Posted on 12 August 2016 | No responses
You won’t be seeing much of me here for a little while. My show Heard of Elephants is in the Melbourne Fringe Festival and will be opening in one month’s time! Woohoo!
The tickets have become available this week and today is WORLD ELEPHANT DAY! So, I have two suggestions: Be sure to check out the World Elephant Day website and sign the pledge to protect elephants AND buy a couple tickets to see my show about what it’s like to be an elephant! You can make your purchase on the Melbourne Fringe Festival website or call 03 9660 9666. If you want a little more information before you buy, you can always check out the Heard of Elephants website.
This song might inspire you.
This poster might inspire you as well!
Peace, kindness, and trumpety noises!
Posted on 25 July 2016 | No responses
Songs often speak of a culture’s general values, or at least the values that those in power are wanting to prevail.
The below study of musical themes includes numbers that show the word “love” is being used less and less frequently. A couple commentators said this was because we are no longer using the word “love” when we mean “sex”. However, in the sixties we had songs like “All You Need Is Love“, “What the World Needs Now (is love sweet love)”, and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart“. In the 80s we had “Sowing The Seeds of Love” and in 2003 Black Eyed Peas came out with “Where Is The Love“.
Lyric intelligence has also gone down, particularly within popular music. It is worth considering how mega-popstars are made in this equation: how music mega-corporations discover, groom, and direct the sort of music being made and ensuring it is played on all the right radio, television, and online media channels.
Finally, the level of narcissicism in songs has gone up and up. Clinical narcissicists are keen manipulators, but they are also easily manipulated. Consumerism benefits from a culture of narcissicism.
Does this mean young people are stupider, more heartless, and vain than previous generations? I don’t think this is necessarily the case, unless we have brought them up to be so. The responsibility may belong to those advertisers who funded the thematic study. They are keen to mold our youth in order to create better consumers. What we are seeing here looks to me like the follow on from a “greed is good” generation. Every time an older generation judges the younger, they should really be pointing fingers at themselves.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 19 July 2016 | No responses
Why We Control
Our society is very much into control. How things are valued in a capitalist culture is nonsensically topsy-turvy. Food is a necessity, but we pay our farmers negligible wages. The same is true of people working to provide us with clean water, the removal of potentially septic waste, and daily palliative care when the time comes. Worse, women are paid little to nothing for giving birth to the next generation. I sometimes joke that my family would feel more pride in me if I had taken a high paying job in marketing for a perfume manufacturer. Instead I’m in a field that can be both necessary (low status) and a luxury (high status): the arts. So buttons to do with both fear and jealousy are pushed.
Necessary jobs are low status because it is easier to control desperate people. People on the verge of homelessness or going without food are easily fettered to those capable of keeping them alive. Those who control the source of our necessities are capable of holding others to ransom. Our society is sufficiently aware of this danger to legislate against monopolies and turn certain things into public services, but not sufficiently aware to keep those laws from eroding, as everyone is trying to grab what they can for themselves with little thought of consequences.
Women in particular are commodified because their necessity is incalculable. They are necessary for your existence, they are necessary to your early survival. They are necessary for satisfying some people’s biological urges. They are necessary for the most tangible of immortality we have—a biological legacy. Any insecure control-freak is going to want absolute domination of such people. Hence women are cajoled into contracts such as “until death do us part”, without any caveats to do with ill-treatment nullifying the agreements. We no longer expect those words to be taken literally, but heavy pressure is still used to abide by them. Keeping women from paid employment, and when failing that paying poverty wages, are ways to ensure women are unlikely to escape from servitude. When they do, at least sixty percent will live below the poverty line in both Australia and the US, becoming warnings to the dangers of freedom.
Why We Control Artists
Artists are necessary to a healthy society. They provide a mirror upon which our culture is reflected and can be reflected upon. They exercise our capacity for empathy and caring. Every time we learn to love a character warts and all, we are better able to love one another warts and all. We can learn about the lives of people we have never encountered in such a personal way before: women, children, elderly, ethnic, disabled, LGBT, indigent, etc. The arts can call people to action and propose alternatives to our current circumstances—giving us an inkling of what it might be like (especially through science fiction and fantasy). They can expose wrong-doers and bad behaviour. They can lift our hearts and give us resilience—what happened to the workers who used to sing together at their tasks? The arts help us to form relationships and bond as lovers, friends, communities, and nations. The arts can be a tool for escaping corrosive cultures and dictators. They are therefore not only necessary, but subversive and dangerous.
How does a control culture take hold of such a wild and beautiful beast—a unicorn both lovely and capable of piercing you through the heart? Turn it into a luxury and create a hierarchy of art. Teach those who could be saved with the help of art to love, hate, and fear art in the same manner and to the same degree as the controllers, but for the wrong reasons.
How Australia Controls Its Artists
In Australia our conservative government has removed $140 million from our federal arts budget. What money is left has largely been given to a conservative minister, rather than an arts body, to dispense. That money is being dispensed to a few large arts institutions who mostly present old works created in Europe that say nothing of contemporary life in Australia. (I actually like much of the old European arts, but to heavily favour them over the creation of new and local art by the living is wrong) These large institutions often charge high ticket prices, so only the well-off can regularly afford to experience skillfuly produced art. The artists who manage to garner the few remaining paid positions for performance may be acquiring a living wage or significantly better. Art becomes a luxury commodity. Those working in this field are given a platform where they are admired, resented, and constrained. Where once they were offering the whole world the equivalent of healthy apples, they are now offering nothing more than fairy floss to the elite. They are our “professional” artists.
Those of us who are now struggling to offer that sort of art which expands hearts and minds have been turned into revolutionaries, however mild, and pariah by both rich and poor. Those we try to serve may at times sniff at us, “Who are you to call yourself an artist? Do you think you are better than us? Only artists making lots of money are real artists. How dare you give yourself airs that you are somehow like a rich ‘professional artist’. How dare you give yourself this freedom when the rest of use have to do real work at soul destroying jobs.” I can try to explain how hard it is to be, quite literally upon occasion, a starving artist. Nevertheless, it is seen as a trade off, a rite of passage, or just desserts for being a layabout (even though you may be working very hard). Artists suffering is seen as justified, and mythologically is portrayed as necessary. This is outright cruelty. Painter Vincent van Gogh died in penury. Poet Emily Dickinson was not recognised until after her death. The list of great artists who have experienced either poverty or obscurity during their lives is very long. Were they not “real” because of this?
How Hierarchies Divide and Diminish Us
Earlier this year I rented rooms at a Melbourne library for rehearsals. I had no grants, donations, or patrons supporting me. I usually use every penny I make from my small online services company plus ticket sales to put on festival shows. To have anything other than a personal bank account you have to have an Australian Business Number (ABN). When the person who was arranging the booking saw I had an ABN, rather than charging me the community rate I was getting previously, she charged me the corporate rate. This was the difference between paying under a hundred dollars for a group of bookings and hundreds of dollars for the same bookings. These changes would have wiped out my entire budget at that point. I was then told I could only get community group access if I could show I was a non-profit. To become a non-profit you have to pay a fee, go through a lot of legal paperwork, and form a board who can in fact be drawing a living wage from the organisation. What I do is very fluid: I may not have the same people in two shows running. What I do is also very time consuming, because you either spend time or money. A board would be difficult to form.
The one non-profit I observed rehearsing at the library was a choir made up of street people. Their leader was made famous by television. The older women on his organisation team wrinkled their noses at my actors and expected us to get out of their way before our booked time was up. The leader who is financially supported for his efforts seemed to have genuine good intentions in bringing these people together. Singing together does lift the heart. I am concerned that the street people were ultimately being used to help others feel like good people, rather than generating real empathy for their situation. When tickets were sold, did the singers receive any payment for their work? I hope so. They have been on TV and radio, sung in concerts, been on tour, and have a regular donation stream. They were given the ten dollar per hour rate at the library. Though I could have done with more polite treatment, I feel it is appropriate that they perhaps receive this help. But to cut off small community groups through unachievable rental rates because they don’t have the same access to support is abominable.
When I tried to get help to secure affordable space I was told by the library that my actors were not a community group, but hobbyists. Two of my actors were actually making a living through performance. Most of the rest had university degrees in dance, music, and/or musical theatre. This was fully intended to be a slap in the face. Hobbyists are an important part of the spectrum of art making. And people who have spent long hard years honing their skills deserve some respect for their dedication.
The Spectrum of Art Engagement
This is the sort of Catch-22 treatment that ensures a permanent underclass. A bureaucratic hierarchy is put in place and artists find themselves clawing each other in order to make it up the rungs of status and opportunity. Hobbyist artists are important because sometimes they take wing, but even when they don’t, they add depth to their lives and learn greater art appreciation. Community arts groups are critical to the emotional and mental well-being of an area, encouraging the bonding necessary to ensure people are looking out for one another. Professional non-commercial theatre is often the tattiest looking of the lot because they get the least support. However, they are where you build a national culture: where new writers, actors, singers, dancers, etc ply their trade with all the love, passion, and skill to transform the world. And despite the fact I have just labelled four types of arts groups, you cannot really separate them, because they all feed each other.
Trained performers with no practical stage experience often prove difficult to work with. Upon occasion I will cast someone with community theatre experience before someone with a degree. You are not condescending when you choose to get a little stage time with a community group. Conversely people in community theatre groups and hobbyists need to keep their egos in check if they care anything for their art, rather than just potential status. Through humility we are all more open to listen, observe, and learn.
We all can appreciate the skill and talent of a fully commercial artist. Just do not give them all your love. They are meant to be pacifying, non-challenging, and supportive of our society of control. The stories they tell are meant to make money. Once in awhile, when the zeitgeist is right, money is to be made through speaking out but more often their stories are like the lies we tell to children.
Our world is in real trouble right now and the only way out is to learn how to let go of control, respect one another, share, and learn how to set our hearts free. Change only happens when you are willing to step into the unknown, but nothing says you can’t do this while holding hands and singing songs. Go out and consider one outrageous idea, listen to one new song, support one live artist daring to stand up on a rickety old stage. New worlds are made this way.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 14 July 2016 | No responses
by Thomas Hobson
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
There’s a book I read to the children by the author Leo Leonni entitled Frederick. I’m sure many of my preschool teacher colleagues read this to their kids; Leonni is a popular, brilliant author and his paper collage illustrations are charming. In this story, Frederick the mouse avoids physical labor as the other mice prepare for winter, at first evocative of The Little Red Hen. When the others ask him, “reproachfully,” why he isn’t working, Frederick replies “I gather sun rays for the cold, dark winter days,” “I gather colors, for winter is gray,” and “I’m gathering words, for the winter days are long and many.”
I’ve long on these pages bemoaned our society’s habit of equating education with the acquisition of job skills. Indeed, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a political leader from any party speak of schools without directly linking them to the fantastical “jobs of tomorrow.” The entire corporate eduction “reform” movement with it’s emphasis on high stakes testing, standardized curricula, and privatization is largely a plan to finish the job of converting our public schools into institutions of vocational training. Right across the country, arts, music, physical education, social studies, drama, and civics are being dropped from our children’s school days, and even such bedrock subjects as science, history, and the rest of the humanities have been minimized in order to make more room for math and literacy, the only things, apparently, that really matter.
What a sad thing that is. When guys like Bill Gates talk about “unleashing powerful market forces” on our schools, I envision them being unleashed upon our children and it strikes me, at best, as a narrowing of life, and at worst a harsh cruelty. Listen, I’m aware that we’re all, at some level, economic beings, and that’s not a bad thing, but that’s certainly not all we are. What about unleashing powerful artistic forces on our schools? Or powerful civic forces? Or powerful physical or scientific or musical or historical or philosophical forces? Those aspects of a well-rounded life are at least as important as the drudgery that most of us ultimately face when compelled to expend the better part of our days, during the better part of our years, bringing home that damned bacon.
We’re told that capitalism, and particularly the free market brand we’ve been experimenting with since 1980, is as good as it gets, warts and all, but talk about one hell of an inefficient system if it requires pretty much all of its able bodied citizens working most of their daylight hours in order to function properly, as if we exist to serve the economy instead of the other way around. Civilization must be about more than earning a greasy buck, but the economists are in charge and they’re “reproachful” of the rest of us who understand that if it’s going to be worth anything someone must gather sun rays.
I don’t want to live in a world in which my existence is justified by how many dollars I can extract from it. What I do with my life is far more vital than that. I am a father, husband, son, brother, and friend. I am a teacher. I am a man of spirit and philosophy. I am an artist. I am a citizen. I am a politician. I am a writer. I am a cyclist. I am a community organizer. I play these and many more roles in the world, each at least as important as the other, and none of them can be measured on a standardized test like reading and ciphering. I think that’s what blinders the corporate “reformers”: if they can’t reduce it to numbers, if they can’t hold someone accountable, if it can’t be standardized under shrink-wrapped packaging, it doesn’t exist. And that describes most of what makes life worth living.
As a teacher I’m always torn between preparing children for the world as it is and the world of my ideals. I generally come down on the side of my ideals because I simply can’t bring myself to prepare these young children for a meager make-work future of inspectors inspecting inspectors with their tools designed solely for inspecting. That’s not why most of us are here: we’re here to sing, to invent, to discover, to explore, and to gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days. That’s the true business of people and trying to measure that is like trying to measure the height of love or the circumference of god.
I am a preschool teacher, writer, speaker, artist and the author of “A Parent’s Guide To Seattle”. For the past 15 years, I’ve taught preschool at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. The children come to us as 2-year-olds in diapers and leave as “sophisticated” 5-year-olds ready for kindergarten. The cooperative school model allows me to work very closely with families in a true community setting. I intend to teach at Woodland Park for the rest of my life. I love the kids and I love the families. It’s an incredibly rewarding job.
Posted on 14 July 2016 | No responses
We need to be protecting original peoples everywhere. We need to preserve the environment and cultural diversity. They are our future. Please sign “Say NO to mining sacred Native American land in Arizona”.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 12 July 2016 | No responses
How do you value art “objectively”? Part of the point is that it’s deeply personal. What needs to happen is for works to be appreciated authentically. You pay the money because you feel a genuine connection with the work: not because it costs a lot of money, not because it’s famous, not because lots of other people think it’s amazing, not because it will give you status to own it. It’s okay to honour an artist who has deeply touched many people’s lives. However, your relationship with a work is your own. Choosing something because you like it validates both you and the artist, but it’s a deeply political act because you have to be willing to reveal something of yourself and forego what others might think.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 5 July 2016 | No responses
I am producing a musical about elephants. This is a subversive act.
You may not at first think this would prove to be a minefield of significant proportions, but any number of things can blow up in my face about the production: issues to do with classism, racism, and animal portrayal.
The idea to do Heard of Elephants came before I found some reasons for it. My grandfather had worked with elephants for a period of time when he was helping people to grow crops in Vietnam. I am also aware of their sigificance to the biosphere. I had been looking for a way to represent how we are complicit in the creation of refugees and had a responsibility to care for those forced from their homelands.
When elephants came to mind it was easy to see the whole destructive cycle we have created. Western lifestyles have caused global warming. Climate change has put environmental pressure on the ability of peoples within third world countries to survive. They turn to their natural resources and further destroy them in order to live just one more day. However, destroying their ecosystems results in further losses. The desertification of their countries results in civil unrest and ultimately refugees. On top of that the whole world loses the forests which are the major carbon sinks for this planet.
Elephants are a keystone species for the survival of the Congo jungles. If we lost a large segment of these forests, we have a greater hope of reviving them with the presence of the elephants who disperse and fertilise seeds and keep overgrowth under control.
So there we have it: a story whereby the connection between social justice and environmentalism can be be portrayed in one neat package.
I did a lot of research about elephants: their behaviour and their circumstances. I am also concerned about the circumstances of the people who live with them and protect them. I am doing all I can to have a truthful portrayal of elephant life and how that affects everything and everyone. However, I immediately had people objecting without having read or even seen my musical.
“Why aren’t you doing a musical about endangered Australian animals? You know there are only twenty rock wallabies left in the wild; they are threatened with extinction too!” That is a concern. I was inspired to write about elephants. Perhaps another time I will write about rock wallabys. Better still, why don’t you write about rock wallabys, so more than one person is working on these issues.
“Why are people only focussing on charismatic mega-fauna? We take care of them then we leave without protection or help many less charismatic creatures.” I respect that all of life needs our consideration. Neither myself nor my actors are so shallow as to think that the problem stops with elephants. Elephants being intelligent, emotional creatures with a culture of their own are easier to truthfully represent and elicit empathy on stage. They provide a doorway to opening conversation and inspiring action. Perhaps another time I will write a musical from the perspective of a coral polyp.
In order to write about elephants I had to choose which elephants: elephants in zoos and circuses, elephants in Asia, or elephants in Africa.
Elephants in zoos and circuses are a big problem. Very few of these organisations are properly caring for their elephant charges. A musical could and should be written about this. I have some ideas. Elephants in Asia have the additional issue of their treatment as work animals. If my focus was to be on the environment and refugees, the clearest example was going to be African elephants.
I did not want to insult any particular country in Africa, so I invented a new one: Kinzibar. A line I use in the plays is that elephants are neither black nor white–they are grey, they belong to all of us. As such I cast people to play elephants who are from Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, India, Philippines, Portugal, Italy, etc. Elephants are not human beings. Elephants are elephants. So this should make no difference and hopefully broaden the audience’s perspective.
Of course there’s still the issue of my being a white person writing and directing this work.
Within the living memory of the family I grew up with I have an American Indian great grandmother. I did not meet her, nor do I know much about her. It is still considered shameful by my family that our blood isn’t “pure”. So long as we pass as white and our status is secure, her memory is being obliterated. This concerns me. This is also my heritage, of equal importance as any other heritage. When J.K. Rowling decided to include American Indian mythology in her Harry Potter world I was dismayed. On the one hand it is important to reflect the diversity of our world in our stories, but we must reflect and represent, not misappropriate. It’s okay to write about other peoples, provided you do your research and you consult with people from those communities. And of utmost importance be truthful and respectful.
The focus of Heard of Elephants is largely the elephants themselves. The humans we meet are rangers doing their duty. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fairly and entirely avoid all expression of African culture. So, I did research, spoke with people, and have taken on actors who can speak for themselves about whether or not something is truthful. I cannot guarantee I am getting this perfect, but I am doing my best and am interested in doing it better. The one thing that would add significantly to my portrayal of events is if I had the chance to actually go to places like Kenya or South Africa. I have nowhere near the financial means to travel for that sort of research. I keep hoping this show will open that door.
One fascinating piece of research I did was watching recordings of news reports from within African countries. I made a lot of use of these to build my story. These peoples can be so modern and so sophisticated, yet they have to face base treatment by first world countries who are keeping them locked into impoverishment.
I hear people talk about ethics in theatre. What they feel is ethical will depend upon their class standing and understanding.
Making art is work. It takes time, it takes skill, it takes funding. Some arts can be done individually such as painting and sculpting and some, like theatre, require a collaborative effort. As soon as a work requires collaboration the questions become who pays who and how much.
The film and television portrayal of live theatre shows wealthy producers making high concept plays at lavish theatres. Many people’s experience of theatre is either that made at the large venues such as a state arts centre or well-appointed school or community theatres which are being funded by governments at the state or council level. New theatre rarely has access to any of this. It’s often done on tatty old stages or in converted spaces. Yet, this is where the big names of playwriting, screenwriting, and acting will come from. We all have to start somewhere. Those taking the safe road by performing as singer number two in a large musical production will be paid, but may never be anything more than singer number two.
I can tell you for a fact that it’s very difficult getting anyone to produce original theatre of a challenging political nature. You can get a little bit through, if it represents a popular zeitgeist. Mostly people who write this sort of material have to produce their own shows, and people who feel the need to write this sort of material often don’t have much money. These pieces may eventually take off and make a load of cash, but they don’t start that way and no one can predict it. Everyone who climbs on board (actors, directors, crew) at the early stages has to be there because they care about art and they care about the subject matter. It’s very likely the producer will be out of pocket and people will be paid in goodwill and experience. Be glad actors that with profit share, you are never asked to help pay for any short-falls, which would be the case with a genuine cooperative business. Let me add: if money is made, everyone should get a fair cut.
I have heard a few playwrights with high paying day jobs talking about how much more “ethical” they are than the poor playwrights, because they are paying the actors. If they were truly ethical, they wouldn’t be voting in governments that cut $130 million from the arts and defunds 65 arts organisations. They would speak up when public radio, public television, and community arts centres are closed. Without people agreeing to work together to create art, the voices of women, children, indigenous, immigrant, ethnic, and impoverished people are not heard. We do not learn of their experiences, their worlds, and we do not have an opportunity to empathise. Without people agreeing to work together to speak out on the behalf of our co-travellers on this planet, the plants and animals, how do we raise awareness and engage people in making change.
Sadly, when someone does put up a play on a minuscule budget, sometimes they face problems with reviewers, who rather than looking at the quality of the storytelling and acting, get caught up in the production values. Worse is when they get on their high horses and are critical of a work because it addresses the needs of the vulnerable, rather than representing their world of privilege. This happens, for instance, when a reviewer lambastes a modern language version of a Shakespeare play, because they feel the story should be locked behind antiquated language that only a wealthy education can unlock.
Theatre is not for the faint of heart. No one should go into the arts unless they genuinely care about the arts or the issues it represents. But if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, grab it with both hands and hang on for dear life. The world needs you. It may not understand why it needs you, but it does. The journey will be a hard and bumpy one, but you will make of the world a better place. In the mean time I will keep doing the crazy thing of writing about elephants and hope everyone finds it thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and reason to go out and support life!
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 27 June 2016 | No responses
Here’s the gang from “Two Todays: No Tomorrow!” We performed this for the Board Shorts: Short Play Festival.
From left to right: Colin Donald, Playwriter; Samuel Chappel, actor; Russell Williamson, actor; Katherine Phelps (me), director; Isaac Jones, actor.
Posted on 24 June 2016 | No responses
Public Domain meme for sharing. Please remember and honour this moment in history!
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 23 June 2016 | No responses
This is the letter I sent to my Federal Senators and House Representative. Feel free to use it as a template for your own letters.
Currently we have citizenry armed and poised to go to war with its government and other segments of the US public. What we are experiencing is tantamount to guerilla warfare against the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.
The US is a DEMOCRACY precisely to ensure our problems are sorted out peacefully. We should be educating people on how to co-exist and resolve conflict through discussion, mediation and legislation, NOT handing them more and more sophisticated weaponry.
I am a citizen of the US and I am currently living in Australia. I can tell you for a fact that Australia is neither more violent nor has more difficulty with its government than the US, even though it has a gun ban.
I would like to urge you, if you aren’t already, please support John Lewis and all those who are participating in the sit-in. Thank you so much for all your work on my behalf and on the behalf of my family. Being able to live in a country where we can also be free from the fear of random gun deaths would be a real achievement.