Volume 19 Number 5
01 October 2006
Whether you're a clown, a singer, an actor or simply a member of the audience, you have an impact on the world, Mary Lean discovers.
DARREN RAYMOND knows what a powerful effect the arts can have on people's
lives.While serving a sentence in Brixton Prison, London, in 2003, he went along to a drama class. 'I found myself playing silly games, and wondered what I had put myself into,' he told a group at the Renewal Arts Forum at the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland, this summer. 'But after about an hour of the class I thought, "Wow, I've forgotten I'm in prison". No one was treating me as a prisoner; I was being treated as an equal, as an artist. It was a turning point for me as a person.'
Raymond, now a professional actor, goes back into prisons to run workshops on Shakespeare—and says that participants frequently end up writing sonnets in their first session. 'Shakespeare's themes are universal,' he says. 'A lot of prisoners have pent-up anger and frustrations. There's no better writer than Shakespeare to bring that to the fore.'
Raymond was one of several at the Forum whose personal experience illustrated its theme: 'Transforming the way things are'.
Pauline Warjri, a music teacher and composer from Northeast India, spoke of how, as a young person, 'I felt I was nobody until it came to piano and singing. Music was my home, music brought me into contact with people young and old.' She now lives in Bangalore, where she teaches piano and voice and promotes musical literacy. Earlier this year she started a choir which includes people from a wide range of linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, from
both Bangalore and the Northeast. 'People who are killing each other back home, sing together.'
For Palestinian photographer Yousef Khanfar, artists have a responsibility to social justice. 'I never want to stand next to the strong and wrong against the weak and right,' he told the Forum. 'Every creation should put questions to the public.' To communicate a message, an artist must go beyond the surface and draw on the 'silent region deep down inside'.
For, as conference organiser Elisabeth Tooms points out, art always puts across a worldview of some sort, whether it is overt or not. Renewal Arts is a network of artists and art-lovers who share a positive vision of the world and of human endeavour. 'Art has a phenomenal power to challenge and transform the way people think,' she says. 'It has the potential to be subversive, to be a catalyst for change, to be dangerous to evil. We aim to encourage artists who want to express a vision of a just and generous world.'
A huge range of disciplines and nationalities were represented at Caux, from the Swedish clowns and jugglers whose celebratory zest permeated the week to the British string quartet who gave a late-night performance of Mozart's Requiem in the chapel above the conference centre. There were rock musicians and classical actors; a Japanese calligraphy master and an Indian 13-year-old with an angelic singing voice; film-makers, dancers, singers, writers—and those who simply described themselves as representing the audience.
This last group were offered a feast of concerts, plays and other productions. Evening programmes included the West European premiere of a new Russian play, The Nightingale Sang, the Lilacs were in Bloom, by the Moscow New Drama Theatre; Rob Gillion's one-man play, The Visit, in which a priest's life is disrupted when Jesus visits his parish; a harpsichord concert by Serbian mother and daughter, Svetlana and Maya Kutlaca; and a performance by
the British rock band, Advina. Stockholm's Commedia Gillet performed outside during teatimes. The afternoon 'Arts à la Carte' spot offered such choices as Ukrainian pop music or Indian classical dance, a French production on Joan of Arc or a 750-metre walk representing the history of the Cosmos, with human history filling only a coupleof centimetres.
A highpoint of the week was an unusual Caux Lecture, given by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet in honour of the centenary of the birth of the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1972, the Quartet were the first people to perform the composer's disturbing13th String Quartet, written in 1970, five years before he died. For the lecture, they performed it twice, engaging in discussion with the audience in the interval between.
In this interactive space, members of the audience spoke of the images the work had evoked for them—an anxious old man, someone walking through the snow, a knocking on a door or the beating of a heart. An Australian specialist in terminal care recognised the emotions expressed by people who are dying: 'the highs and lows, exultation, terrible depression'. A young Lebanese man, stranded at Caux when the Isaraeli air offensive began, heard the cries of running children: 'You were the bombs and you were the men.'
Several speakers during the Forum stressed the audience's vital role in the artistic process. 'The audience does half the work,' said Welsh soprano Gillian Humphreys, whose Concordia Foundation promotes and supports emerging artists. 'We are just a channel for something from somewhere to other people,' said German composer and saxophonist Uwe Steinmetz.
Steinmetz spoke of the conflict between his passion for perfection in his art and the fact that people might be moved by performances with which he had been dissatisfied. 'It's really hard to be humble, to respect another human being and say I'm so happy you've been touched, and next time I will do it better.' Sometimes artists needed to simplify in the interests of communication.
'I react to the idea that the artist is a special person,' said Augusto Cabrera, Peruvian-born Director of Commedia Gillet. 'I think that every human being has that gift. Some of us choose to walk that path, others choose something else.'
Artists and non-artists alike were given a chance to learn new skills or develop old ones in a choice of daily workshops, which also undertook such practical tasks as washing-up, table-setting and preparing meals for the whole conference. While a group of teenagers (and some older interlopers) learnt how to juggle and form human pyramids in the grounds, Pauline Warjri trained a mixed-ability choir and Yousef Khanfar conducted a masterclass in photography.'
Understanding peace through Japanese art' found a British sculptor sitting on the floor with his children learning Japanese calligraphy. This workshop set themselves to make 1,000 origami cranes, which they gave to the Lebanese and Palestinians present on the last morning of the conference. If you make 1,000 cranes, they explained, your wish will come true: theirs was for peace.
Meanwhile, a Polish university lecturer was busy on her 'second ever' work in paint. Gerd Ekdahl, the Swedish artist leading the 'Painting from within' workshop, encouraged participants to bypass their heads and 'paint from the stomach'. Each morning, after some technical instruction, she suggested a theme ('emptiness and energy', 'insecurity and security', 'purity') and then, after a period of silence and sharing, participants set brush to paper. The results were exhibited at the end of the conference.
Other workshops focused on photography, video production, story telling, method acting, improvisation and drama games. Another prepared the final evening, centred on a new composition by Uwe Steinmetz, inspired by the four standards of Initiatives of Change, absolute honesty, purity, love and unselfishness. An innovative workshop on sound, led by Thérèse Bellut from France, taught participants to listen deeply and to harmonise, using a wide range of instruments, many of them unconventional. 'We started with chaos, but it became harmony,' said one participant. 'The workshop allowed one to become the child that perhaps one never was.'
Each day began, for the early risers, with a choice of reflections and meditations. At the end of the morning, the Forum gathered for 'conversation', initiated each day by a different trio of artists and then continuing in small groups and in an open-floor discussion. Themes included the artist's vocation and the role of art in bringing change and building bridges.
'Western culture today is characterised by consumerism, materialism, hedonism,' said British playwright Hugh Williams. 'Can art subvert that and replace it with something better? If we go on as we are we will not only destroy the planet but our souls as well.'
Yousef Khanfar described Caux as a 'place of silence' where it was possible to empty out the trash in one's mind so as to become creative. Actor priest Rob Gillion spoke of the inspiration he found in Caux's diversity. Augusto Cabrera spoke of Caux gatherings as among the events which had changed his life 'from having a rather dark feeling about humanity to seeing how people from different cultures, religions and ways of expression can come together and work to build bridges'. 'We have been playing with a serious purpose, discovering more about the world and about ourselves,' said Elisabeth Tooms.'
You will hear a lot of stories,' American actor, producer and director Bev Appleton told the opening session of the Forum. 'What we want more than anything is that you leave with your own story.' The conference ended in a spirit of carnival, as the clowns of Commedia Gillet led the participants in a conga out of the main meeting hall onto the mountainside.