Activism and Az Theatre

Recently I led a session for Leading Edge, a series of talks that Dr Gottfried Heuer curates for the Association of Jungian Analysts. I did a participatory interactive event that invited the participants to look at the relationship between dramatic space, therapeutic space and everyday space. See the notice for this event

This has made me reflect on why it was that we have created a new mission statement for Az Theatre: Performing Arts, Inspiring Activism.  What exactly was intended by associating theatre with activism?

I did not intend that this means that the work of the company should always be directed towards issues that can be resolved by the achievement of some immediately attainable goal. I didn’t imagine that we should be involved in campaigns where theatre was an alternative to leaflets or public meetings or online petitions. Neither did we envisage that our work should be a public display of demands on a demonstration.  Though none of these possibilities is out of the question. So what kind of activism do we have in mind?

When we were struggling to define this outcome of the company’s work I used the word ‘activisation’.  Until it was pointed out that this sounded robotic and mechanical. However, I did want the sense that the work should activate people and make them disposed towards taking action. There didn’t seem to be any word that could describe the sense of revitalisation and animation that I had in mind. I recalled Hannah Arendt had used the word ‘praxis’ to describe the activity of involvement and participation in public and political life. She counterposed this to the passivity of totalitarianism.  But this word seemed too academic and the word ‘practice’ was too connected to preparation.

My thinking derived from simple observation about the human life with which I was surrounded.  The economic system, the transformation of the Earth’s resources through production, distribution and exchange, had become more unified and globalised.  This movement had become more and more dominated by financial operations which circulated values in almost unimaginable quantities.  The sheer size and complexity of the interconnections between supply and demand, between the extraction of natural resources, their transformation and consumption, had become hard to comprehend, even mesmerising.  This meant that individuals and relatively small human groups, including governing entities such as nation states, seemed to have little control.

At the same time, people became more and more conscious of the impact of the material transformations on the environment.  Knowledge could be produced through scientific measurement and extrapolation that could confirm people’s instinctive feeling, based on day to day observation, that unforeseen consequences of economic (mainly industrial) growth were creating circumstances with which human social organisation appeared not to be able to cope. Because of the massive inequalities that are endemic to the system amongst the more affluent societies there was a tendency towards distribution and consumption rather than production.  Consumption itself was made to appear like a productive activity.  The accumulation of wealth due to the sheer volume of transactions benefitted the rich countries and exacerbated inequalities. The domination of consumption and distribution was creating enormous dependency at the same time as giving the illusion of autonomy.  All of these developments were creating the conditions in which people were likely to feel overwhelmed, confused and passive.

This passivity was further complicated by the disablement of the political institutions that interfaced with masses of people.  These government entities have become more and more enslaved to the apparently impersonal needs of the system for the cheaper and cheaper provision of human labour.  At the same time major corporate and financial entities (the front organisations for the plutocratic elites) started to prey, through privatisation, on public and common goods, like welfare systems and other public services.   The nation states, as well as being taxed by the corporate plutocracy and made to pay vast sums in assuring the functioning of the system, were constrained to move their operations from that of caring for, and educating, their respective populations to policing them. This has further weakened people’s ability to envisage how the can exert control of the vital processes of their lives.

Furthermore, when the system exhibited major malfunctions because nobody could determine what money or goods were worth and the there was a breakdown in the financial systems, the nation states were put in the position of footing the bill and the deprivation of public goods continued at an even higher rate through austerity-based policies.  The outcome of this pressure on national entities has been the growth of  demagogic discourses promising to create safeguards and protection but in fact being little more than another illusory front behind which the robbery continues.  This continues the process of disablement and though the apathy is now accompanied by a raucous desperation, it further divides people who, in their best interests, should unite against their common oppressors.

In a situation where the further paralysis of fear is being added to the deep sense of marginalisation and loss of control, it seems even more necessary for us to become at least as deeply active as the surrounding passivity.

But the question remains, what kind of activity will give us the keys to the future?  All political processes consist of resistance and there is no doubt that resistance has to be a major element in the activism that we are proposing.  But resistance itself rarely goes beyond the parameters determined by the powers that be and therefore cannot be the only element in the activism that is needed. The danger is that resistance can be incorporated into the system itself, particularly when it ranges itself against it in a like-for-like way.  For example, forms of violence can very quickly transpose themselves across lines that appear to distinguish two sides in a conflict or a struggle. The tendency for opposition to become similar to that which it opposes is a major human problem exemplified by considering the fix that arises when fear is counterposed by fear.

This encourages us to think that we must have the ability to engage in resistance at the same time as being able to enact a different story, a story that exhibits different human qualities than those installed in the current institutions of power.  The refusal to accept the definition of power that is affirmed by the established order, a refusal to believe that this power can be apportioned in our favour, or that it has been overcome or changed when it appears to allow us entry into its glamorous orbit, is increasingly necessary.

So the activism that we are proposing is far from the simply mechanical, resistant version that can be so effectively subsumed by the system. It is paradigmatically different from the institutionally mimetic forms of oppositional activism that have become traditional.

One way of expressing this is to say that the activism needs to be internally as well as externally vital.  Can we realistically and practically call for an activism that is philosophically and imaginatively mobile, that is quickened by the capacity to deny the dominant narrative and world view? Of course we can and it is clear that the emerging social movements have precisely this capability but of course nothing arrives in its pure form.

So why was I provoked to review exactly what we meant by activism at this session delivered as a part of the seminar series organised by the Association of Jungian Analysts?

We set out to investigate what might be the relationship between these different spaces.  We started by comparing the process of transference and counter transference in the psychoanalytic therapeutic space with ‘catharsis’ in the dramatic space. Elements, in the form of references, representations, states of being and feeling, are carried into both these spaces by the participants. They are reconstructed and transformed and, in the souls and lives of those taking part, they are carried out again into the everyday space.

I have been influenced by Augusto Boal’s work in my thinking about theatre since I first came across Theatre for the Oppressed in the early 1980s. In the theatre that Boal proposes, the participants are able change roles and engage in processes of control and loss of control. This enables them to see the consequences and implications of their imaginative activities and leaves them ready for action. He describes his proposed theatre as a ‘rehearsal for life’.  This is a good and fruitful way of looking at the relationship between the dramatic space and everyday space.  Boal, and his progenitor Paulo Freire, were quick to see that passivity was key problem facing human beings in modern societies.  When he was asked to endorse our War Stories project in 2002 his message was clear: ‘Peace, yes: passivity, no!’

When the theatre is working, neither as a peep show nor as a display of physical ability, when it is achieving its true potential, it makes visible the invisible. Can this space where we lose ourselves and are subject to processes of confusion (or just fusion), where things are what they aren’t, where we catch sight of things that are not really there, where the magic of invisibility is conjured, be somewhere that generates activism and political change?

I have already said that the quality of activism I am working to define is more like a process of ‘activisation’, of drawing people into action rather then proposing a set of activities that we already know as activism.  Also, I have said that this is not only mechanical and practical (as it were, external) but is driven by thinking and imagination and is consciously aimed at stimulating inner processes.

During the Three Spaces session I started by using exercises to create a sense of relaxed concentration and presence that a full sense of being can give. I described this as being the basis for the work of creating the dramatic space.

Another way of describing this sense of being is to relate it to what the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu calls ‘the uncarved block’. This is described as being nameless and without desire and is associated with the state of being like a new born babe. I associate the ‘uncarved block’ with the first period of our lives before we have words.  It is the fundamental condition of humanity.

Certainly we can only remember this state of being indirectly, through other related experiences.  During this period we live in an undifferentiated world of feeling.  We notice everything and absorb all tensions and impressions.  It is the basic material condition of our lives.

If some shock occurs in later life, some pain or upset, this can resonate in the ‘uncarved block’. Energies that are contained there may be released.  Fissures and deep movements can occur that are like subterranean volcanic events.  Things may settle down or the basic instabilities may persist and we are unseated, disturbed, deranged.  Equally, our sense of what is true and what is real is connected to this deep movement of feeling in us. I believe that social change is charged by the energies that derive from this sense of being. Without connecting with this basic human condition we cannot overthrow the dominant narratives of the powers that be.

If the major consequences of the forms of social organisation, that have become more and more prevalent in the modern period, are feelings of passivity, lack of control, a kind of infantilising dependency, an inability, at a profound level, to be able to take care of ourselves then resistance and refusal and activism have to be effective at the most profound levels of our human experience. The current system, literally presents us, as human beings, with a existential crisis.

One obvious indication of this is the use made, by our political institutions, of fear as a means of social organisation. The key co-ordinating strategy that links ‘home’ policy with ‘foreign’ policy in many countries is the ‘war on terror’. Fear and terror are contagions that cannot be counterposed by the production of even greater fear and terror.  The promise of security so often looks and feels like a threat and is based on corrupt idea of strength.

The realisation, articulation and restructuring of stories in the aesthetic space has a power and an energy that resonates deep in us in a way that music can.  It can shatter us and mend us.  This is to do with the nature of symbols and the power of metaphorical transpositions.  Symbols reflect the objects of the world of the senses but also connect these impressions to deep patterns in our inner life.  This is not a sacerdotal or mystical process but an ordinary part of how we discover meaning.

Symbolic enactment could also be described as story or narrative.  But stories and narratives are never without context. They are embedded in ideologies.  It is a commonplace that the dominant ideology of a given society is the ideology of the dominant social group.  If it this is true of ideology then it is also true of the dominant narrative or story. Is it possible to unseat and replace these narratives?

The theatre of activism is a microcosm of social change because, in this theatre, stories are changed as they are enacted. They are tested against the deep resonances they meet in the participants and altered accordingly.  Theatre work can be both a reflection and a part of social change if it connects with an activism that refuses to accept the terms and parametres set by the dominant narrative. This means it can activate the core energies of the participants and bring into play the deep realisation of their humanity.

Also, during the Three Spaces session we worked at forming a group as a way of creating different spaces.  Group formation was necessary as a way of working to understand the spaces we were dealing with but it is important in its own right.  Successful group work is a crucial transitional space between the individual and society.  This seems to me to be another attribute of the activism I am proposing. I am attempting to extend my understanding of this by engaging with the Art of Hosting.

Many of the projects that Az Theatre is now undertaking are influenced by these preoccupations.

Our UNFORESEEN project is forming an online community of young creatives in the UK and Palestine. Our recent work, bringing together a group of creatives in London to produce work to send to our colleagues in Gaza, was a good example of activism and group work.  In a weekend, the group of ten people researched, devised, and shot a short drama, I MUST LEAVE, I MUST RETURN for release later in the year at an event that will link via Skype to Gaza, Palestine. See video of our last UNFORESEEN live exchange with Gaza

Our production plan for THE CANNIBALS by George Tabori involves a consensual casting process that is design to build an acting ensemble to produce this astounding modern classic.

Our development of the world premiere Arabic stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for production later in the year by Theatre for Everybody in Gaza will be accompanied in London by an installation/exhibition space, HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE, that will be created by a group of artists involving interactive and participatory activities aimed at social engagement.

Our new local project, the ISLINGTON NORTH DRAMATIC ARTS GROUP will be a company formation project that will involve activism and group work.

A trans-disciplinary group that has come together to explore the mentalities that hold together the Israeli state project is another example of this tendency in our work. Our participation in this group arises from a conference on Trauma and Political Violence in November of 2015 where I presented Az Theatre’s work.