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.

 

AUDITION | ‘Alfie’

Audition for our Spring 2017 production – ‘Alfie’ by Bill Naughton. Visit our Auditions page for more details.

AUDITION | ‘Alfie’

Audition for our Spring 2017 production – ‘Alfie’ by Bill Naughton. Visit our Auditions page for more details.

AUTUMN PRODUCTION | Outside Edge

Huntingdon Drama Club’s autumn production for 2016 is Richard Harris’s hilarious cricketing comedy ‘Outside Edge’ – Nov 24-26 2016.

Outside Edge is a play by Richard Harris about a cricket team trying to win a match whilst sorting out their various marital problems. Roger is having trouble getting a team together for the afternoons fixture against the British Railways Maintenance Division Yeading East but this proves to be the least of anyone’s worries. Bob is having marriage trouble as he is still doing odd jobs for his ex-wife behind his current wife Ginnie’s back. Dennis is also having marital trouble as his wife seems intent on moving house despite the fact they only moved recently. When he finally puts his foot down she sets fire to his new car. Kevin is trying to fight off his over affectionate wife Maggie while at the same time nurse his injured spinning finger and Alex’s new girlfriend ends up shutting herself in the toilets having hysterics. Even Roger’s seemingly perfect marriage to Miriam hits the skids when she discovers he was playing away from home in more ways than one on a trip to Dorking last year. Just when it seems things can’t get any worse for them, it starts to rain. The play was adapted for TV in 1982 and was later adapted again as a sitcom which aired in the mid-1990s.

 

AUDITIONS | Shakespeare At The George ‘Pericles’

Shakespeare at The George 2017 summer production will be Pericles: Prince of Tyre – directed by Richard Brown. The production will be performed from Tuesday 27th June to Saturday 8th July.
Shakespeare at the George is an ever-evolving company of actors and new People are always welcome.

Open auditions will be held at The George Hotel, Huntingdon on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November between 10am and 4pm. To book an audition please contact the Director by email: pericles@satg.org.uk

List of principal characters
(Please note that it is the intention at the moment to use considerable doubling to cover the wealth of minor characters and give the production the feel of a fairy tale performed by a company of actors)
Male Roles:
Pericles – Prince of Tyre
Helicanus – elderly lord of Tyre
Cleon – Governor of Tarsus
Simonides – King of Pentapolis
Pandar – Owner of a brothel
Boult – Servant in the brothel
Lysimachus – Young Governor of Mytilene
Thaliard – a lord of Antioch
Female Roles:
Dioniza – Wife to Cleon the Governor of Tarsus
Thaisa – Daughter to Simonides & wife of Pericles
Lychorida – Nurse to Marina
Marina – Daughter of Pericles
Bawd – Wife of Pander & joint owner of the brothel
Roles which will be either male or female:
Cerimon – Lord or Lady of Ephesus
3 Lords & Ladies of Tyre
3 Fishermen (or women)
3 Knights
Goddess Diana
Sailors, pirates, whores and others

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

SOCIAL | Improvisation Workshop

Improvisation Workshop – Join us for a workshop on Improv with the excellent Mischief Theatre Company – producers of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’. Limited places – book via the website. Learn about the basics of long form improvisation and story telling with professional actor & Mischief Theatre Company member Harry Kershaw.

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