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 

Q&A With Richard James

richard-james_249We caught up with professional actor & playwright Richard James to find out what life is like on the road. Richard is currently touring in the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and while at home for a well-earned Christmas break took some time out to talk to us…

How long have you been touring with Gangsta Granny now and how many performances have you done?

Gangsta Granny has been on the road since November 2015. Touring to a different town each week, we’ve played 416 performances in 46 different venues. By the time we finish in the West End next year, we will have performed the show over 650 times.

Have you missed any performances for any reason?

Whilst other cast members hajs78314461ve been off with various illnesses over that time, I’m lucky enough not to have missed a single show so far.

Of all the theatres you’ve played in so far, do you have a favourite? And if so, why?

Touring can be quite monotonous, especially with two shows a day, so any venue or town with something different to offer is always welcome. I particularly enjoy towns with a bit of history to them so I think Canterbury would be a firm favourite. I also enjoy seaside venues and Bournemouth in the summer was fun. Whilst we may not have a great deal of time to explore, it’s sometimes worth the effort to travel a little further afield if possible. With an evening show on our first day in Belfast, a number of us hired a car and drove to the Giant’s Causeway for the afternoon.

Can you give us an idea of what a typical day on Gangsta Granny is like? And how do you fill the time between shows?

A typical day would start with the cast and crew assembling on stage at 9.30am for notes and warm-up. Then it’s into costume for our first show of the day, usually at 10.30. This is typically a school’s matinee so the curtain often rises late as we wait for coaches to arrive. Morning shows often have a very different feel to evening performances as we could find ourselves performing to a thousand lively school children. The curtain comes down at around 12.45, and it’s time to head out to the High Street for some lunch. Following this, I might try and get some writing done (I’ve almost completed my third play this year), catch up on some correspondence, do a little sightseeing or join with some cast members to catch up on some TV together. At 7pm the curtain rises on the second show of the day followed by a bus home to my digs or a quick drink in a local bar.

Do you still have to rehearse at all or does the show look after itself now?

The show looks after itself in the main. We may run a couple of sequences as we arrive at each new venue as the dimensions of the stage or wing space may alter slightly but there is no ‘tech run’ as such. In addition to this, we have understudy rehearsals each week, usually on a Friday. This in effect means we are doing three shows one after the after, making for a very tiring day!

js78314468

Of all your professional engagements, which is the most memorable and why?

I’m lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects, from tv and film to theatre and radio. I’ve worked with some heroes along the way too, whether it be on a Doctor Who adventure with Peter Davison or with Burt Reynolds on a movie. I was lucky enough to have some scenes with Helena Bonham Carter on a film version of Great Expectations and I learned a lot from watching her work. I suppose my most formative experience was spending a year under prosthetic makeup to play an alien police officer in Gerry Anderson’s last live-action sci-fi series, Space Precinct.

You started off in amateur dramatics, would you say that it’s a good starting place for someone interested in theatre as a career?

I have never been as busy as when I was an amateur actor! As a man on the amdram circuit you are always in demand and I remember going from production to production. In one year I might have appeared in productions with SIMADS, Huntingdon Drama Club, Brampton Park Theatre Club and Shakespeare at the George. As a professional actor, work is much harder to come by as the talent pool is so much larger. I found my experiences in amateur theatre to be invaluable. It allowed me to grow as a young actor and improve my stage craft. As a company member it is imperative that you do the work with a professional attitude, that you are disciplined in your approach and do your best to get on with those around you – particularly if you’re on the road with them for the best part of two years!

Find out more about Richard’s work by visiting his website www.richardjamesonline.com  and follow him on Twitter @RichardNJames

Find out more about the Gangsta Granny tour here.

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

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

Into 2016…

It’s been quite a year for the club – one that has taken us from a Beverley Hills hotel room (California Suite) to a seemingly cosy, quiet patch of ‘Little Britain’ (Neighbourhood Watch) via the pre-fabricated, industrious huts of Bletchley Park (Breaking The Code). Ticket sales this year have increased with every production and our Autumn show smashed through that magic number of 300 in online sales alone.

Poster

 

Now we want to take this momentum through to 2016 where two of our three plays are already in place – Mark Hebert will direct ‘The Madness of George III’ by Alan Bennett which will be our Spring production & for our summer show Josephine Hussey will make her directorial debut with ‘The Memory Of Water’ by Shelagh Stephenson. The autumn play will also be announced in the very near future & a director is already lined up to take charge of that one. In April I’ll be taking all three of our directors to a workshop at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where we’ll find out how the professionals run a rehearsal room.

Vintage photoalbum for photos on white isolated background

The success of ‘Breaking The Code’ in July proved that there is an audience here in Huntingdon with an appetite for challenging theatre, who are prepared to take a risk and try something a little different from the norm. We have taken this on board, whilst always remembering that first & foremost we are here to entertain and that a night at the theatre should be interesting, thought-provoking & stimulating but most of all enjoyable. Our 2016 season will provide all those things.

The cast of Breaking The Code
The cast of Breaking The Code

Another very exciting project in 2016 will see us performing at the Cambridge Drama Festival in April. It will be a great opportunity & challenge for our cast & crew to perform in a new venue, to a wholly different audience. With our increasing ticket sales we are also adding matinee performances next year. We think the added choice of a daytime performance will be popular with local community members and it also offers our cast an extra performance. Many a time have I heard the comment “three performances just aren’t enough”!

 

So, lots to look forward to in both the immediate and long term future. Auditions for the Spring play are in January and you can find more info here. On the social front we are heading to Milton Keynes in February to see our good friend Richard James in the touring production of David Walliams’ ‘Gangsta Granny’. For now, have a wonderful Christmas & here’s to the ‘madness’ in 2016!