Going Feral: the journey towards a theatre of ecological transformation
“Poets can use their language of story and metaphor, of image and vision, to translate science and news in ways which bring an immediacy of engagement, a sense of soul potential to oppose the pervading sense of world-soul loss. At this time we need to put our own poetry – and anything else we have – into the service of Beauty.”
“Art is large and it enlarges you and me. It is the burning bush that both shelters and makes visible our profounder longings.”
Theatre is a powerful tool for transformation. It can change hearts, minds and lives for practitioners and audiences alike. Much of this change is internal and unquantifiable. But I can say for sure that experiencing great theatre has on a number of occasions influenced my own way of seeing the world, or has shone a brilliant light on a story that I would not otherwise have seen. It has left me elated, tearful, inspired – wanting to change my life, or change the world. In this essay I will explore my contention that theatre can play an important role in articulating and inspiring a deeper ecological sensibility, in individuals and at the level of cultures.
“A true artistic image gives the beholder a simultaneous experience of the most complex, contradictory, sometimes even mutually exclusive feelings… Infinity is germane, inherent in the very structure of the image. “
Theatre can work at the level of social – as well as personal – transformation. It has always had an overtly political face. This has been displayed since the political satires of ancient Athens. In the last century alone it has been seen in many contexts: Marxist agitprop theatre in the USSR; Brechtian theatre, and the work of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed; guerrilla street theatre since the 1960s, including the Rebel Clown Army of the anti-globalisation protests; Harold Pinter; David Hare; Caryl Churchill.
McCarthyism in the USA in the 1940s and 50s stunted political and creative expression in the theatre and film industries there for years because the government was afraid that dissident expression might lead to social upheavals. Arthur Miller, blacklisted and ostracized as an alleged Communist sympathiser, wrote The Crucible as a comment on the era. Governments and individuals alike understand instinctively the power of theatre, story and symbolism.
Theatre comes from and enlarges upon the primal function of storytelling. Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata – these epics are all stories which pre-date the written word and were told by storytellers and actors for many years before it was possible to read them. The urge to tell stories is fundamental. “Myths are absolute foundation stones of storytelling and art, and life, really.” Therapist and storyteller Pat Williams alludes to the mysterious therapeutic power of the right story at the right time:
“[The] unconscious, creative imagination will seek and find the ‘meaning’ relevant to [one’s] situation. No explanation, no direct statement of a story’s meaning can substitute for the way it acts on the hearer’s mind.”
Good theatre articulates deep truths about the human experience: it can illuminate the most personal experience; it can help us to make sense of life as we find it; it can help us to see our own experiences as part of a larger – even a metaphysical – narrative. It taps into the healing power of myth.
Myths have been reaching into and shaping the collective unconscious for thousands of years. We all create our own myths, our own stories. Joseph Campbell describes the “monomyth: an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious”. This, the primal story of the hero’s journey, is a structure that can often be applied to the experience of real individuals, and helps give meaning to this experience. Campbell says,
“What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulﬁllment or the ﬁasco.”
Theatre can be cathartic, it can move us to tears and wonderment; it can be simple entertainment that makes us laugh. Good theatre holds all these qualities in balance. Ann Bogart puts it neatly:
An ancient Sanskrit treatise on art, the Natya Shastra, suggests that all good theatre accomplishes three tasks simultaneously:
1) It entertains the drunk;
2) It answers the question ‘how to live?’;
3) It answers the question ‘how does the universe work?’
Nature poet Gary Snyder draws a link that I like between the human imagination and the unpredictability of natural processes. He describes life on Earth as “The Great Orderliness”, a system that is “harmonious… relentless, yet not ultimately predictable… Our own inner processes can be nothing but part of the larger process – the freedom that our imagination gives us is in a way the freedom that natural processes have to be unpredictable.” I like this idea that our imagination is somehow a human manifestation of a fundamental quality of existence. We can use art to build this awareness of our continuity with the natural world.
Time for a Feral theatre
Theatre reflects and embodies all the facets of human society as well as the psyche. It arises in response to cultural trends and societal issues, as well as in response to our deeper expressive needs. I believe that at this point in history we can discern the emergence of an ecological theatre paradigm, which connects with the emergence of a biophilic movement across artforms. This growing movement is timely and vital at a moment when much of the art, information, connection, relationship and story we experience are mediated by the screen of the television and the computer. Our culture is becoming increasingly videophilic and forgetful of the truth of humans’ biophilic nature. Art can point us onward to another way of seeing the world. My own theatre practice, which I call Feral theatre, is part of this emergent paradigm, and strives to make active connections with deepening ecological awareness.
Theatre is poetic: it uses metaphor to communicate truths. It can also transcend language altogether. I think theatre is physical poetry; it is this poetic quality that fascinates me. Great poetry has a way of getting to the heart of things and illuminating it in few words. In this essay I want to explore the potential of theatre to shine a light on the particular historical experience of living here and now, with a view to moving participants and audiences towards a more deeply ecological sense of being-in-the-world.
“Art serves us best precisely at that point where it can shift our sense of what is possible, when we know more than we knew before, when we feel we have – by some manner of a leap – encountered the truth”.
Theatre can transcend politics and our dualistic thinking habits, reminding us that truth is larger than our limited individual perspectives, and even goes beyond the limits of intellectual thought. This opens us up to deeper ecological learning about interconnected and paradox. It can also bring us into the empathic awareness of Deep Ecology.
To Snyder, ecology, poetry and politics ‘go hand in hand’. For him, art must always connect to the world: the artist faces a political and moral imperative to pay attention to what is going on around him. Anne Bogart echoes this sense of the artist’s moral responsibility:
“Artists are activists. Artists are people who look around and say, “this is what needs to be done,” and then do it.”
Good theatre is both poetry and politics: it is a large enough container to hold these different approaches. Polemical environmentalist theatre often fails artistically, and I think it can do more harm than good. When we go to the theatre we do not want to be told what to think. The space of the theatre is a space for openness and new possibilities; it is a dream-space.
Ecology and storytelling
Theatre and storytelling are fundamental to the human psyche. Humans have a storytelling intelligence: Pat Williams says that our brains are “hard-wired for metaphor”. Stories link us with place, with the present here and with what has gone before. Since the beginning of human culture, place has always been central to any person’s identity. According to David Abram, the contemporary severing of this connection leaves us “disorientated.”
Look at the Aboriginal Australian Songlines, and traditional indigenous stories like the Native American creation myths: the stories of traditional oral cultures the world over embed humans absolutely in a living landscape. The distancing of Human from Other, which we have internalised and now see as normal, only occurred with the ascendance of writing. It has deepened as our relationship with abstract thought through literature and now digital culture has deepened. This is partly why I am most interested in devised rather than scripted theatre. I feel that a Feral theatre must work towards rediscovering and re-articulating this embeddedness of human in the more-than-human. I contend that devised theatre is a way to reconnect with oral culture and our storytelling ancestry in a relevant contemporary context. David Abram is categorical in his assertion that
”the rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative.”
Metaphor and ecological healing
Theatre as poetry functions at the level of metaphor: cutting past polemic and the rational brain, it goes straight into subconscious, the belly and the heart. As David Key puts it,
“Poetry is the metaphysical edge of human language, a conduit to the mystic, a place along the continuum of expression just before the point where experience becomes ineffable.”
Simon McBurney, director of the inspirational devised theatre company Complicite, elaborates on the particular value of physical metaphor in theatre:
“Just as poetry is central in much of the theatrical canon, so what people do can also be couched in its own poetic transformation.”
Language is often just not adequate to communicate the experience of being alive! Moreover, our linguistic framework can actually be limiting of our imaginations. At this time we need an expanded language to help us grasp the plurality of experience and the importance of different perspectives. As our verbal and conceptual language struggles to keep up with the pace of ecological change, sometimes the body can articulate these processes much more clearly than words can. In performance, this links to the traditions of mime and physical theatre, developed by practitioners such as LeCoq and Decroux, whose mission was to develop “the art of the thinking body” .
“If you cannot say it, point to it.”
Ecological theatre precursors
Analogies can be drawn between the project of Deep Ecology and the work of experimental theatre companies. Focusing on female theatre-makers, Julia Varley, founder of the Magdalena Project, explains how they value the wisdom of the body, and all parts of the whole:
“We make the periphery our centre because we do not accept the world as it is, with its injustice and segregation, its mainstream thinking and order. We make work on the periphery because we are not satisfied with the theatre we know from before. We chose periphery as the place where small essential human values are cherished… [We] feel the enormous responsibility of sharing our knowledge which unites body and mind, torso and hands, feelings and actions to promote a different way of perceiving and thinking.”
Varley describes the importance of women working in theatre in challenging the norms of patriarchy:
“[They] know about the importance of the individual, and the life of their own personal stories. They value the relationship of human to human. These voices need to be heard if something is going to change in our male-dominated society.”
Consistent with E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ ethos, an ecological theatre does not require many props, or an extensive set. The company uses what it finds, with a philosophy of ‘less is more’. In the 1960s, Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ stripped the theatre of props and costumes and focused absolutely on the actor as the centre of the event. Similarly, Peter Brook coined the term Rough Theatre to denote work that relies on the actor’s skills rather than on set and props.
This links the actor to the shaman or the indigenous storyteller who uses simply his or her body and voice, and it encourages the active involvement of the audience in the experience of the event:
“The more you leave out, the more we see ourselves in the picture, the more we project our own thoughts onto it.”
In what sense might a theatre company be ecological? A vision of a Deep Ecological theatre community
I want to explore the idea that good theatre-making processes can be like ecological microcosms. I am particularly interested in devised theatre. When I read David Key’s description of ecology as elements that are simply “seamlessly interrelated” I felt that this was a description that would be aptly applied to examples of companies working effectively together to make theatre.
In my vision of a Feral theatre – a vision based on experience and a sense of the possible, as well as ideals – the deepest levels of the artists’ personal and collective imagination feed into the devising process and the performance. Inner and outer reality is connected and continuous, and expression is authentic. The company is like an ecosystem, or a hive. It embodies the qualities of complicity, community, complexity, completeness.
Devising feral theatre as a company demands a diminution of ego from everyone involved. Reminiscent of a hive, this makes the synergistic whole greater than the sum of its parts. The dissolving of ego can generate a truly communal, transpersonal experience of flow state during devising and performance. Theatre brings you into the present moment. David Key documents the potential of flow to be a deeply ecological experience. It can also be an experience, as Rust puts it, of heightened collective “bodyfulness” .
Improvisation involves listening closely and being alive to the moment in a state of intense presence, and present-ness. The actor must embody the story, being alive to the moment, letting it, and the story, flow through her. This links Feral theatre to its primal shamanic roots.
Feral theatre places an emphasis on instinct and commitment to process rather than taught technique, formal education, or intellectual training. There is a heightened respect for intuition in this journey. The actor is firmly at the centre of the creative process –her body and soul, her direct experience, her wisdom, her emotion, her truth. The role of director can be shared amongst members of a company, stepping into and out of the role as appropriate, flexibly, according to need.
Grotowski and Eugenio Barba’s work offers precedents for this. Barba describes the working process and attitude of his Odin Teatret as ‘autodidactic’: committed to the study and development of the craft of performance, on how the performer can transform himself beyond the representational. Grotowski explained that “spontaneity and discipline are the basic aspects of an actor’s work”.
The audience is vital
“Viewing a performance is action. It is work. The audience, just like the actors, must be active during a performance.”
The audience is fundamental to any performance event. The elements that make a theatre event reflect ecological truth in that they are highly complex: unquantifiable, ineffable, even alchemical, resting on audience, place, and occasion as much on the performers. Feral theatre events take place outdoors wherever possible, consciously linking actors and spectators to time and locality.
“The audience’s imagination is the best source to tap into and the most successful way to tap into it is through bare and minimal suggestion.”
In his famous 1968 book, ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, Grotowski declared that theatre should not, because it could not, compete against film, and should instead focus on what lies at its core: actors co-creating the event of theatre with spectators:
“The actor’s act – discarding half measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing up – is an invitation to the spectator. This act could be compared to an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings. This act, paradoxical and borderline, we call a total act. In our opinion it epitomizes the actor’s deepest calling.”
Here Grotowski evokes the idea of transpersonal interconnectedness in theatre, long before the term was coined. Making experimental theatre is a tradition that links us to each other, and to our oral roots. When we see what we can find when we dig, together, into the earth as our forebears did, we learn about the ways they worked, and we can be inspired by them. But it is not a matter of simply putting on the storyteller’s old cape. This is not appropriate. We need to incorporate the present, and use the rich portfolio of storymaking tools we have gathered through the last century of making theatre. Our culture has grown sophisticated and it is crucial that we find ways of making our message relevant and exciting to audiences now. Otherwise we risk seeming boring, like so much environmentalist rhetoric today.
Improbable Theatre is a contemporary British company who use what I perceive as an ecological creative philosophy and process to great acclaim and commercial success. Their devising techniques contribute to my ideas for a Feral theatre methodology. Improbable cultivate sensitivity to the individual and collective unconscious. Their devising methods encourage participants to look at stories from many different perspectives. The emphasis is always primarily on process, rather than product. The process epitomises the values of listening, sharing, non-linearity, meditation, and intimacy. The co-directors shy away from adopting an authoritative voice. They ask a lot of questions, allowing uncomfortable feelings to arise and emerge.
They build on and progress the work of Grotowski in the sense Barba means when he says, “Whatever I say should not be taken as an assertion but as a question.” Their roots-up humane humility is invigorating and timely, resonating with horizontalist and communalist ecological development thinking. It also embraces the shadow, the messy stuff, the complex reality of people and the world.
“The best stuff is in the mistakes…Sit in the difficult moment, and stay, and feel it… Be honest that you don’t know what you are doing, and that you’re there to find out.”
Ecological theatre companies such as Feral theatre now form part of an urgently-needed burgeoning biophilic art movement. Feral theatre practices build on the methods developed by theatre-makers like Grotowski, Brook and Improbable, in a quest to find a way back into relationship with the more-than-human, as well as with the human other and the Self. The longed-for outcomes of Feral Theatre’s work are ecocentric, fomenting connections, exploring and expanding the interface between art and ecological learning. Feral theatre encourages us to perceive things anew, and it contains aspects of nature therapy, taking place as it does outdoors.
I believe that through the processes of theatre we can move towards an expanded, ecological sense of self. This is a journey on which we are edging into unfamiliar territory, pushing at the boundaries of the individual self-construct. The Feral theatre devising process offers vital tools in the quest for a deeper sense of connection with the fragile world around us.
“One of the vehicles which allows man to have access to another level of perception is to be found in the art of performance.”
Persephone Pearl, May 2010