Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The big fat finger of disappointment

"Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else: it is so sharp, precise, obvious and direct." - Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

I've been thinking about this blog post for too long. It's been, you know, sitting in my head, growing too complicated to write. And I've drafted it and redrafted it and called it something else and started again several times. And it's grown into too many or too few blog posts and now the Summer is past and it's near the end of October, and...

Last night, I was at an event hosted by my longtime friend Chris Goode. It was a conversational event with the director Phelim McDermott and the poet John Hall - part of a series of conversations between Chris and others, which are turned into podcasts the next morning. I don't know if they're all like this, but this one was electric - in a humble, open, generous kind of way - it was electric and fertile and wonderful. So much so that at the end of the evening we all left feeling we still had things to say, to discuss, to place in the world, to explore together and with others. Some of those things tie into the unfinished/unwritten blog post, but in the context of the discussion have a new potential to be communicated. So I'm fired up and determined to post this today! And in the spirit of conversation, this will just be a beginning. But I'm slowly getting used to that being okay.

This blog doesn't have to say *everything*.

Instead, here's some of everything:

Disappointment and care
As many of you will know, I've been working for what seems like forever but is actually just over three years on a large project called Glorious. Some of you may also know that whilst many good things have come of this project, there have also been a few incredibly hostile reviews and audience reactions.

I've spent a good year dealing with what these reviews and responses have provoked emotionally for me. It has felt like they have destroyed me. And not in the normal way that negative reviews might destroy a person. They've left me wanting to give up on theatre for good - to walk away and declare defeat.

But it turns out that this disappointment had little to do with those reviews. Yes of course, they were upsetting, and normally I would have felt sad - because we all want to be loved and to be successful at some level. But my response wasn't as simple as that. I used those reviews as a reason to retreat from a world I have known and owned, as a reason to say goodbye to something. And I've finally found a way to listen to that.

What I realise now is that they acted as a catalyst into a place I've needed to be emotionally. When I allowed myself to follow that instinct, to be with that disappointment, I realised that what I was experiencing was the sense of an ending and the painful process of changing values. And I really needed to experience those things in order to move into a new place in my life. Because whilst to outsiders Glorious is just the next show in my artistic career, I have experienced it as a life-changing project. It has raised the stakes considerably for me. And the act of returning to the way I used to work no longer feels like an option.

This made me think about disappointment, and about endings, and about hard places that we move through in life. Places that we're afraid of, places we distance ourselves from. And I'm wondering what happens if we can be less afraid of them. If a true friend could be someone who allows you to enter that place and find a way through it rather than around it. I wonder what decisions we might make if we were less afraid of letting go of what we knew. In this instance, what happens if I let go of the idea of being an artist in the ways it has previously manifested itself? What new spaces might arise if I can acknowledge the ending of something, and allow the next phase to emerge?

Disappointment is like a big fat finger that points unavoidably at the thing we're most trying to avoid. When it occurs in my life, I try to shield myself from it by trying to justify and understand the thing that has left me with a void. But I've learnt this year that feeling disappointed can be a rich (if difficult) place to be for a while - and that in the end, disappointment really does point quite bluntly towards the things we care about.

Problems that won't go away
The other side of this (and part of the reason it's taken so long to write this, because there are a number of tangled issues) is that I now realise that there was a value in those negative reviews. Because they highlight something important about Glorious. Namely, that it isn't an easy, feel-good, community show. It's more than that. And I don't mean better. I certainly wouldn't want to imply that there's something superior in the difficulties of this project. But I think it's important to acknowledge that Glorious is trying to do something other than that. And a part of that attempt is about making manifest 'problems' that refuse to hide.

I'm the kind of artist who is easily swayed by opinion. I value what other people think. So if an audience member has a certain reaction to the work, I do take that seriously. And I've spent so much time thinking through what the negative reactions were about. But every time I've been through this process (and believe me, I've been there a lot) I've resisted the idea of changing something in the show to make it more palatable.

And I've found myself in a place where I know there is some value to the problems, the contradictions, of a work like Glorious that doesn't fit into the classifications of 'musical' or 'live art' or 'community theatre'. Even though this means that some people will find it harder to 'like'.

I don't want to spend too much time on this right now - partly because there are many enourmous questions that get unearthed as I try to articulate what the problems are that are raised by the show, and how they fit or don't fit with current expectations around engaged or experimental practices; and partly because I'm in the process of organising a symposium around all of this for the last weekend in May 2013 and it would be far more interesting if you could come along and we could have a conversation. But maybe I'll just finish up this section by acknowledging that some of the following are present for me as I continue and move towards reflecting on what Glorious has been able to do.

The problem of authorship and the notion of author or director in community work

The problem of what we choose to make visible and what we choose to make invisible in theatre

Whether we have a responsibility to make work that looks the way it is expected to look

Whether a duty of care can or should extend to a duty of representation

What we are asking of an audience when we invite them to sit in a theatre

Whether we can make work that is both difficult and kind

The host in hostile

There was a wonderful moment last night when I felt like John Hall was pulling a gentle thread of language from inside of me. It was during this moment that he referred to the relationship between 'host' and 'guest' and 'hostile' - all sharing close etymological ground. He talked about the idea that the true definition of a guest is a stranger, and the true definition of a stranger is a person who might be your enemy.

And it made me think about:

A few weeks ago, I took part in a talk at The Baltic in Gateshead. While preparing for this talk, I had a moment of brightness when I realised that instead of talking about everything that had been brilliant and successful in the process of Glorious, I could use this as an opportunity to explore the problems of the process and the resistances we had met. I could talk about all that had seemed hard and unresolved in the project, and where this had led me in my thinking. I could take a look at why some people felt so angry, while others felt so warm. Those reactions, the angry disappointed ones, they were able to offer me so much if I could invite them into the dialogue.

And so when John pointed out that there was host in hostility, it felt like he was describing my recent epiphany. Of course! - the most interesting dialogues with the most potential for change and movement and wonder come from those moments when we embrace the thing that we feel is set against us, when we pay attention to the language of that resistance. Any response to something I've made is, after all, an offering, whether it's the kind of offering I choose to accept or not.

I often declare that I want dialogue to be wide - that I want to embrace strangers - but when it comes down to it my instincts still tell me to stick with the familiar. In beginning to embrace opposition, in embracing the failures of Glorious, I have been able to find more value in the project and more value in the dialogue. And this opens up a whole new space of possibility.

Standing on the edge
I guess that where this leaves me is in a place of great re-evaluation. I’m standing at the tip of my life, looking at all the things one might call Success, and slowly starting to see them for what they really are. And I’m asking myself what really matters in a life. Because when it comes down to it, surely life is just a series of encounters with people - it’s a series of how people treat you and how you treat them.