Ensemble and democracy

A couple of weeks ago now – the day I returned from my week of leave in Byron Bay and Brisbane, actually – I heard Professor Jonathan Neelands (Warwick University) speak at the University of Melbourne on Acting together: ensemble as a democratic process in art and life.

Who wouldn’t be immediately intrigued by a concept like that? Such a sublime marrying of political theory and art-making. As ever, I love finding parallels between art-making and other, more established, articulated agreed-upon theories, disciplines and methodologies.

Regular readers will note how very behind I am in my blogging (due to a couple of pretty busy weeks), so forgive me if I just add some (potentially disconnected) notes here on this most interesting presentation – copied into this post pretty much word for word from the notebook I had with me on the night, into which I was frantically scratching away with my pen, throughout the talk.

Drama… ensemble… activism (as in, being active, as much as anything else). Process is more important than outcome. The struggle, rather than the end result. This, Prof. Neelands stated, is true in activism as well as in art. A sense perhaps of subjugating yourself to the greater good.

Hmmm… in principal I like this value, however, I don’t think it is so easily summed up. At the end of the talk I raised the question about orchestras, where everything that happens in arguably for the greater good, but leaves individual players stifled, frustrated, without any genuine creative outlet or sense of one’s own contribution. Prof. Neelands countered this by saying that it is not ‘the greater good’, but the absence of any true democracy, that causes this numbing of the spirit in orchestras.

In drama, individuals are asked to put the ‘common good’ ahead of their own private interests.

In democracy too.

Neelands was open and unapologetic that, in all that he discussed, there was strong idealism. Idealism, and proceses that depend on idealism, he said, are probably not realistic in society. But in a classroom, or in an ensemble, it is (or should be) realistic.

I liked this statement too. I have long hated the argument often raised again perceived injustices or inconsistencies (or double standards, or unnecessary/avoidable harshness), in schools, of “Well, that’s life.” No, I counter. It isn’t life. It is school. There is plenty of time for life (and all its attendant cruelties and injustices and harshness) when these students have left school. But when else in their lives might they discover who they could be in an environment designed to support them and bring out their best? Since when did we need to toughen people up, exactly? Resilience isn’t learned by facing life’s toughest battles as soon as possible. Resilience is far more likely to prosper and grow in a loving, encouraging, positive environment.

Right. Off my soapbox, back to Dr Neelands.

Here is a quote from Michael Boyed, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talking about the company’s commitment to engaging young people in creative, integrity-filled ensemble work:

[It is] a chance to create a better version of the real world on an achievable scale that celebrates the virtues of collaboration.

Another scribble from my notebook:

Democracy is an unfinishable process, it’s constantly re-defining itself… you can’t just claim something as democratic and then assume it is, and will remain ever-thus. You have to keep working at it, checking it, supporting it, not taking it for granted.

We live in societies that discourage active participation, that encourage passivity. Do direct, participatory forms of theatre lead to direct, participatory forms of living? ie. democratic principals of living in society?

Rather, Prof. Neelands pointed out, we tend to have ‘representative’ versions of democracy, and therefore also of theatre – people who act on our behalf, as our representatives.

What are the reasons people – young people, but also people of any age – may be reluctant to participate actively in a class or in an ensemble? Fear of ridicule, being looked at or the subject of uncomfortable attention, of being judged, of wanting a quiet life, of a reluctance to lead or demonstrate an opinion…. these are parallel with the reasons for why people don’t actively engage in their communities.


Drama teachers teach as if their students have a choice of whether to be there or not. Imagine if every teacher, or every subject, taught like this!


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: