Today I arrived in Dublin for a three-week study abroad course. Sixteen graduate students will arrive on Sunday and begin an in-depth exploration of how Irish arts practitioners engage with various communities in the art-making process. We call this applied theatre or community-engaged theatre, depending on your persuasion. Simply put, I view it as creating theatre with people who may or may not identify as artists in an attempt to explore an issue faced by those people and/or the community in which they live. Others may get more flowery or righteous with their definitions, but I like to keep it practical and real.
The day itself was a bit rocky, as my housing at Trinity College is a mess. As I write this post, my young, French, temporary flatmate is out celebrating her last evening in Dublin with a group of friends. Angelina and I were thrust together unknowingly by the the Accommodations Office for just one nite, and I’ve had the “pleasure” of sharing a bathroom with a young French woman with a lot of bath and shower products. Imagine my delight when I learned this after traveling for many hours and being told (and I triple checked it) that I would be housed alone. And after waiting for five hours for my flat to be ready. It was a challenging day. At 40 years old, I do not expect to be living in a youth hostel type situation with a 20-something young lady.
Then at 5:00pm I met a new colleague, Phil Kingston of the Abbey Theatre, and he was a welcome breath of rationality. Phil will be doing a morning of input for my students, focused on the community-engaged work he is developing through his post at the Abbey Theatre. I found our conversation invigorating, as this is a man working to define what the act of making community-engaged theatre can actually and realistically mean for the national theatre of Ireland. It’s a tall brief, but talking with Phil, I got the distinct sense that he’s more than begun to tackle the challenge in ways that I’m very excited to learn more about on Wednesday.
I ended my day with Jenny MacDonald, one of my Irish teaching colleagues on the course. Jenny has taught with us for four years now, and she’s a great energy. I also appreciate her very grounded way of thinking through what we do as artist-facilitators and how we do it. And what it means for our identities. It’s very easy to get lost in all of it, wondering who we are and why we do what we do. Is it for the money? Does it keep us from pursuing what we really want to be doing? How does working with communities of artists and non-artists inform the individual artist’s process. These questions started percolating in some of the conversation with Phil, and then came to a head with Jenny. And ultimately, it comes back to two central ideas for me, ones that emerged out of each of these conversations.
#1 (with Phil): No matter what kind of work that’s happening and regardless of the context, the artist and her/his aesthetic can’t disappear or be subverted by something else (like an agenda). If artist and aesthetic even begin to fade in importance just slightly, the art will drop away or only weakly emerge, muted and underdeveloped.
#2. (with Jenny): Maybe perfection is embracing the imperfect. Maybe letting people see our work when we’ve reached a natural stopping place could be far healthier than trying to develop something until it’s perfect and lifeless. I think here about the way we develop plays in the United States. What would happen if I just started showing a play every week, having it read out loud to whoever would listen? Maybe even get actors to move around a bit? And just a few people come watch it? In my living room? Is that theatre? According to Eric Bentley it is. Theatre: any live event where A performs B for C. There you have it. Letting my work be what it is, rather than trying so hard to make it perfect. A new goal. Virtually impossible, but I’m gonna try.
I know this post is all over the place. I’m jet lagged, but wide awake. I took an Ambien and it’s done nothing…
I’m going to try to write while I’m leading this course. I’ve fallen off the blogging and play wagon, and I need to get back on. Ireland, the land of literati, has inspired me artistically before, but I’ve never tried to harness it’s magical powers as a more traditional writer. Let’s all stay tuned and see what happens.