Week Twelve: Recovering a Sense of Self
[I’m putting this up nearly two and a half years later. I wrote it at the time, but for some reason never posted it. So, finally – here you go!]
Faith? Well that seems appropriate.
Late again. Well, it’s been 24weeks rather than 12 but I’ve finally finished.
And what a final few weeks. I’m still digesting it all.
We had a very wonderful Buddhist course at a castle/Anglican nunnery (who knew those existed?) in Whitby. I wish I hadn’t read the chapter where Dracula arrives at Whitby, in a storm as a great savage dog, as the place was a little bit creepy; there was a lot of weather and there genuinely was a great big barky dog.
There were also lots of wonderful Buddhists from all over the North East and some very inspiring experiences of people’s faith in action. I broke my normal habit of staying tee-total on courses and discovered that lots of chanting followed by booze makes for quite a spinny-head.
A theme of the course was Joy. In Buddhism we talk about conditional and unconditional happiness, that it’s fine to enjoy pleasures coming from our environment, and even to use the desire for them to fuel our spiritual development, but the journey teaches us that there is a real, deep, and enduring happiness which can be found within, regardless of our circumstances. This joy comes through faith; faith in our own limitless potential, and our ability to overcome any obstacle. By changing our inner life we can change any circumstance, so why view any event as bad? It’s just another opportunity to grow.
There are some echoes with this weeks’ chapter:
‘Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.’ It is the inner commitment to be true to ourselves and follow our dreams that triggers the support of the universe.’
I followed that by meeting up with a guy I know who’s from Bradford. We went out for beers and he brought me up to speed on the city’s political and cultural situation, along with, vitally, where to get the best curry. We then had one of those glorious free-wheeling conversations migrating from socialism to Sufism, where we discovered great similarities between our different beliefs, and the sense of working for a common cause. Plus, did I mention there was beer?
I closed the Artist’s Way with a very intense five days. The first five were spent studying with Philippe Gaulier, the legendary clown master. This is “clown” as in a rigorous form of performance involving stepping out in front of an audience prepared to be totally open and vulnerable, playful and responsive, with no preconceived ideas of what you might do. There might be red noses and clown shoes, but there might not. There certainly isn’t an exploding car or a cannon that shoots you into a vat of custard. And clowning in this way is tough; you have to be imaginative and playful but also simple, honest, and open. It is a tightrope (if you’ll forgive me using a circus metaphor while trying to make it clear this isn’t the sort of clowning you find in a circus); lean too much on the side of trying too hard and forcing things to happen and you become fake and fall off. But lean in the direction of doing nothing at all and you will bore your audience and so, also, fall off. And once you’re off in front of an audience it’s almost impossible to climb back on again.
This particular course was a week on Buffon, a technique/approach/style (I still don’t know how to refer to it) which Gaulier developed with Jaques Lecoq, before evolving it in his own, distinctive way. He is short, pot bellied, with a gnomish grey beard, red glasses, multi-coloured waistcoat and beret. He has a very thick accent and a love of puns. ‘You need to wake up of tea. Way-cup of tea. You see? In France this is very funny joke.’ He lives in his Buffon character in such a way that he can give very harsh feedback playfully; ‘You are boring. Boring like a primary school teacher. Whose husband has died.’
The format was simple; we would play some games (with much humiliation of the losers, often, due to recent surgery on my foot, me), learn some skills, but mostly we would be up in front of the maestro, either being rewarded (with chuckles) or mocked for being boring. Be too boring too long and we’re off the stage.
He made me think a lot about gurus in theatre. I had taken a very strict anti-guru position in my work till now. As soon as we foster the idea that there is one person who is the fount of all knowledge it leads to a huge imbalance of power, and with any imbalance in power comes the potential for abuse. And I have seen in many rehearsals (and in even more actor-training lessons) the desire to create this unequal relationship on both sides: actors who want to believe that their director/teacher is omniscient, because it frees them from the burden of choice, and pleasing the leader becomes a satisfyingly clear goal, uncluttered with complexities of, say, ‘improving as an actor,’ or ‘giving the best possible performance.’ This does not apply to all actors by any means, but there are some for whom it becomes almost masochistic. Similarly, there are certainly directors and teachers who seek out those roles, not for the creative fulfillment it brings, or the joy of supporting someone else to be better, but for the adulation and power that come with it.
[Note from Future Tom – Phelim McDermott of Improbable wrote this beautiful letter to all such directors, exploring the impact it has on the whole industry.]
On the other hand, a certain amount of trust and humility are necessary to learn any new skill from someone who has mastered it.
I could feel similar forces at work in the room; I’ve known many people who have gone to France to study with Gaulier for a year or more, pretty much every day, clowning for him with him acting as the sole arbiter of what is good or not. In the room this week there were those who got it, who could walk the tightrope perfectly – obviously they were praised. There were those who kept falling off and kept climbing back up as the week went on, still not getting the subtlety Gaulier is looking for, and so trying too hard, and so falling back off. Their desperation increased to painful lengths by the Friday. And there were others, myself included, who got on the rope for long enough to know what it felt like to be balancing to hover between forced and empty, alive and alert and vulnerable. But we didn’t know how to stay there, and eventually fell.
By the Wednesday I had come to see and appreciate the magical quality Gaulier is looking for; it is mesmerizing and joyous, and terrifying to watch, a great quality for any performer to be able to access. His approach definitely worked for some people, hindered others. By the end of the week I’d realized I’d stopped volunteering to go in front of the maestro. Why was that? I knew what he was looking for, I knew I could do it, at least for ten seconds at a time, before falling. Looking back, I just think I didn’t want to please him enough. Although, I do think he would approve of this Julia quote: ‘Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. . . As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness. We need to learn to gently mull instead of churning away like a little engine on a straight-ahead path.’
The Artist’s Way, for all I’ve stretched it out, has been really central to my experience of the last few months. When I started, both my internal creativity and the external opportunities seemed to realize that creativity seemed very far away. Now I feel possibilities bubble up, within and without. It has certainly been a major turning point in my life. But, even though the course has ended, there’s not a neat finish to this story; I’ve changed direction but I’m still on the journey. If I had to summarise the one big change, it is that now I feel like the journey itself could be a source of joy and creativity.
‘Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.’
[And so, two and a half years later – how did life turn out? I was right back then, the Artist’s Way did mark a huge turning point. But that should probably wait till another blog . . . ]