Tuesday 27 March 2018

Is The Artist In Residence? The 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am that soundless, boundless, bitter sea,
Out of whose depths life wells eternally…"

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am the veiled Isis of the shadows of the Sanctuary
I am she that moveth as a shadow behind the tides of
Death and Birth"

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am older than time and forgotten of the gods.
No man may look upon my face and live,
For in the hour he parteth my veil, he dieth…"

Dion Fortune’s Sacred Drama, ‘The Rite of Isis,’ was performed this Sunday 25th March 2018 to a small invited audience at Glastonbury Constitutional Club. It represented the 6th of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ everyday-art events and ended with the following words:  

"Depart ye in silence to meditate upon the Mysteries, 
and let who will send in a record to the Temple."

Let it be noted, this is my record… 

Once upon a time, as one of the founder members of Volcano Theatre, I made and toured theatre professionally for almost three decades. But not until now, at the age of 53 and reclaiming the status of amateur again, have I had the chance to perform ‘The Rite of Isis’, and play ‘The Eternal Woman.’ It is said, you live life forwards but it can only be understood backwards. I’m now coming to understand what this means…

In 1986, ‘Street Captives’ saw me play a psychopathic, peroxide skin-head, terrorising an innocent-but-proven-guilty nouveau-riche-YUPPY-wine-bar owner – people didn’t know if I was a boy or girl. I didn’t tell them…

In 1988, ‘V’ - a red-mohicaned hermaphroditic, muscle-bound member of a Jesus-cult-class-war-poetry-gang. Two girls, two boys, we all wore big monkey-boots, skirts and make-up. Gender didn’t enter into it. We were all both sexes and neither…

In V with Eddie Ladd, Steve Fisher and Paul Davies. Photo by Andrew Jones
In 1992, ‘Medea’ - a lycra-clad wide-eyed, false-eyelashed, Euripidean innocent-turned-vigilante. I played the archetypal anti-heroine getting dumped by the archetypal hero. 

In Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

In 1994, ‘L.O.V.E’ - the sabatier-wielding, Dark Lady Diva of Shakespeare’s sonnets, fantasy woman wreaking nightmare revenge. Woman on the wild side. I imagined myself a transvestite.

In L.O.V.E. Photo by Andrew Jones

In 1996, ‘How to Live’ – a buttoned-up, Ibsenite baby-killing hysteric. The feminine under pressure culminating in an explosion of vamping, tango and crime passionnel. 

In How To Live. Photo by Andrew Jones

And these were just the early years… 

I fell in love with theatre as it offered a medium to awaken the imagination, channel powerful energies and to offer a genuine transformative experience - hopefully for the audience as well as the performers. Our theatre at Volcano was intended to rail against ‘the sloth and stale achievement’ of something or other. I can’t now remember what it was, though there was some kind of exorcism going on for sure. I liked my theatre extreme – Dionysian rather than Apollonian - or not at all. I wanted theatre to awaken, to charge the audience with life and to offer a space for transformation and a channel for the creative force to come through into the world. 

Paul Davies as Jason in Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

These characters I played and our extreme style enabled me and us to play with ideas of rigid power hierarchies - of class, culture and gender - in a non-naturalistic way. Volcano enabled me to play with expectations of what a woman looked like and what a woman did. Inspired by the wave of Feminism of the 70’s and 80’s, I wanted to explore and explode rigid gender archetypes which imprisoned the male as well as the female. I also loved to explore the male and female continuum within myself and others. This was perhaps where my urge to perform 'The Rite of Isis' as part of my current '7 Sundays in Spring' project began. But this time, I didn't want to present it as ‘just theatre’ but to earnestly attempt to invoke her and bring Isis into the room ‘as if’ it were really happening. For this, I need to make the transition from theatre in a black-box or proscenium arch to Sacred Theatre or Ritual. More on this later…

In my 20's, and 30's, I made myself a willing sacrifice to Dionysus, the hungry God of the grape, harvest, ritual madness and theatre. The style with which Volcano was branded by critics was ‘Physical Theatre’. For me, this was a shallow, unhelpful description of what was at stake when we donned our gear and went into the arena. I felt we were channelling something powerful, calling on or summoning up the gods. Those who liked our work, liked the unpredictability, the chthonic, chaotic energy we drew on and created. Those who didn’t like our work saw us as crass trouble-makers creating exhibitionist, violent theatre for its own sake. We didn’t have theatre training so especially in the beginning, we celebrated the cult of the amateur (from amare – to love/ amator – lover). I believe we were tapping into the ‘the spirit of the times’ of the 80’s – post Punk, post Miner’s Strike and the early attempts by a Thatcherite Conservative Government to dismantle the Welfare State and privatise the commons. An upwelling of generational frustration and creative energy found expression through us and came onto the stage. This was alchemy. I’d just finished a Degree in Psychology, Paul was working on a PHD in Utopian Socialism. These ideas spawned our cri de coer - our unspoken Manifesto which came to be written through the numerous pieces we created. It was serious business, though there was ecstatic joy also. We were young, we were tapping in to the energy of the young gods. Either that or we were trying to topple the old ones.

Simon Thorpe in Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

All ideas, forms and entities in order to evolve, need to destroy themselves and start afresh.  We consciously attempted to create each new show, with a different style and fresh perspective. Each represented a response to and an attempt to break away from the last – especially if it was a success. It was hard for bookers to know what we’d do next. They always wanted the ‘old’ tried and tested show. We wanted to make new things. But there was always a risk with the new – sometimes our shows just didn’t work. Some would say, “Medea Sexwar was my favourite show” or,  “why don’t you do another show like L.O.V.E?” or “V was the best thing you ever did”. Sometimes it felt that everyone wanted the old shows and the times when we were young - the times when they were young. Nostaligia is a powerful feeling, yearning for the time that ‘always is and never was’. I have a soft spot for old Punk rockers but couldn’t see myself becoming one.

Russell Gomer in The Town That Went Mad. Photo by Andrew Jones

The question ‘How To Live’ is one which we spent a lot of time considering during rehearsals of our 1996 Henrik Ibsen mash-up show. It is a different form of the phrase, ‘The Art of Living’, which I first came across in the psychologist Erich Fromm’s ground-breaking books a few years earlier. I carry this question with me and am attempting to ‘live into it,’ at least until I die. In order to keep living into this question in a way which felt authentic, I needed to leave my beloved theatre company and the community of international touring theatre which had given meaning to so many years of my life. This was a neccessary but painful severance to be sure. 

In order to keep answering this question, I dedicated myself to a new form and formed a new company, Emergence, dedicated to practising 'the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet'.

Volcano is still going on, magnificently lead by Paul Davies, the archetype of shape-shifter, magician, hermit and fool (I mean this in the nicest possible sense). I am pleased and proud it is still in existence and still making waves in the world. Perhaps its most exciting work, being with young people supporting them to find their own voices and space to flex their own muscles of passion, creativity and identity. The legacy of the work has to be inherited by a new generation and the early work perhaps has to be forgotten or at least re-made anew.

And so, after many years of self-imposed exile and dedicating myself to a life of theatrical sobriety I returned to performance - or a form of it - for my 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring. Our enactment of ‘The Rite of Isis’ as well as invoking the feminine principle was perhaps my love letter to theatre, to the creative act, to the irrepressible Awen, the generative energy which arises from the eternal cauldron of inspiration.

The performance of the Rite of Isis was the 6th of my 7 Sundays in Spring everyday durational art pieces. 7 Days of significant activities spread throughout a 7-week period during Lent (Lenten:old English for Spring time). These 7 Sundays signify a statement of intent, a marking, a celebration, a time-based creative ceremony and the culmination of a year-long process which began in Spring 2017 and the start of my ‘Creative Wales’ journey.

Before we return to Isis, the archetypal feminine and her rites, I need to fill in a bit of detail. As those who have received one before know, a ‘Creative Wales’ award is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s intended to support an artist to research, develop and take risks with no exact foreknowledge of what the outcome might be. I wanted to honour the radical spirit of enquiry behind this unique award and take it seriously. To this end, I have devoted a year of my life (and more by the time I finish) tracking the deeply unpredictable, often destructive process which is creativity. I've also needed to rethink my work, my purpose and the name by which I call myself.

I’d like to share with you, the challenge I set myself in the original application which was called, ‘Who Do You think You Are’?

I used to be 'Fern from Volcano' - co-founder, theatre maker and performer for over 25 years -  the epitome of a fearless, powerful physical theatre performer. I used to be an artist.

As I aged I could no longer do the kind of extreme performance with which I was identified. The Volcano literally burnt out of me. This led to me questioning my effectiveness as a performer and theatre maker. Simultaneously, I started to look for different avenues for creative expression. Rather than shouting "WAKE UP!" from centre stage, I felt an urge to leave the stage entirely, cross the divide between myself and the audience and ask those anonymous people sitting in the dark: "What is happening to our world, and what do we want to do about it?"

After the most transformative year of my life as Arts Council of Wales Clore Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme in 2009/10, I felt a responsibility to put the ideas I'd been exposed to into practice. I was inspired to put my efforts into helping create a sustainable future whilst also living in accord with the natural world.To this end, I created Emergence to share as widely as possible artists' power to imagine and create new alternatives and stories. Emergence has been successfully serving the 'bigger picture,' catalyzing conversations and action around sustainability since 2010.

In order to create Emergence, I stepped back from my own creative work, focussing on learning the skills to host transformational spaces for connection, dialogue and change. As well as being a performer, workshop leader  and theatre director, I became a fund-raiser, project manager, producer, researcher, writer, facilitator, curator and most recently, documentary filmmaker. I am also now a coach, celebrant and cranio-sacral therapist.

I live creatively, continually learning new skills and facing new challenges. It's this spirit of enquiry that is the signature of Emergence. The biggest challenge for me now would be to STOP the onward momentum of Emergence in order to re-imagine, re-frame and re-establish my own practice and be able to call myself an artist again. But, what might a practice look like which draws on and integrates all of these skills? What form would MY ART take? What role would MY ART play in creating a 'life-sustaining planet' for future generations?' I want to serve these transitional times in the most effective way I can as a change-maker - as an ARTIST.

A Major Creative Wales Award could give me time to find what this new art practice might be. I am passionate about participatory art, combining celebration with activism and finding ways to reconnect with one another, the land and our deep creativity. I want to try out and test different ideas in front of, and alongside people in a variety of urban/rural settings and indoor/outdoor locations, offering myself as 'artist in residence' in each of these places These 'residencies,' titled: 'Is the Artist in Residence?' will serve as 'creative laboratories' providing the inspiration that comes from working with different people in different places. I aim to conduct a number of creative experiments asking, “Is the Artist in Residence?” At the end of my Creative Wales, I hope to know whether or not “The Artist Is Resident Within”.

My original plan was to begin my Creative Wales enquiry on 1st February 2017 and continue for a full year. I’ve now extended this in order to continue until September 2018 and the plan is to write, publish and deliver a book documenting this entire transformative process. The gestation period of an elephant is 18 – 22 months. After I’ve finished, I’ll have been going for about the same amount of time. It’s easy to get lost in a lengthy change process which invites deep and significant enquiry. I’ve returned to my application many times over this past year, for clarity, re-orientation and to remind myself of the original reasons for embarking on this Creative Wales journey. “Who do you think you are”? This question has been my touchstone and compass at each and every stage.

Creative Wales has taken me to many places and I have travelled many miles on the terrain of the inner and outer realms! I’ve studied ritual at Schumacher College; Way of Council in Nature with Ancient Healing Ways; participated in World Work Deep Democracy in Greece; consulted The Oracle in Delphi; trained as a Wilderness Guide in California at The School of Lost Borders and paid homage to writer of 'The Re-enchantment of Art', Suzi Gablik in Virginia. For me, creativity is about constantly being at the edge of the known and constantly listening to what wants to emerge through me. I have learned to trust during this process and know that I am not working in isolation from the generative capacity of the universe. In these times of beauty and sorrow, what art, action, activity, ritual wants to create itself through me? 

With Suzi Gablik. Photo by Tacie

“Who do you think you are?"
“I am an experiential ritual artist."
“Is the artist in residence?"
“I believe she is."
“I believe the artist is present inside all of us if we invite her in."

Creative Wales has enabled me to dialogue with this voice and over a six-month period as ‘artist in residence’ at a number of Welsh venues I've created opportunities for others to do this too. 

For my first residency in September 2017 at Ammanford Miners Theatre by invitation from Carmarthenshire Theatres, I stowed myself alone, sleeping, eating, planning and making ritual for 7 days. 

The second, 7-day residency at Small World Theatre in Cardigan in October, enabled me to work alongside 7 local artists re-constructing conversations published 25 years ago by the artist and writer Suzi Gablik. With Sean Vicary, Ann Shrosbree, Ruth Jones, Avi Allen, Jess Allen, Simon Whitehead and Debbie Rees, I performed ‘7 Conversations Before the End of Time’. Together we explored Gablik’s manifesto for a ‘Re-enchantment of Art’ and shared dialogues on art, life and spiritual renewal with public audiences. 

Residency number three in November, saw me move North, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre to guide a 7-day ‘Rite of Passage’ for 7 women artists from Wales, UK and overseas, marking, honouring and celebrating their creativity in service of life on earth.

Conversations Before The End Of Time on Sea Jade Beach. Photo by Fern Smith

The fourth residency didn’t happen in the way I’d originally anticipated. It became a whole project in itself…

‘7 Sundays in Spring’ evolved out of a deep place of darkness, dreaming and mystery in the early days of 2018. I was speaking to Suzi Gablik. After my visit to her last Summer, we’ve been having regular catch-ups on the phone. We were wondering how might we live with an open heart through the darkest of times? What might be an appropriate creative response to these times of beauty and sorrow? ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ evolved from those conversations as if to give a space to enquire into these questions. As Rilke says, don’t look for answers but instead, live into the questions. Instead of a 7-day residency at one arts venue, it evolved into 7 days, one Sunday each week spread over 7 weeks starting on 18th February and ending on the 1st April. It morphed into “a residency in my own life” with “all the women I’ve ever met”. It has taken me to Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Powys, and Gwynedd and involved women from all over the country.

And now for my 6th of the 7 Sundays it has taken me outside Wales to Glastonbury, a place associated not just with mud and music but pilgrimage, myth, healing, scholarship, spiritual practise and the traditions of the Mystery Schools.

There are times in history where the balance needs to shift. I believe we are in one of them now. These times are cyclical, though I don’t quite know of a time in history where the balance has been in the other direction. We live in times which appear to celebrate ultra-masculinity, ultra-mechanisation, ultra-consumerism, ultra-individualism, ultra-extremism and the dominant paradigm is ultra-suspicious of difference. Thankfully this is not the whole story. In the cracks in between, we glimpse the possibility of more balance, we see new stories, the emergence of ancient wisdom, dispersed leadership, difference celebrated, DIY creativity, compassionate action and many people, young and old seeking a deeper relationship with life, other beings and the planet. This new-old story, represents a shift towards the feminine principle, a move towards balance, integration and wholeness. This is not about the reassertion of the female over the male but a recognition that life cannot function or sustain itself when the feminine is suppressed or denegrated.

For my 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring in a small hall in Glastonbury a grand experiment took place - one designed to redress the balance by invoking the feminine principle. The Rite of Isis is a ritual designed to appeal to the very foundations of our being in order to bring the cosmic forces of the masculine and the feminine into alignment. Dion Fortune’s life's work was to bring the masculine and feminine polarities into creative balance, not in order to neutralise or cancel out the opposites but to bring them into creative and dynamic equilibrium which has the potential to manifest wholeness and health in both the individual and in the world. Dion Fortune was an artist and writer and perhaps one of the most over-looked spiritual teachers and activists of the 20th century. 

Dion Fortune. Unknown source.

The birth of theatre was of course connected to celebrations of significant rites and festivals. It celebrated and marked what a society needed to reflect upon and learn in order to sustain itself and to contribute towards the future health of the community. When I was performing the early work of Volcano, I felt instinctively and perhaps unconsciously that I was enacting some kind of rite which might also contribute towards human and planetary health and evolution. Life is lived forwards but can only be understood backwards…

For the 6th Sunday, a small band of friends and myself – not a theatre company, not actors or professional artists - enacted an ancient drama with the express intention of bringing through ‘The Feminine Principle’. Dion Fortune’s sacred drama 'The Rite of Isis' was re-enacted last Sunday to a small assembled gathering. It was everything, it was nothing. It was the beat of a butterfly’s wing and as powerful as a tsunami. It mixed the sacred and the profane. Isis, the Goddess who is all women, all Goddesses, along with her Priest and High Priest, representing the divine masculine came into communion to re-make the worlds. Meanwhile the hubbub of Bingo was being called over the P.A. in the bar downstairs. Two worlds collided. The first number called was 13. Unlucky for some. 

“All the Gods are one God. All the Goddesses are one Goddess.”

“Number 3, on it’s own.”

“Let us consecrate the Priestess of Isis as our pythoness.”

“Legs 11.”

“The lonely earth is hungering after thee. Come in the night, give light that we may see, O Isis of men’s hearts, come unto me.”

"Clickety click, 66… Doctors orders, Number 9…Knock at the door, Number 4."

And so the dialogue continued. The sacred and the profane. Which was which? Bingo, ritual, ritual, bingo. It didn’t matter. All life was there in the Avalon Constitutional Club last Sunday night. That is the magic of Glastonbury. That is the magic of the ‘7 Sundays in Spring’.

Avalon Constitutional Club. Photo by Fern Smith

"Consummatum est. Those who have received the Touch of Isis have received the opening of the gates of the Inner Life. For them the tides of the Moon shall flow and ebb and flow in their cosmic rhythm. To them that adore Isis, she brings tranquillity, and to the favoured few she comes as in a dream. Depart ye in silence to meditate upon the Mysteries, and let who will send in a record to the Temple."

With these final words, The Rite of Isis ends and our small invited audience files quietly out into the night.

Later that same evening, one of the witnesses posted their record to the Temple of Facebook. I include it here with gratitude and with permission.

Tonight, in Glastonbury, I attended a ritual of the Rite of Isis. It was presented in a simply furnished room, the lighting focused on the four participants to create an ambiance of mystery and potency. Those in the audience waited in silence for the performance to begin.

I found the atmosphere generated an intensity of feeling as one was drawn into an evocation of ancient deities. My own sense was of witnessing an initiation during which one surrendered life to be rebirthed into a sanctified mode of being.

The experience felt much more like a drama of mythic proportions as human sought to encounter divinity in a sacrifice which demanded a shedding of cold reason and an embracing of the power of imagination. A magical working of self discovery.

Thus an alchemical transformation was achieved in which access to earth's energies empowered the soul and restored a sanctity to one's life. The sacred became present and one was drawn into the ritual as a co-creator of the sublime ecstasy of union with the divine feminine.

Many thanks to Fern Smith and her company of magicians for organising and presenting this event. As an enactment of magical ritual it delivered a high emotional impact, served as a deep meditation and left me feeling privileged to have been there.

johnegan. 25/3/18

Boundless respect, love and gratitude to my partner Philip Ralph, my teacher Ian Rees, Director of the Annwn Founation and my dear friend Aly Rees for trusting the process and making this happen.

And finally as I write this, my mind casts forward to this coming Sunday, and the 7th and final of my '7 Sundays in Spring.' It is an all-night vigil to remember the lost, forgotten and the dying. The women who come will hold a candle in the darkness instead of railing against the night. We will gather at Capel y Griag in Furnace, Mid Wales on Saturday 31st March in the evening and hold vigil through the night until dawn on Easter Day, Sunday 1st April. All women and those identifying as women are invited to join us. Contact me through the email listed below.

Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'

If you are interested in joining one of the 7 Sundays in Spring gatherings contact me at fern@emergence-uk.org.

Future work includes:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)

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