A REMINDER OF WHAT’S POSSIBLE

August 17, 2006.

Today I was elated to meet Stephen Wangh, author of An Acrobat of the Heart, Jerzy Grotowski’s student, teacher at NYU and now a department head at Naropa in Colorado. He is with us for three days to teach a seminar called “State of Your Art.” He is a tall, thin, shy man who sat back and watched everything going on around him. But when he started speaking he was brilliant. He began by speaking about the values that are intrinsic to theatre and to us as artists. He asked a lot of questions, had us write a lot of questions, and we played around with what the major issues were. He is primarily concerned with power and freedom- the need for artists to understand what power is, how they contribute to it and how to provide a space for audiences to contemplate the work.

Does our artistic freedom have unintended results and, if so, how can we become aware of that and compensate for it? What does it mean to create gaps within the work? Can we infuse a gap with energy so that it enhances the audience experience? What are the spiritual connotations of gaps or space? What happens when time is compressed and what does that do to people? Can listening contain active energy and how can we stay alive on stage while listening?

Steve is also an advocate of wonder over cynicism. He says that the artist essentially “puts her childhood in her pockets to play with until the end of her days.” He finds that theatre’s greatest strength is its ability to contain doubleness or duality. In other words, it can deal with a multiplicity of truths such as Justice and Mercy, which is why Shakespeare was so great because he asked whether there was an alternative to revenge.

In terms of power, Steve pointed out that there are inequalities in the world and an artist must notice the inequalities and figure out how to deal with them. Should an artist go where the power is and lend her weight to the side that already has weight? An artist must be aware of power relationships- free vs. oppressed, rich vs. poor, educated vs. ignorant, leader vs. follower, etc., because if an artist doesn’t notice than she becomes part of the existing power structure. Steve used Christ as an example of extreme refusal to participate in the existing power structure and how non-participation is sometimes what constitutes a theatrical hero. As artists we must consciously draw our own lines and we are blessed, as American artists, to be able to make many choices and to choose many times. Even inside powerlessness, says Steve, we can still choose what we want and what is possible.

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