Saturday, 28 August 2010

Faith and Community

On BBC Radio 4 this morning there was a comment from Dr Tom Wright, the retiring Bishop of Durham, that we live in an "increasingly religious age". The producers of the programme asked for comment from the listeners on this statement and many responded. Both sides of the argument were represented with a fairly even spread between those who agreed and those who did not.

The debate got me thinking about the term 'religious' and how it is applied to life in the 21st Century. Highly emotive words are often attached to it - religious fanatics or religious extremism appear often enough but so too do phrases such as 'he follows Arsenal religiously'. It would seem that 'religious' is another word that has lost its real meaning. Religion, Politics and Sex were once the subjects most likely not to be discussed in polite company; it was bad form to ask a chap about his politics or his religion and we British have never been comfortable talking know...

But now Western society knows no fear and we are happy to discuss our politics and our sex lives candidly(sometimes with accompanying video footage) and yet to mention the 'R' word can still trip us up. The supporters of Dr Wright's statement offered examples of warm welcomes at local parish churches or how they were offering prayers for the plight of the Pakistani flood victims whilst the detractors were claiming that  modern society was essentially godless and didn't need religion. After all, religion has caused more wars than anything else is the familiar saw. But are we talking about Organised Religion or the more personal, lower case kind?

Many people I speak to describe themselves as being 'spiritual' rather than religious, and this is an example of how the term has become almost perjorative. To be Religious is to be pious or intolerant or evangelical but to be Spiritual is to have an understanding that there is something bigger than we are. To be spiritual fits nicely with being 'green' or 'liberal' in the list of things that make us 'good people'.

What I think we mean by 'religious' is that we recognise that we cannot exist apart from everyone and everything else. To feel the interconnectedness of things. To have faith in ourselves and one another to be there for others. We may give our 'gods' different names and follow different traditions and rituals in celebrating them but we all need to feel part of something, to have a relationship with something other than ourselves.

The materialistic and selfish lifestyle promoted in the 19th and 20th centuries has failed us. Society is cracking and we have very little time in which to heal it. This is recognised but not always acknowledged by people who deny that they are religious but who seek the community of others. We reach out to others in many ways and technology can play a part. This is seen in the continued growth of social networks such as twitter and Facebook. One of the earliest social networks was 'Friends Reunited' and it is no coincidence that this has a more human and sharing name than the self-centered 'MySpace' which is losing users to other, more social sites. Twitter was given the name in recognition of the way birds communicate to one another by tweeting little pieces of information that contribute to the survival of the whole flock. Online communities may not be a replacement for the real-life, flesh and blood kind but they can have enormous benefits (think of the money raised to help the victims of the Haitian and Pakistani disasters via twitter) and they do provide the opportunity to be part of something; to be an individual within a larger society.

The play we took to Edinburgh, 2020Vision, discusses this very theme and places the discussion in an extreme set of circumstances to heighten the message. Another, much gentler, production in the same venue dealt with the topic on a more intimate level. 'Of People and Not Things' by Andrew J Hungerford concerns the breakdown of a relationship that has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the World. Two very different approaches but very similar messages. A coincidence? Maybe...

As we reach out to one another so we begin to understand that we can only continue to evolve as a species if we work together, care for each other and truly communicate. God is a name we give the thing that is bigger than us, that guides us, that we all know is there but do not always acknowledge. Call it coincidence or fate or chance or chaos, even call it religion, but understand that it is part of us and we are part of it. Recognise the individuality and worth of the people around you and you will be rewarded with the same; turn against them and you will be truly alone.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Sound of Silence?

Has it ever occurred to you that we very rarely experience silence? I don't just mean quiet or a gap in conversation ("we get on so well together, we can even sit in silence and not feel uncomfortable") I mean real silence.

The lack of silence has been brought home very clearly in the last few days here in Edinburgh. I have seen several shows in which characters remark on the silence whilst a minor cacophony of small sounds create a not so quiet symphony to underscore or, in some cases, overshadow the moment. In our own show, 2020Vision, a character remarks on the silence once the technology in their workplace crashes. Thankfully, the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief and ignore the whirr of fans keeping the lighting desk and amps cool, the thumping bass from the show in the venue above ours, and the strategically timed emptying of a bottle bin in the alley outside, and join us in the celebration of 'real silence'.

I know that it is naive to expect silence in an environment as hectic and chaotic as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 2400+ shows taking place over the course of the month create a lot of noise. But it has made me think about how much noise there is in our modern lives. Marshall MacLuan described the 20th Century as living at 'electric speed' and we do more than that now; we live at digital speed - claculating our existence in mega-, giga or terrabytes, comparing download speeds - and along with that comes all the digital chatter. Bleeps, pings, ringtones punctuate our hours and minutes. The quiet hum of computers and wi-fi hubs provide a soundbed to our thoughts (if we have time to think).

The American composer John Cage famously 'composed' his piece 4'33'' to highlight the notion of ambient sound - the sounds that we tune out of our everyday lives. Consisting solely of tacit bars, the score can be played on any instrument, and whilst the musician is 'playing' the piece the audience begin to experience the sounds of the venue; the breathing of other audience members, the creaking of the seats as people shift uncomfortably, traffic noise from outside the venue, and any other sounds that might drift into the space. Eventually, they might even begin to hear some internal noises; their heartbeat, digesting dinner or, just possibly, their own thoughts.

Cage's idea was to create a piece of supposed silence in which it became clear that such a thing rarely exists. Deafening silence is an oxymoron but it has a ring of truth to it. Sometimes silence can be very uncomfortable. Coupled with darkness it taps into our very primal fears. Noises in the dark can be scary but at least they prove that something else exists.

So, when the character of Bill in our play says, "This is real silence but it's like there is something else, something living in it." he is expressing the thought that, perhaps, there is a communion with something deeper, more meaningful, something else that can only be achieved if we occasionally experience real silence.

Any noisy objections or quiet words are welcome on this subject.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Creativity and Criticism

Any artistic endeavour is an act of creativity. A blank page becomes a story or a poem or a sketch, an empty stage is peopled, a cunning combination of wood, strings and metal brings forth sound, a blank canvas...well, you get the picture.

When we create something,we give of ourselves. It is one of the great paradoxes; what is personal and private becomes public. Our ideas, thoughts, desires, dread fears are all exposed in the words or notes or brushstrokes, and we offer them up to whoever may read them, listen to them or view them. It is perhaps the defining characteristic of being human - that we can create.

I believe that everyone has the ability to be creative and I hold no truck with people who claim otherwise (often they have been told that they have nothing to offer and so don't) or who try to diminish the creative acts of others. Children and, indeed the young of many species, learn through play. They mimic the behaviours of others and develop a knowledge and understanding of their place and role in the wider community. Sue Palmer, in her very interesting book 'Toxic Childhood - how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it' (Orion Books 2006) writes very eloquently about the value and importance of play. And play is creativity; it is imagination.

So when we create it should be celebrated, whether it be your child's first paint daubings proudly displayed on the fridge, or a film feted with honours at one of the major international festivals. For what we are celebrating should not necessarily be about the quality of the end result, although there is a fine debate to be had about definitions of quality, but rather a celebration of the act itself. For when we create something we are adding to the experience of life rather than diminishing it. New creations can also be celebrations of others; memento mori. What better way to remember somebody or some event than by creating something new?

This brings me to the second point; criticism. If everyone is creating something and adding to the tapestry of life, do we need someone to filter it all, to sort the wheat from the chaff? Do we need quality control? Sure, we all need a little feedback and comment on our work, especially those for whom creating is their career, and constructive criticism can help us to develop and shape our ideas. In other words, it is another part of the learning process. But, in my opinion, being able to discern between things that are 'good' and 'bad' is a skill we should all develop. The complexities of individual value systems is a subject for someone's PhD and I won't discuss them here. What I am advocating is a tempering of our reliance on and reverence for 'Critics' - professional reviewers etc. - who have been given the status of authority on a particular subject. There is a cliche about teachers,

"those who can, do, those who can't, teach, and those who can't teach work for Ofsted" (my addition)

and there may be some truth in the similar cliche that all rock critics are failed musicians and all theatre critics never made it as actors or writers. I am much more interested in the opinions of people who watch our work - Joe and Josephine Public to use another cliche - but often they don't feel equipped to give an opinion because somehow they feel that their opinion is of no consequence. I don't disregard out of hand the views of critics and journalists, but I don't base my decisions purely on their opinions.

This is why I welcome the ability to communicate with the people who make the music I listen to or the theatre I watch. I also welcome review websites where the actual audience can comment on what they've seen or experienced. If we are given the chance to offer opinions then we may sharpen our own critical faculties and begin to make our own judgements on what is 'good' and 'bad'. This may also make us better equipped to receive the opinions of others with grace.


The new show is a week away from going public in Edinburgh. We've been working on it since the initial discussions back in January and now, some seven months on, we have a show. The premise is quite simple; how do people who rely on technology to communicate cope when it fails?
We have carried out a fair bit of research into current developments in science and technology. We have looked at astrophysics, nanotechnology and gaming technology to find the latest ideas and theories. Not much of this actual research has found its way into the final script, but rather has helped us to create the world that the characters inhabit. The play is a realistic look ten years into the future, hence the title '2020Vision'.
It is set in a call-centre of a major multi-national company called Dawn Technologies who are currently developing a new, renewable energy resource. This 'solar-reconstruction' will remove the world's dependency on oil and fossil fuels, and will pave the way for a better, brighter, more efficient future. At least that is what the corporate brochure says...
Working on this project has made all of us think about the future - our own and the planet's. Can we sustain the rate of growth and the speed of development in technology? What happens when all our major decisions are taken by computers? Or when our emotions, feelings and desires can be stimulated and satisfied virtually? What happens to the human soul; the ghost in the machine? These are some of the questions that we have debated during and after rehearsals for this show, and we have attempted to create characters who retain or re-discover their soul when faced with extreme circumstances.
It hasn't been an easy journey (we totally reworked the show two weeks ago) and I'm not sure how the Edinburgh audiences will react, but I am pleased that, as a Company, we have taken a risk in developing an idea rather than reaching for an established text. The next couple of days will see some fine tuning based on the comments made by the invited audience to whom we previewed the show last week. The comments were positive, on the whole, but there was enough criticism to keep us on our mettle. We have made mistakes along the way but sometimes that can be the best way to learn.