Review: ‘Glasshouse’ A forum theatre play by Kate Tempest – performed by Cardboard Citizens.

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I came up to Manchester last night to watch ‘Glasshouse’: a play by Kate Tempest, performed by ‘Cardboard Citizens’ theatre company at the Z-arts centre in Hulme. In the blurb the play was described as ‘forum theatre’, which roughly means that after the performance the audience are invited to discuss the character’s choices in the narrative and then improvise alternative versions of key scenes.

My main reason for coming to see this play was because of the author. I recently watched Kate Tempest live performing her epic poem ‘Brand New Ancients’ along to music, and I was blown away. So, having the chance to see one of her plays was enough for me to get over the ‘interactive audience’ element which I admit, I was slightly dreading. I also wanted to experience a modern play. I’ve been to the theatre lots, but not to watch anything contemporary and it’s an area I’m interested in learning more about as a writer and as a cultural consumer. I also wanted to challenge my preconceived notions of modern ‘workshop’ theatre being cringe-worthy and overacted: a notion that has probably been sown via the League of Gentlemen’s ‘Legs Akimbo’ acting troupe sketches.

Thankfully, the actors were good – very good in fact. The play itself dealt with a chain of events in the lives of the three protagonists: a young woman, her mother, and her mother’s partner. I don’t want to discuss the plot here because you should go and see it, but broadly it was about a suburban family in crisis, under pressure from the world, themselves and each other, the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. It was gritty in that it dealt with verbal and physical domestic abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, helplessness, sexuality and inner city depravation. That may sound extremely miserable, but it was also funny and warm in places, mostly thanks to the characters being so well-drawn and Tempest’s effortless and accurate blending of comedy and tragedy.

We were treated to several key scenes from the chain of events, each retold and elaborated on by the main characters in turn. This meant we saw a few of the central scenes three times, each subtlety different as the narrator character represented events from their point of view. This meant that we zipped around in time, and as the characters got their turn, gaps were filled in that contextualised and added to the previous renditions. The scenes and scenery changed rapidly, with excellent use of the minimal sliding-board set, props and costumes, pushed and pulled into place by the performers as they moved through the story, adding to the sandbox-like approach to interactive theatre, keeping the transitions as kinetic and dynamic as the performance itself.

Each character introduced and intersected their version of events in soliloquy to the audience, bouncing along in Tempest’s inimitable style with elements of rhyme and prose touching at the edges and making a whole that is greater. When it was over, we were left digesting three versions of events, three outlooks and representations  – let alone our own. I liked it. It was good. Go see it.

And then, after the main performance and a short break, there was the forum theatre element. Before this the director had already started to ask us questions, to gauge opinion and such like, but that was only as a show of hands, a mumble of agreement, a few nodding heads or an occasional comment – now we were being asked to actually come on stage and improvise. This was different.

Luckily for me, the audience mostly consisted of two other theatre groups, so I was content and undisturbed in my silent observation of their valiant efforts. As we re-watched key scenes from a democratically voted-for character (the daughter), anyone could shout ‘stop!’ and replace the actor in the scene. The other actors would then respond in character to the volunteer’s efforts – allowing us to see what could have, might have, maybe should have been. It was extremely interesting to watch and I can only applaud those that gave it a go. Of course it had its awkward moments, and also some extremely funny ones. But on the whole it worked as a social experiment more so than an exploration of drama. The central message was that we can make different choices to change our lives, that our reactions are not always a good reflection of ourselves and have real consequences. Many of the contributors approached the scenes by being open, honest, compassionate and respectful to the other characters, and then abandoning the conflict as soon as possible (often by just walking off set when they had said their piece). This is why I say it wasn’t an experiment in drama (well-meaning resolutions don’t make for great plays) and more like group therapy – in a good way.

It made a lot more sense when the director told us that they normally perform in prisons and hostels, where I guess many people are living through the consequences of their actions and/or the circumstances they find themselves in. But for a generally neutral audience member like myself, it was still a fascinating concept none the less.

All in all, I enjoyed it. My faith in modern theatre now has a foundation to be built upon where before I only had assumptions, and my admiration for Kate Tempest’s work has been further bolstered. In short, I have been entertained, challenged and inspired – and there’s not enough of that around at present, so it was a welcome experience. I would recommend it.

It’s on tonight again if you are in the area, and I’ve included any links I can find below for you to seek it out in other locations.

www.z-arts.org/glasshouse

http://www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/

http://katetempest.co.uk/

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A Discourse on Empathy

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” (“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

 

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added):

 

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There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott

 

Web:                     www.garryabbott.co.uk

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Unearthed 2013 – My thoughts on a wonderful project.

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After over a year of design, development, public engagement, challenging fabrication and installation, we were finally treated last Saturday (26/10/2013) to the unveiling of the new ‘Unearthed’ sculpture in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, and as I’m sure you can see by the picture above, it was worth the wait. A big congratulations is in order I think for the conception and realisation of this amazing sculpture by Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin of Dashyline (http://dashyline.wix.com/dashyline). 

Without going into all the detail here, the sculpture is a memorial to commemorate the link between the Czech village of Lidice and the miners of North Staffordshire. Most of the population of Lidice were shot dead and the village itself totally destroyed by the Nazi’s in 1942 in retaliation (based on inaccurate intelligence) for an assassination attempt on a high ranking Nazi official. As a result, the MP for Hanley, Sir Barnett Stross, vowed that we would rebuild the village in defiance of this atrocity. The miners of North Staffordshire gave up a day’s pay per week until the end of the war and raised the equivalent of 1 million pounds in today’s money. This was used to rebuild the village and give the few survivors somewhere to live and reclaim. Full details of this story can be found on the Unearthed website here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/.

As part of the sculpture commission, I have been involved in a series of public engagement activities, designed to spread the story and generate pledges to remember the event. Each pledge, captured through the website, is represented on the miners ‘tags’ that clad the whole work, with the initials and day of birth of those who participated – over 3000 people.

Thanks to this project I’ve had the opportunity to write, narrate and score an animated retelling of the tragedy, compose my first choral work for a memorial service, and work with the words of the people who pledged, to produce a spoken word accompaniment to the unveiling ceremony. It has in short, been an eclectic, challenging and artistically rewarding undertaking that I shall never forget.

It has also made me think a lot about the nature of art, history and culture, and how this is perceived and received by various public and constitutional communities. There has unsurprisingly been a few dissenting voices, opposed to the allocation of public money on an artwork, but overwhelmingly there has been support and a depth of understanding with those who have passively and actively engaged with the meaning and vision behind this work.

It strikes me with this project how it almost totally diminishes the notion of pretention due to its visceral link with a real and tragic event that no one can dismiss as being unimportant or worthy of remembrance, even if they may disagree with the specifics of how to do this. I cannot agree with those who feel that no memorial was warranted, that no money should have been spent on this project. If a subject such as this does not deserve an allocation – what does? For an area that suffers from low aspiration and increasingly negative national identity, if we don’t take pride in our past achievements and find contemporary and interesting ways to demonstrate what we are capable of, how are to break that cycle? This project involved hundreds of local artists, fabricators, suppliers and supporting trades. Alongside the worthy story, it is a calling card for the industries of a modern Stoke on Trent that should not wallow in the economic depression that so many towns are suffering and should instead lift its head high and say “think differently about us – look what we can do”. On a purely practical argument, the money that was spent on this project was circular for the area. There were no expensive consultants or unrelated artists flown in from distant counties or countries to reap easy rewards – the funds supported local industries, paying wages, supporting families and raising profiles so that future investors may look more closely at what we have to offer. When you are down, you talk yourself up, you show what you can do. Not the opposite, that leads to a dark and narrow path indeed.

So I am proud of this project, of my involvement in it, and of all the people who support and welcome it. Many times during my work on this I became overwhelmed with the responsibility of the story, the fact that real people suffered and died. I felt for the first time I think, what it means to be connected to our shared history. The people of Lidice stopped being words in a text book, actors in a documentary, and became tears in my eyes, a pain of loss from somewhere inside, greater than I can describe here.

That is why I feel pretention does not come into any aspect of this work, because we could not un-tell or invent what had happened, and each of us knew that while we had a job to do, it would never be more important than the story itself. All we could do is try to tell it in a way we felt appropriate, respectful and engaging, and I think that the Unearthed project has achieved this for our part. I say ‘for our part’ because I am aware of others who long before this sculpture was commissioned, and I imagine for a long time to come, are already dedicated to the spreading of this story.

However, the story ‘belongs’ to no-one but those who experienced it. The way we remember it belongs to us all, and we should be grateful for each and every person who learns of this though any means.

On a final note, if you are reading this and are not aware of the project or the history, please do visit the website (linked again below) and take a look around. Not only will you see films about the various engagement projects and a more detailed history, you can see the links to other ambassadors for this story and use that as reference to delve deeper into the many other individuals, groups and projects that are keeping the story alive. Thank you for reading.

http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/