PLAY IS THE THING, NOT SO MUCH ‘THE PLAY’, a reflection on theatre making and risk taking

Wedding the mythological with the domestic, Travis Ash portrays his version of The Myth of Er through the eyes of a 7 year old.

Wedding the mythological with the domestic, Travis Ash portrays his version of The Myth of Er through the eyes of a 7 year old.

Since early 2000’s Leah Mercer, based in Western Australia and I have been collaborators, working on show after show, writing, performing, producing, learning from each other. This last week she has been involved in The Directors Lab in Melbourne, including 9 directors from Western Australia and 0 directors based in Queensland.

I would have dearly loved to be there but I am working. Leah sent an article to all of us on FACEBOOK this morning and it has excited me: “Simon McBurney on devised theatre: its absolutely petrifying”, written by Dominic Cavendish. We learn more about the well established and well loved company Complicite and how their process incorporates writing, rehearsal, translataion, writing in this order. McBurney explains that usually the process is reversed in most theatre making: writing, rehearsal, performance, translation. In our company FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE and NEST ENSEMBLE it is a similar approach to Complicite: despite the fact that we may begin with a script, we end up with a lot of the writing happening at the end. Everything changes constantly. And that is why this process is ‘petrifying’ though I prefer the word ‘terrifyingly wonderful’. Petrify conjures up stuckness in my mind, rather than fluid terror.

What has really excited me in this article is a very simple explanation of process. I will quote the article so you get it straight:

“McBurney trained in Paris with Jacques Lecoq acquiring skills in clowning, mime and physical theatre and the ethos that “play” mattered more than “the play”.

Now this is what I have believed for over forty years. Play on stage is the most important element of theatre. The words come second. Now many practitioners would disagree with this statement. “Respect the writer they would insist”, seeing this as a lack of respect rather than an absolute respect of the fluid artform. One practitioner I have worked with for many years, Dr. Mark Radvan, who now heads the acting strand at QUT, embraces this idea of play big time, embracing impulse training as the foundational skill of the actor. Impulse work is all about relational play, first of all the relationship of cells within the artists body, then the relationship of the cells between the actors bodies on stage.

I deeply believe that the artform of the performer is to enliven and grow meaning in multiple ways, be it physically (on a cellular level), emotionally (not indulgent emotion but raw and deeply rooted), intellectually, spiritually. and most importantly: relationally… something that is rarely focused on…

Sometimes we get stuck in one of these rather than embracing all five aspects of what it is to be human….words are one thing. Life is another…and relationship is everything. The relationship among actors, their relationship to the set, their relationship to the audience, now that’s more interesting.

This all embracing relational philosophy is not so popular here in Oz (although there are some wonderful theatre makers who do embrace this including my latest experience with La Boite’s artistic director Todd MacDonald and “Prize Fighter” where he adopted a very fluid and impactful process) and it seems we are in good company overseas. Stella Adler, who I trained with many years ago seemed to uphold this way of being on stage although she worded it differently. As did my mentor Hayes Gordon, that great teacher who started The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney all those years ago.

Our artform as performers is to enliven, to awaken, to enthuse our audience. If we are awake, we can respond to hundreds of things going on in front of us…and at the same time play clean actions that are suggested by the script itself.

Most of all. Beyond all of this. Our job as performers is to inspire and after my immersion into Greek Mythology with the epic Dr. Jean Houston these last few weeks, I am well aware of the power that the mythic world can bring to the performer. We can inhabit our personal myth, wed it with the personal myth of the character we are playing and create an experience for our audience that is universal. And then there is the group myth: what is the group myth of the play?

The richness in this approach I think will give an epic dimension to the most domestic drama. Brisbane theatre wizz-kid (not so kid anymore), the generous and impactful Daniel Evans is great at embodying this in his work, wedding the universal and the domestic. It is what I aspire to do in all my work

“I will perform for you so that the extraordinariness of an ordinary life will be uncovered”
MBA in HOME, 2015.

Working at Queensland Academy of Creative Industries (QACI) with the year 10 drama students, collaboratively-directing them in a collaged version of The Belonging Trilogy (consisting of bits of Eve, HOME and He Dreamed a Train”) I am resonating big time with Robert LePage who, in the same article, describes his process as being like an explorer. He gathers his people and says:

“We are going to a new continent. How far is it? Are there monsters? I don’t know-all I know is there’s something there and I’m going to try and lead you there”.

This is certainly how I am feeling right now. We have large monsters, gods and goddesses. We have devils and angels. We have multiple worlds and multiple dimensions.

And we are all in the boat, but where we are going is stlll unclear. Benjamin Knapton joins us on Monday as we continue this path of adventure..Simon Tate and Stephen Matthias are also in this gloriously alive boat…or should I say train. a train without tracks…

Sleep eludes me...but  poets need to be awake when others sleep.

Sleep eludes me…but poets need to be awake when others sleep.


“POET, be like the tortoise: bear the shell of the world and still manage to sing your transforming dithyrambs woven from our blood, our pain, our loves, our history, our joy. The lonely and inescapable truth simply is that this is the only kingdom you will ever have. This is the home of your song”.

It’s either early or late…I’m up. Reading Ben Okri’s “A Way of Being Free” (1997). I am searching for connectors for the collaged play I am directing “The Belonging Trilogy” a combination of three of my plays written over the last five years. They belong together as much as they belong apart and this opportunity to bring them together is a way of understanding the wholeness of one’s life in art and how this wholeness speaks to other poets, other artists, other beings. The wholeness of the poet in all of us.

So I turn to Ben Okri. And what I read awakens me. He writes

The poet needs to be up at night when the world sleeps, needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes, needs to dwell in the odd corners where Tao is said to reside, needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silnece near the gutters where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others do not care to look (page 1).

I then write:

The light is not here yet…strain for the bird sounds that soon will erupt. Not yet. A car goes by. But only one. No indication of what time it is. It could be 2. It could be 4. Will I get up and make a cup of tea?
I’m searching.
I’m searching for the link required to make sense of this play.

And I do. I get up and I make a cup of tea. Two cups of tea. And two pieces of toast. My dog sits at my feet. I return to Ben Okri:

“Poets…remake the world in words, from dreams. Intuitions which could only come from the secret mouths of gods whisper to them through all of life, of nature, of visible and invisible agencies. Storms speak to them .Thunder breathes on them. Human suffering drives them. Flowers move their pens. Words themselves speak to them and bring forth more words. The poet is the widener of consciousness. The poet suffers our agonies as well as combines them with all the forgotten waves of childhood. Out of the mouths of poets speak the yearnings of our lives” (page 3)

And I am moved. I realise that I write, I communicate through poetry. And so whatever I need to solve needs to be through poetry. Poetry will solve it.

Poet be like the tortoise… This is the home of your song (page 12).

a life lived with all windows and doors open…

A few years ago I visited Esalen, the home of human potential. Here is the doorway into the Art Studio, which i believe was the first communal building on the site, correct me if i'm wrong

A few years ago I visited Esalen, the home of human potential. Here is the doorway into the Art Studio, which I believe was the first communal building on the site, correct me if I’m wrong

Its Tuesday. I’ve been back from Greece two days. I am still thinking about the transformative time there and how i can retain this sense of expansion. How can I walk with expansion here in my home town? And I turn to some of my books. I have been collecting books since I was 14. It has been a compulsion of mine. I remember when I was growing up there was a bargain book place set up in an old hall. This was back in the very early 60’s. I would trudge down the hill, buy a box of old books, including Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, Milton. I would not read them, no I would collect them. I loved the different colours of the spines of the books. They sat in my bedroom, old and regal. I began to read my collection after my English Literature degree, when I no longer HAD to read the classics.

So I reach for a goodie: A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie. Page 275 titled “Further Dazzle”. She finds a quote that resonates with me.

The writing life is a life lived with all the windows and doors opened….says Julia Alvarez…And rendering what one sees through those opened windows and doors in language is a way of bearing witness to the mystery of what it is to be alive in this world.

I think that is the answer: to live with metaphorical open windows and doors, to allow the world to impact, influence, stimulate, awaken. So I then think about the different windows and doors that can be open, or are indeed open right now. The door of The Belonging Trilogy is wide open, as I work with QACI (Queensland Academy of Creative Industries) Year 10 students. We are re-staging a version of The Belonging Trilogy, written by me in collaboration with Dr. Leah Mercer, Dr. Ben Knapton and Travis Ash. Ben is working as co-director on this project and we are hoping to discover a deeper understanding of Indra’s Net, the things that connect to other things all around the world. The students get to cross time and space. They are learning about their Entelechy, something I have learned from Dr. Jean Houston. The acorn grows into the oak tree…and so the oak tree is the potential of the acorn, or its Entelechy. The QACI students are learning to step into their imagined Entelechy so that they will never travel alone, and always strive for their potential…as Jean says below, they “cook…on more burners”.

It is a powerful process and one that I recommend for everyone. See Jean Houston’s Facebook Page as well as one of her 30 books:

Jean Houston Page (Official)
January 8, 2014 ยท
Entelechy is a word that Aristotle used to describe higher guidance and purpose. It is the entelechy of an acorn to be an oak, of a baby to be a grown up human being.
Contact entelechy and all circuits are “go.” Tune to it and another order of perspective is at hand, one that comprehends the spatial and the temporal, that lifts the Earth of one’s seeing into another domain where love rules and the patterns of higher governance are known. Words can not really describe it. Metaphors fritter and fry in the fires of analogy. Entelechy is known in its experience. It is being in the flow. It is cooking on more burners. It is making the highest use of skills one has acquired. It is putting old capacities to work in new ways and discovering capabilities we never knew we had. It is growing the evolutionary organs of our future, transcendent selves.
When we live in service to our entelechy, we comprehend the genius of Leonardo, the compassion of Buddha, the social consciousness of Martin Luther King, the word craft of Emily Dickinson. We become actors on the stage of a new story, our personal play a scene in the sacred drama of all times and places. We experience profound joy, a sense of blissful felicity. We enter the domains of the mythic and come face to face with the fullness of what we are.

If you want to learn more Jean does online courses, salons, mentorships. Jean is one of the hardest working women I know and so willing to be of service to make this world a better place for our future generations.

MBA is working with Year 10 at QACI, Queensland's Creative Industries High School

MBA is working with Year 10 at QACI, Queensland’s Creative Industries High School

The spirit cannot breathe without story writes John Carroll.
His book The Western Dreaming (2001) is on top of my pile of books right now because I am working with a large group of 15 year olds, adapting The Belonging Trilogy (Eve, HOME and He Dreamed a Train, the three plays that I wrote over the last four years) for a season of performances in early November. This is a risky and exciting project: risky because we are collaging a performance from work that was written for a sixty year old. We are making the scenes age appropriate and our number one criteria is that the young artists choose scenes that empower them, scenes that they are moved by. Logic has been shown directions to the door for a while. Rather emotional responding and embodied responses are valued.

Rehearsing QACI

Rehearsing QACI

What I am looking for now is the red thread that runs through the piece, the blood, the River Nile, that ‘runs red with Osiris’s blood’. The students are passionate, self motivating, energetic and talented. Today I want to give them a paragraph to help weave the threads into the blanket of becoming hence my turning to John Carroll.

Why do we need story? Because, he says on page 6 in his opening chapter:

a malaise holds [the young] in thrall, struggling to live in a present without vision of any future, or connection to even the organic tissue of being, their own personal past…they are dying for want of story…the western myths that animate sky, sea, mountains and bush have dimmed.

So we are awakening the stories that will empower: we are engaging in three myths: Osiris and Isis, the greatest love story ever told; the myth of Er, an explanation of what happens when we die, and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, a modern myth about belonging. All three of these stories help us locate ourselves in the world of the living and the world of the dead. Throughout the piece these stories are linked by personal stories based on the plays themselves. Although these stories were written as my stories they are now our ensemble’s stories: instead of husbands we have fathers, instead of sons and daughters we have friends and brothers and sisters. What has surprised me is how easily we have been able to adapt these stories of re-location and belonging.

This project is an important one. The stories of belonging are crucial to our survival. The QACI ensemble is creating an opportunity to explore their stories across time: they step into their older selves, try it out for a while and return to their own time enriched and empowered. These stories are awakening in them a future of belonging, of location, a sense of “Who am I becoming”.

Can’t wait for 8.45am when I will see them again.

The importance of myth as a healing process

EVE, a performance about belonging and not belonging, of passion and misunderstanding.

Looking through the veils of myth to discover the unimaginable.

The Holon. The Aschlepian Journey. Epic Greece. A trip of a lifetime as Connie Buffalo, Jean Houston’s business partner, called it. We were given reading matter which I enjoyed. One of them was called The Practice of Dream Healing by Edward Tick.

One of his chapters is called Dream, Myth and Ritual. He begins it with this:

Dreams are created by individuals; myths by cultures. as human experience accumulates over vast stretches of time and layers of civilisation, history and nature, cultures create collective dreams that eventually become their myths. They repeat in us, as infidivduals and cultures, as we repeat the ancient, enduring human journey in its contemporary manifestation. When we interpret myths, we are interpreting the dreams of the ages.

When I read this I thought what a great explanation of how we move from dreaming into mythology. We all know that dreams can have tremendous power. So the collective dream, the myth, cannot help but resonate within us. Great stories about human behaviour. Great gods misbehaving terribly. Heroes, goddesses, devils, monsters.


Aschlepius teaches us how dreams can heal things that otherwise may not be healed. Myths also can heal:

seeing one’s personal struggles mirrored in ancient myths automatically brings a feeling of relief to the sufferer. As Joseph Campbell succinctly put it “Guilt is what is wiped out by the myth” (Tick, E. The Practice of Dream 39).