Week 8: L’Abri

August 10th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

I have grown fond L’Abri.  The countryside is ever lush.  The conversations are lively; the community is filled with good people, all in different places and on different journeys.  L’Abri presses you into close living quarters and rigid routine, and the result is outbound growth that affects your interactions with others in and out of the community.  My intellect has been run ragged by the students and lecturers, my artistry has gained definition by the worldviews of those around me (or in books handed to me by them).  L’Abri has been nothing short of transformative.

As far as Religion and Performance Studies are concerned, I have an insight into faith distinct from textbooks and scholarly analysis; faith here is lived out every day, in often uncomfortably close quarters.  I understand and appreciate Christianity in a wholly new light.

For the Theatre based aspect of the Fellowship, I’ve had a steady outpouring of ideas and plans for Medea, guided by newly formed artistic tenets.  One such insight is the framing of Medea as Jason’s reflection on memory, aiming to simultaneously keep the integrity of the classic storyline and the redemption of retrospective understanding.  If the audience is jostled by the tragedy, they should be: there is deep relevance within the marital meltdown and weaponized progeny in the play.  However, the message is not fated destruction if Jason is changed in the aftermath.  The character of man is selfishly vengeful throughout the tragedy, but I think, within the last pages, there’s a spark of other-centered action as Jason’s pain moves to his children.  Exploring that movement within the retrospective framework will allow hope its place (hopefully).

Having undergone such an intense and rewarding experience, it is sad to say goodbye.  But, like a performance, the ensemble formed must dissipate when the run is over.  And, as hard as it is, staying in London before my flight, I was lucky enough to get tickets to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all black production of Julius Caesar staged in modern Africa.  The parallels to righteous revolutions cyclically self-imploding into the same systems of despotism was haunting.  It was certainly one of the best shows I have ever seen.  With Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia still in the news and the Arab Spring still fomenting, the play struck a cord with its diverse audience.

I am so grateful to L’Abri and the Cornell Fellows program for meeting with an unusual venture and lending ample time and resources to my Fellowship.  The experience was the most formative of my college career.

Week 7: L’Abri

August 3rd, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

The first breakfast back from Iceland, and I got into a long conversation with the author of the first book I read at L’Abri.  Ellis Potter is a brilliant man who has not only studied many faiths throughout the world, but was himself a Zen Buddhist monk before eventually converting to Christianity.  He has ample experience studying and living several different faiths, and yet is absolutely approachable.  He is an excellent conversationalist, with a wide scope of knowledge on everything from Religion Studies to Zen flower arrangement.  His book Three Theories of Everything categorizes the various worldviews as essentially Monistic, Dualistic, or Trinitatian.  His thinking shaped most of my time at L’Abri.  And he’s staying at L’Abri for a week, lecturing and living with the community.  The breakfast conversation is a reminder of the way L’Abri functions: most workers and students have astounding credentials in their fields of work.  The hallmark of L’Abri is that these credentials don’t mean anything in a lunch discussion.  Everyone interacts, works, and discusses regardless of expertise or age.  The result is a productive and engaging running discourse throughout the community that involves and excites everyone.

At dinner several days later, Andrew Fellows asked about my interest in Performance Studies.  We had a vivid discussion about sacred time and space in regards both to my BSS project and his lecture on True Spirituality.  As a result, he lent me a tome on the rise and fall of Western Civilizations as reflected in its art, using theatre as its medium.  He also jostled some of my concrete ideas about the intellectual concepts backing Medea.  This was perhaps the biggest gift I could have been given, as these concrete conceptualizations were turning into road blocs.  By questioning some of these theories I was founding my artistic process on, I was reminded that the play itself isn’t tied to these theories, and their validity is not to be assumed.  In fact, their viability for my show only went as far as my belief and adherence to them.  I implement them, but am not beholden to them.  Clinging to these academic concepts in order to validate the production, I was forgetting the art, and I was forgetting my voice.

This lesson was echoed again in the Art and Soul weekly study group.  One of the passages in the book posited that often Christian art fails because the art is not seen as important in its own right, but rather it is a vehicle for a message.  People are not stupid.  People will see the vehicle art form as a soapbox in disguise.  Christian art, for the author, worked when the artist gave equal attention to the message and expression of the message, and in the process interwove their own story and perspective.  This paralleled advice given to us by Jennifer Fawcett in playwrighting: if you try to write a play about a war, it will be preachy and hard to to watch.  If you write a story about a family, or a couple, or friends who happen to be experiencing a war, the story can become universal.  By personalizing and focusing a story, the implications grow wider.  -  If you make art about religion, it will be a soapbox.  If you make religious art regarding your own experience, it could resound with many who identify.

These musings bring up the discussions of form and freedom in religion and art I’ve been having with my tutor.  He used a metaphor of a garden within a wall.  Within the garden, children can play, safe behind the wall, and there is freedom.  However, the freedom is allowed by the form of the surrounding wall.  Focus too intently on the wall, build it too high and stand upon the turrets, the garden within withers.  Letting go of the wall completely, however, the freedom of the garden grows wild and is invaded by pests.  There is no safety guaranteed for the children at play.  Remembering these two balancing acts between  Form  vs.  Freedom  and  Concept/Message  vs.  Expression, I’ve been able to reflect on my own process with Medea.  Unfortunately, I find I’ve placed too much energy in trying to flesh out concepts, forgetting the self-expression that complements the intellectual underpinnings.  Victor Turner’s liminality and Mircea Eliade’s Sacred Time and Space can inform a show, but they cannot constitute a show.  I think contacting possible crew members and planning for auditions is a healthier next step than continuing on in the research phase.  Exhaustive research exhausts you.  The next step is scary because it involves vulnerability and the unknown.  However, cementing this project in the Theatre Department and setting up auditions is a necessity for the beginning of the expression and freedom phase of the artistic process.  By being unknown it is full of possibility.

In the meantime, I am crunching several Christian authors into my last two weeks, including Donald Miller, GK Chesteron, and JRR Tolkien while listening to several taped lectures (one tape is a critique of Joseph Campbell, which I am eagerly anticipating).  One week left!

Week 6: L’Abri

July 27th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

The last evening before we left for Iceland was a Friday night lecture.  There are two weekly lectures at L’Abri: Tuesday night, which is the L’Abri community and usually a worker, and Friday night, in which we invite the local community into our own community, and all sit before a guest lecturer.  Both include long Q&A sessions/discussions.  This lecture was on Tom Waits.  It was fascinating.  One does not expect to hear someone expounding on the philosophical doctrines of Deus Absconditus (“Hidden God”) within a rock musician’s music, but the London guest lecturer Andrew Jones altered a lot of first impressions about Tom Waits’ music with his insightful lecture.  It was engaging and, something not always seen in predominantly theological lectures, really fun.

We arrived in Keflavik around 1 am, and got to Reykjavik around 1:45 am.  One of the amazing things about Iceland is that the sun only barely sets beyond the horizon, so it’s always light out.  As a result, twilight lasts for 4 hours between 1 and 5 in the morning, and every other hour is daytime in the summer.  People were still up and about when we arrived at our hostel.  I was with two L’Abri students who had decided to take a mid-term break as well.  L’abri often encourages students staying for the long term to take several days off to travel, as the schedule can become wearisome in its intensity.

The next day, the sun rose (kind of) to a beautiful capital city filled with a vibrant buzz and arts scene.  Iceland has only 320,000 people, and 200,000 of them live in the capital city.  The small population does not interfere with the host of galleries, art museums, street performers, and performance artists throughout the city.  It was reinvigorating to remember that art is not dependent on a bustling metropolis or monetary base, but rather on willingness to produce art for the sake of a thriving artistic community within one’s locale.  You don’t have to move to the big city for art that matters.  You can make art that matters here and now.  In Anna Bogart’s A Director Prepares, the entirety of her last page is dedicated to challenging the reader to go make art now.  Not tomorrow.  Not when they’re ready.  Not when they’re well known or prepared enough.  No one will ever be prepared enough.  That’s part of what makes great art – charging in to the unknown with nothing but vision and volition.  Reykjavik is a city that absolutely embodies that concept.  Our way to our hostel was blocked by a woman with a loudspeaker who stood on a monument counting down as young people with brightly colored shopping bags ran screaming all over the downtown stores.  On the same street a day later, a clarinetist in crazy colors led along 4 creatures draped in blue sheets that formed balloon heads at premeditated points in the song.  Unfunded installation art was on random street corners.  The city was teeming with artists and alive with their work.  It’s not corporate; it’s not for profit – it’s for everyone.

The artistry present in Reykjavik was especially compelling to me considering the question of art as separate from commodity and corporation was central to my Fellowship proposal.  Going back to the words of my director and colleague Sean Christopher Lewis, the burden should not be on the establishment to provide more opportunities for artists, but on the artists to remember that art isn’t a commodity.  (Well, ok, it should be on the establishment, but the reality is that art will always take a backseat in funding, and the few stalwart theatre companies that weather economic slumps simply can’t afford to be adventurous in their hiring).  Icelanders don’t even have an establishment, per se, to rely on.  They have talent, a street corner, and eager ears.  And they make it happen.  Refreshing.

Beyond the capital city, Iceland is a budding island alive with geothermal energy, active volcanoes, and slowly flowing glaciers.  Hot springs abound, and most of Iceland’s energy is natural and sustainable, owing to the geothermal power plants.  We went on the Golden circle tour to Thingvellir National Park, the site of the worlds first Parliament; Geyser, a geyser taller than old Faithful; and Gulfoss, a glacial waterfall that dumbfounded me with the awesome scope of its brute force and majesty.  Our final day we visited a beach of black volcanic sand, and hiked on a glacier.  The zen-like starkness of the young island’s landscape, scarcity of trees and animal life, and the collision of natural forces that continue to build new islands off the shore blew me away.  It was beautiful.  I took along a notebook of questions for my artistic statement, and in Iceland, stimulated by constant inspiration and wonder, answers are beginning to eek themselves out.

To be fair… I am a little homesick for the routine and community of L’Abri.  I feel refreshed and ready for the busy 2 weeks ahead.

Week 5: L’Abri

July 20th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

I’ve talked with a few other students, and I’m traveling with two of them to a place I’ve dreamed of going to since high school: Iceland.  I’m filled to brimming with excitement!  I’ve also grabbed several plays at a local used book store, including Edward Bond, whose views on theatrical violence and human power structures have posed an interesting juxtaposition to the view of creativity and art espoused at L’Abri.  Reading Albert Camus has also added a sharp contrast, as I finished the Gospel of Matthew this week as well as several other New Testament passages.  Referring back to my notes on Schaeffer’s lecture on the absurd has been helpful in finding a way to wrestle with these radically different worldviews in my head.

In the last few weeks I’ve found certain theatrical moments from Medea popping into my head, as well as new ideas for the framing of the show as a memory.  At the used book store I’ve started to frequent, I picked up an old English translation that includes excellent rhymed verse.  I’m starting to redirect my focus back towards my production.  Talking to my tutor, we devised some questions for me to be thinking about regarding art following a lively conversation on his form and freedom lecture.  He also lent me a copy of Tree and Leaf, by JRR Tolkien.  He said that, from the talks we’d been having, I might find it helpful for artistic direction.

And in the meantime, packing for a country with glaciers atop volcanoes.  I don’t think my raincoat will cover it.

Week 4: L’Abri

July 12th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

The rain has been almost incessant here, which I’ve heard is the opposite from the heat wave back in the states.  I guess I should stop complaining!  This week’s lectures struck me regarding community and the way we interact with others in everyday living.  The first lecture paralleled our volunteer dishwashing system to the humility of foot-washing in the Gospels.  It then used the community’s response to this dishwashing system halfway through the term as a litmus test of community functioning.  It was a profound and humbling lecture.

The second lecture came from my tutor, Jim Paul, on Christian Ethics.  His discussion of form and freedom in ethics and spiritual life struck a chord with me as an artist.  Perhaps the overemphasis of many modern Christians on a stringent form without much freedom has been balanced by the artistic movement towards rampant freedom without ordering form.  Not all modern art lacks a strong form, and indeed breaking the boundaries in art is crucial to its growth.  However, obsessing over the newness of art or the revolution within the avant-garde has created an artistic stagnation – everything can’t always be new.  It has also led, in some cases, to artists less focused on skill than on novelty.  This is troubling.  One wonders if the polarization between form heavy religious fundamentalists and freedom seeking artists and revolutionaries aren’t interconnected in some way.  As far as my art goes, finding the balance is crucial.  Jim and I meet again next week, hopefully we can discuss this more then.

In the meantime, Jim has agreed with me that it would be good to take a break from the intensity of community living for a little less than a week.  I’m tapping into some savings to go somewhere; I’m thrilled to figure out where it will be!

Week 3: L’Abri

July 5th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

Sparked by a comment I disagreed with in a conversation with a L’Abri student – namely that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dismissive critique of Christianity -  I went to the tape library at L’Abri and dug up a 6 part lecture on the Theatre of the Absurd.  The lecturer is Francis Schaeffer, the prolific Christian author and thinker whose philosophical crisis over Christianity led to his founding L’Abri in 1955.  Admittedly, my thought was that Schaeffer would echo what I thought was a reactionary stance against Absurdism as anti-Christian.  Instead, I was blown away by 6+ hours of brilliant analysis and critique of Absurdist playwrights, Post-Modern authors, and Pop-artists.  I forgot my initial conversation about Waiting for Godot among the insights poured into my head through the lecture.  A sort of short synopsis of Schaeffer’s lecture was that many of these Po-Mo artists were actually geniuses.  Their portrayals of modern day man were quite accurate: without God or a preeminent moral structure, man viewed his life as absurd, and therefore was in agony.  Schaeffer was astounded at some of their fearless and expressions of modernity – his only difference being that he thought Absurdism pointed to nowhere, and with no solution was ultimately useless.  Schaeffer saw the Absurdist reality as proof positive that the lack of religion in man’s life was causing him great pain.  His solution, as one might guess, was Christianity.

While I’m not sure that I agreed with Schaeffer’s conclusion entirely, his argument that without Divinity humans are unable to morally structure their own lives, much less feel obligated to that morality, was exceptionally strong.  Christopher Hitchen’s, in his rather barbed essay in The Portable Atheist, mentioned that religion would always be among us, even if it wasn’t true.  (Hitchens was sort of a pompous jerk about saying so, though).  A similar notion of religion’s necessary function for humanity was expounded on by Joseph Campebell to some degree in his writings on the ubiquitous nature of myth.  I’m wrestling with my own ideas on why it is that mankind seems to function better with religion; is it vital?  That question has crept into some of my discussions with other students.

Another fantastic lecture (again based on Schaeffer) was given this week by Andrew Fellows, who is more or less the head of the English L’Abri.  Discussing True Spirituality, he drew indirectly on Mircea Eliade (an Religion Studies scholar who dealt with sacred time and sacred space within ritual and performance).  Unexpectedly, he threw away Eliade’s well-respected notions in favor of Schaeffer’s vision of sacred spirituality which integrates, rather than differentiates, the sacred and the profane.  All life is sanctified in this Christian life style, exemplified in the fact that God made himself human and brought himself into the supposedly “profane” world here on earth.  For Schaeffer, after such an act, all life HAD to be sacred.  This way of thinking and living is integrated into L’Abri’s day to day structure and prayer.

Having based quite a lot of my set design on some of these early Ritual Studies essays by Eliade, Turner, and Van Gennep, this lecture made me pause and rethink the emphasis I was putting into the sanctification of a theatrical environment.  Perhaps my academic focus had imposed ideas that don’t fit into an artistic production.  Or maybe I had only tried to hard to implement them past their usefulness.  I’ll continue reflecting, but the lecture was an excellent wake up call not to forget my own voice and vision among the synthesis of scholars.

 

Week 2: L’Abri

June 28th, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

Following  a couple of meetings with my site mentor, Dr. Jim Paul, and several guest lectures, I’ve started looking into modern apologetics.  This is an area more related to the Christian Studies aspect of my Fellowship, but it is having profound effects on the way I’m approaching both my Artsitic Statement and the conceptualization of Medea.  During my study group, which focuses on what inspires artistic creation, there has been a great emphasis placed on Genesis as the mandate for cultural as well as environmental cultivation.  The author’s viewpoint is that the dominion man is given over the earth is supposed to be a reflection of the dominion God has over man – one of love and goodness rather than hierarchical domination.  Man is given dominion in order that he may, out of love, cultivate the land and himself in order to strive to make God’s Kingdom come “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Following this line of reasoning, the author points out that all art should be contributive, aiming towards making Creation better.  This approach is fulfilling, appealing, and offers some obstacles to a production of a work as tragic as Medea.

After talks with several community members on what art is and what its function should be, I have come to see that in order to make art that I find to be contributive, I must find hope within the work.  Without hope there is no room for inspiration.  Without inspiration, there is no purpose to the art; the art is soulless.  Even the Theatre of the Absurd, in its shining moments, showed a glimmer of hope that the audience found attractive.  To focus solely on man’s agony in a modern (or post-modern) world inspires nothing.  Medea could easily fall into this trap of Absurdist agony, preaching relativistic morals, and thus, amorality.  Both my Artstic Statement and final production, then, must include this element of hope and subsequent inspiration, regardless of the darkness of the work.  This presents a great challenge, but one I am eager to take on.

I am also finally having the time to delve into the great archive of taped lectures from years of L’Abri guest lectures worldwide.  Ellis Potter, Francis Schaeffer, and the Keyes family have all been of special interest to me.  There are several tapes on critique of modern and post-modern literature, theatre, and deconstructionism.  This will probably be my next focus as I continue at L’Abri.

Week 1: L’Abri

June 23rd, 2012

Alec Hynes ’13, Johnson Fellow in Performance Studies

After the joyous experience of being held up at customs for half an hour on my journey to Greatham, I finally arrived in the intensely green pastoral fields of Liss.  I didn’t even notice the heavy suitcases I was lugging on my 40 minute walk to L’Abri from the train station because I was so taken with the landscape.  I arrived to a welcoming atmosphere and several L’Abri community members in the midst of their work and study sessions.  Immediately, I was whisked into a worker’s dining room for a communal meal and discussion time.  I was sort of taken aback by the abruptness of the meal time, but the structure of L’Abri relies heavily on punctuality and rigid meal, study, and work times.  During lunch, the worker facilitates a discussion based on a question one of the community members brings in.  These discussion can range from “What is art?” to “What does it mean to be humble?”, and though most questions are answered primarily from a Christian worldview, all worldviews are welcome.  I was awestruck at the openness and honesty with which each person addressed the question posed, and after a lengthy lunch and conversation, half of the community members went to study while the other half went to a work-study assignment.

The manor house is absolutely beautiful.  One of the workers said that they had found a family crest behind one of the woodstoves that was dated in the 1600s.  The history of the manor and surrounding acreage as well as the warmth of the community makes this place spectacularly peaceful.  L’Abri means “shelter” in French, and that is certainly what I felt within minutes of walking in.  The first few days I felt like I was in the perfect community.

The passion with which the community members approach, question, and live the Christian faith (or whatever faith they have) is inspiring; the discussions, guest lectures, and day to day living have painted a picture of Christianity as a living faith, somewhat unlike the objective study of a given religion one gets from simply reading a book.  However, I feel that the attitudes and methods with which we approach Religion Studies at Cornell have set me up to grapple with both theological and more objectively studious aspects of the Christian religion.  I cannot speak highly enough of the honest and constant discourse I am engaged in as I go through daily living.

I am reading several Religious Studies and Christian Studies works at the moment, and have let the Performance Studies aspect take a backseat for a bit as I steadily slip into the routine here.  Still, I find myself being struck with new ideas for my Bachelor of Special Studies’ “Final Project,” which I am thinking will be a re-worked version of Medea framed by Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu.  Snippets of text, stage moments, and ideas inspired by Richard Schechner, Anne Bogart, and Victor Turner’s work that I read up on before coming continue to flood my mind.  Even though I feel like I am at a place of rest, the mental activity that buzzes through L’Abri keeps me constantly engaged.  I am still a bit overwhelmed by this place, but I’m sure I’ll settle into the structure soon.  In the meantime, I feel I could not be luckier than to be in this place of artistic and religious exploration!

(Unfortunately, the computer at L’Abri is having trouble, and e-mail is only accessible at a local cafe.  As my computer’s hardrive crashed days before I came here, I have to borrow fellow community members laptops.  Sorry for the belated post!)

 

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