A couple of blogs ago I wrote a little about my time in Word and Action (Dorset) back in the early 1980s and gave a few links to the Wikipedia page for W&A and to sites connected with its founder and leading light, the poet and playwright RG Gregory. About a week ago I heard that he had died.
I’d known he’d been ill and had visited him last year with good friend and ‘Slugger O’Toole’ blogger Michael Fealty. At that time, there was a faint hope that he had been mis-diagnosed, but by the time I heard he’d died I knew this was not the case. Nevertheless I find I am deeply affected by the news. I’m not alone in this – on his Facebook page there are many tributes from family, associates, ex-W&A members and others. (https://www.facebook.com/rg.gregory.5)
‘Greg’ as he was known was a powerful influence on the lives and thinking of many people. I’m not going to attempt a biography or a full list of his achievements here. You can find out more at the sites I gave in the ‘Girl from the North Country’ review blog, or at this – a more recent site that I didn’t remember to add - http://www.rggregory.co.uk/ . What I’d like to add is a few words about some of the ways he affected my thinking and outlook.
One of the main activities of the W&A group was the performance of what became known as ‘Instant Theatre’. It was the embodiment of many of Greg’s ideas. It developed out of experimentation with theatrical forms and participatory theatre that took place, as I understand it, in the 1950s and early 60s. Greg at that time became attracted to working ‘in the round’ which, in his opinion, removed the underlying hierarchy implicit in staged performances. It drew ‘actors’ and ‘audience’ into a closer and more responsive relationship. The shedding of theatrical effects - costumes, scenery, special lighting, sound effects etc – enabled a greater exercise of the imagination and creativity in all participants.
‘Instant Theatre’ took place in the round, and was a genuine and effective attempt to give an ‘audience’ the opportunity to make up a story on the spot, to have it dramatised, and to participate in the performance. Greg felt that many attempts by others to do this fell short because the ‘professionals’ would tend to lead the ‘audience’ towards what they were prepared to do, not what the ‘audience’ was capable of creating given free rein.
It was generally performed by teams of three people. The ‘Questioner’ would introduce the process and elicit the story by means of a question and answer process. As far as was humanly possible, the questioner had the responsibility to make the questions completely open, not to lead the story in any way. S/he was not to assume anything on behalf of those who gave the answers. The questioner would, however, use his/her own judgement as to how much information constituted a scene of the story to be acted out and at that point re-tell what had been gathered so far (inviting its providers to correct any mistakes). Then the ‘audience’ would be invited to join the other two team members in acting out their story. Not only would people (adults and/or children) play the characters, they would also ‘be’ the props. This would continue, scene by scene, over the course of an hour. (In that respect there had to be an element of leading – a reminder that the time and therefore the story would have to come to an end.) Instant Theatre was often huge fun. Sometimes it was chaotic. Often it hit extraordinary levels of profundity.
To work well the questioning had to be a quick-fire process. Instant Theatre was not created out of discussion as to what would make the ‘best’ story. Considered thought was cut to a minimum. In this manner, if it was working well, the stories tapped what Greg (and many others) believed to be the ‘collective unconscious’. They would work on an archetypal level. They would take unexpected forms.
Except when working with younger children, the questioner would ask for answers to be called out, so would have to include anything s/he genuinely heard. This led to the incorporation of contradictory answers. The question always followed – both these answers are right because I’ve heard them, how can they both be true? It invited lateral thinking.
All this was an eye (and ear and mind) opener for me. In Greg’s thinking, the principles applied to more than theatre, they applied to the way we live our lives, the ways in which we organise our society and make our decisions and more. Think it through. The extent to which so many of us live vicariously through our ‘celebrity’ culture, admire ‘personalities’ in general, imagine that ‘charisma’ is a necessary quality in those who seek to lead - all this has its roots in the idea that those people up on the stage are somehow better than us. Are they? Why do we cling to oppositional politics when you could say: how can both answers be true? And if we did, could we find ways to work together for the greater good? Could our politics come up genuinely from people rather than down from politicians manipulating people for their (and their lobbyists’) own ends?
It was, within my own relatively simplistic thinking, questions like these I found myself asking as Greg’s ideas filtered through to me. You can go a lot deeper with them than I have here. Greg’s own writings are lamentably erratically published, but check out the websites I’ve given if you do want to know more. Also a series of conversations recorded on YouTube with Michael Fealty, starting with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sosY7kMYIag .
It’s a personal and minority opinion, but with Greg’s death I think we’ve lost one of the great thinkers of our time. His work and its value go largely unrecognised, probably because too many influential people have too much by way of vested interest in the status quo he challenged. To acknowledge such a maverick thinker would be tantamount to undermining their own power bases. The apple cart remains upright.
(I’ve written about this in the past tense, but gather there are practitioners of Instant Theatre still operating. How true they are to Greg’s principles, I don’t know. I’d be happy to hear more about them.)