The writer Ben Okri describes creativity as “a form of prayer, and the expression of a profound gratitude for being alive”. I used to have a hard time agreeing with and accepting Okri’s description. I was introduced to creative labour as a function of struggle – creativity as protest. Within this dynamic, it has always felt to me like there was no room for feelings of profound gratitude. In fact having such feelings felt like a betrayal to the struggle. With this model the only path out of dysfunction is through the expression of what is wrong with the world, what is negative, what is corrupt and what is broken. Under such a mindset, it is decadent to indulge what is beautiful, miraculous, enchanting, and wondrous with the world. Even the choice of words is telling, we ‘engage’ with struggle but we ‘indulge’ with beauty. There is in a sense a lack of seriousness when you honour your responsibility to awe.
I borrowed the phrase “a responsibility to awe” from a collection of poems by the astronomer Rebecca Elson. For Elson “facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination.” Now, it would be naive to ignore the fact of social, political, economic and ecological struggle, but can such facts interest us in the possibilities they open up to the imagination? Perhaps sociologist Ruha Benjamin has a more elegant way of addressing what I am attempting to articulate. She says “Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.” The balance within creativity as protest is often tilted towards dismantling the worlds we cannot live within. For a long time I was stuck with this model of creative labour, and I could not find compelling reasons for gratitude nor open up my imagination. I started to slide into cynicism and nihilism, especially because it seems difficult to find sufficient perceptible positive changes within the grand dysfunctions of the world. This slip-sliding-away produced in me a perpetual state of existential angst. Only recently did I start to question creative labour and in particular my artistic practice as a function of struggle. Theatre as struggle was no longer satisfying my desire to create.
With my angst, I initially regarded this question “why theatre?” with suspicion. I wondered cynically how strange that as theatre practitioners we often seem to be caught in situations where we have to validate our existence. I cannot imagine such a question ever being posed to musicians. No one second-guesses the existence of music. I also struggled because why questions are tricky questions to answer – especially when you are under a fog of existential angst. Why questions demand we delineate the cause, reason or purpose for which something occurs – why seeks out motive. For me, there are three areas in which why questions become indispensable, when a tragedy has occurred, when there are excesses, and when confronting an existential crisis. An explanation is sorted out in order to rule out the uncertainty of chaos; the randomness of life, by knowing why, we can rest that there is order, that there is a pattern to the madness. Nothing is more unsettling than the existence of something without a reason. We must know why, it is troubling to experience happenings that are in violation of causality. Answering why gives relief. To know why is to give closure. To know why is to motivate action. To lose why is to invite angst. To lose why is to oscillate with uncertainty. To lose why is to motivate inaction. However, answering why can also give a false sense of security – a false sense of understanding.