What makes us human ?

Just been on BBC2 Jeremy Vine discussing the value of collaboration , imagination and Humanism ! podcast available to download.


I work primarily in theatre where a group of people come together to make a play and share this piece of story telling with another group of people who have come to watch. Play is an apt name for what we do in that the best work is created with a spirit of open enquiry and the playful use of the imagination. As children we happily create fantasy worlds and narratives and are alive to the possibilities of imaginative transformation that can turn mud and leaves into pizza or a motley arrangement of random toys into a whole army. Actors can recapture that childlike freedom,without fear of the kind of embarrassment that would cripple most of us, to explore and improvise imaginary scenarios in the rehearsal room and on stage. Working on a large number of Shakespeare plays over the years has taught me how, through the poetic power of the language of a gifted story teller, words alone can be used to conjure up locations in the minds eye and the simplest of props can suggest a whole world.Words create pictures, as Shakespeare beautifully suggests in Midsummer Nights Dream

‘And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.’

We all have our own mental internal CGI and seem to have an innate appreciation of beauty, but what fascinates me is how different people see the visual world in such different ways. We are all open to visual metaphor but bring our own life experience and individual imaginative forces to bear. Sometimes that metaphor is very clear as in the transformation of scarlet flowers into a sea of blood, and part of the power of the installation was the shared appreciation of that transformation.At other times, people interpret what is in front of them in a variety of very different ways often depending on their own state of mind. I for one delight in the textures of urban decay which to many might seem ugly!

Telling stories is one of our most basic human needs, through them we share ideas, create situations which can inspire, move, educate, entertain and engage our listeners. We are also able to suspend our disbelief that the person in front of us is only pretending and to enter into their fictional emotional life and empathise with their situation. This is ultimately what allows us to be moved by performance, that we can make that imaginative shift to see the world through another’s eyes.

In this digital age it is comforting that live performance is still ,indeed is increasingly, popular. There is a special social chemistry which happens when a group of people choose to be together to focus on a performance, be it music or drama and there is a subtle yet tangible difference in seeing it live. An audience feeds off each other ;their laughter infecting their neighbours or are silenced in a shared profound stillness in the face of human tragedy.
I believe that to be there as part of that two way communication between stage and audience taps into our deep rooted desire for shared communal ceremony and celebration. Even though i am not religious it seems clear to me that we need occasions to gather together and share experiences to help us understand each other and find shared meaning and purpose in our lives.

Theatre for me illustrates what is best about being human; it is a creative highly social endeavour in which lots of skilled individuals bring a range of different talents to bear on a shared vision. Each person’s skill and experience is essential to the success of the piece and when it works the sum of the individual parts adds up to something far greater than the individual contributions. There is always a tussle of opinion and debate but in the end the human need to create and collaborate wins over.The quality of mischief ,that is so often ironed out of our children ,is also vital for our creativity and we should remember to value societies rule breakers and inventors, in both the arts and sciences. I am a Humanist who believes that humans are best when they share, learn and collaborate with each other, and that together we can improve what it means to be human .

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