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Not knowing

June 19, 2011

In ‘The Empty Space’, Peter Brook writes of a performance he witnessed in the ruins of Berlin immediately after the war. I don’t have my copy of the book here, but I remember a description of a performer with a scrubby back-cloth clowning for children – many of them (presumably) deeply traumatised. When he began to talk of food to that desperate and starving audience (starving for food as well as for hope, security, self-respect), a silence fell on the room. Brook writes of the quality of the attention that develops as what each, alone in her or his head, invisibly imagined, becomes shared. The invisible become visible.

That possibility of art, of collective communion, even in extreme situations has stuck with me since first I read it thirty years ago.

It comes back to me at the moment as I have been reading a lot about the fall of Berlin in 1945. Why? I don’t know really, but it has something to do with ‘Echo Chamber’. The story of the fall of Berlin talks of humans surviving when all structure, all ‘civilisation’, is stripped away. Especially the anonymous memoir ‘A Woman in Berlin’, unbearable in it’s description of the price civilians – mainly women –  paid for Nazi criminality, the books I’ve been looking at talk of what is left when nothing is left.

I do not know why this matters to me at the moment.

I was playing yesterday at placing sounds together, as I try to find the sound world for ‘Echo Chamber’. The wind. The strings of a piano when rubbed and left to resonate.  Bells and chimes. Close-recorded breath. Simple tunes or single notes. Thunder. Some things work, some don’t. If I try to decide WHY something works I find that I ‘construct’ sound worlds where each element ‘represents’ something – the thunder is the sound of explosions and the tune a memory of childhood. It might be clever but, when I listen again, it doesn’t work.

Why do some things work?

I don’t know.

Yesterday I spent nine hours at my desk at the University, writing a long report, responding to applications to study for PhDs, getting up to date with administration for the book I’m writing. A long Saturday of trying to catch up with paperwork. This at the end of a full week of training – a beautiful and exciting week, of meeting a new ensemble and watching its members start to grow. The sort of week I love but during which, realistically, there is no space for me to pay attention to my own creative needs.

Leaving the office after a day at my desk, intending to go and watch a performance by a company I’ve been meaning to watch for a year or two, I was overcome with an unbearable sadness, almost a despair. Though I don’t know where it comes from, it is a state of mind I recognise. It is my creative self demanding attention. It is me telling me that I need to pay attention to something, some urge or idea or image that is struggling to be born and that, in my endless distraction by the reality of life, I am killing through neglect.

I don’t know how ‘I’ know that ‘I’ need to quieten my mind and create. Buried deeper there is another, wiser, ‘I’ that occasionally demands attention.

That ‘I’ is the me that does not know.

When I teach I encourage those who work with me not to know what is going on. First, I suggest, we should HAVE an experience and only later should we reflect on it and try to understand a little bit about what it has taught us. If we try to understand before we experience, we find there is nothing to understand for there is no experience to reflect on. It is as true for me as a creator as it is for me (and those who work with me) as learners.

There is a saying I like very much – “In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In an expert’s mind there are few.’ Once we know, we stop wondering, we close ourselves to the possibility of being surprised, we end up seeing only what we expect to see,

These things, a clown talking of food, the memoirs of desperate civilians from 1945, the sound of a bell or a piano string, thunder, an image of blood leaking, like sap, from a tree at dawn, a cat I saw in Mytilini recently, caught between needing to protect her kittens and to protect herself from hostile humans, Buchner’s play ‘Woyzeck’ – these things are elements of ‘Echo Chamber’. But there is no recipe I can use to combine them, for I do not know what I am trying to make. This not knowing is necessary. To stretch the metaphor, the state of NOT knowing is the furnace in which these and other ingredients combine to make the unexpected.

Next time I apply for any funding to support my work – if there is a next time – perhaps, when I am asked what I intend to do and how I intend to do it, I should reply that I intend to not know for as long as possible and even when I do know, I intend to remain unsure. It would at least be an honest response and it could not be less successful than my attempts so far to rationalise the necessary ignorance of creativity.

After an evening of beautiful not-knowing, today I have woken feeling whole.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2011 2:59 am

    Just been talking to a theatre class about the importance of physical context and social relationship in performance and realised that somehow the audience and space have been pushed to the periphery of the experience of theatre. Relationship then becomes irrelevant and spectacle and entertainment become central. Makes me think that our relationship to where we are, who we are and who is watching should be central rather than an afterthought in making performance.

    • June 22, 2011 8:42 am

      One of the reasons that I am interested in training individuals as part of ensemblesis precisely because it places individual experience within an interpersonal context – a context that can be extended perfectly easily to include relationship with environment, audience etc. One of my interests as a director at the moment is precisely in this area of maintinaing the focus of studio practice in outdoor environments, allowing the audience to experience themselves as part of a ‘bigger’ ensemble. As for ‘our relationship to where we are, who we are and who is watching’ – I agree, though i would add into that list ‘what we are doing’ (or technically ‘what we are paying attention to…’). Good to hear from you Brendan.


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