The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can’t be put into words; the most that a writer can do—and this is only rarely achieved—is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page. Russell Hoban.
Recently I decided, for a lot of reasons, not to write a book. As I reflected on why the book I had been working on for at least ten years remained unwritten, a thought occurred. Maybe a big reason that I wasn’t writing the book was that there was a better book than the book I was trying to write by not writing the first book. If you follow my drift.. It just seemed such a waste though to abandon all the attempts and thousands of words of the original to the oblivion of my hard drive.
Talking about driving. I have just driven around heaven. As Bob the Marley once said, “if you look for yours on earth, then you’ll see what life is worth.” I had just been working in a Swiss school, an international school with a headteacher who was from Guatemala and, by coincidence; we were bringing to life a Mayan creation myth from Guatemala. The drive was that of a tired man under blue skies through chalet dotted, tree rich, wild flower populated Swiss mountains with a backdrop of the snow-capped Alps. Tired or not, the scenery that earth offers does not get better than this. There were in fact several moments across the week that provided strong evidence to the dreadlocked troubadour’s assertion about looking for heaven on earth.
This school, unlike most that we descend upon, is the home of a small group of children of the fabulously wealthy. Do not imagine for one moment that affluence equates to happiness for these young ones. The affluence brings endless material opportunities but, in the end, the ability to meet a market-driven desire by a child to have the latest cool thing is not really what the child most needs, or indeed what any of us most need. The other day I asked a group of four and five year olds what the truth was that they held in the hearts. First thing they said: Food, then love, then home and their mums and dads. That was in a very different sort of school in rural Dorset – A state school.
In the Swiss School, two-thirds of the children were borders. It is a caring environment. It can’t be mum and dad but one thing it can provide is good food. And the chef there takes his duties and art seriously. So one lunchtime, we’re basking in Alpine sunshine replete with a lovely meal and I bite into the fresh from the oven oatmeal biscuit that is our dessert. I take one bite and stop. And this comes out of my mouth, “I think for me, god might be a biscuit.” Then and there that biscuit was THAT good. If there is omnipotence, divinity then why not a fresh crispy biscuit on a beautiful Alpine spring day surrounded by the hubbub of children tucking into a good fresh meal?
But then again biscuits and curving alpine motoring are small fry when it comes to heavenly evidence of the bountiful offerings from the planet Earth. Like popcorn bursting beneath a lid on the stove, the moments of sheer delight keep popping as we work with the children. To be clear, we have been animating this particular myth from the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayan, for over twenty years and must have produced at least 30 shows with at least 5000 children performing. It is one of many myths and ways of working that we have. The ‘we’ here has a wee royal ‘we’ tang to it. The truth is the team has changed much and many times over thirty years. Two elements are consistent. My presence and a team of multi-talented, self-employed artists who have been highly motivated to provide children with the high intensity encounter with the imagination that these spectacular productions, which emerge in such a short time span, entail. It was nearly twenty years ago that we brought this Mayan tale to life over two weeks with 462 children and set a Guinness world record for the biggest amateur puppet show on earth. Not long after that I embarked on my first visit to Canada. Both relevant points to the story of why I did not write that book but am now writing about why I didn’t instead.
The biggest puppet show point is most immediately relevant. I told the children at the school we have just visited this story. And I told it to them because there were only 37 of them and although that was not eligible for a record as such, it was a record. It was the smallest group of children to have ever animated this tale with us. The challenge then was 37 children aged 4-11 to make more than 100 puppets in three school days and on day five perform a magnificent show featuring the sun, the moon, trees, the sea, fish, dolphins, hummingbirds, parrots, condors, flamingos, , lizards, snakes, crocodiles, mice, coyotes, jaguar, mud people, stick people, monkeys , corn people and corn children and, of course, Hurucan the Heart of Heaven who was everywhere in thunder, lightning, wind and rain and Feathered Serpent, Quetzacoatl, a quieter more graceful who lives in the waters and is covered in blue and green feathers. All made by them. This is what these 37 children were invited to construct and then rehearse and perform and, like in all places everywhere, some of the children were settled and easy within themselves and others, no matter the riches around them, were challenged by circumstance and uneasy within themselves. If you could have walked into the room or been a fly on the wall at any point in those days, you would have seen 37 children fully focused and absorbed in the activity of making puppets. You would see the 100 plus puppets coming to life and then, on day four, being rehearsed, moved and animated to music. You would hear narrators practising their words. And all of this would be like human popcorn popping with happiness. The puppets are the visible manifestations of this happiness. Though the statement “the children are making puppets” is a very thin description of what is actually occurring. It is a less visible and longer lasting popping that is happening inside the children. These are the moments underneath the moments.
There is the unhappy child, who can’t help messing about and messing up, and then exceeds all of their own and the expectation of others in what they make. There is the little girl who comes in one day and shows me a rock she has painted and then, from behind her back, she produces another rock. It’s white and slightly crystalline. She puts it in my hand. I remark on how lovely it is. I try and give it back but she closes my hand around it. Is it for me? She nods. A teacher comes in and says that a four year old couldn’t sleep the night before because he was so excited about the show he was going the next day. In the last year or so we have had such projects professionally evaluated and children have come forward with comments such as: “It was better than Christmas.” “It made me feel more than happy.” Three days of making the puppets for these 37 children and then a day of rehearsing their parts – that’s about 10 minutes for each of the above types of puppets. On day five, the narrators run through their parts and we are straight into the dress rehearsal, which is the first run through. An hour or so later it is showtime in front of an audience of 100 people. Here is the thing. The children hit every mark and what they perform is not just good, it’s extraordinary. What you see on every child’s face is motivated determination to create the best performance they can. They do not forget a thing. From my position at the side of the stage, working the sound and guiding the narrators I can see face after face lit up with a the joy of bringing this creation myth alive; of making their own creation myth in five days. Each individual is amplified by the collective engagement with the imagination. Reified by the quality of their own productions. And here is where the corn really pops; here is where there is evidence of something very special on the planet.
The book that I was going to write was all about the principles and elements that underpin this process. One reason that I have not been able to write the book after so many years is that I keep getting interrupted by the process I am intending to write about. Just like the visible moment of the puppet making and performance for the children is powerful because it opens so much that is invisible within them; the impact the process has on their inner, unwordable, personal story – so it is with me. I spend five days with the children but the workshop doesn’t start or end there. I am on a train now going back to Devon speeding past green-fused oaks and ash. The distant Blackdown Hills have replaced the alpine scenery. I have been travelling for twelve hours. I am pie eyed, knackered and sad to be leaving all those new human connections. At the same time, I am already thinking of what I have to do to finish another project started before this one and what needs doing to plan the projects coming up. The work is very worth writing about but it is the doing and being of the work that is the very thing that stops me writing about the work.
There are many reasons that I did not write that book The Art of Workshop. I shall try to tell you. First though there is something else that is more important. That is my home. Recovery time – that’s part of the process too. Not to be forgotten.
“It’s an epic experience, bigger than a puppet show, there is more going on! It created a golden memory for the children. There was unadulterated happiness.” Teacher, Bradley Barton Primary