Action Learning – a better way to collaborate and communicate together…

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3194 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3194
photo: Mark Trezona

Here are my newest thoughts about the discipline and magic that make Action Learning so potently transformational…

I had lunch last week with Alison Johns, a wonderful friend and colleague who I first met nearly twenty years ago when we were completing our MAs in Management Learning & Leadership. This was when I first discovered Action Learning, the framework that has changed my practice forever, as much, I confidently dare to believe, as it has transformed the lives and accomplishments of many of the people who have participated in its process.

In the Shaky Isles Theatre Company we have used Action Learning as the main framework for coming together to grow and sustain the company for a year now.  And more and more we are also using Action Learning inside our performance making process, as well, to sustain and nourish our creative learning alongside our show creation.

I am also currently facilitating Action Learning with a group of Rajni Shah Project artists to support their co-creation activities, and here, too, the discipline and framework of Action Learning is weaving across and into Board meetings, producing some really exciting new conversations and ways of working together.

In another application, Nicki Maher is starting to use Action Learning as a way to develop and grow Opaz, the Turkish music ensemble she leads.

And I am about to work with Tesse Akpeki to deliver training in using Action Learning for people who support or lead Trustee Boards.

These newer applications of Action Learning are continuing to amplify the belief, trust and joy that I have always found facilitating this process with very many very different groups of professionals and leaders, teachers and artists, teams and freelancers – not to mention my own invaluable membership of an Action Learning group that have been meeting regularly together since 1998.

With this in mind I wanted to try to uncover some of my newest thinking and insights about the disciplined magic that is Action Learning, and, alongside this, to provide a jumping off point for you to try it for yourself with the people you either work with or feel drawn to spend some time with uncovering fresh ideas and new ways to progress the things that most matter to you.

Sky Through Soundpod (Chelsea College of Art & Design, 2013)  photo: Mark Trezona

Sky Through Soundpod (Chelsea College of Art & Design, 2013)
photo: Mark Trezona

A Practitioner’s Guide to Action Learning

Reg Revans invented Action Learning to provide a ‘clean space’ in an overly noisy and overly directed world, to give people enough freedom and enough solid framework to be able to uncover and discover our own best thoughts and insights to become freshly inspired to act, fuelled by our own creative expectations and sustained by our continually expanding capabilities.

Revans was convinced that for an organisation to survive its rate of learning must be at least equal to – and ideally greater than – the rate of change in its external environment – this became known as Revans’ Law: Learning must be > or = Change.

The Action Learning process has developed over the last sixty years as a method for individual and organisational development. As a process Action Learning can be challenging and informative. Within organisations Reg Revans described it as “the outward communication of doubt” – an opportunity for people to engage with and work through what is unfamiliar, uncertain and not known and identify action which could make a positive difference to their own and the organisation’s effectiveness. For example, he was one of the first to introduce to the National Health Service the idea that nurses, doctors and administrators needed to listen to and understand each other – and action learning groups offer the opportunity.

In any attempt to describe Action Learning, it is essential to say that Revans rightly advises us that the only way to really know what it is, is to do it. With that in mind, here are the instructions we follow in our practice, which we hope will give you enough to be able to try it for yourself.

In the form of Action Learning we use, the available time is divided first into two parts: a first part for Action Learning itself, and the second part to work the ideas and progress the material that has emerged out from the individual contributions.

The Action Learning time itself is divided equally among the individuals present. Each person then has that amount of Clean Space time to bring to the table whatever is most live and prescient for each of them.  And during this time the rest of the group cannot interrupt or comment in any way. Once each person has said as much as they want to, the rest of us offer them open creative thinking questions for whatever Clean Space time remains.

The Clean Space Process

Space:

1. A continuous area or expanse which is free, available, or unoccupied

2. A stretch of time

3. The amount of material used or needed to write fully about a subject

4. The freedom to live, think, and develop in a way that suits you best

Before you start agree how much Clean Space time each person will have and who will keep time.

In your Clean Space time…

1 ~ Say whatever you want to say. Be as selfish as you can be about what you want to bring to the table.  Talk from your own head and heart and don’t worry or care about what anyone else needs to hear. 

No interruptions, comments or questions from anyone else during this phase.

2 ~ Once you have said all you want to say, you respond to open creative thinking Questions given to you by the rest of your group.

Again, be completely selfish about how you want to respond to any question you get: you decide what it means and how you want to answer it, if at all.

The rest of the group seek to bring you moments of spontaneity – questions that open you up to fresh new thinking and insights.

Resist saying anything except Open Questions during this phase. The best questions will be a gift for the person who receives it, and they will feel and often say “That’s a great question…”

Use “Why…?” questions sparingly.

3 ~  (optional and only if time –at least 2minutes of each person’s Clean Space time) 

You ask whatever you want to from others in the group.

If there are no questions you want to ask people, use this time to draw together the thinking and ideas you are going away with.

Allow about 10% of Clean Space time for this, but shift into it sooner if the person who has the Clean Space is repeatedly saying “I don’t know…” to your questions.

Helpful Capabilities for Action Learning

o   Being fully present

o   Alert, neutral, open, heightened listening

o   The Fine & Difficult Art of Asking Really Great Open Questions

o   Being utterly selfless and tuned in to what the Clean Space holder is trying to get when it is not your Clean Space time

o   Being supremely selfish about what you want to bring and get from your own Clean Space time

o   Wondering your not-knowing out loud: bringing what you don’t know to the table

o   Being open to surprise

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3191 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3191
photo: Mark Trezona

This set of simple rules sets up the conditions for a very different way of thinking and communicating that lead almost inevitably to new insights and fresh possibilities for action.  When repeated over a series of meetings it replaces our usual default ways of listening and thinking with better ways that are far more open, expansive, diverse, inclusive, and actively engaged.  And over time, the disciplines and capabilities it demands from us start to become easier, more natural, and much more our new ‘normal’.

We shift our perspective; we shift our balance…

…from only paying attention to the information that immediately interests us to listening out and trying to pick up much more of what is being said and its many nuances;

…from narrowing the conversation down and heading off too quickly on a particular tangent, to exploring the situation in greater depth and from a wider range of perspectives;

…from talking more about things and re-presenting conclusions and ideas that we have already decided upon, to uncovering what we think and feel during the act of talking about it;

…from bringing our certainties and defending our established points of view, to bringing more of our uncertainties and opening out what we don’t know or yet have answers or solutions for: dialogue means discovering the meaning through communication;

…from only having the ‘need-to-have’ conversations, to unearthing extraordinary and surprising insights and solutions from conversations that arise out of what matters most to each of us;

…from tending to get most of the input from the more talkative amongst us, to getting and thus profiting from, an equal contribution from all of us, realising and optimising the inherent diversity that otherwise lies hidden and buried underneath our different communication styles and preferences;

…from prescribing the desired goal or outcome and restricting our thinking to what seems to be most relevant and strategic to its achievement, to keeping more open to discovering higher value aspirations that emerge and progress organically from the material of what people bring to the table;

…and from excited intentions that are too soon forgotten or lost to louder demands, to achieving ever widening results that spiral up from our collective learning ~ out to action ~ back into heightened learning ~ and out to new action ~ and so on in an increasingly reliable and self-powered momentum.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery to be made in Action Learning is that, very often, our greatest joy and discovery comes less from what we bring during our own Clean Space and much, much more from what we get from the ‘enforced’ listening we give during other people’s.

It is also helpful to know that Action Learning is not only for a team of people who want to use it to make work together, but equally powerful and potentially transformative for a group of individuals who choose to come together to hear and widen each other’s thinking entirely in terms of each person’s own personal agendas.

Action Learning and Collaboration

I have been thinking a lot recently about just what it is that makes Action Learning so enjoyed and successful and surprising and special, especially when it can be experienced by a group over a repeated series of get-togethers. These reflections have drawn out these five attributes:

  1. In-Betweenness 
  2. Listening In-ness
  3. Slowness
  4. Togetherness
  5. Connectedness

1 ~ In-Betweenness

This quality is not so much walking blindly through fog, as the more delightful experience of flying through clouds, up in the air and above it all, happy and trusting that we will get to where we want to get to without having to see ahead to our destination.

This is the ability to inhabit the grey areas between boundaries, to hold ambiguity and complexity with far less need to define it, fix it, bolt it down, categorise and name it.  It involves being simultaneously inside and outside the flow of thinking, both alert to what others are saying and what matters to them while at the same time aware of the live fresh dancing of our own thoughts colliding with what we are hearing.

This quality is especially enhanced when we can keep our not-knowingness wide open and transmitting, sensing out rather than seeing straight ahead, wondering out loud, teasing out our unformed ideas, uncertainties and barely yet understood intuitions.

2 ~ Listening In-ness

This quality is about hearing in real time (rather than anticipating ahead of what is being said and so hearing only what we expect).  It demands that we stay with the material as it unfolds in the here-and-now instead of projecting our own versions of reality on to things. This is the capability of tuning in with the deliberate intention to notice more and receive more fully.  It is HD hearing that picks up the finer inflexion, nuance, repetition and other poetic aspects of our thinking.

It requires us to lean in, bringing a particular kind of presence and concentration to stay with what is being said as it is being said, resisting our usual inclination to decide quickly on what is meant from the smallest fragment of information.

This needs our fullest energy, commitment, presence and attention. But, when the conditions of Clean Space are activated, it seems to happen with remarkable ease and reliability.

3 ~ Slowness

The listening we do in Action Learning recognises that…

…you can’t flick through sound;

…you can’t take a meaningful still of sound;

…you can’t glance at sound;

…you can’t sensibly hear sound backwards, or broken up, un-sequenced;

…you just have to start at its beginning and stay with it through to its end.

Mindfulness, a deliberate, disciplined, meditative practice of slowing down and tuning in, is becoming a mass practice across the globe, perhaps filling in and replacing our older religious rituals with something more secular and better suited to our times.  But, perhaps too, its popularity is building from a growing awareness that we need times of slowness, stillness and quietness that reconnects us into the rhythm of our breathing selves as a counterbalance to the incessantly turned on, turned up, turned out lives we are now living.

Stopping, and making a quieter stillness to listen and notice better are premium qualities in Action Learning. And much is yielded from the heightened waiting and trusting this gives us.

4 ~ Togetherness

Action Learning gives us a new way of co-creating – making something from the collective material that emerges from us all – and a better way of collaborating – making joint decisions and sharing out the work.

The material we uncover to work with is always richer and more multidimensional than any ordinary discussion could give us. This happens without force in a process akin to the sculptor’s art – drawing out and revealing and shaping and clarifying and heightening and unifying what is most fine and delightful and compelling from inside what we already have amongst us, waiting to be discovered.

5 ~ Connectedness

In Action Learning meanings, ideas and solutions emerge from making patterns. As humans we make sense of things by forging connections: that thing to the thing we already know (or think we know); this thing with that thing with the other thing to make the new thing.  Then the more we repeat, reinforce and practice anything the more strongly it becomes ingrained into our integral circuitry.  The repetition and cyclic iterations of uncovering and revealing and testing and rethinking we get in Action Learning deepens and strengthens our commitment to the ideas we most connect with.

Action Learning demands a kind of patient urgency – a different kind of dynamic that still has to move us forward with a sense of necessity and compulsion, but alongside a more careful, intimate and delicate holding on and out for what is still unfolding

Action Learning creates and sustains our propulsion from…

…the avoidance of rush and fixing too fast and hard alongside the necessity to make progress;

…the avoidance of jumping too quickly into action alongside the necessity for application and getting things done;

…the avoidance of the usual imperative to define desired outcomes and set the focus on the Vision alongside the necessity of getting somewhere worth arriving at.

Action Learning and Making Great Audience Experience

All of this I have come to know and trust from my many years sitting inside and outside dozens of different Action Learning groups since I first found it.

What is new for me is to start to wonder what might come from the explicit aspiration, or even the gentlest intention, to try to make the qualities we experience in Action Learning with our audience – whether they be our beneficiaries or our customers or our partners or our stakeholders or our public…

Audience: the people who come to give us their hearing.

What if… we could come together as a community of listeners?

And return to listen together again and again, each time able to listen better?

What might our better listening lead us on to do better?

What if…?

What next…?

What now…?

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3193 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3193
photo: Mark Trezona

Do please feel welcome to contact us if you would like to know more about how to make Action Learning part of your work or learning.

This post was developed from the one I originally wrote for Shaking Out, the Shaky Isles Theatre Company blog

Happiness At Work edition #90

If you enjoyed this, you may also find more stories and techniques for becoming more productive, happy and creative in this week’s new Happiness At Work collection, our weekly collection of the best stories about leadership and learning, mindfulness and happiness at work, resilience and self-mastery.

Enjoy…

 

Beyond Glorious – what made this symposium so very special and extraordinary

Sheila Ghelani's conversation starters: http://sheilaghelani.co.uk

Sheila Ghelani’s conversation starters: http://sheilaghelani.co.uk

Beyond Glorious: the radical in engaged artistic practices

Thursday 30 May to Sunday 2 June 2013, Birkbeck College and Artsadmin, London

What is the place of art in acts of social re-imagination and repair?
What languages can be found to articulate such practices?
Is it possible to break new ground within the realm of engaged artistic practices?

This symposium marked the end of Rajni Shah Projects’ Glorious.  It brought together people from different spheres of life to discuss and experience the meanings, methods and effects of art in relation to engaged and radical practices.  Using Glorious as a starting point, events explored the potential of engaged artistic practices, not in terms of a reductive understanding of the ‘efficacy’ of art in the world, but as a complicating, delicate, nuanced, uneasy journey towards new ways of thinking.

What to say to capture and keep for memory about an event that lived and breathed through its quiet gentle generous friendliness?

Not just this.  This makes it sound too much like a tea party.  Which it was.  Its tea-and-cakeness was a vital part of its spirit and its lightness.  But it was so very very much more as well.

One of the symposium’s central questions explicitly tried to open out this difficulty of expressing the intangible, articulated in the question What remains?

Elizabeth Lynch (independent producer and external evaluator for Glorious), Mary Paterson (writer, producer, creative documentation for Glorious), Sarah Spanton (Waymarking), and

Chloé Déchery (theatre-maker, writer, co- artistic director of ÉCLATS Festival) opened a series of conversations around questions about what and who matters, needs to be held up and out in testament to show the worth and value out of work that makes and finds its intrinsic liveness in quiet nearly invisible and usually disregarded moments of connection, relationship, insight, inhalation.

From this session I remember the word ‘traces’ being important – as something slight and nearly gone that remains after the rest of its bulk has disintegrated, and also as something that we might use as a guide to trace out a new form from what has been left for us to follow.  We talk about when something is ‘gone without a trace’ but in doing so somehow keep still a trace of what it was that has gone.  But these subtle nuances are badly unequal to these shout-y times of unquestioning demands and unambiguous agendas.

I remember, too, the question: who gets to decide the value and worth of what was done? and I remember thinking, and am thinking still, this must be the people we hoped to bring some value and worth to, to make something that they find valuable and worthwhile.  And worrying that too seldom we go to these people to ask and listen to to decide the worth of what we have done.

But these are big questions that took the concentration of this whole symposium, as well as the work of Glorious itself, as well – as I discovered through this event – as well as a great deal more work that is being made quietly and unchampioned out there in the world amongst its peoples.  These are questions too big for this piece to try and sensibly answer.

Start again.

What I am remembering still about this experience are moments of easy unexpected encounter that tumbled joyfully out from alert interest and invitation and into depths and diversity of conversation.

I remember the warm friendliness and easy friendly warmth that was begun and renewed each day by Rajni waiting at the gate, or the outside door, to greet and welcome people as they arrived.  When I joined her in this quiet ritual for the last brunch event I discovered for myself how personal, charged and engaged this made me feel.  A small act done with great love that I am convinced sent out a ripple of similar welcomings and greetings across the whole event.

I remember the repeated joy of surprise encounters.  Sometimes these came from extended conversations with the people I was working alongside to make the backroom support.  Sometimes this was a stranger asking me to join them for lunch and drawing me lightly into their conversation.  Sometimes it was the joyful ‘aha’ of hearing the wisdom of another’s experience or the sharp brightness of their questioning inside the sessions.  What made these encounters so exceptional was their unusualness – I seldom have this same experience at other events – and their frequency.  I don’t believe it was my Glorious team member’s badge that made the difference, but rather that a mood and expectation and curiosity and readiness for surprising encounters that was woven through the DNA of this whole event: in its themes and its processes and its design and in the behaviours and values if its makers.  You get what you go looking for and something was in the water we were all drinking at this symposium that made us all more heads up, eyes open, ears widened…

I remember too the luxury of space…

…the space of time from 2hour sessions and 2hour lunch breaks with local restauranteurs who greeted us like they knew us and made us feel this meal would be special.  This elongated time that allowed for an unfolding discovery of dialogue rather than the more usual forced smash of ideas through too little time, too tight an agenda, too squeezed a set of objectives and expectations;

…the space and spaces made by questions that created openings and extensions rather than the more usual objectives that push for reductive thinking and positioning, driving and herding us into conclusions and certainties (as if there could be any, but how often are we asked, anyway, to just let go of our intelligent beliefs that our situations and ambitions are way too complex to carry the heavyweight load of certainty?);

…the physical space of being able to inhabit different spaces, to choose a session that involved walking after lunch each day, to, at any time, come into the coffee-always-ready-and-several-varieties-of-tea-room to sit, take time out, chill, or make your own conversations.

I remember, too, and maybe this above all else, how all the espoused values we, as the company, and we, as this makeshift community, were championing, advocating, advancing were every bit in evidence in the practice and experience of this event:  qualities of generosity and friendliness and inclusion and welcome and giving and gifts and relationship and exceptional experience at every moment and being fully present in every moment…  all these qualities were alive and active.  This is rare, and, sadly, it is a kind of truism that whatever is held to be most important for the people we work to benefit, we are least likely to be doing well for ourselves.

Blossoms on Branch

There is something more to say about this symposium, and this about the depth and range and interrogation of the inquiries that were the thread and weave of this symposium.  I have so far, perhaps, made it seem like a collusive gathering of the smug and complacent.  But its questions and the responses people bought were challenging and original.  And the provocations that started each day were provoking, not in a way that antagonised or tore at us, but rather they invited a kind of positive disruption, nudging us to think bigger, better, wider, more keenly.

One of the symposium’s most difficult acts to pull off – and that it did is further testament to its great success – was that many of its participants came without any prior knowledge or experience of  Glorious, the project on which it was built, and yet in conversation after conversation there seemed to me an equal sense of ownership and involvement and engagement and trust and uncertainty in the material, irrespective of how much immersion in Glorious you came with.

So my learning to take away in a memo to ourselves:

…continue, when preparing events, to devote time and creativity and care and minute attention to what will help to make a great experience for the people who will come.  Because, just as we have always believed, this matters immensely, and, because we might just dip into believing that we are already doing this enough.  And this experience has shown me that there is much more that is simple and wonderful that we could be doing.

A note: lest I seem to be bragging intolerably about this event I should say that I take no credit for its many successes.  I was there and helped to make it work, yes, but the things that it made it so very special and exceptional belong to a whole team who made it and especially the people who imagined and led it.  And, yes, to Rajni herself for the light gifted way she held it and us so potently open.

 

A beautiful bespoke publication that contains Mary Patterson’s  exquisite reveries about Glorious, and Elizabeth Lynch’s storytelling consideration of what Glorious achieved for the people who inhabited it, as well as two films made in response to Glorious – Becky Edmunds‘ collaged palimpsest made from different shows, and Lucy Cash’s Six Actions:

rajni glorious - Dear Stranger, I Love You

Dear Stranger, I love you

the ethics of community in Rajni Shah Projects’ Glorious

Dear Stranger, I love you offers an in-depth exploration of artist Rajni Shah’s Glorious, an experimental performance project that began with a series of conversations between strangers and ended in a large-scale theatre production involving local residents and musicians in each location where it was presented…

The publication brings together four ways of looking at Glorious: a short film made in response to six performances of Glorious by filmmaker Becky Edmunds; a music video shot in and around Lancaster and Morecambe by Lucy Cash; a critical overview of the process behind two iterations of the project by Elizabeth Lynch; and The Glorious Storybook, a collection of memories from throughout the process, edited and contextualised by writer Mary Paterson…

Being Home & Not Being Home ~ a reflection on the sounds and silences of living in London

by Mark Trezona

(This was a guest post originally written for Shaking Out ~ the Shaky Isles Theatre Company Blog. which publishes a new piece by a guest every artist every Tuesday)

Colin McCahon's 'This Is The Promised Land' + South London

Colin McCahon’s ‘This Is The Promised Land’ + South London

Have you ever done that thing in London where you go outside – especially in the smallest hours of the morning – and just listen in to as many sounds of the city as you can hear?

‘…that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older [and] now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear’.  (Charles Manby Smith, 1857) 

The ‘roar’ here suggests the presence of some great beast, but more significant is this sense of continuous, distant sound as if it were a form of meditation or self-communing…

London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness.  It is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature.  But it is also a token of its energy and power.  

Its noise is ancient but always renewed,  a perpetual sound that’s variously compared to Niagara, in its persistence and remorselessness, and to the beating of a human heart.  It is intimate and yet impersonal, like the noise of life itself…

A celebrated American of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell,  has written: ‘One other thing about London impresses me beyond any other sound I have ever heard and that is the low, unceasing roar one hears always in the air; it is not a mere accident, like a tempest or cataract, but it is impressive, because it always indicates human will, and impulse, and conscious movement; and I confess that when I hear it I almost feel as if I were listening to the roaring loom of time.’  (Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography, pp.71, 75, 76)

Tuning in acutely to these sounds and feeling a connection to this vibrating chorus of so many different lives and possibilities and relationships and stories happening –  and heading towards happening – gives me a rush so strong that I always want to hug myself and shout out how fucking lucky I feel to be living here and calling this great over-sized mess of a city my home.

This same rush of euphoria pulses through every cell of me if I stop myself walking midway across any of London’s bridges and take time to stand and stare‘. In these moments the sights of the city overwhelm its sounds, and I hear, instead, myself, sounding out again: This is my city.  This is where I live.  This is my home.  This is the feeling that I felt the first day I arrived here and I feel it still just as strongly 27 years later.

And, even if it’s the middle of the day and London is glistening and prickling in its busyness, the feeling I get is of a moment locked into its own steel blue circular intensity that unstoppably re-conjures whatever echoes I can remember that moment from William Wordsworth’s enduring poem:

Upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

All this powerful presence.

All this history and all this yet to be.

All this that I live in and amongst and call my own.

This is London, my home.

Yeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!

It is the feeling I recognised instantly when I read  the start of Katherine Mansfield’s 1918 short story, Bliss:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply…

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?

Oh is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly”?  How idiotic civilisation is!  Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?

These lines are used by Matthieu Ricard to start the first chapter of his book, The Art of Happiness: A Guide to Nurturing Life’s Most Important Skill.  I am reading Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, photographer and author, and a man whose happiness has been widely studied and is considered to be the happiest man on the planet as part of my ongoing exploration through the subject of happiness and human flourishing.  (Check out Happiness Is A Skill, and his TEDTalk The Habits of Happiness for an introduction to his gentle wisdom.)

It pleases me very much to find the words of one of our New Zealand writers helping to elucidate wisdom from the happiest man in the known universe.  Just as it pleased me to discover that Katherine Mansfield is the only writer Virginia Woolf ever felt jealous of.  It makes me feel plumped up about being a New Zealander.

But back to the blissed out Bertha Young, home now in her London house of 100 years ago:

…in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable.  She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply.  She hardly dared look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something…divine to happen…that she knew must happen…infallibly.

And here is the second dimension of what living in London feels like to me – that sense of possibility, that at any moment at any time in any part of the city you could meet someone extraordinary and make a connection and something intense and special could happen, maybe just for the shortest moment, maybe for much longer, maybe even for the rest of your life.  And that, if it didn’t happen today, this week, it will happen, and happen again many times more.  This city is too rich and magnificent and full of people with all of their experiences and expectations and dreams and demands and eccentricities and impossible certainties and jangling anxieties for you not to bang into someone, something, that feels… what?  meant?  important?  uniquely personal?  only possible here?

It happens for Bertha with a woman she has newly met and invited to a dinner party in her London home:

…the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering pear tree.  Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to a point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round silver moon.

How long did they stand there?  Both, as it were, caught in the circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

For ever – for a moment?  And did Miss Fulton murmur: “Yes. Just that.”  Or did Bertha dream it?

This is what living in London is for me.  An ever-present effervescence of possibility, where any time could bring surprise and discovery, where there is still more potential and life to be uncovered than any living yet done could use up.  And where you can be whoever you decide to be today – so far as you yourself will allow – and walk out into the city and the city will absorb and make a perfect fit of the you you’ve made – or are imagining – yourself to be.

You can be.

Just that.

All that.

And yet, and yet…

Alongside the heady hearty noisy rush of my claim to this city, there is always a parallel track of feelings of alienation, foreignness, displacement, nostalgia and longing for people, places, smells, tastes and sounds from another country.

I am not from here, of here.  I am like the other 3 million of London’s 8.5 million residents, the 37% of Londoners who were not born in the UK, and, for as long as I live here I will always be living ‘away from home’.  For us, as much as this place is about the thrill and possibility of its noise, the full quality of our presence here is as ambiguous and hard to discern as London’s silence, sensed only sometimes and partially as

…an absence of being…a negative force…

There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London.  It is not a natural silence but a ‘play’, one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure.  It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety. (London, p.81, 82)

No New Zealand Londoner I know makes their home here for a quiet life.  That is what New Zealand is for, what pulls many New Zealanders back, and what those of us who stay here never quite stop romanticising up and longing after: that little piece of our own wide and spacious  utterly natural and wildly beautiful New Zealand serenity.  The Sounds.  The Huka Falls.  A Northland Beach.  South Island’s West Coast. An art deco boutique hotel in Napier.  Walking any one of our National Parks.  The Coromandel.  Substitute your own place of choice: even if you’re not a New Zealander, if you’ve been to New Zealand, you’ll have one.

We New Zealanders know why those of you who go there tell us it is such a special place.  When we are ‘back home’ we expat New Zealanders are always re-amazed at the number and brightness of stars in our southern sky.  We hold our homeland dear and remain constant and true to its natural wonderfulness, something we never expect London to begin to compete with.  This is the universal call of our homeland: its promise of perfect uncontaminated astoundingly beautiful wide open silence.

(In fact, when I was last in Auckland I was shocked at how shouty and loud and noisy our city dwelling native birds are – until I got to Sydney, where the birds are even louder still.)

But in London the birds sing all night.  London is never silent.  London’s silence has to be heard and felt in the contrasting relative quiet of our bedrooms (we hope), and in the moments when we are stopped in our lives just long enough to feel its echo, and in the delay we still hear across our telephone and skype calls to friends and family ‘back home,’ and in the felt absence of a newsy email update sometimes, (or, much more likely in my case, in the guilt of still not yet having written one), and in the marking of big moments happening across the world in another time zone without us being able to be there, in ‘being there in spirit’, in missing the lives we are forced to live apart from.

This longing back to New Zealand is part of being a New Zealander.  Katherine Mansfield very deliberately chose to live most of her life in Europe, but in March 1922, ill with the TB that she would die from less than a year later, she wrote ‘home’ to her father:

“ …the longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand.  A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it.  But New Zealand is in my very bones.”

Our silence is felt in a kind of constant sense of loss, that, like the bereaved’s grief, after a certain period of time, becomes too shameful, illegitimate, not really allowable to be voiced in public or even to ourselves, because, of course we know this, there are noisier more important life-must-go-on and we-really-do-feel-lucky-for-what-we-have moments of living to be had and cheered and enjoyed and – well lived.

 The noise of living will always drown out the sounds of silence.

The silence of the living-away-from-home blissfully-at-home-here-in-London is mostly just that: silent.

And silence, just as is the case with listening, is mostly unappreciated, a passive not real thing, an un-action, a not-happening, an absence of dynamic, merely a pause in things before play is resumed.

Silence is the sound of not working, not making money. 

This is not the silence of the countryside, where repose seems natural and unforced.  The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence.  It is a teeming silence.  (London, p.83)

For us Shaky Isles folk the noisy silence we hear lying in the depths of this city, never quiet if mostly out of sight, is the creature we call our Taniwha:

It is the pull of this dirty and excessive city when you yearn for another home.  It is that feeling … of knowing that someone – something – is just … over … there.   (Taniwha Thames)

I have grown to love this unquiet silence just as fervently as I love the noises of this city.  I know I will always have New Zealand, my motherland, in my veins and I love the pride this difference gives me as truly as I love the special pride I have for the courage and risk and expectation my nineteenth century ancestors must have had when they left England on their long uncertain voyage to make a better life for themselves and their families in New Zealand.

Being not from here, in fact, helps me to feel more of a true Londoner, for London is, and always has been, a city of outsiders.  London is one of those cities where you can wear your outsideness loud and proud as a badge of authenticity.  And this perhaps is the other dimension of what I love so much about London: its theatricality.

For Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic.  (London, p.152)

London does not offer uncontested peace and tranquility, because its silences are as full of ambiguous nuanced potent possibility as are its noises.  Strain your ears in to listen and hear the overrunning of its stories.  London is a permanently live performance.  London is a place and space of constantly amplified profound ambivalence, not just for its immigrants but for all of its inhabitants.

Ambivalence is, of course, the sense of having at least two – usually contrasting – feelings about the same thing… Being a theatre or performance audience or maker … can be an affirmative act of conversation and cosmopolitanism, an opportunity ambivalently to respect our differences and recognise what we share, to recognise the challenges we live with in our cities and to take up our cities’ opportunities.  (Jen Harvie, Theatre & the City, 2009 p.77)

The theatre we are engaged in making in Shaky Isles, and the ways in which are making it, are in many ways a microcosm of the complex messy fluctuations of noise and silence in which London works itself out as a city.

There are rules, but these will be broken when they do not fit the purpose of our lives.

There is intention and desired outcomes, but these are deliberately kept absorbent, porous, malleable, a living system of multiple intentions and  desires constantly infecting and being affected by each other as they rub into and through themselves.

There is apparent chaos, but it is really the forward fluidity of the flock that prevents stasis and keeps enough flow to be always in progressive movement, re-circling, re-firing, re-living, each iteration a bit different and a bit better than before.

These are the energies and rhythms we are learning to ride in Shaky Isles.  We are interested in what unfolds from bringing different voices together to tell a stories that are simultaneously intimate, personal and particular and, at the same time, recognisable, eternal and universal.  We use Open Space and Action Learning to uncover and discover our work together through and from and in our not-knowing.  We are practicing and slowly mastering the skills and qualities of trusting and sharing and questioning and experimenting and listening and saying and reworking and refining.  We are trying to get better at getting more of us in the room more often to do more of the work together.

And we know that the only way to make all of this work is to make it work together, as we go, as messy and as noisy and as ambivalent as this needs to be.

 

…the city is a model of dynamic relativism, a space where everything means more than one thing – a nondescript doorway, invisible for some, is for others the gateway to a magical garden… 

Because the tensions they have out there, the secrets they have out there, the journeys they go on, things they wish for or fear out there are the things you might well seek to amplify, uncover or remix on the stage.  Because what we might call the temporary community of the auditorium (negotiated each night, triangulated off the stage) reflects and refracts the temporary communities outside.

Because the city is a nexus of motorways, TV signals, Internets, dreams, global currents and trickle-downs, a place where our desires wash up, are fed, disrupted, chained, dodged or neutered by what people call late capitalism.

Because the city contains small beauties, zones of possibility…

Because it reflects the life you must reflect and must reflect on and the life already reflected in you.

Because the city can trap you, nurture you, teach you, unravel you, unspeak you.  Because you are just one among many here, and the dynamic of one in relation to many (conversation, dialogue, difference, the negotiation of public space) is what theatre emerges from and thrives on, what art must address and what cities must somehow contend with if they are to survive. (Tim Etchells, Foreword to Theatre & the City, p.xii, xiii-ix)

Katherine Mansfield did not survive her illness and died away from home aged 34.  The epitaph on her grave is one of her favourite quotations from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I which she had chosen for the title page of  Bliss and Other Stories:

“…but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety”

In her short story , Bliss, despite the intense emotional re-firing her heroine experiences, Bertha’s night does not end happily.  And yet…

…the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flowers and as still.

Living in London is built on the most fragile of frameworks:  and being at home / not being home / making a home / missing home in London is perhaps the umbilical chord that holds many of us in together.  And helps to make us work.  Just as these same strands entwine to make London work around us.

Just Listen…

 

Mark Trezona has a passion for sound and listening and, with his partner Martyn Duffy, makes sound with and for Shaky Isles shows.  Through their company BridgeBuilders STG they make bespoke learning programmes in happiness at work, creativity, leadership, learning, team working & communications.  He has his own blog, performance~marks, dedicated to an exploration of happiness, creativity & resilience and what makes great audience experience.

 

The next Shaky Isles  Shake It Up evening is a theatre scratch night

7.30pm Wednesday 5th June, 2013 

 

‘I Am the Wind’ at Young Vic

A Young Vic/ Théâtre de la Ville-Paris co-production co-commissioned by Wiener Festwochen (Vienna), les Nuits de Fourvière/ Département du Rhône, Festival Grec 2011 – Barcelona and Festival d’Avignon

I Am the Wind

by Jon Fosse
English language version by Simon Stephens

Until 21 May 2011

http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/i-am-the-wind

I Am the Wind

Creative team

Direction Patrice Chéreau
Artistic collaboration Thierry Thieû Niang
Design Richard Peduzzi
Costumes Caroline de Vivaise
Light 
Dominique Bruguière

Music Éric Neveux
Casting Sam Jones
Assistant lighting designFrançois Thouret
Assistant Director Peter Cant
Literal translation Øystein Ulsberg Brager

Cast

Tom Brooke
Jack Laskey

The wind gathers, rising up suddenly.

Two men on a fragile boat, a trip to sea – a few drinks, a bite to eat – when one of them decides to push on to the open ocean.

Suddenly there they are: among the distant islands, the threatening fog and gathering swell of the sea, bound together on an odyssey into the unknown.

France’s leading film, opera and theatre director
Patrice Chéreau (La Reine Margot) directs
Simon Stephens (Punk Rock, Lyric Hammersmith) version of Jon Fosse’s (Ibsen Award 2010) contemporary fable.

This was a wonderful experience – a meditation on suicide perhaps, or perhaps an intimate portrayal of someone wilfully casting off his childish self to become the more responsible and more fearful adult he is inevitably growing into. The experience watching it was so close and personal it felt luxuriously a lot like falling inside the pages of a book – the experience yours alone to drift and yearn and ache and lament through.  This is what i recognise as exceptional audience experience – rich and imaginative and evocative and spiritual and human and potent in its capture of life as we can recognise it and yet life as it could and we still want it to be.

Much of this was achieved by the staging – simply stated and roughly dramatic and complex and thrilling in its occasional abrupt surprises (the boat appearing and disappearing) and sharply poetic in its images (the first moments of The Other holding the half naked child-thin body of The One at the edge of the brown water) and intimate (the caressed holding of the two men together on the boat). The appearance and performance of the two actors made it easy for us to fall inside this world – not pretty film star types but ambiguous characterful boy-men who seemed to mostly inhabit the skin of the (same?) man they portrayed for us.

And it made me remember the regret of the fear of riding a horse now that i am grown, remembering how easy and exhilarating it had been to ride as a child.  And to think again of the heady intoxication of an imagined life lived right out on the edge, experiencing at extreme levels of reception, irresponsible and never attainable of course but once upon a time wished for and grasped at despite its impossibility.

Watching the actors secure and vulnerable on their roiling decking, facing out to the limitless horizon, bound to either unglamorous disaster and inglorious turning back and accepting the world that is known and unleaveaable. And all of this thoroughly theatrical and live and immediate.

Exceptional experience that is still full and alive with me days later.