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Yes, that is what I’m saying.

June 10, 2011

There’s a beautiful obituary of Joseph Chaikin written by John-Claude Van Itallie, who worked as a writer in the Open Theater with Chaikin and others. He describes his first meeting with the group – and though I can’t lay my hands on obituary now to re-read it, I remember an impression of a dirty attic room where some scratty misfits gathered together to try to do something. Nowadays, the Open Theater is considered among the most important groups ever to have emerged in American Theater.

Eugenio Barba established Odin Theatre with a bunch of actors who had been rejected from Drama School. They began training together by teaching the few sketchy skills that they had picked up along the way to one another. They changed the landscape of European and world theatre. Grotowski established his laboratory where he thought no one might notice, with people who were dissatisfied or unemployable.

Eric Satie introduced a new sound language to Western Art Music through the Radical Cabarets of early twentieth century France. Were they really ‘cabarets’? Or were they back rooms of bars where people who couldn’t get a gig anywhere else did ‘something’. Wedekind (‘Spring Awakening’) and Brecht did the same in the Cabarets of the Weimar Republic, wildly heading into the unknown amid the whores, burlesque dancers, drug addicts, narcissists, freaks, nudists, revolutionaries, madmen and madwomen…. All the scratty kids…

Picasso was a freak who people laughed at. Van Goch sold nothing. Beckett was rejected by over 50 publishers before he saw his work in print.

And alongside them all, thousands who we have never heard of. Scratty kids of all ages and all degrees of scrattiness. Some geniuses. Some mad. Some both.
Some with original voices, some without.  Some driven, some thinking it was all a bit of a laugh. Freaks. Weirdos. Fathers, Children, Mothers. Artists.

Their ‘artistic aims’, their ‘aesthetics’ the theories that underpin their vision almost always followed their blind and incoherent attempts to pursue an inarticulate passion. We forget, looking back at the giants of the past that mostly they did not ‘know’ what they were doing. They did it, then they came to know.

Professionalising art – asking that forms are filled in before a creative process begins (either applying for Arts Funding or , in an academic context, Research Funding) is often arse-end around. We don’t know what we are doing – that’s why it needs exploring. We’re scratty kids in dirty rooms, how would we know what we’re doing?

Whenever an argument like this is made there’s a ready-made cynical reply from those who like to keep artists in their place or those who want us to be professionally ensconced in a bureaucracy. They ask if I am comparing myself to Picasso, to Brecht, to Satie, to Barba, Chaikin, Grotowski….?

Yes, that is what I am saying.

I am saying that all the scratty kids in dirty rooms are, in key respects, like Picasso et al. I know that most of us will not have our work bought for astronomical sums. Most of us will not be much noticed or remembered. But, like them, we are trying to find something that we cannot yet articulate and, for most of us, by the time we can articulate it, we are ready to move on to something else. The Chinese, Greek, Swedish, British, Australian students who start training with me today for the next three months, the friends at Au Brana showing their new work last night in a room that is not at all dirty (and they are not particularly scratty), the composers and writers who I will never meet, the dancers and improvisors, every one of us is like the giants of the past, and only the future knows whether, when it no longer matters to us, we will be remembered alongside them, be a footnote to their story, or be entirely and absolutely forgotten.

And all the academic theories (which as a part time academic I really quite like), all the outlines of research methods, all the delineations of artistic objectives and aspirations for impacting on key audience demographics really don’t have much to do with that.

Chaikin closed down the Open Theater as it began to be really successful. He felt it was becoming too institutionalised, too beholden to those who awarded it grants, too bureaucratised. The grown-ups wanted him to tidy his room and I think he preferred to be scratty and a kid.

It can only be about the work. It’s about scratty kids in dirty rooms – some of whom, like me, never really grew up. That’s what I’m claiming.

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