I saw Bakersfield Mist at Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s Theatre the other night. I spent a few hours cosied up in a trailer-park with Maude (Julie Nihill), who was trying to convince New York art connoisseur Lionel (John Wood) that she owned a long lost Jackson Pollock. It was a decent show, if you’re into naturalism by numbers. But as I left the theatre I had a revelation – that theatre is the ultimate mindfulness exercise.
This isn’t a random connection. I try to see a fair bit of theatre. And I make theatre. And I’ve been learning a lot about mindfulness lately.
I attended Amanda Sinclair’s Leading Mindfully workshop which was hosted by LBWR, and I’ve recently been teamed with a mentor as part of the Leaders Forum. My mentor challenges me to find time for myself to reflect, to become more self-aware of my thinking brain and to change my ingrained negative reactions to stressful situations. To put some of this learning into action is my biggest challenge right now. It’s much, much more daunting than my next theatre project with Tripwire Theatre Inc. The prospect of putting on a play that has a $35,000 budget, that is politically contentious and depicts domestic violence doesn’t seem half as scary as re-training your brain. And despite Amanda’s seemingly simple techniques, I know some of this mindfulness work will have me questioning who I am and what my values and beliefs are really based upon.
Sinclair spoke about three modes of mind: thinking, reflecting and mindful awareness. Thinking is our analytical problem -solving brain; and its effectiveness is limited but most often rewarded in our jobs and society. Reflecting is one step up – being more self-aware and considering the reasons behind the thinking. And Mindful Awareness is that space where you get to hear things properly, because your mind is no longer too busy thinking to get in your own way. It’s a state of openness and expansive mindfulness – allowing stimulus to enter without judging it or trying to change it.
As a theatre director, your job is to creating meaning through aural, visual and symbolic messages. A good director plans and knows what the audience will be thinking at any one point in the performance. Everything from the texture of every item on stage, to the colour of the lights, to the actors inflection on a word, has come from a deliberate decision by the director as a means to that end. A good director enables the audience to be spoon-fed meaning -and the convention of theatre permits the audience to surrender themselves into a state of mindful awareness.
By its very nature, theatre forces us to allow stimulus in, and we certainly cannot change it, and (if it’s done right), we don’t judge it until after the curtain closes. Theatre challenges us to rethink about where our opinions come from and why we think the things we do. It has a unique ability to not just show us a hitherto unknown aspect of the human condition, but to have us experience it first hand. And it can succeed in changing our perceptions because it allows the audience to sit in that space where they can really experience a concept without the noise of a thinking mind.
So, even though I could see John Wood thinking about his lines during an impassioned monologue, and the decision to make the entire set tartan was never made clear, being with a few hundred people in a room and going on the same journey together is always a powerful experience. The immediacy of living breathing performance beats any mindfulness app or book about Buddhism for busy people. Think of it as kind of guided meditation IRL.
Happily, I will meet again soon with my mentor and announce that my new strategy to achieve mindful awareness is to see more theatre. And that can only be a good thing, I say.