantastic day out. Our workshop leader started with a few preliminary ice-breaking exercises aimed at establishing some social rapport between attendees, which served as another reminder of what a communal effort acting really is – without the foundations of mutual cooperation and give-and-take, a performance is sure to suffer. In a professional setting, she explained, such social practices would be a lot more in-depth.

This was followed by some historical background to the occurrences leading up to the subject of Waters’ play; the media-dubbed ‘Gang of Four’ (David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins), and their issuing of the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, which marked the formation, two months later, of the Social Democratic Party in March 1981. Suitably educated on the political atmosphere of early 1980s Britain, we were next divided into groups to experiment with naturalistic and non-naturalistic approaches to acting, which we then transposed onto short sections from Limehouse.

There is a limit to how much can be imparted over the course of just two hours, but I felt that the workshop was adequately broken into sections so as to give us reasonable insight into the approaches used during rehearsals. Their perspective seemed to me to offer an open, experimental method infused with pragmatism, a process in which innovation is pursued, but encouraged to conform to the parameters of the play. While choosing to stage a play unconventionally is something to be admired, there is the potential for such inventiveness to deteriorate into egoistic self-indulgence; my impression of the Donmar Warehouse was that they sought to promote a disciplined and streamlined creative endeavour. What was also striking was the informality of the atmosphere – reflected in their recognition of the necessity to craft an environment which facilitates cast affinity and communal spirit.

Following on from this, we had the production of Limehouse itself, which I thought to be a mentally-energising and thought-provoking play. Performances were very good, especially from Roger Allam (as Roy Jenkins) and Debra Gillett (as Shirley Williams), but I was also impressed with how amusing I found much of it to be. I’d been rather expecting a lofty screed on civic matters, and not being one to overly acquaint myself with political knowledge, I’d been imagining that a fair amount of dialogue would be over my head. That wasn’t the case: whilst certainly providing much to consider intellectually, both in the framework of the 1980s and our current climate, Limehouse is also accessible to those with only a modicum of interest in the affairs of government. The action taking place in a kitchen setting served to further extend the broad appeal of the play; the characters seemed less like politicians – isolated and removed from the public’s general vision of everyday experience – and more like a group of impassioned friends, into whose intimate gathering we were stealing a glimpse.

I think we all came away entertained and having learned a thing or two – and in keeping with our aim of emulating professional, high-quality artists, I expect the club will make use of such experiences in further ventures. In the meantime, we look forward to the next trip out!

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

The Tortured Artist

The tortured artist. It’s a well-known concept that’s become something of a stereotype, and in consequence has perhaps taken on its own mythology. But the idea is so bitterly and touchingly romantic that it’s easy to understand its appeal. Van Gogh may be the poster boy for this vision: the tormented creative who produced great art in spite of – or maybe because of? – his battles with his inner demons.

I’m not someone who thinks that emotional agony is a prerequisite for creativity. Many talented people have made their artistic mark and, in so doing, have suffered no more or no less than the average person. But I think that the notion of the suffering artist is more than just a stereotype, that it’s based on the experiences of many whose interests and inclinations have taken them into creative fields, and that there is an undeniable correlation between depression and the arts.

There’s a passage from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction which describes the artist as an “unmistakably ‘classical’ neurotic, an aberrant who only occasionally, and never deeply, wishes to surrender his aberration…a Sick Man who…gives out terrible cries of pain, as if he would wholeheartedly let go both his art and his soul to experience what passes in other people for wellness.”

That was in 1959. Nearly 60 years later, the subject still holds sway – out of ten job categories in which workers were most likely to report an experience of major depression, the performing arts ranked fifth on the list, with mental health counsellor Deborah Legge stating that “depression is not uncommon to those who are drawn to work in the arts.” A Wikipedia list of public figures diagnosed with major depressive disorder reads at times like a laundry list of actors, musicians, writers and painters. In his autobiography Lucky Man, Michael J. Fox relates that his school drama teacher would make a habit of reminding the cast of every school production, “We are all here because we’re not all there” and goes on to dispel the myth that all performers are brash extroverts. Not so – “Actors don’t become actors because they’re brimming with self-confidence. For those of lucky (or unstable) enough to become professional performers, the uncertainty about who we really are only increases.” The death of Robin Williams in 2014 brought more attention to the propensity of a creatively-endowed individual to go through internal mental struggles.

There are of course many artists who never experience an episode of severe depression, but I believe there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the arts are more closely linked to emotional trauma than many other fields. Why might this be? As is usually the case, the answer can’t be found from any one specific source and is most likely contingent upon varying factors that may raise themselves. Employment in the arts is something that is often unsteady and unstable, with no guarantee of another job following the next one. This unreliability of consistent work and income is bound to take its toll. There’s also the question of whether many actors, musicians and writers are highly sensitive people, whose emotions may exist in a more heightened state than what is ‘normal’.

What about the very act of putting yourself and your art in display? By doing so, you not only invite praise, but criticism. For every lauded film or theatrical performance, there will also be a more scathing take on the actor’s talents. And for many artists, whom I suspect may view their work as a congenital part of who they are as a person, an attack on the quality of their output may be construed as an attack on the quality of themselves.

We could also consider that by their very nature, the arts may be an emotional repository for people who are unhappy to begin with. I find acting to be a means of great therapy, a sentiment which I’ve often heard others express. As a channel for one’s personal sensitivities – and an escape from the common experience of ‘real life’ – I think it’s second to none. Acting affords the performer the opportunity to establish contact with something distant and impalpable, and seemingly with neither thought nor effort, our consciousness is swept into a world beyond the five senses, a world in which perhaps the artist feels at their most free.

So the vision of the tortured artist will undoubtedly continue to permeate our cultural philosophy. There is too much truth behind it, and it’s too beloved as an attractively painful emblem, I think, for it to be abandoned. I think acting and other arts offer a psychological lifeline for those of a depressive disposition – another reason why the importance of the arts in society should not be so readily dismissed. It’s one of those tragically ironic paradoxes that the creation of something beautiful – art – should so often go hand in hand with the most ugly kind of mental suffering, erhaps best summarised in this short statement:
“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”
Nadja – Andre Breton

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson 

Educate or entertain?

During a recent discussion in which I expounded on the virtues of a favoured TV show, my companion retorted that it was “mindless fodder” that neither “challenged nor educated.” I accepted that his tastes were different and that particular subject ended there.

But my thoughts kept returning to his remarks. I disagreed with his assessment that the programme in question was mindless fodder, but what really struck a nerve was the implication of his attitude (one that’s not all that uncommon) to acting (and all art) in general: namely, that in order to be of any value, it needs to be educative, intellectually stimulating or carry some kind of political or social message.

There’s a particular breed of people who hold this opinion – some might call it artistic and cultural snobbery – who voice their disgust at their presumed intellectual redundancy of TV and film, who turn their noses up at the majority of Hollywood offerings because the material doesn’t stretch their minds, who even chastise other people for committing the deadly sin of enjoying what they feel is such mind-rotting guff.

To these people, I’d pitch several questions: Since when did it become a cardinal rule that ALL artistic endeavours MUST be built around some educational or social narrative? What’s wrong with pure entertainment? What about creativity for creativity’s sake?

It’s a wonderful thing when a play or a film excites the intellect, leaves the audience thinking or drives home a message. But it’s also a wonderful thing when a play or film simply gives the audience a good time. I’ve very little patience with the risible notion that if something is less worthwhile if it’s just fun.

It’s hard for me not to see these consternated critics as a monolithic movement that’s trying to suck all the joy out of the arts. The great thing about film, TV, stage plays and other art forms is the variety; there’s something for everyone. There’s intellectualism, there’s high culture, there’s politics – and there’s also good entertainment: action films for the adrenaline junkies and rip-roaring comedy for those who like to laugh.

I’ve always loved the childlike playfulness that blossoms when working on a play that’s plain good fun. Artistic expression should be diverse and pleasurable, not shoehorned into someone’s rigid sense of what has value. So the next time these stuffy killjoys splutter with indignation at your fondness for comedies or romantic flicks, remember that you’re doing your bit to uphold the ethos of creativity.

 

Stepping Out With Huntingdon Drama Club

Anyone who’s involved with the club knows that when it comes to our social events, we host a very lively calendar of outings, from play readings, meals out, or trips to the theatre. Since a large percentage of members’ interaction takes place within the setting of rehearsals or meetings, our social outings are spaces where we can relax and enjoy each other’s company away from the responsibilities of working on productions and planning the future of the club. Most of our events are open to non-members, so it’s also an opportunity for new people to introduce themselves and register interest.

Our most recent social event was an afternoon at the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see Stepping Out – giving this winter season something of a Richard Harris theme, as he is not only the playwright behind Stepping Out, but also the writer of the soon-to-be-performed Outside Edge. Those of us that were already familiar with the former arrived at the theatre expecting an immensely enjoyable play, and we weren’t disappointed. It was an excellent show, full of warmth, humour and – given the story – music.

The plot? Stepping Out tells the tale of a diverse bunch of personalities who meet for weekly tapdancing classes. For the members, the dancing lessons serve more as a chance to socialise with their classmates than any sort of artistic endeavour, but after they are selected to give a performance in a charity event, their teacher puts together a professional routine and organises her motley crew of dance students into a rather talented and entertaining ensemble.

Stepping Out is a play that is littered with memorable characters, brilliantly performed by all actors. The entire cast impressed, though if I were to single out my favourites, I’d choose Tamzin Outhwaite as the committed teacher Mavis and Amanda Holden as the somewhat annoying and affected but nevertheless likeable Vera. Holden brought an endearing innocence to Vera, revealing that what at first glance appears to be quite a supercilious nature, is more of a rather naïve upper-crust woman genuinely trying to be friendly and fit in, but not quite understanding how to go about it.

Harris’s musical comedy is very much a feel-good piece; that’s not to say that there aren’t touches of solemnity, but these are never lingered upon and are very much superseded by the pace of the dialogue and the amusing interaction between such disparate figures. It was made clear that for many of the characters, their dance classes were a welcome respite from the pressures and difficulties of regular life – a place that cheered them up and simultaneously relaxed and energised them – which gave the performance a very comforting aura. The exuberance that the cast brought to the play was supplemented by the attention to detail of the costume department, who outfitted the actors in some of the most colourful of 1980s fashions.

Club members’ opinions were unanimous; everyone had enjoyed the show immensely, and as one friend said to me, “It was everything that theatre should be” – sound praise indeed. We’re now more excited than ever for the impending production of Outside Edge.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

Theatre Sports..?

When Outside Edge was announced as the club’s winter production, I initially didn’t give much consideration to the fact that the play revolved around a sports setting. If the cricket pavilion environment inspired any thoughts at all, it was mainly at how quaintly and typically English it was; all public school alumni and afternoon teas. But reflecting on the matter, I ended up asking myself how many plays I had seen, read, or even heard of, that contained some kind of sports theme. The answer was not very many. Outside Edge, it seemed, was one of a very small group.

Sport in theatre is not exactly unheard of – a recent example is Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion, a tale about a little-known, semi-professional football team. Other examples include The Changing Room by David Storey, and An Evening with Gary Lineker. From the other side of the pond, we have Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, most of which takes place in the locker room of a baseball team. That said, given the prestige it carries in society, the topic of sport appears to be very underrepresented within theatre. Film and television certainly cater to the subject of sport; of the movies I watched in my early years, one was a rather stock tale about a hapless baseball team that finally wins their season. So it’s interesting to ponder what sets theatre apart in this regard: what are the reasons for the relative segregation of athletics and stage plays? One cause may simply be the domain itself; logistically speaking, a theatre is hardly a favourable medium to stage scenes of football or rugby matches. How long before an unlucky audience member would be struck in the face by a flying tennis ball? One can always get around this, however, by eliminating from the narrative any episodes of actual sports activity. This, incidentally, is how Richard Harris has handled Outside Edge; all cricket action takes place offstage and is merely referred to by the characters.

'The Red Lion' at the National Theatre in 2015
‘The Red Lion’ at the National Theatre in 2015

Is there an element of cultural snobbery at play? Do some theatre aficionados regard sports as a lowbrow pastime and deem there to be such an insurmountable contrast between the two fields that any mingling of the subjects is taboo? An article in American Theatre Magazine challenges such a stereotype, arguing that:
“The athletic and dramatic spheres have more in common than at first glance. Both thrive on spectacle and conflict—the more that is at stake, the better… the human stories in the athletic arena hold as much artistic fodder for playwrights as for screenwriters, TV scribes and sports columnists… both plays and sports are man-made imitations of conflict, drama and competition performed in sacred spaces throughout the world.” It’s a view that is shared by playwright, screenwriter and basketball enthusiast Robert Attenweiler, who once described watching NBA player Michael Jordan as “Aristotelian drama”, adding that “Dynasties in sports are Aristotelian tragedy.” People might quibble over his precise terminology, but it’s quite eye-opening to explore what common ground sports and theatre really do have. Both can serve their viewers alternately as entertainment or profound emotional experiences. Both can ignite in their audiences a shift in consciousness, a portal to one specific stage (or football field) and an atmosphere in which anything happening outside this space is obsolete and ignored.

ITV’s sitcom adaptation of Outside Edge

Perhaps the most touching perspective was that of actor Paden Fallis, whose reflections covered the shared catharsis of sports and drama: “Both offer hope, exhilaration, escape from the mundane, the chance to witness greatness, talented people creating beauty with the greatness of ease. And both sports and theatre get us back in touch with what it means to feel, to rejoice, to love.”

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

Child Stars and The Coogan Act

The entertainment business – long perceived as alternately glamorous, superficial, predatory or heavenly, depending upon whom you ask – is perhaps not quite so different from non-artistic organisations as many might think. One distinction, however, is that in most countries, it’s about the only profession in which minors are permitted to be employed. For obvious reasons – ‘Home Alone’ might not have had quite the same appeal with a heavily-built thirty-year-old defending the property.

In this day and age, laws protecting the rights of child performers are taken for granted. But in the early days of the entertainment industry, this wasn’t always the case. In the 1930s, two of MGM’s bright young stars included Mickey Rooney and a pre-Dorothy Judy Garland, regularly cast side-by-side in a profusion of musicals. If stories from that era of filmmaking can be trusted, the children could perhaps be forgiven for speculating that MGM’s regimen seemed more styled along the lines of a Victorian workhouse than a professional artistic outfit. It was said that there was little in the way of gaps between films; work on the next one might begin just days after the previous one had wrapped. Garland also maintained that, in order to cope with the demanding schedule, the children were prescribed a steady diet of amphetamines. Then, once these started to interfere with their ability to sleep, they were stuffed full of barbiturates. She was once quoted:

“They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills – Mickey sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us.”

Child starlets Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland
Child starlets Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland

So when did children’s rights start to catch on? One of the first laws designed to protect child performers was the 1939 California Child Actor’s Bill, colloquially known as ‘The Coogan Act’ – dubbed as such because the law came into place as a direct result of the problems facing former child star Jackie Coogan. Coogan made between $3 and $4 million from appearing in a string of films during the 1920s, only to discover (upon reaching adulthood) that his mother and stepfather had spent almost all of his money. Roughly $250,000 remained, the rest having been used to purchase expensive cars for stepdad Arthur Bernstein and fur coats and jewellery for Mrs Bernstein. An angry Coogan sued them both, but with the subtraction of legal expenses, he ended up receiving just $126,000 of the money that was rightfully his.

Jackie Coogan with his parents
Jackie Coogan with his parents

Not that mother and stepfather were at all ashamed. When confronted over their lavish spending of her child’s money, Mrs Bernstein adopted an almost indignant manner, declaring that little Jackie had merely believed himself to be “playing” and that “no promises were ever made to give Jackie anything.” In an effort to further justify her argument that her son held no entitlement to the money he earned for his acting, she tearfully explained to a Los Angeles court that during his childhood, the rambunctious young Jackie had been “a bad boy.”

Mrs Coogan seemingly didn’t share her son’s talent for acting, as neither the court nor the media was convinced – at least, not the New York Herald Tribune, which wryly predicted that “Mr and Mrs Bernstein will never be serious contenders for the title of Mr. and Mrs. America.” As a result, the California Child Actor’s Bill ordered that 15% of a child’s earnings be placed into a blocked trust account (sometimes referred to as a Coogan Account.) Updated and revised several times since then, the law also tackles such issues as working hours and education, with California law dictating that minors can only work up to 10 p.m. on a school night, and up to 12.30 a.m. on a non-school night.

Even in recent years, some people have complained that – in the US, at least – protection for child performers doesn’t go far enough, with reportedly eighteen states having no protection laws at all, and only fifty percent of states requiring work permits. It’s safe to say that things have improved since the bad old days of 1930s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but should more be done? Maybe something to think about the next time there’s a story of a former child star’s life becoming an utter train wreck.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson 

Acting Strikes At The Heart

“Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists…what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings?” – Confessions of Saint Augustine

I’ve always been impressed by the capacity of acting (and all art) to establish a tunnel to the emotional psyche of those receiving it. People shed tears over novels, over music, over poetry, and over performances on screen or stage. Not only that, but there’s a savage yearning for a performance to evoke our deepest feelings, an almost masochistic desire for actors to penetrate our outer coating and speak directly to our inner mind.
How is it that acting elicits such desires and responses? My particular take on this question is that, like all art, it fulfils the fundamental human need to look beyond ordinary, objective, material life and tread the waters of the subjective, personal and immaterial arena of our conscious experience. For the former, we construct rules and metaphorical shields in order to sustain a system of agreed acceptable action; in the latter we are beholden to nothing but our own nature.

andre_skull_tennant

I find watching a performance to be analogous to a transcendental episode. The lights of the theatre dimmed, the audience hushed, attention fixed upon the stage – all these serve to move us into an altered state of perception, in which the sole manifestation of reality is that which plays before us. By doing so, an environment is created where all that remains is the emotional relationship between performer and spectator. To watch a performance is a deeply personal experience, and as we are drawn into a world beyond our own, we become comfortable enough to bring our deeper instincts to the surface.hamlet-skull

How often in life do we feel able to express our truest, fullest selves? We often find that we self-censor, or otherwise restrict our behaviour, so that we might get along, or to appear conventional. Art facilitates a piercing of our outer shells, crafting a space that allows for the greater reign of our natural emotional components.hamlet96b

Everyone can relate to tragedy and human foibles. The fiction of a film or a play provides a safe psychological avenue for an audience’s undergoing of pathos. The knowledge that “this isn’t real” creates a sense of security which propels our enthusiasm to be powerfully touched by what we watch. We not only expect it, we want it. Our experience of art is subjective, individualistic, and self-determined, a system whereby we free our intrinsic persona and process our emotional reaction in a manner which translates to our own life and the greater world. Acting strikes at the heart of an individual, and in doing so, provokes a potential for greater understanding of inner truth.

It’s sometimes asked whether art imitates life or life imitates art. I would suggest that they are one and the same, and that acting, as with all artistic expressions, is as solid an arbiter of reality as any branch of science or philosophy.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson