Artists, Mystics, and Clowns

Authour Brennan Manning explores the need for artists, mystics, and clowns in expressing the transcendent and spiritual:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky passionately believed that he had embodied the soul of the Russian peasant in Marmeladov, the discharged town clerk and disgraced town drunk of Crime and Punishment – a clown, a buffoon, and the father of Sonia, a prostitute.

In a tavern in St. Petersburg, besotted with booze, Marmeladov engages the young rationalist Raskolnikov in conversation. Though the object of derision and mockery by the locals, Marmeladov insists that he is not to be pitied:

But He will have pity on me Who has pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things. He is the One. He too is the judge. He will come on that day and He will ask, “Where is the daughter [Sonia] who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness… He will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it.

Then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say. “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And the wise and those of understanding will say: “Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?” And He will say: “This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out his hands to us and we shall fall down before Him… and we shall weep… and we shall understand all… and all will understand… Lord, Thy kingdom come!”

Dostoyevsky maintained that at the heart of the Russian peasant life existed an unshaken trust in the unrestricted mercy of God… The author’s contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, published his classic novel War and Peace three years after Crime and Punishment. In a dialogue between the saintly Princess Mary and her brother Prince Andrew, she echoes Dostoyevsky’s ethos. Quoting a haunting French proverb, she says, “We should enter everyone’s situation. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” – to understand all is to forgive all.

…And what of the human heart’s capacity to understand God? Here we need the help of passionate visionaries such as Dostoyevsky. Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust, we need the artists, and mystics.

Selected excerpts from Chapter 5 of Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God by Brennan Manning.

Read the full excerpt of ARTISTS, MYSTICS, AND CLOWNS

Beauty In Brokenness

Producing Artistic Director, Jonathan Harris, shares some thoughts on finding beauty in brokenness and conveying such beauty through the art of story telling:

“Is there something beautiful to be found in that which is broken, damaged, shattered, or in disrepair? Is there something desirable in the unwanted, something redeemable in the seemingly useless? Can something magnificent come out of things or events that are heart breaking, painful, and tragic? Can anything good come out of suffering and pain? Henri Nouwen in his book, “Life of The Beloved” shares some thoughts on the subject:

As I write you now about our brokenness, I recall a scene from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (a musical work written in memory of John F. Kennedy) that embodied for me the thought of brokenness put under the blessing. Toward the end of this work, the priest, richly dressed in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the human pyramid collapses, and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off, and his glass chalice falls to the ground and is shattered. As he walks slowly through the debris of his former glory—barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt—children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude”—“Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realised that broken glass could shine so brightly.”

Perhaps brokenness points to deeper meaning in life, to a need for something beyond ourselves, to a transcendent experience, or to an inexpressible joy. Perhaps brokenness provides a special quality to something or someone, a unique perspective, an intriguing angle, a distinguished imagination, or a lovable characteristic. Perhaps the wounds we all have credit us with a special strength we would otherwise not possess, a strength that may be of benefit to someone else, or for something else we are unaware. In the words of American playwright Thornton Wilder in his short play “The Angel that Troubled the Waters“, “Without your wound where would your power be?” 

So much can be expressed through imagination and creative story telling. It is such a privilege and challenge to share and experience stories through theatre and real life that reveal this often hidden beauty in a wound. We usually have to look really hard to find it, but through stories, it becomes more apparent. These stories have the potential to bestow upon us an otherwise inaccessible and intangible gift, which ultimately allows us to touch and change the lives of others through the power of our very own wound or brokenness.

In the Japanese art form, Kintsukuroi, broken pottery is fixed with a lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold, thus increasing the overall value of the creation. I wonder if such a simple and fascinating technique can reveal to us something magical about the human life, human condition, or human spirit as well.”

~Jonathan Harris (Producing Artistic Director)

This blog was originally posted in April, 2013

Grain of Salt Introduction

Grain of SaltFROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR

This January, I am very pleased to be able to present our 10th overall production, and the first original work in 9th Hour’s history, the Canadian and world premiere of Grain of Saltcreated by Ottawa playwright, director, and actor, Megan Piercey Monafu.

Back in the spring of 2012, shortly after working on Crime and Punishment together, Megan shared her plans to embark on a series of interviews with people of various denominational and/or no church affiliation, those identifying as Christians, and those who do not, with the purpose of hearing their stories, experiences, and opinions on faith, religion, church, and the belief in God, and whether or not the church has anything to apologize for, or whether an apology is even useful. Some of the stories and experiences are funny, some are filled with joy and hope, some are profoundly hurtful, and still others are inspiring and bordering the transcendent. The idea for these interviews quickly adopted the name of the “We’re Sorry” Theatre Project. 

Over a year later, after these diverse interviews were compiled and sorted through, we began to workshop the script with actors in the summer of 2013, which then led to the recruitment of director Kelly Rigole and auditions in the fall for a premiere run of performances of the newly formed piece in January of 2014. In partnership with Faith and Arts Ottawa, the show is being presented in various Ottawa venues, bars, and coffee shops, allowing for a relaxed and casual environment, with the option to enjoy a drink or some food while being entertained and immersed in stimulating content, and maybe even participating in a discussion afterwards. The subject matter is very relevant for those who are in the church, those who used to be, those who have criticisms of the church, those who have been hurt by the church, and those who are curious or interested in the church and all it’s beauty and troubles, not to mention those who enjoy creative or verbatim theatre.

The piece is very physical and energetic, imaginative, funny, difficult to hear at times, and challenging to one’s assumptions and beliefs, addressing on different levels the intersection of faith and sexuality, abortion, church community, prayer, science, and many more topics. What makes the piece supremely captivating and not something one would want to miss is that it is verbatim, in that the script is real, the text is from real words taken from the interviews, and the stories and opinions expressed are not fictional but completely true, all skillfully and elegantly woven together by Megan to create beautiful, gut wrenching, humorous, and shocking moments. Bridge this together with Kelly’s lead in directing coupled with the talents of the ensemble cast and the words become alive in a fresh, entertaining, and sometimes surprising way, certain to leave you changed by the end.

Grain of Salt plays January 22-31 in various Ottawa venues. I really hope to see you there as this won’t be something you’ll want to miss.

~Jonathan Harris (Artistic Director)

The Art of Story Telling

Producing Artistic Director, Jonathan Harris, shares some thoughts on the art of story telling:

“Story telling is a powerful medium for communicating intrinsic truths, shared human experiences, and the ineffable qualities of the transcendent. Since the beginning of human history, myths, parables, stories, and legends resonate within our hearts, and allow us to express truths that would otherwise go unspoken. They inspire our greatest potential, illuminate morality, express beauty, reflect upon our reality or how the world is, and hint at a life we are meant to live. They are stories that move us, challenge us, teach us, reveal to us, open us, crush us, and draw us in.

“We go see plays for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s to take refuge from the real world in fiction. Other times it’s to laugh or cry. Still other times, we seek to be blown away, gutted, stung by a story and left to pick up the pieces, one by one, for ourselves… these are the stories that stay with us indefinitely, make us question what we think, and burrow themselves into our very being.” ~Maja Stefanovska (Capital Critics Circle review of 9th Hour’s Agnes of God)

These stories we tell are passed on from generation to generation throughout history and many have a commonality across languages, cultures and civilizations. 9th Hour Theatre Company is all about this magnificent art of story telling (telling the story); stories that bring meaning to life and culture, stories that transcend time and place, stories that make us think and stories that move our hearts. One such story I’d like to share from the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, The Story of Mordecai, moved me into a deeper appreciation of the spiritual life.”

~Jonathan Harris (Producing Artistic Director)

Read here: THE STORY OF MORDECAI

“Un-cool” Artists

“I’m always home. I’m un-cool!”

There’s a scene in the 2000 film “Almost Famous” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs giving advice to the central teenage character. The film is a telling of the coming-of-age story of a teenage journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine while covering a fictitious rock band named Stillwater. Phillip’s character talks about being an artist and says “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re un-cool.”

I was struck by this quote while meeting with an artist friend of mine one evening who shared it with me. As we swapped stories and caught up after not having seen each other for a couple of years (sharing stories that didn’t paint ourselves in the finest of colours or the brightest of light, but as people with problems, vulnerabililties, weaknesses, shame and guilt), what Lester meant rang so true. As people, we often strive endlessly for authenticity while trying to remain socially “cool” or still acceptable, continuously falling short and never being truly vulnerable with others or through our art. This is especially true for artists as we are always wanting to be original, creative, and authentic in our work. I think most often than not, we’re so conscious of what others might think of us, that we more often than not present our best selves to the world, a crafted authentic self if you will, a carefully developed and plastic, meticulously thought-out, censored, and pre-meditated self, whether that’s through Facebook, Twitter, at the work place, or among friends.

One of the most precious things we can share bravely with one another is our personal story, including our past failures, shortcomings, and broken relationships; those things that bring us closer to real connection, commonality, and gritty honesty with one another; things that don’t puff us up, but expose our nakedness and neediness; things that don’t make us “look good” or attractive. Sharing these things bring us closer to revealing more precisely who we are and letting the world deal with the full weight of that, stripping us of our glossy, glamorous facade, and reducing us to simply being “un-cool”. Ironically, by writing all this and in trying to say something original and “cool”, I have almost entirely ripped the “coolness” out of the original thought and made my own thoughts obsolete.

~Jonathan Harris (Artistic Director)

Watch the SCENE FROM ALMOST FAMOUS.

Artistic Director’s Message

A message from Producing Artistic Director about our production of Freud’s Last Session:

“In our third season of theatre, we are delighted to present to audiences our ninth overall production, Freud’s Last Session. The selection of this play was strategic and timely as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, and in honour and celebration of his life and works, we are excited to be ‘telling the story’ in 2014 with an entire season of productions inspired by his faith and literature. We hope you become part of ‘telling the story’ with us as we tour Freud’s Last Session this year and raise support and awareness for next season’s exciting venture. 

As founder of 9th Hour Theatre Company, I am passionate about engaging the culture with story telling and exploring themes and questions of faith through the arts for the purpose of discussion and dialogue with artists and audiences. Freud’s Last Session is one such play, showcasing the personalities, philosophies, and beliefs of two of the most prolific and influential minds in the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud, and C.S. Lewis, debating some of the most challenging, profound, and universal questions of all time.

In this story, Freud is at the end of his work and shortly before his death, while Lewis is somewhat fresh in his faith and on the verge of a successful career. Their fictional encounter takes place in London, England in Freud’s study on September 3, 1939, only days after the Nazi’s invasion of Poland, and on the very same day King George VI delivered his famous radio address (as depicted in the 2010 Oscar winning movie The King’s Speech). Against an epic backdrop in world history, Mark St. Germain’s contemporary script cleverly explores the concepts of faith, morality, suffering, the existence and nature of God, the meaning of life, and the discovery of joy, all the while employing wit, irony, and personal experience from the lives of two fascinating and complex men.

Allow me to close with a thought from the play, in the words of Lewis and Freud themselves: it is madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time, but only one thing is greater madness… not to think of it at all.”

~Jonathan Harris (Producing Artistic Director) 

Production Designer’s Note

A note from Production Designer, Patti Vopni, commenting on her process for designing the visual elements (set, costumes, and properties) of Freud’s Last Session:

“Good design doesn’t steal the show but instead it facilitates the ability of the actors to tell the playwright’s story. The choice of design comes out of the creative resources of the designer and within the overall vision of the director. While the designer initiates and moves the creative aspects ahead, the final design is a collaborative undertaking.

How does the design process work? For me, I begin with familiarizing myself with the script. I research the historical period of the play gleaning ideas about overall lifestyle including fashion and colours. I then sit down and brainstorm using pencil and paper to sketch up my ideas. Design can fall anywhere between realism and abstract symbolism. I, therefore, try not to edit the free flow of ideas as I apply them to paper. Usually the final design will incorporate an idea from this sketch and a snippet from that. For Freud’s Last Session the final design is a collaboration of my realism and bohemian sketches. I chose to marry history with whimsy. 

Freud’s actual study in London (where this play takes place) was crammed with artifacts from his study of antiquities. His desk was filled to brimming with his chosen relics. They spilled onto the floor and all available flat surfaces and wall spaces. Due to budgetary restraints, our set merely reflects Freud’s proliferation of antiquities and, for the same reason, who can resist making a representation of an ancient statue from recycled brake pads and exhaust pipe!

It is my hope that the production design helps you to experience the 1939 world of Freud and Lewis. I trust that as you relax and enter into the words of the playwright that you will find reasons to cheer.”

~Patti Vopni (Production Designer)

“We’re Sorry” Workshops

The “We’re Sorry” project (working title) is a verbatim theatre piece examining the Christian Church, and it’s foibles, quirks, mistakes, community, love, atrocities…

Interviews were given by Christians, ex-Christians, and innocent bystanders, addressing questions like “What are your best and worst memories of the Church?” “Do you think the Church is relevant to Canadian society?” “Do you think the Church has done anything wrong?” and “Do you think corporate apology is useful?” Answers have ranged from “the Church is the root of all evil” to “the Church is the root of all good”, and the jury is still out on which of those answers is the most controversial.

So now with 30+ hours of interviews, the next course of action is to workshop a script exploring the struggling Christian culture and the human need for spiritual connection, (with a little bit of song and dance thrown in!). The goal is a raucous cabaret-style, reverently irreverent, high-energy piece of documentary theatre, in which the actors will empathetically embody interviewees to present different points of view. During the workshops we will work with poignant excerpts from interviews and experiment with various combinations of them, mixing and remixing, and allowing for actors’ personal experience and response to inform the piece.

Megan Piercey Monafu (Project Creator and 9th Hour Theatre Company artistic associate)