Creative connection

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST

The Story of Antigone performed by the Italian Mistral Company for Modern Dance at the opening ceremony of the 20th Cairo International Festival For Experimental Theatre in Cairo on October 10. Expression needs to be tempered with communication or else the expression does not make sense.-SAMEH SHERIF/AFP

The Story of Antigone performed by the Italian Mistral Company for Modern Dance at the opening ceremony of the 20th Cairo International Festival For Experimental Theatre in Cairo on October 10. Expression needs to be tempered with communication or else the expression does not make sense.-SAMEH SHERIF/AFP

The need to communicate with an audience, with readers, with viewers is surely valid for all forms of art.

In everyday life, if is a fiction, in the theatre if is an experiment. In everyday life, if is an evasion, in the theatre if is the truth. When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one.

THESE are some of the concluding lines of Peter Brooks book The Empty Space. It relates eloquently to a dilemma that a performing artist or, for that matter any creative artist has to face. How far does one proceed with creativity as an expression of ones inner awareness and ones thoughts and emotions, and how far does one temper it with what one perceives as understandable and significant to the audience.

Let me put it in rather crude terms. Does an artist have to pander to the perceptions of an audience or can he reveal to them what they have not seen, insights they would not have been aware of, significance they would have missed? Can he assume he is possessed of a superior mind or must he limit himself to what he thinks an audience can accept?

Behind this is a basic fact that no creative person can wish away or turn away from, namely, that all creative art is about communicating, of crossing that great and terrifying silence that separates one individual from another. An artist can produce a painting and say this expresses his awareness of the subject and declare that he does not care what others think of it. If it means nothing to others, his work is futile and pointless. On the other hand, it does not necessarily mean that visual art should be confined to creating posters.

Having been in the middle of this for some 40-odd years, acting and directing numerous plays, this is a dilemma to which I find it very difficult to find a complete answer. Perhaps, the considerations are different for different art forms, and theatre more than other art forms needs an audience to be complete.

As Peter Brook says: So, for the author or director to work for his own taste and his own judgement, he must work approximately for himself in rehearsal and only truly for himself when he is hemmed in by a dense bank of audience.

But that would be true only at one level; on another, the need to communicate with an audience, with readers, with viewers, that is, with people, is surely as valid for all forms of art. A musician is as fine as those listening to him realise, a dancer is as exquisite as the awareness of those watching makes her, a novel is as great as its readers consider it to be and a painting is as beautiful as those seeing it realise it to be. There is expression, to be sure; but that expression needs to be tempered with communication or else the expression does not make sense.

Time after time, when directing a play I have had to agonise over the manner in which I have seen a particular play and its presentation. To take the view that I see the play in these terms and Im going to present it just so, as a series of broken images is as silly as this has to be done in this or that manner because the audience will not accept anything else. The first may ensure that the play fails in the basic attribute of all theatre, the ability to communicate, and the other may shackle ones creativity and result in something acceptable enough but dull, boring and stereotyped.

Many years ago, I presented Jean Anouilhs Antigone where I had the chorus played by a girl, who came on stage in everyday clothes and spoke to the audience as to someone she knew, a close friend. It worked very well indeed; to some of the audience it was the high point of the play as they said they were startled to be spoken to by this girl, used as they were to the traditional chorus of several persons, and some were even familiar with Anouilhs own depiction of the chorus in his script as an elegant, rather significant man.

Peter Brook talks, on the other hand, of a presentation of an evening of Artauds Theatre of Cruelty where they presented a number of fragments. In the first they substituted all the dialogue with screams, and he said the audience was confused. While some were silent, there were others who giggled. It seemed to me, when I read of this, that perhaps at that moment the connect with the audience failed. The creativity had gone a little too far. Brook confirms that, saying that gradually only the enthusiasts or determined scoffers filtered through.

But he is talking of a milieu where theatre is a living and vibrant form, not one where a handful of determined lovers of the form are striving to keep it going. The choices that have to be made here are far sharper; the desperate need to build a theatre-going and, a theatre-loving mass of people who alone can sustain theatre has to be kept in mind, and to do this without compromising artistic integrity and creativity. The dilemma can be harrowing.

To then start doing what is euphemistically called experimental theatre, which is nothing short of bizarre, even grotesque, is a cop-out. What that does is get a group of like-minded persons and play to them, so it becomes a sort of cult rather than anything else. Or, and this is a version of what Brook calls The Deadly Theatre, it is used as a vehicle for political propaganda. That again attracts only the converted, and defeats and destroys theatre as a form. Antigone is, of course, also political theatre, but in the sense that Henrik Ibsens Hedda Gabler or A Dolls House are. They are primarily creative works, as is Arthur Millers The Crucible, and create drama out of social evils or injustice. That, sadly, is not what we see here in this country at present. The age of Badal Sircar and Vijay Tendulkar have passed and with it the excitement and sense of anticipation they brought when a new play was put on.

And yet, to some of us, theatre is a live form that we work with and which we seek to make as inclusive as we can. Not by playing to ghetto audiences but to a much larger number who seek to be diverted, stimulated, awed, perhaps, and who wish to leave with a sense of satisfaction and a greater awareness, dare one say, of the way things are. To create that is the essential fascination of the form, to achieve even a part of that is the modest goal that one must set oneself.

A great dancer once said to me that after one of her performances in Madrid, an old lady who was waiting for her to come out held her hand and wept, saying Thank you, thank you. No artist can want more than that, for deep down the sense of beauty and something beyond that had touched the old lady. A similar response is what all those who keep striving to present theatre to people crave for.

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