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Towards a Buddhist Theatre

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Gus Miller dreams a dream…

As a young director with utopian tendencies on the underfunded fringes of the theatre industry, I reached a state of mild burnout at the start of 2015. Aiming to relax a bit, I came to my first meditation class at the London Buddhist Centre. I got a lot more than I had bargained for.

Theatre is an art form forged from the collective imagination of actors and audience. In the fleeting moments when that imagination unites in a state of deep absorption, a living ideal silently, palpably, enters the room. No matter what the genre or subject matter of the play, that ideal always has the same texture – a sense that our humanity is something shared, something beautiful, something burgeoning with a potential that transcends the mundane. I remember seeing Cheek by Jowl’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with a Russian ensemble and, despite not understanding a word, in moments recognising every life on stage in my own.

Naturally these experiences are rare in themselves. But on top of this, the risky conditions necessary for their arising are too frequently traded in for safety and slickness – the stolid unremarkability that the commercially-bound West End banks on. Whether due to a shortage of imagination, laziness or a crippling lack of subsidy, the theatre all too often settles for less ambitious goals than transcendence.

But at the LBC an ideal of human potential was discussed that felt similar to that which I had tasted in the theatre. Not only that – it was backed up by a system of practices that could bring it gradually to life. I began to sense that Buddhist practice could provide a radical new framework for taking theatre to its fullest potential.

What a Buddhist Theatre would look like I don’t know for sure – it exists over the horizon at the meeting point of two ideals. But I’m sure that the necessary context would be a permanent company: a community of actors and creatives working together for the long term and perhaps living together too. The trust and complicity necessary to make truly fearless work is far more likely to arise in that context than it is with a group of strangers gathered for a short sprint towards a finished product.

Too often actors effectively stop training on leaving drama school – neglect that would be laughable to a dancer or a musician – and their art stagnates. Whereas a context where ongoing training and creation go hand in hand could translate into productions that reach beyond themselves towards a sense of greater meaning.

As with Buddhist practice, this work must have mindfulness as a foundation. The aesthetic quality of every action relates directly to the depth of awareness that underlies it. Although familiar to most actors, this is something that is rarely practised with depth or consistency and therefore remains barely understood. Having a goal that stretches beyond the work would enable such practices to reach to new depths.

These principles are not unknown in secular contexts. But the lack of a shared value system always proves a limitation. An effective Buddhist ensemble, meanwhile, would have the ideal of Sangha to aspire to. Its purpose would be clear and its members could work vigorously with body, speech and mind, stretching their empathetic imagination and communicating Buddhist values to a new audience. ■

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