In 2017, I was offered my first big boy job. No, I don’t mean one where I have to put on a suit and head into an office, ghastly affair. Nor do I mean that I have to manage a thousand employees and guide business strategy. Nor, in fact, one rewarding with that fabled security of a contract. The gig I was offered was to teach a theatre group at a well-known Grande Ecole for a performance before the Christmas holidays.
On Thursday 1 October 2020, I started the fourth year of this project. The first year went off without a hitch, apart from its being the first year. The second year, my colleague and I were often stuck outside due to the Gilets Jaunes. In the third year, my colleague left the country and I had to deal with a transport strike. And this year, we have all the challenges linked to a global pandemic that may or may not carry off the most powerful man in the world.
The theatre that I teach isn’t your usual Le Coq progressive malarkey. I teach your tried-and-tested, tradition-steeped, bona fide Pantomime. Oh yes I do! Many of you reading this may know already what Pantomime is, because we are likely from the same barmy, repressed, closeted culture. But for those who don’t, here is a brief description and an invitation to watch my play on 17th December.
Pantomime is a theatrical genre born out of Commedia Dell’Arte; it is not mime. It retells the old fairytale and children’s stories, putting a spicy, relevant spin on them, and is very concerned with hierarchies and traditions, as well as faithfully and reliably breaking those hierarchies and traditions. There is always a character called ‘The Dame’ (though precise appellation can be left to the writer) who is a man dressed as a woman. There is a baddie who tries to foil the young lovers. There are schemes, stratagems and slapstick, wrapped up with audience participation, hackneyed jokes and increased ticket sales. All of this around about the winter equinox, so the insistent dark is shattered by this extravagant light of satire, jubilation and community.
But pantomime, like every other genre, is just an excuse to do theatre. And theatre, like inviting friends over for drinks, is just an excuse to bring people together. This is what I saw in my first lesson on Thursday evening. After so many months of predictable online meetings, iteration after reiteration of rules and regulations, and the impending doom that fuels the media machine, I saw a group of 26 students thirst for a connection.
I know this because theatre is about following the pulse. The pulse is like the snitch in Quidditch: everyone is aware of it, not exactly sure where it is most of the time, but when it is caught and held up for all to see, the play is won or lost. My students on Thursday were more in touch with the pulse of others than in previous years; they were more aware of belonging to (or longing for) a group. Now, I certainly admit that this could be because they are an exceptional year – one student taught me about tritone substitution during the break – and there might be other talents yet to reveal themselves. It might also be because I am better at my job and get the students to communicate and work together more, due to my own grounded confidence in what I am doing.
Of course, it is both of these (but I hasten to add that previous year groups have been marvellous), but I’m also wondering if it goes back to the yearning for interaction that I perceived. In the same way that when our senses are deprived of light, touch, smell or other delights, we become much more aware of what’s missing, are we, stripped of the essential, yet barely perceptible, need for human bonds, much more aware of the group and how it works? To go deeper, is this body of ours finally aware of having organs? Has our alienation heightened our awareness of the movements of those we are separated from?
I had a conversation with someone recently and we were talking about that most lofty of topics: the utility of art. This person has been involved with several workshops that have been exploring the change in how we produce and consume art in these COVID-times. Their conclusions, but not wishing to speak for them, were threefold: 1) there is a greater accessibility for normally privileged performances; 2) artists have to find different ‘spaces’ (in all its definition) to make their art; 3) that art has proven its utility: society needs art, as seen in the various attempts all over the world to continue the artistic practice, as well as, several governments offering billions to the industry to ensure its survival.
It is not surprising that an epidemic that has changed our way of seeing the world in all its ugliness has also led to questions about culture and the arts. ‘Before’, art was something you did if you couldn’t get a real job, something that bolstered a fragile ego, and meant that you could infiltrate bohemian communities and know that you’re not the only weirdo, misfit or down-and-out. But it won’t pay the bills, so people (usually a partner) with serious jobs and serious aspirations look down on artists and pity them for their deluded, immature lifestyles.
‘Now’, if the conclusion is correct, art and artists have a duty; we have found a function to what we do; we can now defend our cause, citing ‘utility’, to the reassured minds of those boring sceptics with real jobs.
But wait, what is the utility of art nowadays? I got the impression from the conversation that it is there to provide almost psychiatric support for those who find it difficult to live in and interpret this constantly changing world. Personally, I would leave that kind of work to the experts. Another function is to be at the service of the state: we can think of myriad ways in which art has been bought by authorities. This is a sickening thought: that all those online events that we have been part of have merely been to keep people happy in a time of unrest makes me shudder.
For me, what this ‘new’ function of art is deals with leadership and community building. The most important part of human existence is found not in being an island, but a continent. If we fail at this, humanity will fall. And art is an excuse to bring people together and to form regular connections with others. True artists, those who feel it in their bones the moment they wake up, are currently faced with the choice between nothingness and being: is the art that we make, or cause to make, devoid of all responsibility because art for art’s sake? Or is it replete with responsibility, because everything we do is weighted with the onus of complete freedom?
I do not believe in any one person’s ability (including my own) to change the world, only to influence it: one atom can bump another. The communities that we build, strengthen and lead through regular artistic practice, will be able to influence others. And at at time when we are headed into another possible lockdown, rocky elections coming up and all those other changes we perceive, it is this continuity of art that we most desperately need. As a wiseman once sang, ‘Don’t leave your fire unattended’. Listen to the full song below.