The Art of Paying Attention

“By means of a confrontation with what appears foreign, one educates one’s way of seeing and renders it both participatory and detached.”
Eugenio Barba (A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology – The secret art of the performer); Routledge/Centre for Performance Research; 1991

The Art of Paying Attention
Within two hours of arrival in Tokyo, we (Anne Gallacher and I) heard the tolling of the Ogane or temple bell (struck with a large horizontal swinging beam) –designated a National Treasure. It “called” us to a ceremony at the Zojo-ju Buddhist Temple in the Minato district. After the mundanity of long-haul flight we were suddenly immersed in this multi-sensory experience – gold ceiling hangings, 50 men in elaborately embroidered robes and head-dresses, songs intoned in strange (to our ears) rhythms and sounds resonated from instruments I could not name, and incense burned and inhaled .
This was an arresting and immersive experience – not planned or imagined, simply happening out of the blue, and we paid complete attention to these Buddhist monks, experts in being attentive.

For the rest of the week we had further glimpses of traditional cultural events and artefacts – Kabuki, a Geisha ceremony, a stay in a Ryokan complete with the wearing of Yukata (cotton kimonos) indoors and outside for 2 days, bathing in Onsens, exquisite meals served with ceremony, temples with raked gravel gardens and even, finally, witnessing the arrival of the Emperor at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto – a more familiar ritual of motorbike out-riders, families lining the route and waving flags.

We saw the visual and musical connections between the religious ceremony and the Kabuki artform – similarity of instruments – bells, gongs, clapper boards, and vocal techniques creating sounds that are far removed from the traditions of our own theatre or ecclesiastic ceremony, links between the costumes and hairstyles, the frequent use of bowing and kneeling and other physical gestures, shapes and rhythms.
On seeing a silk painting by Hoitsu hung beside a work by Seurat at the Kyoto Municipal Gallery, we see the links between East and West and the lines connecting their means of revealing the world in paint.
Many encounters revealed the attention paid in Japan to creating and maintaining an environment that is clean and harmonious – none more so than a woman, kneeling at the water channel in the garden of Nanzen –Ji Temple, plucking the fallen leaves from the water with tweezers, to leave only cherry blossom petals floating down the water course. Behind each aesthetic formation there seemed another dimension of meaning –– not just a balance of form and beauty but the Buddhist rules of geomancy demanding that water flow from east to west to carry away evil, and to bring the owner of the garden health and a long life.

At a more mundane level we saw a woman on a train gathering the coats of her three children into a single folded bundle, wrapped carefully inside a large shawl and placed neatly on the rack above the seats. Behind this act was the discipline, seemingly ubiquitously demanded by society in Japan, to make shared spaces orderly, calm, clean and pleasant for everyone else.

And then we prepared to exchange our experience of arts in ageing society with the many colleagues were about to get to know in Japan.

Arts and the Ageing Society Study Tour

Two high level concerns bring the UK and Japan into a current dialogue and exchange: the ageing society in both countries and the Olympics. Japan is interested in the lessons to be learnt from the UK in their vision and management of the Cultural Olympiad, and the UK is keen to understand how to prepare for the population trajectory which will see the proportions of our older population reach those of Japan in 25 years. The British contingent of this tour represented a handful of people, across a range of art forms, disciplines and roles, who see arts as a valuable and possibly vital part of older age and the latter end of life, as well as seeing the inclusion of older people in art as very important part of the vitality of arts.

We were privileged to meet and discuss with people from a range of sectors in Japan – individual artists, theatres, arts centres, practitioners and managers, people concerned with health and social care policies; researchers and educators, business people and older people themselves. This report gives some reflections on a small element of the immensely rich encounters of a single week.

Life Cycles and Links

The Opening Ceremonies of both the Olympics and Paralympics elements of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad were manifestations of decades of development which saw community and participatory arts movements in the UK come of age.

While the ceremonies themselves may have felt remote to many Britons beyond London, the Olympiad’s wider cultural programme, leading up to the games, made a real attempt to reach a large proportion of the population of the UK using the pretty well developed networks and organisational infrastructures at local, regional and national levels.

It broadly demonstrated the confidence of the arts sector in UK to reach out from and beyond the mainstream citadels of art and to involve and portray the many cultural perspectives and forms at play in our society.

We continually debate the need for art to be art without heed to its instrumental impact, but we have pragmatically negotiated our way through decades of measuring and arguing over the various values of the arts. We have, some would say not unreasonably, been asked to justify their dependency on revenues from public taxes or lottery ticket buyers’ funds. We have explored the creative industries’ direct contribution to the economy and the value-added economic value of publically funded arts, through associated spend. (£77 billion in 2013 – 5% of the economy).

If we simply look at the recent history of theatre – we have explored its role in learning and child development, in health, in inter-cultural understanding, criminal justice and community development. Over the past 50 years strands of specialism with professional bodies and academic studies have proliferated with distinct terminology, professional associations, academic research and supporting and schools of training:

Drama- in-education, theatre-in-education, young people’s theatre, youth theatre, drama therapy, reminiscence theatre, community theatre, community plays, testimony or life-story theatre, documentary theatre, amateur theatre, popular theatre, political theatre, agit prop theatre, applied theatre, participatory theatre – all these terms denote movements or bodies of theory and practice which are slightly distinct from one another.

And for many years now, each of our mainstream and arts council funded theatres and concert halls have a department or workforce dedicated to education or outreach or community engagement. Conferences and training courses feed it and feed from it. Sage Gateshead in 2005 hosted the International Society for Performing Arts World Congress with CEOs of over 200 leading performing arts organisations from four continents of the world, to explore the role of learning and community participation in the life of a major performing arts venue.

The Gold Standard of Older People’s Theatre

Yukio Ninagawa became the founding Artistic Director of Saitama Theatre at the age of 70. Saitama is in a district of Tokyo with a population of 7 million – so hardly a mere suburb! He chose to make theatre with other people of older age and recruited a 48 strong company from all over Japan, trained them for a year and over the last 10 years they have created ambitious, original, demanding and telling theatre productions, with the hallmark technical depth and vision of all Ninagawa’s work.

We were privileged to meet two members of the company and to watch a rehearsal of the opening section of Richard II. Ninagawa directing from a wheel chair, embodied the spirit of creativity and “ Ikigai “ that his company members had spoken of to us – sometimes translated as a reason to get up in the morning – perhaps meaning a sense of being needed and needing to be involved in the here and now – the unique element that makes us us and feel alive.

A few of us then attended an evening performance of the show. The Gold Theatre Company were supporting the more recently established Next Theatre Company (actors under 25 years old). Three and a half hours of theatre have never seemed so riveting – no surtitles and a flimsy memory of the plot mattered not. Here again was the embodiment of being present. Each actor on stage was present and made us present.

This encounter jolted me from any vestige of complacency that, in the UK, we’re ahead on the journey of combining theatre or other arts with relevance and quality. Is the commitment to community engagement in our arts establishments reductive? Were the Olympics the only time that we have truly seen the resources, ambition and skills of communities given their moment on such ambitious scales? Have we become complacent after such a relatively long history of arts made with communities (non-professionals) or is it impossible to bridge the gap between the professional – not just because of the time and training required but also because of the cost?

Equity recently refused the Royal Shakespeare Company the right to use local amateurs as the “Rude Mechanicals” in its touring production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. After finally agreeing to accommodate the RSC’s aim by agreeing to a technical fudge of the union rules (by allowing them to enter into a co-production agreement with the amateur companies, who would pay their cast members a minimum wage), the Equity Council expressed “its disappointment that the RSC sees fit to highlight and encourage the employment of amateurs to portray a so-called love affair between the amateur and professional theatre at a time when many trained professionals are finding reduced opportunities for employment in our subsidised theatres.”

I don’t know where that arrangement would leave Ninegawa’s Gold Theatre, but I trust Ninegawa’s motivation for forming this troupe – certainly not to save money, or as a marketing strategy, or to be charitable to old people, but evidently to make vivid, unique and vital theatre – and riveting Shakespeare to boot!
Pioneering individuals

From another point on the spectrum of theatre practice and its role in relation to old age we met Naoki Sugarama. His work as an actor led to work as a carer; his experience as a carer led him to draw on the skills of improvisation that an actor learns. This part of an actor’s skillset is based on simple rules such as listening, being present with the other actors, avoiding blocking or diverting their contributions to a scene, building on what they bring to it, being responsive and collaborative and not dominant. He tried this out with people with dementia and found his encounters with them to be more enjoyable, less fraught, more productive and at ease. He taught these techniques to other professional carers and to those who care for a partner or family member at home and they reported great improvements in their mutual lives.
He told us – “acting made me a better carer and caring made me a better actor”.

He went on to devise and direct an improvised promenade outdoor performance, involving one of the carers in a fictional search for his lost wife – a woman with dementia. The performance played out in streets and shops of the local town and played with the blurring of perceptions of truth and reality to give spectators insights into the “confusion of dementia “ where what is real is often slippery and unpredictable.

It seemed that Sugarama’s work came out of an inventiveness and creative response to individual circumstances – unconnected to any movement or network of “applied theatre”.
Similarly, the work in visual arts by Yumiko Fujiwara – an artist renowned for her beautiful traditional partition screens and murals – came to work with elders in daycare centres through her personal experience of her own father’s death and her response to that process as an artist. She began to work in day-centres and hospices, leading classes of painting with up to 50 people at a time. She saw “carers” diminishing the choices, agency and identity of the older people and especially those with dementia, by chivvying them to fill in blank spaces on the paper, or “correcting” a mark or “helping”. “Help damages the pride of the artist “ , she said.
The dancer/choreographer Yuki Sakamoto came to work with homeless people after experiencing the 9/11 bombings in New York and seeking to make his dance work connect with people beyond theatre-goers. After creating the first homeless people’s dance troupe in Japan, he began to look at the growing needs of older people in care homes. He encountered challenging circumstances for the residents as well as for him as a choreographer – people living with very little in the way of sensory or emotional stimulation and while he had wanted to explore authentic movement and expression rather than worry about technique, he found the physical weakness of the residents beyond his dance ambitions.

All three of these individual artists described motivation, circumstance and vision from relatively isolated positions. All spoke from that distinct ability that artists have – to pay attention and to be in the moment. I was particularly struck by the observation that the gatekeepers of contemporary arts in both countries tend to distance themselves from the traditional artforms–whose crafts are dying with the elderly. But practising artists themselves see the resource of the older person as material to pay attention to and to respect – the skill, the knowledge, the person and their story. These inter-generational encounters are very rich for all concerned.
Coming home to celebrate a significant birthday
On my return I celebrate getting a senior railcard and listen to Peter Brook on The Reunion on Radio 4 – speaking about his world renowned and landmark production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which awed me at the age of 16 on the eve of writing about it for O level English Literature!

Sue McGregor: You are 90 you are still working and rehearsing and planning. Are you thinking ever of stopping doing this?

Peter Brook: “It’s not my decision. I’ve always avoided going because it’s not interested me, going back into the past…. [] what we’re talking about just now together is not about the past it’s something that is happening between us here and now [] and that’s what gives one an actual reason to start again as the new day breaks and accepting the fact that mortality is part of the whole curve and that at a certain moment that must come to an end, but until then it’s like speaking now together we can do the best we can do, no better no worse.”

These few examples from a rich menu of other encounters during the week, many of which will inform my own thinking and work – through discussions on evaluation and research, to methods of facilitating a gathering for over 200 people, from thoughts on the traditional arts to the most contemporary and popular cultural expressions, from the extremes of rural isolation and urban density of populations.

I am immensely grateful to all the colleagues who shared their time and insights and to the British Council staff for bringing all this together.


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