Light, Space, Silence…elemental thinking
In the decade-plus I’ve lived in regional Australia, one of the most useful and surprising discoveries is that the quality and characteristics of my thinking – the way I process thoughts – is quite different here on the South Coast, surrounded by the elements, to my thinking in the city. I recall the moment. I was sitting in the shade at the edge of a forest, looking out to the mountains and valleys. The sun had begun to set, the whole afternoon had passed but I had been working in such a state of flow that time had just disappeared. I had worked hard, the work was now done, and I was happy with it. It felt like coming through a tunnel. Yet I had at all times been intensely aware of my un-tunnel-like surroundings: abundant space, the air, kookaburras, the thud of kangaroos, the continuous movement of the trees and the shimmering light endlessly undulating through leaves.
At first I thought it was simple – a change of scenery stimulating surges of productive thinking, but over time I came to understand its significance: when I’m here my thinking will be clearer, deeper and richer, more continuous and therefore more fruitful. Initially this epiphany was a lovely bonus, now it’s a creative strategy.
The system works like this: When I have something new or complicated to write, or if I need to wrap my head around a big multi-demanding directing project, or manage a complex situation, I surround myself with the environment I need – abundant space, silence, light, the elements – to tear into it conceptually, to wrestle abstract ideas into submission, to map things out and turn my internal chaos into some kind of order. As long as I give myself enough time to change gears from city to country, time to breathe, process and read, to walk through trees and watch the water, the elemental energy of this place always, always rewards me with some kind of clarity and perspective, and the electric charge of the ideas my creativity thrives on.
Having this reassuring knowledge up my sleeve has, far more than once, averted meltdown by subduing the emotional panic associated with approaching deadlines or crises. Knowing that I have a highly effective “thinking place” to go to comb out the chaos has helped me manage (not conquer, alas) my anxiety and stress levels. In fact, in a weird way perhaps it even encourages me to take on more projects than I probably should.
It’s not like I can’t concentrate, process information or come up with good ideas when surrounded by buildings, of course I can. I thrive on the many distractions and accelerations of urban life, most of my work is made in cities, but I now accept that these dynamics also make it harder to maintain the continuum of a thought-stream, to spiral deeper into a concept, to sit with an idea for a while, to walk or drive with it and let it settle. To put it bluntly, I’ve learned that my thinking is faster yet shallower in the city, but deeper (although no less restless) and more productive when I’m surrounded by space, silence, light, distance and thousands of shades of green.
This growing understanding of the effects of the natural environment on my own creative and thought processes has led to a growing fascination with the impact of the elements on the creative life of artists, and performance-makers in particular. No doubt there are neurological and chemical impulses pinging around, doing complicated things to our brains, but that’s not my focus. My focus is on productivity. Why the elements affect human creativity interests me far less than how they affect my creativity as a director. And in terms of making new performance work, what might be the outcomes and implications of this deeper understanding?
It’s a question I’ve begun to ask colleagues, in parallel with exploring my own experiences as I design and develop the first project of my own creative enterprise based outside the city. There is a confluence to their responses that is perhaps not surprising – the relationship between the elements and creativity is not exactly a new phenomenon.
As long as humans have communicated by leaving marks, mark-makers have sought to interpret natural phenomena. The resonances between environment and performance are core to the singing, dancing and storytelling on Country that connects a landscape to the maintenance of cultural practice for Indigenous artists and communities.
In the digital age the visceral experience of extreme weather, a powerful landscape or a sky full of stars can still reconnect even the most urban of creatures with a long-lost wildness and the awe-inspiring quality of greatness or grandeur described as the Sublime. I like Kant’s idea that our ecstatic response to nature’s power is underpinned by terror of our human frailty, creating a tension between the rational and irrational mind that “may be compared to a vibration”
Being attuned to a sense of proximity to the Sublime and wildness is certainly part of it. There’s no doubt I am affected by a deep aesthetic and emotional response to the unique beauty and power of the Australian landscape, and particularly the landscape of my home on the south coast. There may even be a quasi-religious aspect – ritual, solitude and quiet contemplation – to the experience of getting focused and going into the “thinking zone”.
In considering how the external environment affects internal focus, the most obvious change one feels on leaving the city – a sense of space. One experiences distance, a horizon, we can see things far away, how the light and weather changes over that distance. We can feel our perspective, our sense of space and scale adjust as we respond to a sweeping vista, a plummeting canyon, a mountain range, a winding road, a forest walk or the ocean. Our bodies experience more, and there are practical considerations – keeping warm or sheltered from the sun and wind. A sense of our human scale in relation to our surroundings is affected. It all adds up.
My fascination about the impact of the Australian landscape on creative processes, sparked in my conversations with Mike Shepherd, founding artistic director of Cornwall’s internationally celebrated Kneehigh Theatre that coincided with my aforementioned epiphany. Kneehigh’s fantastic show, The Red Shoes, was in my 2011 Sydney Festival, and the company’s ethos was a revelation to me.
Over its thirty-year evolution from a raffish bunch of local actors to a company of national and international acclaim, The company’s creative teams have “held their nerve” to maintain their distinctive way of theatre making ands regional identity as a fundamental artistic priority. As Kneehigh’s manifesto makes clear, the elements are central to their work at The Barns, a series of restored buildings on the rugged Cornish coastline, cheek by jowl with neighbours’ farmland and overlooking the sea.
“The isolation of the barns, and the need to cook and keep warm provides a real and natural focus for our flights of imagination. This… radical choice informs all aspects of our work. Although much of our work is now co-produced with larger theatres, we always try to start the creative process at these barns, to be inspired by our environment and where we work. These elemental and charged spaces add a physical and vocal robustness to our performance style.”
Many of Kneehigh’s most famous shows are retelling of myths animated in the company’s distinctive narrative style, featuring natural light and in particular, the shift from day to night.
“The Red Shoes started outdoors so there was the storytelling element that as dark fell, it affected the actual shape of those stories, Red Shoes, Tristan and Isolde. The story deepens and the emotions deepen with the darkness.”
The sensuality and wildness of those early theatre-making experiences is embedded into the Kneehigh rehearsal process at The Barns:
“We’ll be out on the field, or we’ll mark out the space down on the beach and we’ll run (the show). We get out on the cliffs and we sing and we run…. then there’ll be times when we focus on a more intimate space indoors, so it’s a mixture of the intimate and the epic…All the fresh air and the changes of weather and the running about give a natural robustness and rigour physically and vocally. We find it hard in the cities to get peoples’ vocal strength up, and it just happens naturally here.”
Beyond the physical, Mike asserts that an awareness of the environment is key to establishing a psychological state conducive to creativity:
“This place, the Barns, it’s at the end of the United Kingdom, it’s at the end of the road, and it has a massive horizon, which makes you look outwards, it makes you have an open mind, which is important…and quite hard to keep a hold of.”
It’s about getting people to step back a little bit, which they readily do, and they look at that horizon or light that fire, or get their hands dirty or just put a woolly jumper on if it’s getting cold. So they’re the simple elemental things that I mean, really. You’re in a lot of weather. The weather’s changing a lot of the time and you do step back…you eat together…we sit around that fire-pit, you surround yourself with the rudimentary nature of things.”
The shared or communal experience of weather and environment, combined with the relaxed atmosphere that is part of the regional experience, also has an effect on productivity and the sense of “flow” that is so important to the creative process. In my recent Platform Paper Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia, I offered this example:
Recently I was part of the co-creation, with playwright Suzie Miller and singer / songwriter Zulya Kamalova, of a new version of Snow White co-produced by OperaQ, Brisbane Festival and La Boite Theatre. The complexity of the work’s development was tripled by the fact that all three of us were in different cities. Most of our communication was digital, exchanging ideas and drafts via email and Dropboxed sound files. But we are very different women and artists, and we had never worked together before, so there came a point when we needed to spend real time together to find our shared voice. Having found a single weekend in our schedules we chose to run away to a beach shack on the NSW central coast.
We walked and talked and talked and walked for three days, along the coastline, over rocks, through bushland. Ideas flowed effortlessly, progress on the work bounded ahead and we returned to our various bases with the heart of Snow White, and the body of the show. Most of our work was done while walking or driving, preparing or eating our meals, or sitting on the beach as the sunset—casual, communal creativity combined with an accelerated sense of ‘ flow’ that many regional artists know well.
Perhaps this sense of “flow” is the nexus we’re seeking, that there is a logic or synergy between environmental flow and creative flow. Perhaps landscape provides a physical, external counterpoint to the internal flow experience as described by the psychologist Csiksentmihalyi, that deeply pleasurable state of optimal productivity “in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”; a state that all high-level artists revel in, consisting of deep concentration, high and balanced challenges and skills and a sense of control and satisfaction.
Solitude and silence are often cited as essential by thinkers and writers. Candelo singer/songwriter Heath Cullen says ‘I write well in a cluttered environment in the city too, but I have a much bigger need—the quiet.’
But once the writing’s done, creating a sense of ensemble, community and shared purpose are central to the development of new performance works. And here too, the casual mode of a regional environment can support the creative process. The fact that the atmosphere s relaxed does not mean the work is less important – often the work continues well beyond business hours – timetables and schedules flex; relationships are neighbourly as well as professional; people are in and out of each other’s houses for rehearsals and meetings. There are often dogs and kids around.
There is practical value to the project of extending that creative conversation over that beer after rehearsal. Consciously or not, an informal mode of “reflection-in-action” is happening which will inform the next day’s work. Philosopher Donald Schön’s example of improvising jazz musicians is apt:
As the new musicians feel the direction of the music that is developing out of their interwoven contributions, they make new sense of it and adjust their performance to the new sense they have made. They are reflecting-in-action on the music they are collectively making and on their individual contributions to it, thinking what they are doing, and in the process, evolving their way of doing it.
The shared meal and informal after-work gathering, ubiquitous rhythms of communal life, are rituals that underpin the creative process everywhere, but in regional Australia they too respond to the natural environment. As Richard Sennett points out in his book Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation,
“Ritual enables expressive cooperation in religion, in the workplace, in politics and in community life.”
In summary, it is impossible for artists and thinkers to NOT to be affected by their surrounding natural environment in some or all of these ways. Attuned as we are to the sensory experience of light, sound, smell, taste and touch; drawn as we are to Beauty and the Sublime; and being creatures of community, it would take a superhuman, indeed unnatural, effort to block that “flow”. Better then to abandon oneself to it, explore it and see where it might lead creatively and reflectively.
After a period of residency at Bundanon, my colleague, the director Wesley Enoch wrote: …” the river and the rocks allow you to think differently, (they) provide inspiration and a safe place to explore the role of the artist”.
This is the very idea – exploring the further potential of my role as an artist in an environment outside the city – that began with the revelation described in the first paragraph of this article. It’s an ongoing project, shared by colleagues around the country. The question of how the effects of regional environments impact upon creative development processes devised by performing artists and directors is the subject of further research I am undertaking as a student at QUT, and as Creative Director of my own company Crimson Rosella, based where I live in Tathra on the far south coast of NSW.
April 23, 2017
 Kneehigh website
 Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia, Currency House p24
 Flow: the Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness (Rider, 1990)
 Schön, D. A. (1983) Reflection in Action, the Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.