Storyteller, medic or missionary

Putting together Wot? No Fish!! has been a good excuse to do some thinking.  This blog is my attempt to share some of that thinking.

The act of blogging, a bit like my Uncle Ab’s cartooning, holds two functions simultaneously.  There’s a conversation with myself – the act of writing, like storytelling and cartooning, doesn’t only make thoughts concrete, it creates new realisations and understanding in the act of doing it.  And then there’s a conversation with you, the audience real and imagined.  I’m not one for incoherent art – I want to make sense of things for other people too.  That helps me make sense of things for me.  Does that make sense?

I came to making Wot? No Fish!! from a different impulse than any other artistic work I’d made before.  I was motivated to excavate the stuff that was under my Mother’s piano.  (You can tell what kind of piano it is by the fact that stuff can be stored under it.  The Steinway was bought by my Grandma Lil and Grandpa Max.  These children of Brick Lane and Cable Street invested very hard-earned money in a grand piano.  Maybe one day a grandchild might become a concert pianist … [sorry to disappoint])

The stuff turned out to be mostly Uncle Ab’s wage packet cartoons.  The excavation unearthed a lot. It showed me a man who became compelled to make art, essentially for an audience of one.  He built a cathedral from small bits of paper over 55 years for Aunty Celie.  And I dug and dug and at the same time felt I had, somehow, to translate my digging into theatre.  Because that’s what I do – put a story on a platform and start a conversation.  It can look one-way, but theatre is two-way. I might be doing most of the talking, but every smile, twitch and sigh from an audience lights up a cats eye on the road I’m driving down.

My first passion was Socialist Theatre; I was driven by being part of a movement that would shift consciousness; a precursor to material change.  That proved to be a bit grandiose and also relegated the importance of my own motivation as an artist.  It’s still hard to get rid of the internal voice telling me I’m a sell-out for diverting from radical positions when questions and contradictions come knocking.  Lord knows the amount of times I’ve heard myself saying in recent years: “It’s not as simple as that.”  Those were my days as a rather intense and undoubtedly dogmatic missionary (apologies to those I harangued on the way).

Then there was Community Theatre.  Things became participatory, the power of making meaning was handed over to others.  The “others” were variously described as “oppressed”, “marginalised”, “excluded” or “deprived”.  Now, this field of work seems to have morphed into “applied theatre” when I wasn’t looking.  In fact, from the New Year, my main job will be as a lecturer in “applied theatre”. Participatory theatre is still at the core of my working life.  I recognised early on that an artist doesn’t actually relegate the importance of their own creativity when facilitating the creativity of others.  So, although the act of “applying” theatre can seem rather medical – using theatre to cure people of social ills – actually it feeds the facilitator too.  Again, dialogue is important.  The instigators are the groups you’re working with – and their generosity with their stories is the starting point for a balanced “give and gain” creative contract.  Like so many, I have a lot to thank Augusto Boal for in opening up this heart beat of my creative life.

But now, aged 50, the storytelling me is claiming his place in my life.  My work is still about performance as dialogue with an audience, only now I’m the instigator.  Uncle Ab’s art has been a perfect vehicle.  Like any Great Artist (or should that be “many” – discuss), the universals are inherent in the particulars.  People of all backgrounds and ages have felt compelled after the show to share with me their own stories and connections.  It’s this that feeds me even more than making the show.  I’ve never wanted to be a tree falling in a forest that might not be making a sound.  Yes, older Jewish people have a direct connection, but 9 year-olds in Hackney too – from all backgrounds – they also come out of Uncle Ab’s cartoon world bursting to share their experiences.  I hope that this is because what I offer is to show that everyone’s “ordinary” life is actually extraordinary. Sharing a story as a community, particularly where the audience members wouldn’t normally be together, creates a warm bath of empathy and generosity.  I can’t think of any better way to play a part in creating a better world, can you?


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