Are you an artist? On day one in San Miniato we wrote this question on a large piece of paper, put it within the circle of participants, timed forty-five minutes,and waited for the silence to break.
It’s a question so huge it pins you to a wall as though in an exhibit; it asks you to examine the heart of yourself while simultaneously asking you to lay down your life’s work and look at it, brightly lit; it’s a test, a calling, a provocation. As an actor, I rarely feel like an artist. As a teacher and director, I rarely allow myself space to feel so. Occasionally alone in my head I may feel like one – looking at light, text, faces full of tension, bodies in spaces who crave to work together but exist alone – but this is fleeting. My career thus far has been chased by a need to define it.
So why did we choose to begin our work in San Miniato with this question? Instinctively, this feels a good place to start; stir up before we settle, challenge before we change. It asks you to look inward – Am I? – but almost instantly to look outward – what is everyone else saying? Do they own up to it? Are they rising to it? And if they do, will I? And what is an artist? What is their role and responsibility? What should they have to answer? Do they have to answer to anything at all? As the participants wrestled with this sudden flood of enquiry, I wondered if this was actually a healthy place to begin. Questions breed questions, not answers.
Research in Neuroscience suggests that one of two things happen when we’re asked a question. Either, our reward mechanism fires up in search of the answer, or, our fear centre spikes and the worry of giving the wrong answer prevents us from articulating anything at all. So, fight or flight. What does this do to the artistic brain? Does this set a constructive frame, or close down the room by demanding an answer? There is a risk of the latter, that instead of leading us towards freedom of expression and sparking original thought, it instead closes us down and boxes us into neat, correct, easy to digest packages. However, in the large spaces of San Miniato, it felt like this question lit a match among us – and caused us to look at each other again with heightened curiosity.
The empty space can be daunting. It calls for something, pulls you forward and presses you back. I wanted to explore what happens if we empty the space, and attempt to empty our minds of plans, judgment, and results. What are we left with? Just breath, ideally. By that I mean we are rid of our layers of learnt behaviour, our social tensions, and can simply be. I devised an exercise, ‘Études’,inspired by a Belarusian method of working, as a means of generating ideas. The outline is as follows: each student sits on a chair, in a line, facing outwards. We clean the space, literally, so it is empty of colour, interest, or focus. We exit the room, shake off any tension, smile, and remind ourselves we are playing a game. I stress that there is no right or wrong, that we will work with no preciousness, and we will say yes to any offer that presents itself – either from the space or each other. We will not consciously try to make something interesting or beautiful. It is enough to stand and simply see the group and wait for an impulse to come. We re-enter, set a timer for thirty minutes, and sit and face the space. We hum as a group to breathe, unify, and settle. This hum continues until someone chooses to break it and enter the space.
But what do they fill it with? What does it ask for? The hope is that there will be minimal planning and maximum intuitive and instinctive feeling. It will allow the participant to say yes to impulses that come from outside. Movement practitioner Mark Proulx, of TNS Strasbourg, says, ‘You can doubt yourself. But never doubt your intuitions because they come from the world around you.’ With actors, this work begins with an impulse from the text – a line that resonates. I ask that they have the courage to experience this, wordlessly, in the space and with the group. They can bring any prop, sound, or person into the space to assist them in their discovery and imagination. The only rule is that they must be physically safe; other than that, anything goes. The group chooses when each Étude concludes by beginning the hum again. If one person hums, the group joins in. We clean the space, re-set, re-group. Then the cycle begins again, with a hum asking to be broken and space asking to be changed.
In San Miniato, I wanted to experiment and adjust this exercise by using a question rather than text. I began with ‘What does the space need?’, hoping that the participants would take this further and ask their own questions. My hope was that they would take inspiration from the outside – out to in, rather than generate internally, from themselves alone – in to out. I wanted to give them a clear and neutral frame to allow them to find the freedom to change the space within it. They can break the frame, and explore, surprise each other and themselves – individual expression supported by ensemble trust. This is a means of boldly and bravely generating ideas.
I found the work to be both enlightening and challenging – in the participants ’courage and also in their struggle. I was amazed by the sense of abandon, shaken by how physically the artists attacked and embraced the space and concept with appetite and relish. But I was also made aware of the size of the space and thequestions’ demands. I realised that my ambition for the group and its collective freedom was a little premature, and led by my experience with actors and text.
Each day we wrestled with the concept and its results – the form became malleable. Would a different set-up help – a circle rather than a line? A student suggested that facing the space was overwhelming, and instead facing others would be more supportive. Others said that to look at each other would be more intimidating. Would more time allow for more courage? When I first did this exercise myself as an actor with a Belarusian director, the time was limitless, the group was small, and we were anchored by the text as an impulse. Here, I added the timer for expediency. I hoped this would be a healthy restriction, as the age old rule in devising is that less time can be more productive. Yet, I found that this stopped the work mid-flow and didn’t allow space for everyone to work.
How can we expect openness and vulnerability without having the time to establish trust? And how do you establish trust without devising exercises that are catered for every personality, every individual sense of artistry? Can we find trust with little planning or direction, and instead rely on the natural dynamic of the group to grow? Or, as a facilitator, do we have a responsibility to lead the group ‘by the hand’ to a place of shared freedom?
The effect of the group hum offers an interesting argument here. Such a simple device had a number of complex, fascinating consequences. I chose it as a means to give power to the group, to engender a feeling of collective creativity; only from collective breath could imagination begin and end. It was also a grounding force, encouraging group relaxation. For some it did offer comfort and support, yet for others it brought pressure and anxiety. The hum often wasn’t unanimous,and would sometimes shut down an idea before it began. How appropriate is it to judge when a fellow artist’s expression should end?
In hindsight, I realise that using this device to end an exercise was based on an idealistic and premature expectation of creative generosity. It was the very start of this group’s journey. In the past, I would control when an Étude should finish.The hum would simply begin the cycle again; it was only to be broken by creation (stepping into the space), not to break it (halting a piece). My hope was that collective mediation of ideas would lift and support the students – I was not directing. Yet, by attempting to divest control and encourage autonomy, I had added a sometimes unwanted and stifling layer of judgment.
I have concluded that, actually, this exercise does not work with time restrictions. The interesting and entrepreneurial work happens once a student has run out of self conscious ideas or plans, and has the space and time to take them, in the moment, from the world around them – without judgment. This is muscular, and confidence is gained through practice. We lost this in San Miniato.There were many strong offers, and striking discoveries – but ultimately the participant was powerless in the space.
I wonder if such a firm frame sets a healthy culture of ideas and creative resistance, or actually narrows the mind unhelpfully, and asks too much of the students. The nature of rules sets a precedent of expectation, results and generating content, actually the opposite of what this idea sets out to achieve. I also wonder if the emptying of the space, and also the metaphorical intellectual ‘emptying’ of ourselves, actually leaves us with too little to grasp, rather than allowing us to be more alive to our intuition. I don’t believe so. The issue I think is that we need a focus, and a question is not enough. I removed the use of text because the participants were largely non-actors. However, I realised we needed it even more – non-actors, artists – are more reliant on concrete prompts to spark ideas, and enter the space. Text is a human anchor.
Why, when presented with a blank canvas or an empty space, and the tools and freedom to change them into something new, do we hesitate? Fear lurks, uninvited, in the corner like a caricature of a displeased bespectacled director, waiting for us to fail. What then? What if we’re disliked? What if they laugh? What if they don’t laugh? I made a point of saying the only rule was that they must be safe. So why, at times, did the task feel too demanding, the emotional and physical space too huge? To create a culture of failure where mistakes are celebrated, opens up spaces and realises the unseen potential within us. To have the courage to not know, and stand in front of a group empty, vulnerable and open, could allow them to see you at your most foolish. But it also could mean that they see you for the first time, hugely powerful in the bravery to be powerless. But why is this so rare in high-achieving institutions? What do deadlines, expectation and reputations to do us? When did we close down the space for people to fail gloriously, other than in a circus, as a clown?
I am conflicted in how to do this. In San Miniato we found, as a collective of participants and professors, an almost utopian mode of working by attempting to totally remove hierarchy. Fresh eyes could completely change and improve a concept. We became artistic allies, rather than student and teacher, ‘above’ and perceived ‘below’. Does this enable an ensemble to flourish, through taking away clear roles and making sure the work is truly shared? Or, does this unbalance the equality of a group? Does someone with a louder voice soar – and others shrink unheard and unseen? And how important is equality? By using one leading voice, does honouring their vision neutralize the ensemble, to begin from a shared starting point where we can find individual and collective courage in expression?My experience with the exercise in the empty space suggests that we can divest the room of hierarchy, yet we must be aware of where the power then goes.
Building an ensemble is, in my opinion, the best way to find collective and personal autonomy. Only in an environment where an artist is challenged and nurtured by their company members to rediscover and reinvent, can they truly begin to wrestle with individualistic creative expression. However this only has power if each individual is open to being changed. And open to their potential to create change in others. If we all work alone, we miss the collective potential to grow. More and more I see groups made up of people who will do anything to work in a vacuum – existing in their own spaces, phones, echo chambers, comfort zones – the conservative safety in not ever being surprised by someone else. This manifests in lack of eye contact, shallow breath, small movements and safe choices. We miss the potential to be liberated from our learnt rhythms and ourselves. We miss seeing the new.
This does not mean we have to agree. Conflict can be the healthiest ingredient in these spaces – as it makes us stop and ask the questions. But can we still play the same game? Can we exist as individuals, as a healthy and flourishing ensemble,and disagree?
In San Miniato, we discussed the benefit and potential shortcomings of a ‘collective mindset’. For me, this means we speak the same creative language,and work toward the same mission – which centres around three principles:
1. Say yes Notice how often you subconsciously say no before you’ve considered a ‘yes’.If the work is not to your taste, even if you disagree – what happens if internally and outwardly you experiment with the power of saying yes – to the work, to each other, to your own impulses – it may unlock an unknown space that can be shared.
2. Speak You might have the answer. The group cannot benefit from it, and the space will not change, if you keep it to yourself.
3. Joy It is an appetite, an inner fire, a ‘tail-wag’ for the work. It doesn’t have to be a smile. Give the space your energy and your warmth, not your sadness or sogginess.
I wonder what these statements offer us. My aim is that they demand, positively, a high standard of commitment and openness; that they inspire us to make it about the work and each other, rather than ourselves. Without joy, a seriousness can take over, causing work to be worthy and self-involved. However, are these principles too imposing if I insist on them, and therefore create a culture of right and wrong? Is there a danger of becoming neutralized if we all go by the same rules?
I believe these rules empower spaces, encourage us to become more vibrant and alive. This gives us space to truly bring ourselves to the work – in all of our ugliness, prejudices and perceptions – and see what unifies and divides us. Then we will have a provocative and invigorating working space.
As a facilitator, how do you truly allow change within an ensemble? I question myself here and wonder if I have the confidence and humility to allow the group to change my ideas. This is what I am striving for.
By the end of our three weeks in Italy, it seemed we had created a culture where individualistic expression could be collectively shared – and we began to benefit hugely from each other’s unique instincts and creativity. We were not students and teachers, but artists sharing a space. By stumbling, failing, and clashing, we moved through to a space of fresh artistic expression.
I came to San Miniato with an open mind and heart – ready to be surprised by the work there, and changed by the other artists I met. However, I did not expect how deeply I would be challenged, and in hindsight, how positive the outcome and change in my practice has been.
I experienced a direct and forthright challenge from another artist. I realised that I was so passionate about the work I wanted to share that I was not ready to let go of its planned and desired outcome. It is worth noting that I am a young facilitator; in my work in London I often have to stand up for my ideas alongside more established, senior facilitators. Often, and especially in San Miniato, I am challenged by participants who are my age – this requires strength from me to stand in front of them, and humility from them to listen. Yet, because of this delicate dynamic, it demands huge confidence to then step to one side and allow myself and my work to be changed. This is key. I have realised that I can trust that the content is strong enough to with stand huge shifts in approach, without my guidance to the expected and familiar end – however powerful I know it to be.
To publicly disagree is actually to honour each other by engaging with the other person’s work. Argument can only make change if it is active. The German philosopher Habermas believes that we use argument to reach the best (strongest) consensus in order to move in the world, in small and big ways. If we offer a positive choice, an active and alive alternative, then we can play. If instead, we work from a place of anger, negativity, ‘No’, or a place of being ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’, and in turn being ‘wronged’ by the work – then we closedown the space. By trusting in the work, and by emptying oneself of judgment we can work together to truly investigate an idea. We can then question retrospectively – using the power of the experience to inform our criticism. In other words, we say yes before we say no.
It is important here to mention cultural conflicts. Part of the joy in San Miniato was how rich our varying experiences and cultures made the work. We should not ignore that this is a European project – bringing together a combined excellence and artistic drive that spans six countries. This can mean we see things differently, approach a question from opposing ends. Our working processes are different, our stamina and attitude to a space can be entirely contrary. We may define professionalism differently. We may be used to working with no hierarchy and relish it – or working within a hierarchical system and thrive. What was magical about the work in Italy was that, although the change and conflict caused sparks, a heat – in this movement, a unified passion began to form which was new, European, and stronger than ever.
PRACTICE & THE WORLD
Our conservatoires are increasingly under threat of cuts, quotas, and deadlines in an ever -changing political landscape. With growing uncertainty in the outside world, our students need more stimulation and stability. They need more protection and more tools to survive post-graduation, and we have a responsibility to answer to their needs. This can mean that timetables are stretched to the limit, allowing little space for freedom or breath.
As institutions, I think we have a moral responsibility to allow our students the time to think for themselves, to occasionally and systematically let go of old practice, and allow ourselves to jump into the creative chaos that comes from abandoning hierarchy and structure, and offer the timetable over to them. We can trust that intuition and artistic impulse will serve us, and there is huge power to be found in the courage to do this.
We can pledge to be available to change, and have the confidence to let go of tried and tested results. As facilitators, we have to lead by example – and embrace change with joy – to say ‘YES!’ to conflict – make it active rather than take it as a personal affront – and to inspire each new group to start fresh and begin again. We can prove the power of truly seeing each other by celebrating our differences, and to find the energy and stamina to keep discovering. Most of all, we need to listen.
The ideas muscle is something that we lose as we grow – surrendering instead to fear of failure, an obsession with getting it right and a desire to please. This is why this work is so essential. We must continue. Only through practice do we find freedom in letting our voices, our true voices, be heard. We must flex and throw our ideas into a space without knowing what will land. Without practice, we will stay safe, secure – existing and reveling only in our past successes, our comfortable triumphs.
Only then, through continual practice, will we begin to train European artists who can think for themselves – who can provoke and inspire with a truly active and entrepreneurial spirit.