Last month, we discussed the ambivalence theatre practitioners feel about our collective prospects as a society, and how the chaos we find ourselves in can leave us feeling overwhelming. What can one do with the overwhelming feeling that we all have around the state of change?
To understand this better, all the co-curators of Unrehearsed Futures decided to ‘imagine Foundation’ at the latest conversation – a hat tip to science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s work: the Foundation trilogy – along with fellow practitioners from around the world who attended the session.
Foundation is the story of a galactic empire on the verge of collapse. The premise is that, in the waning days of a future Galactic Empire, the mathematician Hari Seldon spends his life developing a theory of psychohistory, a new and effective mathematics of sociology. Using statistical laws of mass action, it can predict the future of large populations. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a Dark Age lasting 30,000 years before a second empire arises. Although the momentum of the Empire’s fall is too great to stop, Seldon devises a plan by which “the onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little” to eventually limit this interregnum to just one thousand years instead of 30,000 years.
When Seldon foresaw the fall of the Empire, he was branded a heretic and banished to a planet on the edge of the galaxy where he continued to research and found a way to reduce the dark ages from lasting 30,000 years to 1000 years through psychohistory. Jehan Manekshaw, one of the co-curators of Unrehearsed Futures, posits that theatre could potentially be the crux of ‘psychohistory’ in our world where we seemed to be headed for the ‘dark ages’. Here, he refers to theatre as practice, a participatory system that holds communities together, that could potentially put the demos back in ‘democracy’.
If we took this idea Asimov’s Foundation, what would it look like? What could this Foundation have in it? What would it need to do to become a ubiquitous part of the human experience?
Virtuosity and communal improvisation
Omi Jones, an artist/scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, emphasizes the need to think more carefully about what tools theatre-makers already have in the bag before they put them to use. “Rather than thinking about how we might encourage everybody to do theatre, and thereby reap benefits and so on, I have been thinking about what is it that theatre people do,” she says, “or know or feel or believe, that could be useful for others, for everybody, even if they’re not ‘making theatre’.”
Omi shares she has been working on ‘theatrical jazz’ where she explores innovation, improvisation, collaboration and virtuosity. With virtuosity, she means courage, not an extraordinary soloist exhibiting their skill. “But that soloist must have the fortitude to step forward at some point, so virtuosity is courage. And then the starting point for all of it is a willingness to be vulnerable. Those seem to be behaviors or ways of moving in the world that many theatre makers engage in. And I get excited trying to think about how to encourage other people to take up those different behaviours,” she adds.
Mbongeni Mtshali, a co-curator of Unrehearsed Futures and lecturer at CTDPS, University of Cape Town finds Omi’s metaphor of the jazz framework quite useful for thinking about performance making. At CTDPS, and he and his colleague, jackï job, teach a first-year course called the Foundation Semester, where students are encouraged to lean into the idea of innovation and collaboration. “But we keyed our process to thinking about jazz participation of the ensemble as a space of careful listening,” Mbongeni explains. “So, you’re not listening carefully merely to find the gap where you can then enter, but to enter into dialogue with other instruments of other voices and to find the possibilities of ‘playing the movement’, then moving elsewhere and arriving at an ‘endpoint’. But that journey, if we learn to listen carefully, allows us to find these little cul-de-sacs, these little side journeys that you can explore, but always return to the collective in the middle of it all.”
What Omi and Mbongeni describe is the “universal flow” we all pursue in our worlds. “You jump into it for a while when you’re writing, when you liquidate an idea, and all of a sudden, you’re having a deep conversation and you jump off that,” adds US-based playwright Kamili Okweni Feelings. “I almost think of it as warp speed; you don’t even know where you’re going, and things start to go so fast. They always talk about it like a fuse, something that is being destroyed as quickly as being creative. That always struck me as something that was always desirable to be in what you appreciate as something virtuous.” And however collective that is, or individual, there’s something going on that’s anxiety producing while you’re there at the same time, believes Kamili. “It’s the most interesting and wild thing you can feel. And within all that, you always have different notions.”
As Kamili suggests, the notion of virtuosity can be anxiety-inducing, but Omi believes that the notion of trust is a crucial component in how theatre brings communities together and be strong. “Knowing people long enough, having worked together long enough that you develop a trust that would make the virtuosity that I’m offering up, more available to many people because you trust that you’re being held, that you’re respected, even if it so-called ‘doesn’t work’. There are still people who’ve got you, so to speak,” she elucidates.
Theatre as an art of gathering
Mwenya Kabwe, a lecturer at CTDPS and a co-curator at Unrehearsed Futures, agrees with Omi and strongly believes that above everything, theatre is an art of gathering, and this notion is something that is feeding into her teaching practice more and more. Something capacious and potentially transformative happens when we commit ourselves to sitting together in a space and sharing space and time together, which is one of the things that theatre offers us: the possibility to create these spaces.
“In our various processes, we always return to the art of being together. There’s a way in which our work practices different ways of being together that can potentially be useful beyond creating theatre,” Mwenya says. Some of the fundamentals in our practices that perhaps we take for granted are the inter relational and the perceptual aspects (where developing an awareness or paying attention gets exercised, heightened and developed).
She also mentions turning one’s attention to something that might be on the periphery. “So, there’s the attention to the things that are directly in front of us, that we can perceive through all of the different ways we perceive, but also developing this attention to something that is imperceptible in some way,” she describes. “It’s just outside of reach, just outside the known. I wonder how that kind of attention to something in the summoning world, as it were, as Mary Oliver says, feels like – that feels like it broadens a way of being in the world without getting vague and philosophical about it.”
It’s the capacity to create such spaces where we gather, which is one of the core and important things, Mbongeni believes, theatre-makers have to offer the world: generative ways of being in space and time together and recognizing that even if it’s not necessarily pushed on the right side, the fact of sharing space and being open to that sharing is already one of the policies that animates performance and theatre, specifically.
Tricking the body
While everyone agreed theatre was a space for gathering, Amy Russell, founder and pedagogic head of Embodied Poetics reminded that it’s easy to forget that even the people in the Zoom room weren’t in the same space for this conversation. “We’re getting better and better at tricking our bodies into feeling what we crave,” she suggests. “Because we need to have what we need. So, we trick ourselves into thinking we’re having what we need, because we’re getting it, sort of, visually and aurally.” As activators of Foundation for theatre, it is imperative to resist this tricking of our bodies, believes Amy. It must be emphasized, she continues, that these are spaces of our physical bodies, where we’re together. “This kind of theatre activation also brings attention to where we are located. The trust that was earlier spoken about, must come from a state of physical pleasure.”
With several ideas over what could constitute the psychohistory of theatre, Jehan wondered if it’s possible to turn theatre into a grassroots movement that spreads like wildfire. To this, Flloyd Kennedy, artistic director of Thunder’s Mouth Theatre, cautioned against such an approach. “It absolutely fills me with horror, the idea of taking over the world. Power is very, very seductive, and it is very difficult to avoid the people with the skill of manipulating it and doing what they want with it,” she said as the conversation came to a close.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: