The Intertwining of Art & Nature

One of the wonderful things about theatre is that – weather and other factors permitting – it is an experience that can be enjoyed in a multitude of settings, something which is especially relevant to the club in the period following the closure of our previous performing space. Our venues since then have included our Town Hall courtroom and a church, and we frequently keep our eyes peeled for other potential locations.

The spatially transitory nature of the performing arts not only abets our creativity but also enriches the overall experience for both the actors and the audience. Imagine attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the depths of the woods, with all the mystery and mysticism that environment conjures. As the evening sun casts shadows – or could they be spectres? – upon the leafy forest bed, the sound of the breeze amongst the trees almost sounds like a ghost rustling its way through the undergrowth. The setting enhances the reality of the play; surrounded by the density of the trees, the audience may wonder what hidden secrets lie just beyond their sight. As twigs snap beneath the feet of a performer – or was it something else? – a spectator might feel that nature spirits such as Puck and Titania may well be lurking in the background. Everything is possible, everything is real.

Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre

This intertwining of art and nature manifests itself in various open-air theatres, one of which I recently visited. Located in Cornwall is the village of Porthcurno where, nestled amongst the cliffs, lies the Minack Theatre, founded during the first half of the twentieth century by local resident Rowena Cade. Inspired to do so by watching a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cade built the theatre with the assistance of her gardener Billy Rawlings. Completed in 1932, the newly-opened theatre welcomed its first performance – The Tempest – that same year. Miss Cade’s determination to maintain the venue was such that she worked tirelessly over the winter months to preserve the theatre so that it could be continuously used each summer.

Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre, pictured from above

In 1944, the theatre temporarily became one of the locations used for the film Love Story (which starred Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood) until poor weather no longer made this feasible. Eleven years later, its first dressing rooms were added and in the following decades, the Minack has continued to be a theatrical delight of Cornwall and is currently open for business between the spring months and September. Boasting attractive views of the surrounding coastal area, in the absence of a performance, the theatre is well worth visiting in its own right – though in the height of summer, when the sea is at its clearest turquoise and most inviting, you may have to fight the urge to dive straight from the clifftops into the waters. Bedecked with stretches of grass and flowers, the natural beauty of the setting lends a special romance towards the experience. Carved into some of the stone slabs is the history of the numerous performances the theatre has witnessed over the years, some of the most recent performances including The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing and The Producers.

A quote from Paul Cezanne reads thus: “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.” Exploring the twists and turns on the slope of the Minack Theatre, it was easy to see just how true his words were.

Pushing & Pulling – A Director’s Workshop

Investment in the future has been a theme of 2017 so far for the club. After being forced from our ‘home’ by the closure of the Commemoration Hall we’ve been set the challenge of being more creative than ever – mounting productions in non-theatre venues such as Shakers and The Crucible which will take place in the Town Hall. A very generous grant from the Huntingdon Freemen’s Trust has allowed us to invest in a brand new portable lighting rig which will ensure that we can be seen wherever we perform! We’re now looking ahead to 2018 for venues and plays.

Earlier this year we sponsored committee member Rae to attend the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend (which you can read about here on our blog) and this week I spent a day at London’s Lyceum Theatre for a directors workshop with Lisa Spirling – artistic director of Theatre 503 in Battersea. The aim of these two ventures was to learn from the professionals – to develop new skills and techniques that we can use to improve our own productions. Rather than go into too much detail here I’ll try instead to give a flavour of the day & hopefully adapt some of it into a future workshop of our own.

The Lyceum Theatre

As we sat in the swanky Ambassador’s Lounge waiting for some late-comers held up on the Tube, Lisa decided to take us through for a quick look into the Lyceum’s stunning auditorium – the home of the long-running ‘The Lion King’. Lisa mentioned two things here that would later resonate during the workshop. The first involved the dreaded subject of blocking – actors who join the cast of The Lion King are subject to what sounds like a human game of chess or Battleship. There are so many moving parts in the show that the stage is divided into a grid system – if an actor stands in A6 as opposed to A5 he may be run over by a scenery truck. Less rigorous blocking methods would be discussed later. Second point on The Lion King – a big part of it’s success was down to it’s theatrical language. The director decided against simply carbon-copying the animated movie onto the stage and instead delivered a piece of total theatre that still plays to packed houses eighteen years on.

Back down to earth. Why were we there? What did we want to get out of this day? We started with some very basic but important considerations – who is your audience? How big is your venue? What’s the size of your cast? From here we moved to choosing a play and once it’s chosen, how do you prepare to direct it? Several readings of the play are essential – an initial reading to discover the story and further readings from the points of view of the characters. Asking questions of the play is crucial – who, what, where, why & how? One of the key things in any play is – does it make you want to find out what happens next??


This discovery of the play continues into the first days of rehearsal with the cast. Rather than just a straightforward table reading, the cast & crew read through the text, fine-combing it for FACTS, OPINIONS & QUESTIONS. This approach ensures that everyone is equally familiar with the script & has an equal understanding of it. During a read through of our current production of Shakers we discovered that our four cast members had no clue who Alan Whicker was – they do now!

Up on our feet we played around with a series of ‘push & pull’ excercises, designed to inject a physical intention into the lines. Lisa explained that dialogue is never just people talking – in every scene there are WANTS and INTENTIONS. (Remember the old adage “what’s my motivation”?)
We continued with a ‘thought through’ reading of a scene. In this, the actors must vocalise the thought that motivates each line and then speak the line. Another approach is an ‘action through’ or ‘tactic through’. This concentrates on the doing words, the actions in a scene that motivate the words. This forensic analysis allows the cast & director to really get under the skin of the text for a greater understanding. As amateur theatre people we may feel that we don’t have the luxury of time for this kind of work but I felt that two rehearsal sessions dissecting the text in this way would pay big dividends later on in the process.

We approached the subject of ‘blocking’ with some caution. It seems to be a real hot potato, both in the amateur & professional worlds. In Nick Hytner’s book ‘Balancing Acts’ he mentions renowned stage actors who were often relieved to work with directors who literally told them where to stand, where to sit and when to speak. Others like to find their own way. Ultimately it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ – whatever works for the truth of the moment – as a director you must create the best possible environment for the actors to work in.

Lisa Spirling

Lisa mentioned two things that must ALWAYS be choreographed – sexual or romantic scenes (snogging, basically) and stage combat. Those two things are never left to chance. Other tips Lisa mentioned for blocking included putting something interesting on the fourth wall (a mirror, a window…), working actors into diagonal rather than straight lines and something which had never ever occurred to me before – because we are used to reading from left to right on the page, entrances from stage right have more visual impact than stage left. It’s true what they say – every day’s a school day.

For me directing becomes more and more enjoyable the more experience you have of doing it. As you find your style & become more familiar with the rudiments, your confidence grows and with that your imagination has more freedom to be creative. It’s a passion that you never stop learning from and this day was invaluable. Thank you to Lisa Spirling & to Ambassador Theatre Group for the opportunity!

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

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.

 

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