In it, I find this passage:
I know there are plenty of people that are going to find this inspirational. It's intended to be, and in parts, I think it's a striking vision of theatrical history. If you read my blog often, you know that I don't usually write much in the way of grand sentiment about what I believe about theater. I'm not someone who believes, most of the time, in there being one way to look at the arts, or one way to make them happen.
So the theatre is a process of invocation: “To call upon a god or goddess to ask for their presence.” And also invocation is a form of possession which I’m using in its neutral form to mean "a state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced by another.” Plato writes about poetic inspiration in his dialogue Ion: "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers...in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself.”
Wearing a mask, the actor as an individual is erased and replaced by that of another. This is important to understand, because it is an orientation that informs all of the arts that we have studied this semester (Greeks to Spanish Golden Age) And it is the orientation that is most difficult for us, as modern artists, to get our heads around. The play, the performance, is not about the artist themselves. The artist is a conduit through which a story is spoken. In other words, it’s not about you.Whether you are an actor or a playwright, it’s not about you. You are a conduit, a vessel through which the gods speak. Your job is to make yourself transparent, to offer no resistance to this possession.
That being said, what I find in this passage a scolding idealism: a sense that theater is beyond the artist, more powerful than an individual's voice, and that an ego-less artist becomes a conduit to gods. The argument is a seductive one because it offers the reward of a transcendent experience. What artist wouldn't love to find himself or herself speaking in this mythical, mystical way; in a way that is bigger than his or her personal experience can express?
I have, to say the least, mixed feelings about this. I'm certainly not a person who believes entirely in the supremacy of the rational: I'm a lover of the spiritual and the unknowable. I don't though, like the idea of illusion as practical guide. To discount the importance of the individual and replace it with the importance of submission to a higher purpose seems a bit more like Abraham and Isaac than makes me comfortable.
What I read above is a veiled attempt to corral the ego of creative people. When I read about God "taking away the mind of these men and using them as his ministers" I can't help but wonder why we, in the modern era, would prefer mindlessness to active thought.
This isn't to say that there haven't been moments that I've seen on stage that didn't feel inspired by something greater than the sum of its parts. We've all felt, I would imagine, something that seemed otherworldly. I've found, though, that 9 times out of 10, those moments are the product of equal parts craft and inspiration. Craft, hard work and knowledge are not replaced by inspiration: they are the tools by which inspirations are communicated.
When reducing the talk to its basic message, Walters states: it's not about you. He implies that all around an artist are important things. The culture, the Gods, the society at large, history. The artist is, on this list, not present. In Walters' view of how artists should be (i.e. humble vessels) he leaves them at the mercy of greater forces. They are choice-less, inactive, voiceless, and somehow, through this process, become divine. In this vision of theatre, that is their best state and true purpose: to be spoken through... not to speak for themselves.
I'm sure some of this is his reaction to the worst excesses of ego. We have all seen theater that is self-indulgent, inaccessible, poorly constructed, or off-putting. I don't believe, though, that the cure for the occasionally incompetent artist is to prescribe, like medicine, emptiness to all artists. Here, a collective's sense that it is more important than the individual, the 'Collective Ego' maybe, is perfectly justified. The Gods, and the society that they watch over, must be served and spoken for by the lucky few ministers open enough to be chosen.
I believe in the importance of the individual human voice, seen and heard as unique, in the face of great institutions, religions and communities. If an artist believes in something divine, then he or she should speak with and for that. If they imagine themselves reaching out into the ether to pluck strange poems, then let them. But I hope that this process will always lead them back to something true in themselves. We have plenty of voices for God, plenty of voices for Culture. What we need is the voice of one person, even at its most irrational and seemingly useless.
Walters' lecture tells us that we are not enough: that one person who assumes that his or her own voice is important is committing the sin of pride. His message is that to speak for yourself, to speak about your own experience, to reach inside yourself and find something that is only yours is folly. Worse, it's unwanted. This is a massively distrustful statement. He doesn't trust human beings to know what to say. He asks us to outsource our voices.
Human beings are flawed. We fail. We inadequately express ourselves. We have limits. We have, though, in my estimation, proved no better or worse than anything 'divine' at creating beauty and truth. At our best, we show our generosity when we share our secret, wicked, monstrous and gorgeous selves. Our best work is created when we, as individuals, have a conversation with our own experience, with our beliefs, and share that conversation with others. We're not vessels for voices beyond our control, we're giving the idea of singularity credence. Artists are, at their best, evidence that humans, all by themselves, are whole and sublime. I don't hold much faith in the idea that it's best for artists to 'not exist' in their work. Instead, we should exist as fully and uniquely as we are able.
There are many roadblocks to creating good work. Creativity is mysterious. It can feel like it comes from outside of us. It can also feel like the product of hours and hours of labor. Maybe somewhere between the two is what's true. But I would never go so far as to believe that it is human beings themselves, something inherent about self-expression, that is the problem.
Is all art 'about you?' Perhaps it's not solely 'about you.' But it also is about you. About one human being expressing himself or herself, as fully as possible. That's the theater I want to see, the theater I want to make, and the theater that I would encourage any student, peer or even hobbyist to strive towards.
That's why the study of literature and art is called often called The Humanities. We have been godless and we have been faithful. We have believed in Zeus and we have believed in Jesus and we have believed in the free market. Behind it all, it's always been us. Just us.
And we're enough.