Musings on creativity from Yorkshire's Gangliest Diabetic Buddhist Theatre Director

Month: June, 2012

Inspiring Things in My Room: 6 Alethiometer

Still struggling to catch up with myself on the Artist’s Way (nearly finished week 8!) But have just directed a stonking gurt show, so probably I’m allowed. Have an inspiring, or possibly cautionary, object instead.

His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart. Actually, to be honest, quite a painful one, but significant.

Before I met my Buddhist practice, I used the I Ching a lot. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it’s an ancient Chinese form of divination. You ask it what will happen if you take a particular action then you toss some coins, or fiddle with special yarrow sticks (my preferred method ‘cos I was hard core) and it tells you the result of that action by coming up with a pictogram that refers to lines of text in the big book. You can have thousands of different combinations.

The first night I ever used it I got a spooky feeling in the accuracy of its answers, like someone was watching me over my shoulder. Proper goose bumpy.

I can’t remember those early answers, but I do remember getting addicted. I fell into the trap of thinking that there was one perfect way of doing everything (my misinterpretation of the Tao, or Way) and that if I could just get myself into this magical groove, everything would be wonderful forever. As a result I checked it all the time, before going out to a party, before starting a project. The first result of which I have a clear memory was something along the lines of ‘The foolish boy asks too many questions,’ which shut me up for a bit, though not forever.

And yes, looking back, plenty of the messages were too vague to be applied to my life; others could just have been wishful thinking on my part. I can’t say for a fact that anything supernatural was taking place. What follows might be destiny taking its course. Or a tragedy of my own superstitious making.

Because, after a few years of this, I found myself living with my first real girlfriend. Things had been going great, magically in fact, in a way I had almost begun to doubt would ever happen for me. But after a joyful two years the first cracks were showing. Then suddenly I met someone and found myself head over heels. This new young woman was giving me very little encouragement but the fact I was infatuated made me question my current relationship.

So, of course, I asked the I Ching about it, hoping it would encourage me to stay put and ignore the infatuation. ‘The situation bodes disaster, but there is nothing to do but wait’ came the blunt reply. ‘The Leg of the Bed is Split’ was the image, implying that one had to keep pulling at that split, ‘until it reaches even those very close to himself. One has a shaky foundation in one’s personal life.’

I couldn’t believe it. So I asked again (generally a rude thing to do, whether it be to a wise person or a bunch of sticks.) How could I leave her? ‘Tears in floods, sighing & lamenting but bitter regret serves us in good stead. Good fortune will come from this grief.’

I wrote all this down in my I Ching journal.

That night my girlfriend came home. We had dinner. I watched TV for a bit and she went through to read in the bedroom. She came back in to the lounge in tears. She had read the journal.

That night we both sat in different rooms; I was on the couch (which seemed fair enough.) And we both wept. I finally went through and cried in her arms for a bit. I couldn’t find a way to explain that I wasn’t crying because of what we were losing in that moment. I was crying for what we had already lost, for what had ebbed away in the months leading up to that moment, for that which the I Ching had reflected, spiritually or randomly, back at me, but which I had been unwilling to face.

I went away to stay with my folks for a week. While I was there I started to read the Northern Lights Trilogy. When I came back I was on to the final book. And she, along with all of her stuff, was gone. And I sat on what had been our bed, and I read the last book, that deals with two lovers doomed to be separated, that talks of forging our own path, which features the I Ching heavily. And in the world of the heroic, self-determining heroine, Lyra, the I Ching takes the form of an Aleithiometer, the teller of truth.

Some months later I asked the I Ching (because of course, not even this turn of events could fully break my addiction), what should I do to address the deep sense of absence in my life? I had started chanting by this point, but was unconvinced and shopping around, trying anything that would help. ‘Seeing the Truth: The ablution has been made, but not yet the offering.’ Meaning that the ritual was being observed but not yet the full deep commitment one makes in joining a group of believers. I decided to give it a punt.

Well, you know the rest.

I haven’t used the I Ching since. There are times, more often a crisis of the heart rather than work trouble, where I itch to throw the stalks again (I sold them years ago but there are some very detailed simulations on line.) But what it now represents to me is the act of looking for an answer outside myself, asking some external force to tell me what to do. And actually what I need to develop, in my chanting, in my art, is my ability to listen to my self. For as the founder of my form of Buddhism says, ‘Never seek the Gohonzon (the embodiment of the infinite potential inherent in life) outside yourself.’

And, as ever, I’ll keep you posted on how that’s going.


Inspiring Things in My Room: 5 Make Your Own Path

You may have noticed that I am seriously off-kilter in my weeks. I am still doing the pages, and I feel like I am really living the Artist’s Way; I am working full time on my evening of short Ayckbourn plays and loving the process of being in the room, and realising that I love having other people deal with all of the stuff outside the room for me. But I am struggling with Artists Dates (and real ones, possibly a topic for another time) and the tasks. So I’m in mid-week 8 and probably will be until next Sunday, given that I am working twelve hour days much of the week. So you get a little one of these instead.

This hangs above my bed:

Directors often get obsessed with emphasis. Sentences like ‘I didn’t say she stole the money’ can mean entirely different things when a different word is stressed:

I didn’t say she stole the money. (Jeff said it.)

I didn’t say she stole the money.

I didn’t say she stole the money. (But she did.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (But someone did steal it.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (It was resting in her account.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (She stole some other money.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (She stole my monkey. And I want it back.)

So when I first received this beautiful print from a wonderful friend, I immediately pictured a man with a shovel refusing to help someone struggling with their home repair, ‘Make your own path.’

It is, of course, a beautiful exhortation (printed on an old map, in case the photo isn’t very clear) to live our own lives fully.

It reminds me of this quote:

‘There is no such thing as a whole life of smooth sailing. Therefore, you do yourself a favor by taking on difficult challenges, forging and strengthening yourself in your youth, while you’re healthy and strong. I hope you can see all difficulties as the material that will enable you to develop a big heart and become people of depth and substance.

Try to be as active as possible. Just by being young, you possess a treasure more valuable than power or fame. To be young is to have hope, passion and freedom. Your whole life lies ahead of you, brimming with possibilities.

Rather than a life of blank pages, it’s better to live a life crammed full of memories of struggles and wonderfully varied experiences. Not to make waves, not to leave behind any history, but just to grow old and die, is a sad way to live.

Do not wait! While still in your youth, you can become the main actors in the human drama unfolding around you, the shapers of history. Even if you feel powerless, that it is difficult to believe in yourself, please try not to be easily swayed by the views of others, and hold true to what you know is right. Try to believe in yourself.’

Daisaku Ikeda

And if that’s not the spirit of the Artist’s Way I don’t know what is.

By the way, youth in Buddhism is a spirit of hope and possibility, not necessarily literally being young. I have to remind myself of this when things like this strike terror into my heart. Hopefully see you next week.

Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection

For those of you who have missed the story so far, I came home to York to lick financial and emotional wounds after over a decade of work as a professional theatre director. Having made the decision to move back to the town where I grew up with no real idea what I would do there, I got a job at the University of York.

The job is Comedy Outreach Officer, the self-fulfilling job title (I tell it to people and they laugh at me.) It is also COO for short. Two gags, one job title. The job is part-time, on a 16-month contract, and involves inspiring young people to consider coming to University using material found in the Alan Ayckbourn Archive. The job is very rewarding; I love working with young people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds. The University is also a fantastic environment to work in and I’m proud to be part of the Theatre, Film and Television Department; it allows me to gently explore the possibilities of further study and a career in academia. I am also learning a huge amount about how to structure plays from studying AA’s work. Being part-time, it has also allowed me the space to explore my own creativity, through doing the Artist’s Way and the money enables me to keep my head above water. Finally, it provides me with an excuse to stage short Ayckbourn plays in the amazing theatre there with the students (22nd and 23rd June if you happen to be passing through.)

I am also loving York. It has grown more cosmopolitan, with lots of indie cafes and art venues springing up. There is also something very profound about practising Buddhism here; half my life I lived in York, half my life I lived in London, where I met the practice. Now the two halves have met. And Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo sounds amazing with a Yorkshire accent. So I’m in no rush to leave.

Six months in, however, and the old doubts started to come back. Namely, while I have been doing a lot of theatre work of one kind and another my last show with professionals was a while ago. While COO provides a respite and a chance for reflection, my CV will be no better at the end of it than it was at the beginning. My inner critic whispers ‘failure’ in my ear and the prospect of rebuilding my professional career seems to be ever receding. I often feel very far away from my old life in London and the feeling that I was on a clear trajectory towards West End success.

All of which makes the fact that now, in addition to being Comedy Outreach Officer, I am also Associate Director of Freedom Studios all the more remarkable. Freedom Studios evolved out of the legendary political theatre company Red Ladder and is dedicated to making work for, and with, the diverse communities of Yorkshire, especially those in its home of Bradford.

The post is part-time, pays enough that by this time next year (if I’m very careful) I will be in a much better place financially, and is a purely creative position; I will be spending all of my time for them planning and delivering artistic work, as part of a small and very passionate team.

In the interview they asked me, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ I replied, honestly. ‘I have no idea. I used to know. Now I don’t. So I’m allowing myself 12 weeks of not knowing, a rigorously defined period of uncertainty and doubt, while I do this Artist’s Way Course.’ When I was offered the job, they told me it was that honesty which swung it for me. Talk about synchronity. The Universe, in the midst of my unknowing, as given me the chance to make meaningful theatre with people to whom it might make a real difference, as part of a unique theatre company. At the same time, I get to continue to work with other young people via the Uni and dip my toe into a possible future in academia. And all this while remaining routed in Yorkshire, and fulfilling my responsibility as young men’s Chapter Leader. If I had been asked to sketch a perfect outcome of my decision to move home I wouldn’t have dared to dream of this.

Julia this week talks about listening to our inner creativity. ‘When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.’ I’m certainly listening differently to my own thoughts and feelings at the moment and within that the creativity is beginning to bubble up. ‘We deny that in order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly.’ P. 121. (Which I guess applied to dating as much as it does creativity.) On the creative side, though, this struck me in light of my closing comments last week: ‘Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. . . Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.’ P.117. With this in mind next week I’m going to post some fiction, even if short. Or crappy.

I don’t normally do reviews here, but I saw three pieces of theatre this week and they filled me with hope. Firstly, I saw an evening of short pieces or extracts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Matchmakers, where writers and directors are paired up to play together and see what happens. I was struck that there are places to play and take risks, like, in the case of one group, throwing out the script and making their piece entirely wordless. Secondly, I was daunted to discover that Scarberia at the Theatre Royal York was 1 hour 50 straight through, no interval. I nearly turned around and went home. I’m so glad I didn’t because the result, exploring the tangential relationship between two sets of 16 year old friends from Scarborough, Canada and Scarborough, Yorkshire. The result was a joy, largely down to great writing and beautifully vulnerable acting. Finally (and there is a family bias here) I saw Isango’s remarkable production of Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where there was an audible inhalation from the Hackney audience when a character, without shame or equivocation, said the word ‘Socialism.’ In a world where ‘The Great Money Trick’ is being played with increasingly ferocity, raising the possibility of an alternative to free-market capitalism still seems like the breaking of a major taboo. Whether the S word seems like the solution to you or not, surely it’s time to allow ourselves to talk of other ways of doing things without embarrassment? Let’s at least put all the options back on the table and dare to dream of a better world, and even start to take baby steps towards it. After all, as I’m learning on this journey: without hope, there is no hope.