Friday, September 27, 2013

Almost invisible again.

African American author Ralph Ellison's landmark book about dis-empowerment, and ultimately the journey to empowerment Invisible Man was recently banned by a school board in the U.S.A. It is not important so much that a single school district in the U.S. had chosen to ban a book as to look at the reasons why, and examine this issue in the wider sense. Read the article here

Each individual case needs to be looked at in its specifics, but in cases like this where the book is 60 years old and has been held in libraries since the 50's, a magnifying glass needs to run over why - now - it has been judged to have transgressed some social standard. There is often a repressive and oppressive gene in boards pretty much anywhere, but individual opinion can't be decoupled from the potential of structurally ingrained prejudice. 

These kind of episodes are concerning, and are important to highlight and speak back to. Often the concerns over content and appropriateness and judgements about literary value (laughable, in this case) are beards for suppression of narratives that run counter to traditional power. Terrible irony that 'Invisible Man' itself was subject to an attempt to render it invisible. 

This particular example demonstrates several things:

1) the potential for agendas to come into play at any time, and skew the mix of what is available to our culture, to their own ends
2) that the post-colonial era and its divorce from the colonial past is sometimes only a sheet of paper deep
3) that people, readers, writers, political activists, or just people who care, can fight back. That oppression loves a vacuum, and generally dislikes being daylighted. We can make a difference.The ban was overturned. 

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952

Monday, September 23, 2013

A few thoughts on theatre

On the weekend we went out to Unitec in West Auckland to see a production of Australian author Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet.  This was put on by second year students from Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts. It was an enthralling production, fast paced, full of movement - though not sacrificing depth and resonance for the speed and movement. While watching, a few thoughts struck me.

Firstly Tim Winton is one of the great chroniclers of the lives of the Antipodean working class. His warts and all portrayals are steeped in a sense of storytelling history, full of Australian vernacular (that NZ audiences can relate to easily), and they often reflect the lives of people whose lives resonate with characters from our own NZ and Australian past. At AUT today I did a lecture on ‘What is most personal is also most universal’ (quoting American psychologist Carl R. Rogers.) Winton’s stories reflect that principle, with his characters’ lives and conflicts riffing off our own, with authenticity and a refusal to compromise to any formulaic concepts of happy endings, characters who act as the ‘love interest. His stories detail the lives of the ordinary, though aren’t predictable. We know them, but we get to live them anew.

Another of Tim Winton’s stellar pieces of work, The Turning, has recently been turned into a movie. Watch the trailer here. The Turning, a short story cycle/composite novel does not seem a book to easily re-script as a film. I’m reminded of Robert Altman’s film ‘Short Cuts’ taken from nine short stories and a poem from by Raymond Carver, which never really worked as a coherent whole. I am hoping The Turning fares better.

Second thing that struck me is the physicality of theatre and its sense of three dimensional space. Physical in that the running feet are in the room with you (as an audience member), that the lighting effects include the audience, that each seat in the house has a different angle on the characters and action. If well used, and in this production it was, it can give an intimacy unique to theatre. I’ve seen a few too many productions that were 90% sound (mostly dialogue) and functioned almost as a radio play with some interspersed movement to keep your eyes awake. That physicality, the sense of being in the same space as the cast’s muscles and facial expressions and even momentary ‘fluffs’ gives the experience an extra tension, a special sense of the ‘now.’  

Third thing: just how vital live theatre is to the (storytelling) arts scene. Fortunes seem to wax and wane with theatre in New Zealand, and it’s important for funding bodies to recognize theatre’s intrinsic worth as both entertainment and as a context for developing writers/actors/directors. I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the demise of the Downstage company in Wellington, and I guess individual stars rise and fall, but live theatre as a concept and a unique medium is critical to the world of storytelling.

The Unitec cast of 'Cloudstreet,' 2013.