Posted on 24 September 2014 | No responses
I am well known for my interesting casting choices. I want to better represent life, where things are much more diverse than is frequently seen on stage or in film. This means I sometimes have to train my performers in order to get that mix. However, the university lecturer in me LOVES helping people to learn and to succeed artistically. The end result is more interesting, truthful, and vibrant.
Here is a vlog from one of my performers. No doubt he will be somewhat embarrassed I have put this here. However, I would like to thank him for sharing his perspective, it means a lot to me.
WizAz is still happening at Melbourne Fringe. You can get tickets here:
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 23 September 2014 | No responses
We are living in a world where we are surrounded by assembly-line storytelling. Mainstream film and television rarely offer anything new. As such improvisational theatre has much to offer.
You would be right in thinking that Melbourne has nearly as many types of improvisation as their are impro groups. Improvisation is much like circus in that this is performance with an edge of danger. Will the performers be able to pull off an entertaining hour of drama, comedy, games, and/or song that feels cohesive and provides entertainment?
Impromptunes: Whose Chorus Line Is It Anyway? plays with the dual genres of the musical and the “play within a play”. Each night Impromptunes solicits a show title from the audience and starts building a story with song around it. However, concurrent with that story is the story of the actors, musician, and director, and the nature of their lives.
Like circus the show does in fact have “safety nets” to assist in the unfolding of the plot. Improvisors spend a lot of time playing games that build their skills as instantaneous performers and storytellers. When they go to stage with a show, they often bring a number of these games with them. This provides a point of interaction with the audience.
Emmet Nichols, the founder of Impromptunes and former Big HOO-HAA! alumnus, plays the show’s director. He uses his position to engage with the audience as the “playwrights” of the night, to introduce games and to keep the show bubbling along. I have seen some long-form impro shows where all the ideas are gathered at the beginning, then events are played out end to end the rest of the night. I much prefer Nichols’s style of regularly touching base with people, so they remain aware of the spontaneity of what is being presented.
The evening I attended the title given to the play was “My Little Pony Armageddon”. This was a joke on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Clearly none of them knew the reference to an animated children’s show, but were game to create a story to do with magical ponies who give eternal youth to grandparents when eaten. Musical styles ranged from straight musical to jazz, to opera, to Mexican mariachi.
The cast are part of a team who work varying nights. So not only will you have a unique story every night, but a diverse range of actors. The group I saw were engaging and whip-smart when it came to bringing a comic touch to unfolding events. Nichols has done a superb job of selecting his people.
Emily Taylor created the role of Pixie the Pony and invested it with great charm and sly humour. Stuart Packham played The Dad to Little Susy. However, I would say he particularly shone in the behind the scenes segments. He would be marvellous in a The Office type show. Amanda Buckley’s confident performance as Susy was a delight. She would be a positive addition to any theatrical production.
My favourite comedy moments came from Hollie James who played The Evil Grandma and The Snooty Actress. Her bitch queen was deliciously horrible and laugh-worthy. This was made doubly funny knowing that in real life she had recently played in the live production of Peppa The Pig. Morgan Phillips supported James’s character as Evil Grandpa. The gusto with which he revved up that chainsaw to slaughter little ponies, then later performing a love scene with Stuart Packham, spoke of a committed performer with a solid sense of comic performance. Keep an ear open for some impressive singing from Phillips.
Cameron Taylor had a good unassuming charm and I would love to see more of him. Alana Tranter was similarly adorable. Greg Lovell’s grumpy French pianist was an unexpected delight.
Impromptunes has much to offer and is well worth seeing more than once. Emmet Nichols has reason to be proud of this vibrant and sophisticated production.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 16 September 2014 | No responses
An artist’s stock in trade is emotions. We provide relatively safe places where people can explore their emotions, what they mean, and what things can be done with them.
As living beings emotions are important tools for our survival. Fight or flight keeps us from losing our lives to predators. Bonding and intimacy help us to thrive as a species. We are social animals. Despite a mythos that glorifies people who are like lone tigers, we are much more like elephants (betcha haven’t heard that analogy before): intelligent creatures who rely on one another for survival and have to be there for their young for an extended period of time.
When you are performing with a group, it’s important to find ways to negotiate with your emotions on stage versus off stage. It’s vital that you find ways to ensure everyone feels they are in a safe space: a space where they can allow themselves to be vulnerable and to experiment, in order to create the best performance possible. This requires openness, kindness, and respect.
Comedy tends to put people in high spirits so the play can get a bit rough. Play is an important part of the process. You want to allow for as much of it as possible. You also have to be able to read people’s emotions and be ready to ask that all important question “are you okay with that”? That requires slowing things down a bit and giving your brain half a chance to keep up with circumstances.
People come into a performance group with their own individual emotional journeys. Everyone will only ever be showing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their lives. You won’t entirely know what their history is, nor their current experiences, nor even their inner world.
People who have experienced certain sorts of trauma may actually show less emotion around certain things, because it’s one way to protect themselves. So you need to create a space where they feel safe to say when something is bothering them, but also remember to ask “are you okay”.
People who have experienced trauma may also have some trigger points. When they ask others to be careful about certain things, it’s not necessarily a judgement nor a call for censorship. It’s very much like saying, I have an allergy to peanuts. Hopefully, people will take that in a spirit of friendship and go, “okay, I’ll make sure not to have peanuts in the dishes I serve you, or at least warn you when they are present.”
When you are in a perfomance group you are going to end up feeling all kinds of things about each other, and that’s to be expected. You also have to be ready to speak with one another respectfully and professionally. If that doesn’t work, then you need to talk to your director or who ever else is responsible, so that they can speak respectfully on your behalf. You will need to learn techniques to switch on and off performance emotions. And those things that remains problematic, find places where you can safely vent. More than anything, put friendship first. It really is your highest value and safest place.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 8 September 2014 | No responses
This blog has always been about the processes that go into creating live comedy. As such I enjoy my chats with people who are willing to reveal what it’s like on the inside of this business. In this manner I show others the many different ways people get at the funny, get at the truth, and engage audiences. It’s not all one safe path. It’s a million different paths, one for each person taking the creative journey.
Carly Milroy and Harley Hefford are opening a new show at Melbourne Fringe Festival entitled Post Post. It’s about a couple of desperate postal workers who “set out to reignite the lost art of letter writing by whatever means necessary.” Milroy was willing to take the time to come up with delightfully insightful comments about her show and how she and Hefford brought it together.
Is your show in part about nostalgia?
Considering the themes of the show, it certainly could have veered that way! Yes, in part I think it is about nostalgia, but it is only a small fraction.
In the early stages of developing Post-Post Harley and I were pretty adamant that what interested us most was exploring possibilities of ways people could be interacting and relating to one another differently, as opposed to focusing on how that has been done in the past. It would be easy to pine after the days when romances were documented in long handwritten letters and everyone stood singing around one communal harpsichord (or such is my understanding), but actually Harley and I aren’t super nostalgic people. We both really appreciate technology and, like most of us, use it daily to connect with others (give up Google docs, are you kidding?!).
Our goal with Post-Post was to revive some of the values, or I suppose sentiments, of the past and haul them into the present. One of Harley’s most prominent characters in the show is this gorgeous man, Stanley. Stanley is one of two displaced postal workers and probably best represents that idea of bringing some nostalgic sentiment back into the present. He insists on describing everything in a very poetic way, and tries to impose close friendships on the townspeople around him. This becomes equally heartwarming and infuriating.
The show plays with the possibility that letter writing could be integrated back into our lives, along with all the other exciting and convenient digital platforms we probably exclusively fall back on now. I guess in that sense Post-Post is much more hopeful than wistful.
What do you think we are losing with the loss of physical missives?
GUH! We considered this question for so long before even deciding on a firm storyline for the show. Our conversation kept circling back to: who cares if people stop writing letters altogether? What do we actually stand to lose? Does this even matter?
We eventually concluded that what physical letters really offer us is this kind of accountability for our words. Letters become artifacts and heirlooms; they’re unique, they can’t be replicated and I know I have at least five shoeboxes full of them in my closet. We agreed that a totally different depth of thought and consideration is put into writing a letter than an email. Emails can be saved, copied or forwarded in a click of a button. Expressing our thoughts or perspectives with some level of accountability for how they will be received and read potentially years later certainly alters our depth of writing, and probably makes us put more thought into what we actually want to express.
Then there’s a whole list of other things that we stand to lose, like the disintegration of that whole handwriting thing (which I’m guessing took a lot of effort to really get off the ground), and the entire postal service industry/thousands of jobs globally.
You seem to be dealing not only with the post-post world, but also the post-employment world. How much do you grapple with these political aspects of your show?
While I wouldn’t say Post-Post engages in a great deal of a political analysis or exploration—ultimately we knew we were writing a pretty absurd comedy—the idea of post-employment absolutely forms a big part of the conflict in the show.
When our two postal workers, Stanley and Elma, find out they’re going to lose their jobs, a string of other characters are introduced: The Courier, The Milkbar Owner, The News Anchors, among others. Their identities pivot pretty much entirely around their professions. Obviously, this is an exaggeration but also not too far a stretch from how so many of us see ourselves or our place in society.
Harley and I wanted to create a town with values that are magnified versions of the values we live out every day. That is, the cultural celebration of very specific kinds of measurable societal contributions (“Earn or Learn”), until our sense of who we are becomes so tightly connected with what we do for a job. You see this mostly through Elma, who is hit hardest when she faces losing her identity in this way. It becomes the trigger for the entire plot: Elma trying to salvage her sense of purpose at the post office.
Post-employment is definitely a device for the story, and in the post office context, it’s a springboard to look at drastic changes in our communication styles. Maybe it’s something we will want to look at more thoroughly in another show down the track!
I have a feeling my questions may make your show sound dark. My sense is that it’s a good-natured romp; it just happens to have its feet grounded in a little reality before launching into surreality. How does this help to communicate your ideas?
That’s absolutely right! Harley and I are both of the strong opinion that comedy can be a more powerful tool to engage an audience in social concepts than tragedy. Showing people the silliness of reality often leads to change, or at very least discussion. That has always been a big draw card for both of our passions for comedy, and something we knew we had in common when we set out to create Post-Post.
Also, the style of the show lends itself well to some audience interaction (which we love!), so that we can give you a postcard and a pen in the show and actually start inspiring some immediate letter writing!
How much improvisation and how much straight writing went into the creation of this show?
When we started developing the show, we were convinced that we wanted to improvise and play to create the characters, stories, everything! And for the most part we were able to do that. We then realised the various characters’ stories would need to become so interlinked, it became more of a process of improvising together then going away to write tighter versions of the scenes. Harley has a terrific background in impro, whereas most of my performance experience has been from the script. It’s a process we have both participated in before and it’s fast becoming my favourite way to write.
Where are you wanting to go with Post-Post. Are you building yourselves up as an ensemble? Are you hoping to tour?
Touring and developing this show after Fringe is the most likely goal at this point. We have created a sort of umbrella production group, Two Noses Productions, for this show that we hope to start investing in establishing as a very small company so that we can experiment with other performance ideas as a duo. It’s been a terrific experience so we both want to see what else we can create as an ensemble.
If you could invent a new flavor of TimTam, what would it be?
In this junction in our lives it’d have to be “Coconut Surprise!”, to combine two of our favourite things.
Court House Hotel
Cnr Errol & Queensberry St
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 2 September 2014 | No responses
One truism goes: the best way to get rich quick is to write a book about how to get rich quick. I would say a few other topics are also easy ways to get attention, such as how to find true love or become famous. We all share certain basic desires. These desires have a dark side and we need to name that dark side, so we can overcome it. Because there is a light side to these desires as well.
Our bodies have very good reasons for wanting to indulge. We need food and clothing to survive. Once upon a time we needed to fatten up during the summer in order to endure the cold of winter. I weigh my cats once a week and it surprises me how much more food they need during the winter chill in order to maintain their weight.
Anything to do with survival is at least partially hardwired into our system: procreation, finding warmth, craving food. This makes them easy buttons to push for those seeking wealth. However with greater access to these things, the more conscious we have to be about our choices in order to keep our lives in balance.
This is not easy when like cocaine pushers you have companies displaying sugary foods at every cash register, across large public billboards, on television, radio, the Internet, and films. You rarely have a chance NOT to think about sugar. Notice whenever you use the words of addiction around something. Remember, addiction is not in fact a good thing. It takes away your agency and exposes you to physical harm.
We all have a right to our existence. Our civilisation requires the exchange of currency in order for people to have access to the necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter. Wealth means never having to worry that your needs will be met.
Many people do not have a steady access to the means by which to live. Many nervously gaze at those worse off than they and try to distance themselves from the neediness, as if it were an infection. Wealth is also used to dominate and control. Wealth puts a person in a position where they don’t have to care any more: after all, they have all they need, too bad about you.
If we think about wealth as being a form of shared well-being, where everyone and every being’s needs are met and they get to experience a rich meaningful existence, then wealth can be a good thing.
All of the wants listed here are a desire for some form of control. Power is perhaps the “purest” form of control.
One of the most destructive things on Earth is power devoid of compassion. As a gamer I came across this quote (I do not know its origins): “Positions of power attract people whose sole interest are positions of power.” This means power does not corrupt so much as you will find people who will smile, bow, and dissemble until they reach a position of control, at which point you discover they never cared about the welfare of the group to begin with.
We all make power negotiations every day. All of us would like to have our own way. However, with power sharing we are much more likely to get what we need in the larger picture. With my peace groups I have to remind people that we are about more than just the cessation of fighting. A military dictatorship can be “peaceful” in that the populace is not raising arms against one another or a neighbouring state. However, does anyone within that state actually feel peaceful? Or are they living in fear?
The empowerment of a people where they are well cared for, experience human rights, can initiate change, and actively have a say in the governing of their affairs…this comes with cooperation and creates a deeper peace. Politicians should see themselves as public servants, not nobility.
We all yearn for justice. If I work hard, it seems only just that I should make a good living. If I am kind to men/women, it seems only just that one should become a partner. If someone does me harm, it seems only just that they are punished.
Vengence and entitlement are not the same as justice. And some things you shouldn’t have to earn, they should be your right: such as necessities and respect for diversity. Real justice comes when you look beyond yourself and think about how to make things better, rather than destroying the things that make you unhappy. “I hurt, so I want to make you hurt,” is a dangerous game to play. People can be hurt when no harm was intended.
This is the New Age equivalent to the “get rich quick” genre.
Humans are social animals. Our brains need the stimulation that comes from other humans. We are not built like tigers who can hunt alone, we need one another acting cooperatively in order to access food. We need to be able to bond with one another and our children for at least twelve years in order to see them to adulthood, and thereby ensure the continuation of the human race.
True love speaks to our needs for companionship, procreation, and personal validation. For women in our culture it has traditionally also spoken of their need for someone who will ensure their physical survival. It’s hardly surprising that we would like some guarantees in this arena.
Looking for “true” love will set your expectations too high and cause a lot of disappointment. “True” love is often about validation without challenges…which will never happen. Real love is prepared to face challenges, to work things through even when it’s hard. “True” love is also about owning another person: they don’t get a say in what they want or what they do, they are required to want and stay with you no matter how you treat them.
Love for validation is incredibly dangerous. You have to be able to validate yourself. If not, you will be vulnerable to manipulation and drawn to the “cool” kids who are likely to abuse you. The other problem is that no one’s love will ever satisfy, if you are incapable of validating yourself. You can shower love on someone seeking validation, and when they realise you aren’t making them feel better, they lose respect for you and feel someone else might be better.
To me the point isn’t “true” love, but simply love. You can love your friends, your family, and show humanitarian love and care for the environment. Nail those, and you may run into a few people who will enjoy your companionship. Just let it happen and enjoy all the types of love in your life.
By fame I mean anything that makes you exceptional and the focus of attention. The craving after unnatural physical beauty fits in here along with wanting to be the world’s greatest pianist. Fame gives you status and people respect status. People will tend to give you more privileges. This helps with your survival and gives you external validation.
Fame also means people will want to knock you down off your pedestal. If your fame is based on beauty or physical strength, age will be your enemy. People will feel they have a right to know what is happening in your life. You will have a hard time knowing when people care about you, and when they care about your status. You will also have a hard time feeling good about yourself independently of your fans. Fame comes and goes. Very few people are equally famous all their life. So, they can end up in this roller coaster of liking and not liking themselves as the wind blows (to mix a metaphor or two). If you want to know why so many artists take their lives, this is one strong reason.
It’s good to fully develop your potential and to stretch yourself as a person. When you are an artist fame should be seen as having a good customer base for your service, rather than a demonstration of your personal worth.
As social creatures we fear ostracisation. In the animal kingdom it often means death. So even though we may crave being exceptional, that only works at the top of the pyramid. Before that point people don’t want to stand out. They want to be invisible and out of harms way. They seek to show their allegiance to various groups by taking up the “uniform” of that group, hoping to gain acceptance and protection by being a part of something bigger than themselves.
I bridle at phrases such as “my other half” and “he/she completes me” when talking about couples. Surely a relationship is stronger and has more depth when two wholes come together to make a greater whole. Interdependent relations are healthy. It means you get to bring everything you are as a gift to share with your community. Co-dependent relations means you get a pack of drones who may have some power due to the intensity of their focus, but are ultimately self-destructive.
We all need a certain amount of skill in socialisation. We need some of the niceties of politeness to ensure smooth interactions in our day to day intercourse. We also need to be accepting of our differences and the differences of others.
Our generation is not the first to seek the fountain of youth. However, we may be a generation that has lost our ability to value the wisdom that can come with experience and age. We want the vitality of youth. It has its own sort of power. Our experience of life is so intense at that time and we are full of possibility. It’s intoxicating.
However, we are seeing youth as solely a physical quality. We choose to lose much of our youth as we divest ourselves of joy, love, and engagement in order to avoid vulnerability. If I look younger than my age, I attribute it to still going outside to fly a kite or cry at a movie or dance at a party. Someone who still feels, who remains active, who cares, and who smiles a lot is always going to seem more youthful. Don’t throw out your Teddy Bear!
Fear about an ever changing and dangerous world and our place in it can cause us to want and behave in a distorted manner. Life is not easy. And anyone telling you otherwise is selling something. It’s okay to be frightened. It’s not okay to get so lost that it seems reasonable to cause harm. I actually find the Serenity Prayer an important mantra in my life:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
May you find the same serenity.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 30 August 2014 | No responses
I’m not against transgressive humour, but we have comedians who enjoy being in a position where they can offend with impunity. This has less to do with freedom of speech, than freedom to dominate and exact verbal revenge. Thoughtful comedians may still dip into the transgressive, but when you do so selectively, it has more impact and gets your points across more effectively. Some comedians, I have a feeling, don’t even understand that it’s not wrong to cross certain lines, but you are hurting people when you do. Quinn Norton’s article about the value of being polite is a brilliant description of how to be respectful and why it is important.
“Politeness is very important, not just because it’s a better way to be in the world, but because it is more effective. People often say their message is too important to bother being polite, but that’s serving their ego, not the message or its cause. If what you have to say is so important the other person must hear it, then you must say it in the way they will most likely hear it — respectfully, clearly, and with empathy and attention to the hearer, to make a space for conversation and clarification. That moment in disaster movies where the president finally listens to the protagonist because he just rudely started screaming his head off? That doesn’t happen in real life. The people who do that get dragged away by the Secret Service.
“There are moments to scream, but if you don’t have this stuff down yet, you won’t know when it is the right time.”
How to be Polite…for Geeks, Quinn Norton
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 28 August 2014 | No responses
Shame and guilt are different. Guilt is when you feel you have done a bad thing. Shame is when you feel you are a bad person. A similar distinction exists in developing as an artist. There are the mistakes you make when creating a new work, which are distinct from having no talent.
Nobody comes into this life fully formed as a human being. It takes time and practice to learn how to sing, paint, dance, write, or act. Some people may have innate talent which makes it easier, but that’s still not the same as just knowing how to do a thing. As such we will all make mistakes in the process.
What do we even mean by “mistake” in the arts? Often a mistake is simply not following a set of instructions or cultural expectations perfectly. Jazz makes a positive virtue out of these sorts of mistakes. Some of the most interesting, creative, and soulful works come out of working with mistakes and seeing where they might take you. This is pretty much how biological evolution works as well.
I firmly believe that if you are supportive of the process, you are likely to get a fuller more magnificent outcome. Nudging along the way is fine, nitpicking is not. Polishing fine detail is something you leave toward the end of a project.
Know that if you have been selected to be in one of my productions, it’s because you have talent. It may be raw talent, but it is still there. This will be true of other productions as well. Those of us on the festival end of the performance spectrum have to fine tune our ability to recognise people with the capacity to shine, then have the wherewithal to nurture that flame. That comes with a heaping helping of encouragement, spiced with a bit of advice.
In any group creation respect your artists. Create a safe space to experiment. Allow mistakes. Allow for wonky beginnings. Just make sure everyone is bubbling along in a forward direction. Then have faith. It will work out in some fashion.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 26 August 2014 | No responses
During rehearsals for one of my shows I heard an actor tell another actor that he had forgotten a line. Now I was 100% sure the one actor knew this. I was also 100% sure he wouldn’t do it again. So, nothing needed to be said. A sharp retort was made, and in my head I was thinking, “Oh no, World War 3!” I think the actors noticed me giving them that “Oh no!” look and backed down.
A number of poor practices have crept into theatre: directors abusing power, actors being encouraged to abuse themselves in the name of art. This gets compounded when financially lucrative actors and directors start claiming this is how things should be done. The aspirational then lap it up and pass on bad practice. Don’t go thinking gold is the determinant of lasting greatness. Ever hear of Dennis Wheatley…no? He wrote Twilight style occult bestsellers from the 1930s to the 1960s. How about This Is Cinerama, one of the highest grossing films in 1952, and its sequel Cinerama Holiday, one of the highest grossing films for 1955?
Being the director is not about bossing people around, and it’s not even about having a golden vision. The director is there to get the best performance out of all those who are collaborating to create a film or a piece of theatre, and to realise a script to its fullest artistic potential. A good director respects the artistry of each person involved in a production.
Nevertheless, the potential power aspect of directing causes many people to make a grab at doing a little bossing themselves. I have had family members think that because they are related to me, they get to tell my actors what to do. I have had stage managers decide that their power overlaps into telling people how to execute their performances. Probably the most destructive is when actors decide to attempt a little surreptitious directing.
Nothing causes in-fighting faster than actors trying to direct actors. This is precisely why conductors were invented. A group of musicians would vote one of their members to keep time and to keep the peace, and in that way avoid a critical free for all.
Another reason to let the director do the directing has to do with how many voices the actor ends up listening to. If an actor is listening to lots of different advice all at once, it becomes hard making authentic choices as a character on stage. The performance can become muddled. Only two voices count when an actor is rehearsing: their own voice and the voice of the appropriate director.
Eventually actors should know their characters better than the director. Then it becomes the role of the director to have an overview of the show. They need to ensure that the character’s relationships gel together appropriately and serve the plot. They need to make sure that what is created on stage will communicate correctly to the audience. And with small productions their role will continue to be one that involves diplomacy and keeping the peace among all involved.
The last thing anyone should want is an over-directed play. It takes all the joy out of the effort. When I was a post-graduate supervisor in creative writing I found when I laid too much critique on people too soon, they tended to rebel or give up. You have to let creative work unfold petal by petal. When you are a director, allow yourself to be surprised by the innovations your people will bring to a production. For me that’s part of the wonder of creating theatre. When you are an actor attend to your own characters, show them all the love you would your own children, then attend to the quality of their relationships with other characters, their circumstances, and their environment. In this way you are the writer/director of their world.
Theatrical ensembles tend to create the most memorable storytelling. Ensembles only happen when people are willing to do some power sharing, are respectful of one another, and are respectful of their own needs and skills. You don’t have to own the sun, the sky, or the grass for them to be beautiful. You don’t have to be the most prominent member of a theatrical troupe for your part to be important. Let go and enjoy.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 18 August 2014 | No responses
I have been an activist for more than thirty years now. The world is in ever increasing social and environmental crisis. People are frightened. Some people have been frightened for so long, or have cared so much for so long with insufficient results, that they find themselves unable to engage anymore. Despair and disempowerment are creeping problems infecting us all.
Now more than ever we can’t have people giving up when it comes to crucial issues. We need activists. But where are they? I remember the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. Where are the young people today who are banding together to ensure they have a future?
Why Are People Giving Up?
Culture is a way that we interact with one another and our environment. It speaks of our values and our beliefs, and gives continuity to a group through time. Culture can also be a veil that obscures our view of reality, such that we start to mistake the veil for reality. Our culture currently dresses little girls in pink and little boys in blue. This has gone on long enough that many people have convinced themselves that this is because the boys and girls prefer it this way, or it is “natural”.
Our culture is very much into hero worship. We have mythologies about “the chosen one”, one ordained by the gods or fate to lead or save us. Hollywood almost exclusively uses this trope in its storytelling. This has become codified by the pernicious adherence to “The Hero’s Journey”. Science has never backed up the universal existence of a “hero’s journey”, particularly one that is “archetypal”, existing in perfection within some platonic sphere, or “hardwired” evolutionarily into our brains.
So long as people believe in a “chosen one”, they never have to take responsibility for themselves. They can sit around going, “Oh woe is me, there is no one to lead a revolution.” Of course if someone decides they are going to be the chosen one, on the light side they may take on too much responsibility and burn themselves out or on the dark side create more problems through domination and ill-conceived tactics.
We are also endlessly fed stories through television, film, news, advertising, etc, where everything in life has a swift and apparently understandable solution. When someone experiences good fortune, it is for a reason. When someone experiences bad fortune, it is for a reason. These reasons are often seen as entirely under the control of those who experience bad fortune, but are mysterious when it comes to good fortune. We are taught to believe that we will always understand why a thing happens to us. No one dies of old age any more, they die of a specific illness that we believe is ultimately curable. Solutions come with ease and haste to those who have the money to buy them. Losing hair? Buy a cream. Need a cure for warts? Give money to the appropriate charity or research centre.
Some problems are so large and so complex, we cannot hope to resolve them in this lifetime. That does not mean they cannot be resolved, that does not mean they should not be resolved. It means we will have to take up such problems because we care about the welfare of future generations, whether or not we will personally experience any benefit. I have a great grandmother who was a suffragette. She didn’t get to enjoy the vote, I do. I am deeply grateful to her.
Our market culture is also teaching people to not think for themselves, but rather turn to corporations to supply answers to needs. If you have a health issue that could be resolved with a lifestyle change, rather than leaving you to take responsibility for your changes, they offer an apparently easier path where you pay for pills and you pay for gyms, where walking to the shops and eating carrots would take care of the problem. People start thinking, “it’s not up to me” and start relinquishing far too much of their own responsibilities and thereby too much of their own power.
Why Aren’t We Coming Together?
We all want freedom. But it is becoming a freedom from one another, rather than a freedom that includes association. We have city people admiring small town communities because they see how everyone seems to be supporting one another. We also have country people who admire cities where you can seek out like-minded individuals rather than having like-mindedness enforced upon you. Community and free-association are important. Individuality and cooperation are important. These all require a balance that relies on thoughtfulness. Cultures of domination will not encourage thoughtfulness.
We aren’t coming together because we have a culture that has chosen trade as a means for people’s livelihood. We no longer form extended family groups that share what we have. As such children, the elderly, and the debilitated have their survival always under threat. Since we trade in numbers (meaning currency), there are ways to manipulate its flow and thereby control people’s access to a livelihood. So, women who may be contributing the lion’s share of work and goods in a community can potentially have their survival threatened when their access to currency is limited.
Those who can provide goods and services know that they have to sell a certain amount of these to make a living and a certain amount more to make a comfortable living. This may involve selling more than people actually need. This can be done by making goods and services attractive, addictive, and by putting your competition out of business. Status gives you access to more currency. So, competitiveness becomes more intense.
If status seekers can get you to give up by shaming you, they will. If status seekers can get you to buy their goods by making you afraid of what others may think or do to you, they will. If status seekers start destroying their environment in order to encourage over-consumption, oh well, as long as the suffering doesn’t touch them then it doesn’t matter in their opinion. Marketing is teaching people to be endlessly shamed and afraid of one another.
How Can We Gird Ourselves for the Task?
We have to be prepared to be small. It can’t be about a single person’s victories, or a single person’s place in history. It cannot be about our egos or status will kill our ability to make positive lasting change. The problems of this world are all our responsibility. Each of us is culpable when it comes to the problems we are facing, each of us is crucial in taking what steps we can to create change. However, no one person can be expected to take on the whole of our shared burden. Give up on the idea that there are a special important few, and that everyone else is dross. Every single person is critically important. Every…single…person.
We have to understand that we live in a world of partialities. We only have partial control and partial understanding of our lives. That’s why we need one another. That’s why acceptance and tolerance are important. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle that is life. When you readily and harshly judge people, you are cutting off knowledge and experience that might be crucial to our survival.
We must train ourselves to be resilient. We must train ourselves in the ways of healthy lasting friendships. In this manner we can help one another. We must learn to laugh, create, and play together. These are invaluable for our mental health and our ability to effectively engage with problems, rather than be defeated by them.
Instead of getting wound up in what we don’t want, we need to celebrate what we do want. Instead of always angrily protesting what is wrong, we need to create what is right and provide an example, a meme that can go viral, to the whole world.
We must respect our emotions, recognising that they often tell us when things are wrong, that it’s not just in our head. We then need to ask “why” am I feeling this way, and dig very deep into the situation: how is our outlook causing these feelings, how are our circumstances a cause, what can be done? We must respect our intellect to help us always question, but that intellect must be tempered by compassion. Otherwise, it can become oppressive in its own right.
We must take care of ourselves. We must look out for our health. We must live a life where work, play, quiet time, friends, and family all have their place. Self respect is the beginning of respect for others and our planet. We must never neglect it. We also must must must value kindness over looks, power, money, or greatness. I can assure you that a world of shared kindness will be saved.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 12 August 2014 | No responses
Many of us are saddened by the passing of comedian Robin Williams. People are expressing bewilderment as to why someone who was so rich, famous, and brought so much joy into people’s lives would want to kill himself. Some just chalk it up to “the sad clown” stereotype. I cannot know why Robin Williams made this choice. People have many reasons why they choose to take their own life rather than go on, some of them legitimate.
Humor author Terry Pratchett is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He is contending with greater and greater memory loss and mood swings. As such he is advocating and preparing himself for assisted suicide. I’m sure anyone who has had to euthanise a pet because of that family member’s suffering, wonders about why it is considered the loving thing to do in one case, but not the other.
People who say you shouldn’t commit suicide because it is “wrong”, because it will cause others pain, aren’t really helping those who are in the throes of suffering. It’s unhelpful to tell someone that they should have no control over their life, because it might make you cry. It’s understandable if you love someone that you don’t want to let them go, but whether it is in a relationship or someone who has lost brain function, it is not your choice whether or not they stay.
People who are in the arts have a number of reasons why they might fall into suicidal depression. Predominantly these are based on our culture’s intense worship of money and status.
If you choose to go into the arts, frequently family members will not understand. They will either see it as a step down in your status and thereby theirs by association, or that you are trying to one up them through fame. Try living in a situation where your family has cut you off because they are unwilling to accept your adult choices. That’s sufficient to put many people into a suicidal frame of mind. Now add to that not having sufficient money as a struggling artist to have children of your own.
And if you think that’s rough, add the fact that if you stick with your art then eventually your friends with “regular” jobs will stop communicating with you when they hit their 30s, because they only have time to mix with the friends they make at work or through their children’s school. The isolation can be extreme.
Of course those who go into the arts often do so because they were already outsiders for one reason or another when they were growing up.
If you do achieve some sort of fame or fortune, some families will then “forgive” you. But then you know their judgement has less to do with who you are and more to do with your social standing. You will have people who want to be your friends in hopes of improving their own situation, not because of who you are. There’s a reason why famous people tend to hang out with other famous people, and it’s not always to exclude you. Sometimes it’s to protect their own emotional lives. Of course even other famous people can continue to be social climbers, shallow, and lost in their own publicity. More isolation.
Right now we simply do not have enough jobs to employ all human beings on this planet. People who cannot find work are treated harshly. We have people judging and bullying the unemployed because they are seen as deserving of their suffering. Those of us in the arts have to regularly deal with unemployment. The only way to get skilled up enough to compete for the small number of arts dollars is finding time to do our art. Some of us have gone into incredible debt pinning our hopes on an arts job, paying a university to help us get one. We are then seen as the enemy: because we often challenge social norms, because we are supposedly getting to do what we love when others suffer in boring brutal jobs, because we are often poor.
Simply asking someone “how are you doing” can help a little, provided you are genuinely ready to respond to a real answer. If you aren’t prepared, it will make things worse. I know individuals who have had a child die and people becoming angry with them for still grieving after a few weeks. Sending “hugs” on Facebook is nice, but sometimes people need a real human in real time listening to their problems. Keeping all the frustrations and suffering in your head, because no one has time and no one understands, is crazy making. It’s okay if you can’t fix these people, but don’t make it worse by offering half-assed or inappropriate help and then getting huffy when that sort of help is rejected.
Telling an arts person that their suffering is “all in their head” when they are unable to pay for food speaks of a callous personality. Giving an arts person anti-depressants, so they can better live with being underappreciated, under-paid, and alone, is a form of cruelty. The arts are not an optional extra, they are an important part of our well-being as individuals and as a culture. Those people who do things that help us to survive our own jobs deserve a lot more support and respect. Of course the clown is sad, if you punish her for being happy because you aren’t. But if you give the clown a chance, he might make your life a little brighter.
Peace and kindness,