Collaborative theatre, self-writing and showing-off

What kind of public performance should I try to deliver? I used to do quite big presentations for industry, schools, universities and NGOs. I appeared once at the Hay Literary Festival and once at Glastonbury (until I was run out of the latter by grunge eco-freaks). These events were highly argumentative, and entertaining for at least some in the audience, which I very seldom appeased.

Now, I want to face different challenges in a quite different spirit.

I wouldn’t mind doing exactly the right TV series (and I have proposed a few). But I’d probably be as happy amidst a circle of chairs in a village hall or church. I did once fancy doing a properly egomaniacal autobiographical one-man show. But now I think something collaborative or participatory and exploratory is more to the point. A seminar-type thing might be just as good as a performance. Actually, more seminary than seminar, and – just to catch the pottiness – more seance than show.

I have been reading about, and around, two projects which very differently point the way.

The things which now interest lend themselves to what might be called “collaborative theatre”. I’d like to deal with personhood and spirituality, or help them get dealt with by others, and I think there are various models which might be pursued.

For instance, there is the Brighton-based RAPT. That’s: “Research, Artistry, Participation, Theatre.” It’s the brainchild of two theatre professionals, Emma Higham and Lisa Peck. Their website will explain their approach better than I can. In brief, however, they say they “collaborate with artists, researchers and participating community groups in order to examine difficult questions”. Thus, they have worked with, for instance, a choir, homeless people, and school pupils. The participants lob in their autobiographical stories, and are then introduced to academics (on say, the neurology of happiness). Theatrical know-how and feeling is then sprinkled over the mix, and RAPT become the catalysts for a theatre show which can be performed whilst it also evolves.

The point seems to be that RAPT want participant-collaborators to both add and derive the value of making theatre out of their stories, and their reactions to each other and the experiences and insights researchers bring to them.

I like the idea that theatre (unlike most visual or written art – or self-writing) is essentially public, not merely in how it is purveyed but how it is created. It resonates with important and peculiar ideas – neurological facts, even – about human personhood

Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf and Edith Stein all explore the idea (found in Wittgenstein, Husserl and Heidegger) that one’s personhood cannot be private. That’s an insight as old as the Classics. One only knows oneself by understanding something of the way one is perceived by others. Human consciousness is a reflexsive business. One’s innermost being is built out of other people. One’s projection and performance of oneself is crucial. So theatrical collaboration obviously may be enriching to anyone, whether they are hungry for the spotlight, or are backed into it.

RAPT’s choir project speaks clearly to these themes. People find being in a choir a very unlocking experience presumably because harmonising but also descanting express the oddity of one’s voice being useful by being amongst but distinct from others’. It is, I suppose, also a nice analogy of the peculiarity of community: one’s distinct (but perhaps fluid) personhood is expressed in relation to others. (Of course this is to use community in a wide sense: it is about every scale and type of interaction from the village to the virtual.)

The difference between the choral experience and RAPT’s collaborations of course is that RAPT are inviting the singers to write their own song.

I think RAPT’s project also fits well with the idea of the “examined life” or the “curated life”. RAPT asks participants what of themselves they want to discover and refine and project.

In similar territory, The Great Diary Project of Polly North and Irving Finkel (the former is my elder daughter) conserves the self-writing of people, especially the unregarded or at any rate the unpublished, with as much commitment to preserving privacy as the donor requests. The corrolorary is that the GDP project is interested in letting some of their diaries be as widely heard as possible.

Polly’s PhD in 2017 was an exploration of self-hood throughout the ages and how remarkably constant both the richness and the difficulties of self-expression have been across millennia. Polly is interested in the curated life as a sort of modern approach to the ancient mantra that only the examined life is worthwhile. She has pointed me toward the reading which shows that asking what the examined life might be, or what of one’s life is worth curating, gives one both a motive and lever to develop a life which is worthwhile. All this in the age of viral trivialities, selfie-spraying, and digital bullying. Silicon Valley has certainly cracked the quantity side of self-expression: now the rest of us have to work on the qualitative.

I like the way RAPT are about “difficult ideas”. Besides (or alongside) the issues of interiority and communication (see above) I wonder if collaborative theatre might not be the very place in which to let young people address the liminality and plasticity of adolescence (a rich field of neuroscience) and people of any age address the perennial oddities of personhood – especially the collision between the self’s constancy and its motility.

I can imagine there might be theatrical mileage in the ideas of empathy and of liberalism. They are almost always defined badly and then asked to do far too much work with quite various – often very bad – outcomes. As much as this is the age of very wide debate, with easy participation by anyone, it is also the age when academia, the media and the arts often have a professional addiction to certain agendas and a horror of others. “Difficult issues” now often require us to challenge the liberal establishment where once the problem was to attack an essentially conservative establishment.

I would love to see people’s conception of modern (secular?) spirituality interrogated from the ground up. Does it even have meaning? And yet isn’t it what one longs for when all else is said and done?

I would love to see political left and right interrogated within the overarching premise that both may be necessary and invaluable. They both reside in each of us (as do versions of the liberal and illiberal). Neither has a monopoly in truth or virtue.

And what fun to interrogate the possibility of Truth. It is a holy grail of course but actually best seen as discoverable only in argument, and then only provisionally if at all. That feels like the perfect subject for theatre, which loves exquisite, dynamic ping-pong.

All the above are “difficult”: elusive, and conflicted. Some have accretions of conventional wisdom, which make them gorgeously ripe for revisionism. Each could be and sometimes are interrogated in books and documentaries and panel discussions. I jot them down here in case any of them might spark the thought which makes a nice crossover of grubby philosophy, scruffy autobiography, and intriguing and touching drama.

For my part, I may find some way to turn up in front of, or alongside or amongst, audiences – and often in the hope some among them will do almost as much work as me. I do still want to show off in person – but I’d be well content if I find the right way to write things down and my words wing off online and take their chance there.

In case these may seem rather asbtract ambitions, I should perhaps add that the success of staged debates and of outings like the TED talks suggests we are headed in the right directions. Michael Sandel, of BBC Radio 4 and Harvard, puts on a wonderful show which uses interaction with his audience to anatomise dilemmas. Radio 4’s Ferryhill Philosopher series is only a little clunky and even then it is a marvel of exposition, at once homely and lofty.

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Publication date

10 March 2019

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