Monday, 4 December 2006

Deep Play / Moral Purpose

One of my latest reads has been a book called: "Between a Rock and a Hard Place", by Aron Ralston, which recounts the graphic misadventures of a young mountaineer when, during a routine but squeezy stroll down a pencil-thin chasm he finds himself dislodging a half ton rock. Said rock falls on his hand, squashing it into the rock face as it jams itself between the two walls. After 5 days without food or water, et al., he eventually breaks free by cutting his right arm off with his blunt multi-tool(A good Ad for Leatherman, maybe?...maybe not!) and is rescued. It is a pretty harrowing read especially the part where he works out that because the knife part is so knackered, he has to separately break both bones in his forearm before he can grind away at the remaining tendons with the blunt blade. The very well written book( how is it that so many people that survive heroic misadventures write quite well- is it something they learn during their ordeal ?) intersperses the visceral expriences of the trauma with other chapters that detail his highly focussed life challenging himself among the deserts and peaks of the Rockies.
In one early chapter there's a paragraph that articulates the base point of his philosophy:
'Over the course of the winter, I learnt about the concept of deep play, wherein a person's recreational pursuits carry a gross imbalance of (personal) risk and (public)reward. Without the potential for any real or perceived external gain - fortune, glory or fame - a person puts himself into scenarios of real risk and consequence purely for internal benefit: fun and enlightenment. Deep play exactly descrbed my winter solo fourteener project( the writer's plan to climb all of Colorado's mountains above 14,000 feet over a series of winters). Especially when I would begin a climb by heading into a storm, accepting malevolent weather as part of my experience on that trip. Suffering, cold, nausea, exhaustion, hunger- none of it meant anything - it was all part of the experience. The same went for joy, euphoria, achievement and fulfillment , too.
I found I could not set out with the intent of having a particular experience- safety precautions and risk management aside - my goal was instead to be open to what the day was giving me and accept it. Expectations generally led to disappointment, but being open to whatever was there for me to discover led to awareness and delight, even when conditions were rough.
Mark Tight, an American alpinist with an extraodinary history of success and misadventure at the most extreme level of mountaneering, wrote in a climbing essay: "It doesnt have to be fun to be FUN" (My italics and Caps)'.

I'm not sure where he got it from, but it is a very lucid summation as to why the extreme boyos who climb mountains or ride oceans actually do what they do.A compelling aspect to this extract is that this sophisticated idea is borne out of long periods of contemplation connected with hard physical labour in difficult but poetic situations. It is in the teeth of such relentless repetition surrounded by a poetic and challenging landscape, that thoughts and feelings are simplified and distilled to their essence. Although we train in situations less exposed and exotic than the icy fields above Aspen, we at Frank are likewise conjoining the twin nodes of challenge and poesy. We have developed challenging recurrent exercises (e.g. The Marches) couched within poetic landscapes (evocative music such as David Lynch's Pink Room).

Deep Play is a very poetic heading for the idea and identifies and joins in the same instant the seemingly contradictory ideas of play and profundity. This is more than the pursuit of superficial fun - the elements of real danger and mortal challenge sober up the process to a paradoxical meeting point.

Co-incidently that same night I was observing a rehearsal of Jacqui Carroll's latest Frank Theatre piece: "Macbeth:CSD". This piece is a significant evolutionary shift from the relatively classic Maccas we have been doing since 1995.It is taking the form of an essay that more reveals the synaptic map of Jacqui's brainbox. The former is a linear, condensed version of the name play and is still in the repertoire, being used for international bi-lingual productions, such as those we intend to do in Switzerland and Mongolia in 2007.

Picture of Mongolian actors Mitga and Gamba as nurse and doctor in Macbeth, Ulaan Bataar, 2006.

On this night, I was sitting in front watching as a chorus of six witches were rehearsing a particularly engrossing sequence, marvelling at their ability to be compelling whilst being deeply involved in their personal actions. I suddenly could perceive that Ralston's idea of Deep Play was in the room!!
They were 'playing' of course, as performance is a type of 'play', but this was much more than the superficial, childish pretence that most people associate with modern acting. It was far too rigorous and self-effacing for that. These actors were challenging themselves in ways analogous to extreme sportsmen. Of course they could not be described as in any sort of mortal danger, even though they were working viscerally very hard. The single most important tenet of the Frank Suzuki Performance Aesthetics is that acting should be essentially transformational, and our training aims to create pathways which foster it at a personal level.This implies that the actor must work very hard; not in the extroverted sense of a proficient athlete, but it does demand a level of internalised energy created viscerally by the body's interactive physical and meta-physical forces. This requires a high level of imagination, concentration, stamina and most importantly, moral power. The last three are requirements shared by both actors and extreme sportsmen and I have not read one book where mountaineers and blue water sailors weren't driven by an imaginative love of nature and the poetic desire to engage with it.
A crucial ingredient in 'Deep Play' is the element of ever-present danger, for without its mortal implications there is no real risk, hence no prescription for Moral Power, the body's enabler for engaging danger. In all the stories I've read where men improbably survive in impossibly adverse conditions, mostly the situation deteriorates to a point where obvious attributes such as strength, stamina, etc., have become exhausted and the only element left is the moral strength/ courage/ power of the protagonist. It is the wellspring of this 'power' that overrides the body's physical and mental collapse. This 'moral' power can be likewise be termed spiritual power, and in all forms of human endeavour it seems to be the call of last resort before mortal abdication.
In the theatrical domain I have witnessed this energy exemplified in the work of Tadashi Suzuki. In Japan one year, some members of Frank Theatre watched a training session where his actors performed a routine in which, carrying wooden swords, they faced imaginary multi-directionary enemies/gods by dropping to the floor in exaggerated positions. It was done to a powerful but elliptical piece of music and the effect was emotionally electrifying. Talking after to one of our actors,Ramsey Hatfield, he made the observation that it was so moving that it made him feel like crying! As he said that I realised that he had been affected not by the skill of the actors , but by their moral power. This was much more than some sort of Kung-Fu demo- these actors offstage are very gentle, modest people- they are not trained fighters(Actually, I 've seen them recoil from killing a fly!), so one is witnessing them attempt to do things beyond what they think they are capable of.
Having watched the development of Suzuki's (and Frank's) actors over a number of years, it has become paradoxically apparent that it is the moral power that creates the actor's talent- and not the other way around as may be assumed. In our experience it has been the intent of the actor that has punched a hole in his future, walked in and forged his talent by dragging it behind.
I posit that what I term moral power does morph into a learning tool- I describe this as Moral Purpose!and one way to achieve this 'zone' is through Deep Play.