“La Voce del Tufo” – An unMiracle in Matera

The Birth of an Ancient Tradition ?
Tradition reflects.  Often worn smooth by habit, it requires a second glance to recognise the original needs that spurred its development.  Every pagan ritual was devised by very contemporary pagans. 


The Stations
of the Storytellers

Heaven forbid that we have Our First unMiracle.
Theatre works in mysterious ways:  it takes but the simplest of human ingredients (including the essential factor of the audience’s capacity to be transported), and moments of great beauty can transpire.  We did it.   Just barely.

At the event of Living on the Edge, the 3rd Edgeryder gathering: we were doing exactly that.  Perched in the last of the clusters of abandoned peasant and artisan cave dwellings before the stone Sassi quarters of the town of Matera are swallowed by the ravine, all roads lead down towards us.  Along the steep paths up to the city above, are to be found many an exquisite backdrop.

The call went out.  Ramona answered. Could we locate 10-15 local residents to re-inhabit their traditional residences and provide two minute anecdotes from their family history to what ever passersby we could manage to drum up?  Recruitment works best one on one.  Talking to people at the Pasta Party seemed a good strategy.
In the end, we had a bare minimum.  In the end, the fledgling unMonastery community didn’t consider themselves sufficiently alerted to the power latent in the culture stuff.  In the end, it was exceptionally charming and potent.  In the end, it is only a beginning…

This highly replicable ultra-human ritual of recounting the stories from the lives of our ancestors has now been placed in the loving hands of local culture workers.  With a small amount (2 years?) considered nurturing from the unMo, (as say the receptive end-zone party location) it should take root in the fertile soil of the community imagination.  It is highly possible that our ritual archeologist team have unearthed our first forgotten tradition:

The recipe was more or less straight forward:
1  non-stazione della non-processione
1 materani
1 lanterna o candele
2 minuti per raccontare la preziosa storia della tua famiglia (in italiano )

One appropriate spot, one local citizen, one candle, two minutes to recount a small story to passersby.  Multiplied by 10-15, the dynamic forms and light shifts of the passages between the half restored habitats stubbornly clinging to the outside of the ancient fortress wall would supply more than enough scenic backdrop. With sound shoes, the winding trip from the top of the steps by the Cathedral to the edge of the ravine should take but ten minutes – unless you were stopped upon the way.   The recruitment of good reasons to stop may or may not prove a challenge…

My unMonastery residency had not yet strictly started. The mother organisation had gathered en masse, but bitterly hammering out The unRules of our unMonastic unOrder, we were still in an adamant in-house development phase. We weren’t intending to be open for business. However, such an ideal opportunity to try out a core idea of my residential proposal of cyclical meet the community bi-weekly feasts wouldn’t come around for another 26 fortnights…

The hillside town of Matera has attracted the visually seduceable before; renowned cinematographers often summons its gnarled lanes as a stand-in for biblical times. Our work was closer to the now, and on October 31st had an additional impetus. Falling well within the mandate of my Society for the Promotion of Human Rites was the unassuming goal to demonstratively repel the insidious global pressure that replicates the fouler manifestations of the Made in USA distortion of All Souls Night. When more innocent Edgeryder voices aired the idea to arrange a suspiciously sounding “unHalloween Party”, it was now or never. One more year and the necessary effort to quell the encroachment might quadruple.

Of course, it was stunt theatre.  Of course, with 20 minutes to launch time, all but one of the vaguely promised participants had shone in their absence.  Of course, the Plan C, reflex disaster modus of transforming an elegant group installation into a frantic solo sketch would not have been a very pleasant sight…

Miracles are miracles. At the last second, up popped two players from the local gruppe di teatro. At an even later second, two of the Edgeryder lads allowed themselves to be pressed in slapping on some white face. To launch such a delicate ritual required a moment of political consciousness – two of the to-be-installed were not of this parish. The request was raised to bestow upon them temporary status of honorary Materiani.  The required nods were obtained.

Snatching a useful prop or two, we set out to people the pathway. I had scouted the route by day and found at least 14 useful spots. Now we were 6.  Some stray jars had mysteriously appeared from beneath a bush; filled with a candle we had sufficient beacons to lead the walking audience up a dark alley. We were stretched to the limit. Each of us had would cover some 40-50 meters of shadowy door openings. Andrea and Nadia changed the route on me as we marched – their choice was better.
(*a key moment when it became clear for them that the visiting director had no interest at all in monitoring their content – and that of course speaking silly English was not at all appropriate – the essence of the project was that they would be trusted to speak from their hearts.)

geeks become actors
Pascale was the find of the evening. A local lad who had almost joined the LOTE meeting on the sly, he was lent a small hat and placed in the middle of a long steep stair. His story was earth-bound: of the manner in which his family prepared the bread for the week.  The audience was stragglers: a few of our conference participants who perhaps acknowledged that the cultural interface was the first manifestation of our collective designs. Interspersed were a few gaggles of local adolescents. In groups of two to five they were sent off into the night. In the distance, the first candle illuminated an incidental pair of young lovers.

The work of the piece was perhaps more complex than its performance. The recipe was a recipe. The individual spice brought by the performers could be ever so subtle; the voice of the stones provided all necessary amplification. Those that walked the walk met either a charming installation of local colour (if they didn’t speak Italian), or a vital aspect of their collective history.  Those who participated were overwhelmed by the purity of the performing experience.  Recruitment shouldn’t be a challenge next year.


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The Health of the Idea Fountain

An Emotional Report – The unMonastery 23 days

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe unMonastery Prototype Matera started with at least one tremendous advantage. The initial crew of unMonasterians that slid through the recruitment process and landed pounding at the gates, were a super selection of adult human beings.  With small variations in individual strong points, we proved willing and able to exhibit understanding and patience in the face of several frustrating factors.  Not only was not every last detail in place for the theoretical Feb.1st moving-in-day, but several key systems exhibited signs of cantankerousness within days of the upstart.  Faced with this quirky beginning, our crowd showed themselves to be generous, creative and not the least, flexible.  Our working principle was soon articulated as ‘We Trust in the Process’.

It was no doubt preordained that as an unmonastic order ‘unaided by precedence’ we would be fated to compose tradition as it became necessary.  However, to serenely surrender to the prototype variant of our Vow of Poverty has prompted some heroic effort.  In his characteristically flowery opening speech at the inaugural press conference, our belovéd committee chairperson Paolo Verri seemingly waxed on a bit about giving us life-stimulating ‘difficulties’.  Some of us may have hoped that these collective difficulties had been a little less thorough, but it is through living the ‘interesting times’ of our first days that we as novices have built the foundation of our unSister/unBrotherhood.

The inevitable structural disappointments may have been tailor-made for fertilising our prototype.  They have demanded that we begin at a conceptual zero; abandoning our dreams to build upon reality as it has presented itself.  This embracing of on-the-ground real world is a central key to good project design.  It requires a willingness to leave behind the rhetoric of the project proposal and build one’s work in situ  — one human contact at a time.

To help stir up a ground-swell of enthusiasm just prior to the March 2013 Meet the Community gathering at the Mediateca to chart out the main concerns of local citizens that might be appropriate for the unMonastery to address, I stepped forward for an online interview with Carlo who posed a typically gracious and diplomatic Matera-style question.   Accounting for several generations of translation and the vagaries of my memory it popped out something like: “How should the Materiani prepare for your arrival?”  — I tried to summons my line as a realist.  I requested that above all that they try not to be perfect.  We were coming to make mistakes and to learn from them.  It would suffice that they were customary fallible human beings much like those whom we find in our home countries.  As I recall, I even suggested that those among them with bureaucratic tendencies be allowed to exercise them…

Our unVow of Poverty has several unavoidable structural components.  The absence of personal space has shown that different people have different levels of adaptability.  Sleep deprivation has long factored in the mandatory ecstasy of monks and nuns.  Rising for ‘early morning’ prayers was a way to put the adaptive skills of both novice and initiate to trial.  The Saga of the Snorers is worth an illuminated manuscript by itself.  The total effect of the dormitory experience designed to resurrect fallen urbanites and to rewire any residue of a decadent lifestyle — seemed to work; although it has been noted that some centuries of similar experiments led the Benedictines to adopt the more satisfactory recipe of each monk to his individual cell.

It seems that within the initial constellation of unMonasterians a collective sleeping arrangement successfully established itself in the Western sleeping hall. However, the rest of the anticipated floor plan has yet to be realised.  Not accustomed to fungal incursions, we have been left to mediating upon the expanding splotches of off-colour wall growth as if they were a fearful Shroud of Turin.  It has been implied that this is a harmless blessing of the Sassi, but that no information on either the high-tech (silica gel) or low-tech (vinegar) solutions employed by our neighbours was included in our guidebook has awoken creeping concern – when our core exercise of ‘Listening to the Stones’ becomes breathing in the lichen, the not yet acclimatised Northern Europeans may ask can this be healthy to share ones life with such mould?  Currently only one of our kind dares brave this environment, although perhaps this is a self-imposed penance spurred by serious snoring infractions…

The Year of Flexibility
Although the premise of the unMonastery has long been based upon a three-year cycle, the clever ploy of a 4-month condensed prototype has brought a valued extra pressure. As was always the case in the generic three-year unMonastery model, the ‘in-house’ activity would constitute a large proportion of our Landing Year.  The 4-month compacted version of the Matera Prototype has always invited to the inevitable frustration of compromise.  Our perhaps protracted initial adaptive phase may appear from the outside as excessively introverted, but is in fact an essential gestation period during which we explore fault lines and distill leadership.

Have we ridden dangerously into the forest of burnout? Yes, indeed.  It remains to be seen if we have the balancing skills to negotiate ourselves beyond the feeling that we are stuck in the establishment phase.  However there are strong indicator that this should be possible.

The Daily Liturgy
UnMonasterian Cristiano Siri has contributed greatly to our mental well being by providing a solid fundament with several small daily ritual elements culled from his work with The Art of Hosting. These provide a secure window of opportunity to allow everyone a chance to personally get up-to-date with how the process may be wearing upon them.  Each morning, after both our morning practice sessions on the terrace overlooking the best view in the city and after our cross-cultural breakfast, we religiously meet in a circle of at least two orbits.  The second orbit is the predicable planning circle of what each person is currently engaged with and their plans and commitments for the coming day.  The first circle is more subjective: How are we feeling?  People may be hopeful and energetic, or sleepy and discouraged; there is room for us all.  A version of this question is repeated just before bedtime.

Together these two ritual daily meetings provide an agent for keeping each other visible.  The inevitable psychic strain of so radically altering one’s life patterns and subjecting oneself to a collective rhythm and reasoning requires compassion and listening.

A second factor in our newly acquired poverty involved abandoning all our wordly possessions.  For many of us this has included our greatest treasure – our ability to communicate.  Embracing ‘virulent linguistic helplessness’ has been an additional challenge for the far afield.  Not all of the unMonks have previously digested the experience of second language acquisition in their adult condition.  Facing the surrender of a hard fought for functional lingua franca only to begin again at the primitive phrase book phase can also easily provoke an allergic reaction.  An additional cost of this chronic infantile condition was too much reliance on bilingual local speakers as functional interface.  This inevitably stretched this resource too finely.

Conventional and unconventional attempts to speed the acquisition of Italian have been integrated into our daily liturgy, but again we are squeezed by the condensed time factor.  It is bad pedagogy to jump into premature language use before one is acquainted with the basics.  In the three year model : year two and then year three would involve considerably more cross-fertilisation.  The frustration level is currently being addressed to the degree that individuals have the imaginative resources, but it is only time that will relieve the more acute symptoms.

It is written somewhere in the Lore of the unMonastery that the Kitchen shall be the Queen of the House This was most clearly voiced in preparatory discussions between Rita Pacheo and Antonio Elettrico.  In the face of subjectively perceived poverty, solace would inevitably be sought in the creative act of creating and sharing meals.  The sensuous quality of fresh local produce has brought us great satisfaction.  For one habitually living further up the food chain, and therefore being routinely fed by agro-bizniz, it has been a liberation to share my greens with an occasional snail.  That some of the late winter local vegetables don’t immediately awaken the warmth of familiarity, can also challenge the taste buds and digestive juices; sometimes our cooking committees can be accused of substituting quantity for quality.  However, early on in the group process we elected to outlaw the natural human psychic ventilation system of the complaint [ Note: the above statements are pure fact; the author is not indulging in hidden complaining.]

At the same time, others of our crew have been subject to the most cruel ‘Tyranny of the Oppressed Minority’; accepting imposed levels of vegetarianism that go unnoticed by the adherents, but that push the digestive tracts of others into virulent rebellion.  Surrounded by old-fashioned shops offering short-journeyed meat, and magnificent fish counters laden with enticing often unknown species, this deprivation easily amounts to culinary torture.

The delicate balance of the Healing power of Mealtimes is dependent upon several factors.  We feel that we have secured a satisfactory source of quality raw materials.  We  have a healthy competition to create works of art in a room that was long unheated, and upon an uncooperative brand-new obsolete technology of the first generation of induction stove.  That we are still under equipped with basic tools like soup spoons and chopping knives that chop and that would make life a touch more civilised, should soon be rectified.  What is harder to see the solution for, is the projected life of the kitchen as a functioning unit for more than two cooks and more than ten eaters.  The need to model this our primary source of harmony upon large scale cooperative kitchen operations was spoken about on the ER platform prior to the LOTE and, as the meeting that commissioned this emotional health report clearly indicated, it remains the one place of recurrent frustration — the unMonastarians are willing to use their outreach project budgets to rectify matters, but feel that hidden criteria for what is an acceptable solution that pit beauty against functionality are being employed.  That this has dragged out into our second month of residency and until our second wave of unMonasterians has cost us much valuable time and psychic resources.

On another level the ceremonial surrender of all our worldly goods for the greater enrichment of the unMo has not yet occurred.  Many Materan bistros accept our credit cards without question, some of us can still inadvertently employ the possessive pronoun ‘mine’ about the laptops that accompanied us into the house.  Perhaps we have been too generous to one another (and ourselves) by restricting the material push into our discomfort zone?  While contemplating that a harsher climate might induce greater degrees of ecstasy and revelation, we should confess that in the service of our perpetual prototype we tend to keep our ears tuned to what the inner community can safely tolerate.  At our harshest we have debated restricting our connectivity – but the organic enforced periods of internet shut-down have already proven so traumatic that the resident unMonasterians practically resorted to non-stop analog discussion with one another.  Internally we refer to this our time surviving an enforced Vow of Internet Silence as the five days of ‘sucomunicatto’ = excommunication.

One valuable tool developed by the early unMonks has been the dramatic use of inflated language.  We often employ unNormal degrees of politeness and concern. When one of our number was inadvertently forced into exile for a period of days, the welcoming committee who welcomed him back into the fold at the bus station was quickly dubbed the “rescue mission”.

Are we reduced to psychic wrecks a mere three weeks after our first nights in our traditional home?  Signs of strain are apparent, renewal is still possible.  The characteristic unMo stress response has been to work harder: “Il nostro duro lavoro sará tanto leggendario quanto i nostri baccanali.”  With the pivotal resource of the Queen of the House hopefully soon in place, we exhibit all signs of acclimatising with considerable success until at least the next wave of initiates makes their appearance…

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UnMo the Mattress

MA am practice

“Show me a man’s bed and I ‘ll tell you who he is.”
—  someone, once long ago

The prototype unMonastery bed is seemingly ingenious.  The European wooden palette specifics are clear: 80 X 120 cm.  Placed end to end, two of them are too long to be immediately useful; placed on the perpendicular they form an idea base for a standard 2m mattress with a convenient 40 x 80 cm head-end jetty as a side table for books, your mobile, the pile of travel receipts and a photo of Mamma.  Placed two high, roughly sanded and painted, they provide a right delightful alternative to flopping our unMo mattresses impulsively onto the floor and then spending the rest of ones stay stooping, squatting and otherwise performing involuntary yoga postures.  At this ideal height, your average feet can swing out of the horizontal and with the aid of a nifty 90 degree bend at the knee place themselves firmly on the cold stone floor.  Your day can begin.

The tricky bit is the 80 cm width.  Generous by historical standards (at least for a certain class of servant’s quarters), it provides a clear statement: here lieth thou or else.  For those such as myself, spoiled by the wide open spaces of modernity, this otherwise welcome invention rapidly restructured my sleeping pattern.  Since a close woman friend once goaded me into expanding my territory, I have tended during the current stage in my life to spend more than the odd night alone swimming on a vast prairie of pressed fabric and springs.  A pattern has emerged.  I sleep most snuggly on my left side.  Head propped up by sufficient pillowage, I can then direct my limbs in an expressive sprawl that broadcasts unto no one my degree of inner satisfaction.

Alas, the unMo cot allows for none of this.  Flex one knee and it protrudes worryingly from off the precipice; retract it to terrra firma and the secure feeling behind ones back inevitably evaporates.  Like it or not, the dormitory bed flips most of us upon our backs; we only lack matron’s — “Hands above the covers, Boys and Girls” to complete the idyll.

Routinely rendered supine, the straight-jacketing effect can rapidly worsen as the trough within which we lay our weary bones gets compressed by the steadily progressive heights of our exhaustion.  Sleepless nights can be made of less.  For lo and behold, the imposition of the corpse pose doth cause the slack-jawed among us to split the airflow of our nightly inhalations, and since the vaulted roofs of our new home exhibit superior acoustic properties a gentle rolling snorer all too quickly acquires an unfavorable reputation.

The benefit of the well supported night’s sleep becomes apparent the next day.  The unMonasterians of Prototipo Matera have adopted an enviable discipline. Every morning as a brisk wind sweeps any vestiges of condensed moisture up the ravine to allow the sun’s first heat to grace our magnificent stone terrace that overlooks exactly that view you get in the tourist brochures, the unmoaning unMoners embrace their Morning Practice Internally it is described as a ‘morally mandatory optional’ gathering of the clan.  Morally mandatory option means what it says; if you lack the gumption to respond actively to the 0700 hours morning bell, you face the certain knowledge that the remaining crew has upped the silliness quota in the interplay of their core exercises with Greatest Hits from the Civil Arts Master’s trove of extra-appropriate behavior that are designed to irrefutably tweak the ensemble’s connection with their inner goodness

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unMonastery prototipo Matera


The Parable of the Rubinetto
After our favorite straight man, Ben’s more rational illumination of the EdgeRyders/unMonastery working model had enthralled our inaugural press conference, we let loose the bloody poet.  Grabbing a not-coincidently nearby length of hose, he carried on in the tiny sliver of media frenzy remaining before the breaking out of bottled refreshments.   Attention was directed towards the nozzle; it had several movable segments… 

Clearly this essential tool resembled the unMonastery project.  The behind the scene’s end that pried open the hose opening and wedged itself tenaciously fast with its concentric rings of teeth that root the whole operation in place was clearly the committee that had provided for the unMonasterani’s inclusion in their vision of social and cultural renewal. 
We ourselves were the working parts of the nozzle whose delicate interplay shaped the desired flow closer the more heralded front end.  Our noble task: to dispense a Fountain of Ideas at a rate most suited to the intended splash.  We were by nature finicky, but given sufficient attention to detail we could vary from an accelerated cleansing jet of significant pressure to a finely dispersed spray suitable for cultivation delicate growth. 

In an admittedly forced extension of the metaphor, the finally working part of the nut that prevented the desired setting from losing its grip was proffered as the ladies and gentlemen of the press – our unheralded but imminently useful co-workers should we need to retain the rate of flow.  Concealed beneath the rim of the table was the unmentionable fact that until the hose was attached to the water supply of the citizenry, it was virtually useless…

Fortune however shone as brightly upon us as did the mid-February sun: to formally mark the opening the unMo, the nozzle provided most excellent acoustic properties for even an untrained embouchure to sound with appropriate pomp.  

Repeated at 100cm intervals along the length of the hosepipe was the reassuring message: Made in Italy. 


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Souls in a Scenario

1399065_10200938452000598_1841970551_oThe Hidden Theatre of the unMonastery

It seems that once upon a time I threw all the elements of my beloved theatre into a pot on the back of the stove.  Given sufficient patience and even minimal heat they would reduce themselves to the essentials.

Those infamous contingencies of time have since done their bit to shorten the list: some things defy nomadic realities, others require cumbersome precision involving paid lever-pullers.  Still others require making premature decisions, or elaborate stage stuffing practices erroneously inserted to protect the poor performer from ‘getting it wrong’.  Anything that hampers the attendant fear that inevitably accompanies our work can safely be considered contra-productive.  Even the presence of a verifiable audience is technically dispensable.

With the economy of wisdom these essentials have boiled themselves down to — raw people in a moment of heightened interaction–.  I should be loath to pronounce it out-loud, but the ultimate distillation even allows that if the actors can be persuaded to people the scenario with their true selves, it isn’t even necessary to inform them that they are acting…

The unMonastery imagery soars – the real time walls and vista are no less evocative.  We are most convincingly in the right place at the right time.

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Il nonCredo delle nonMonache

Lasciateci Perdere:
(Prototipo come tradizione)

Ancor non lo sappiamo,
nel frattempo: lasciateci perdere.

Affronta i tuoi errori faccia a faccia –
i sacri muri preserveranno la nostra onestà.

Il nostro duro lavoro sará tanto leggendario
quanto i nostri baccanali.

Ci domandiamo di cosa i giusti godranno a cena…

The unCredo of the unMonastarians
As yet we cannot know, until that time, let us ‘Get Lost’.
Confront your errors face to face
– the sacrèd walls will preserve our sincerity:

Our hard work shall be as legendary as our parties.
We wonder what the Good People shall be eating for dinner?
It has been stated that feeding the unMonks shall be the key to the survival of our initiative.  But they may eat more than seasonal vegetables.  In practice, in the early days of the unMonastery we were hungry for everything: lacking a heating system we sought human warmth from each other; when a wonky internet provider left us ‘excommunicated‘, we talked our way into deep understanding…
Our project may have a stronger ideological basis than a practical one.  Even if the material resources had been available from the first turn of the keys  (which they most definitely weren’t), most of us are at least 9 months from the rudimentaries of a language in which to navigate our daily life beyond a small circle of new found friends.  In the meantime, I designed a kickstart…Working with young actors, one has a bit of an advantage: they tend to view themselves as young actors.  Working with not so young geeks, social activists, militant anti-consumers and the strategically unemployed, the idea of a psycho-emotional warm-up could have been harder to sell.  Matera + Bem

It is best we go gently.  Fortunately the scenery is evocative…
Every morning at the stroke of 0745 on the magnificent terrace overlooking the magnificent sunrise overlooking the magnificent stone formations of the Murgia just across the ravine valley from our perch, we go at it.  The elements are carefully selected from among the following list…

  • the west African forearm massage greeting with small talk
  • rudimentary qi gong moves from the bear cycle which emphasise the very rocks on which we cling
  • instant chi chuan with the seven constituent elements
  • isolated Greatest Hits culled from my years of actors training
  • a gradually expanding repertoire of all-purpose Italian phrases designed both to align us ideologically within the task we have taken upon ourselves, and to demonstrate this ideology to anyone whom we can cajole into listening to it
  • for dessert we round off the day by selecting a random card from Martin Slaatto’s collection of the twenty movements of transport dance which are used to propel us back up the ramparts and in to breakfast.
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“Il Libro degli Errori”

Adherent Prototype Traditions of the unMonastery :
It is in the nature of perspective than one requires the desired distance.  It is the nature of life that it is immediate.   It may have been the stones…

Written records indicate that one of the core elements of practise that enabled the earliest unMonasterians to successfully expand and replicate their triumphs was le Cappatoste and their willingness to embrace their disasters.

Roughly translatable as ‘the Hardheads’, the guiding principle of cappatosta proved key to the installation of the first four-month iteration of the unMo at Matera.  In turn, generous amounts of  this ‘applied stubbornness’ allowed several of the first unMonks to refuse to digest the conceptual constraints of this time limit.  Living and waking in rocks, time is not fleeting – permanence permeates.  We stand stabile. Alterations which would otherwise inevitably be earthshaking, are absorbed in geological time.

Building upon reality, and at the same time refusing to acknowledge the limitations it places upon us; the unMonasterians have evolved the rhetorical tool of the 200 year’s timeline on which to stretch our decisions about unMo life.  Being from the beginning a ‘prototype’ all potential choices are viewed as proposals; personal initiatives are considered invitations.  We are inventing traditions, while the traditions are inventing us.

Il Libro degli Errori is undertaken as a meditation on our mistakes: not to apportion blame or to chastise co-workers or ourselves, but as a message to the future.  Some of our initial fumbles, classical conundrums, persistent attacks of stubbornness may escape our notice.  Where we have noticed them each category may require its own tailor-made bookkeeping strategy.  We need to isolate where we are perhaps over-reliant on our flexibility and goodwill…

Along the way it seems equally relevant to catalog our triumphs, where we failed to fall into potential traps: the very first unMonasterians created a spontaneous infirmary; to offset a compromise on the health of a member caused by the extreme damp conditions in the unheated dormitory, a night at our favorite B&B was commandeered.  As Rita Orlando put it in today’s morning circle: it may become a  huge Book of Mistakes, but hopefully not a Book of Huge Mistakes.

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Grunting Man

Free jazz can be interesting, but not that interesting.  Jazz with untraditional instrumentation can also be unusually interesting. Free jazz with a bass clarinet, accordion, mouth harp, trombone, a bassoon, varieties of percussionism and generous wailing across the floor from the barmaid, has its potential. 

Given that we were at an anarchist squat in an occupied ex-primary school/ ex-theatre at the outer limits of the tourist belt on the eve of a nasty multinational pseudo holiday – a response was desirable. Or at least inevitable…

A Founding Father of Anarchy

Lacking a structure, the band could only throw tonalities at one another.  Nothing, or no one, provided anything like a rhythm.  No one was willing to take the lead ‘cept perhaps the troubled trombone player.  In addition to his habit of abandoning the trombone bell and blowing his mouthpiece directly through his less sonorous slide, nowhere in his trombonishness was there any sign of a dance beat.  In the spirit of the occasion, their provocative killer music morass tradition merited a less than negative riposte.

Having swept the house dog out of the best seat in the house, I was sunk deeply into a vintage easy chair of not primo Italian design design.  It was quickly evident that this was not to be passively endured.  A rebuttal was in order.  I sent word round my young co-conspirators – “Satirical dancing coming up in three minutes – get ready”.  It didn’t seem the best of plans.

Giving as good as you gets
Feet were leapt to; mine by me.
Tiago gave a brief younger brotherly effort, but the floor belonged to the old fellows.
If no beat was forthcoming, one would have to be boldly shoved up their repertoire. Howling in a volcano of primordial rhetoric, I clubbed my way through their decibel level with the discretion of a fog horn.  Obnoxiously ignoring any signs of nuance from the bandstand, my dance of stomps and pushy rhythmic grunts from the core of an offended being no doubt stood forth as sadly under-choreographed and as repetitive as their aural muck:  an asymmetric string of whoops punching its way through their cacophony with all the grace of a queue jumper.

The nutcases in the band loved it, as did the solemn-suited bouncer types….

Grunting Man w Tiago

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The Inside Story – the Secrets of Slow Acting

It was an offer not to be refused – “Could I contribute a two-day workshop at the 26th Bagamoyo Festival of Art and Culture ?”  My ticket to Tanzania was booked, I would be in the neighbourhood in about a week’s time – Given that this internet café might prove my last before going incommunicado, I had approximately 45 seconds to coin a workshop title.

I fell upon – The Secrets of Slow Acting, a catch-all title that would allow me to weave a web of elemental playing proposals around an all encompassing central theme.  Meeting a very unknown body of participants, the techniques would of necessity be crossculturally non-toxic, linguistically accessible, minimalist and emotionally satisfying – while never leaving a home base of negotiated safety…

——Townpost Bagamoyo

Once the dust of continent hopping had subsided, my thoughts could turn to the impending reality; which ingredients would best flesh out my all-purpose title?  I observed the first day of the festival.

The drama department’s veteran performers were wondrous: instantaneously responding to the slightest impulse by giving physical form within a deep solid core.  The next generation seemed more susceptible to ‘generalisation’; their arms, legs and grimaces may have taken upon an agreed task, but their necks, eyes and breath told another story.  They seemed to easily get trapped in a subtext of:  “Is this right, teacher?”  The clever young performers were deft at fulfilling their directorial obligations, but at the tragic cost of leaving their souls out of it.  This was clearly a venue for Actors’ Liberation.  

I publicly feigned incomprehension at the festival jargon:  What was a ‘Workshop’? (I knew working.  And I knew shopping.  But how on earth could you do both at the same time?!)  Nevertheless, I prepared my actors’ clinic for invited performers, college students and staff, and produced a, for me, unusually large volume of notes.  An early one had as a central theme:  establish deep understandings of the nature of the ensemble.  Why does theatre work?”

My strategy would be to work to slow them down, to make sure that all their actions were rooted to their very selves.  If they could incorporate the habit of identifying their own internal actor’s hurdles, which included a running evaluation of their existence in personal time and collective space, we’d be getting somewhere.  And hopefully, getting there slowly.

I would, of course, be recycling my Greatest Hits from uncountable theatre training sessions for young adults into its most essential concoction yet.  When the day came, I’d finally boiled them all down to fit a choreographed progression of three or four chair arrangements.  I had devised the workshop’s focus as probing into a perhaps unacknowledged core of self.  It was designed to incorporate the habit of always bringing your inner life into the external tasks of performance.  My one word note for the day was – middle.  Our middle, each others middle.

Waiting occurred, with chairs to the wall.   Some principles were addressed; the participants were mostly actors – ‘Good, I liked actors’.  As actors, our chore was to be human beings.  After one false start because of latecomers, we assembled our chairs in a circle, and I rolled out the first three tasks as a mutual evaluation process:  the participants should experience that my proposed activities were less based upon mechanical skills, and more directed towards the group’s collective life; for me, their activities were a means to appraise the general accessibility of both the group as a group, and the individuals who formed its component parts.  They were deeply conditioned in parroting – this seemed less based upon fear of exposing their subconscious before peers, and more because they had spent a life at it.  How could I so limit the tasks that variation became so socially desirable that to avoid it would be impolite ?  Two non-threatening exchanges were introduced to establish central themes and to sound out their strengths: first, congratulate one another for having the good judgement of signing on for this workshop; second, since our work is dependent upon us not doing it alone, it was best that they found each other likeable.  I summed up each activity in the form of a pivotal, if self-evident, ‘secret’:

  Secret #1 – Always be a human being.  

  Secret #2 – Like the people you work with.   

Almost by design, the gleams of eyes revealed that my ‘secrets’ confirmed the students’ latent beliefs.

Vocal training in a wide variety of guises confronts the young actor with both comfortable and unfamiliar aspects of their vocal range.  Sound production can often begin as a mechanical proposal, to be reinforced by the sensual feedback mechanism of the joy of vibration; personal identification follows increased resonance.  A first step is to build an organic connection between the solar plexus and unimpeded sound production.  It is usually only later that the desire to integrate original thought rears its head…

I instructed the participants to sit as I did: on the front of my chair, feet planted broadly, stomach free.  Our most important question as actors, as human beings, as a group was – “Who?”  This became our text.  Combining these two searches was a personal breakthrough; after forty years in the theatre, I’d finally distilled the central core of generating sound; deep guttural, chest resonance could be accessed through asking this most pressing existential question of oneself and each other.  The import of the question supplied power to the solar plexus; the eyes carried it home in honest, if involuntary, movements.  Deeply meaningful sound flew back and forth among the group.

  Secret #3 – Know yourself.        

It was time to take our meeting up a level.  Slowly, intricately we reconvened our circle standing upon our chairs.  More words circulated perhaps.  Then we did, alternate people going left or right, we traversed the chair circle gingerly supporting and making way for each other.  After one circuit, I introduced free dialog.

  Secret #4 – Theatre is always a Journey;
take care of the people you meet.  

I needed to appraise our progress, while choosing a way forward I may have emitted some indeterminable sound – it was eagerly parroted.  ‘Good, everyone could contribute a sound.’  After four persons had expressed themselves, I stopped them, and grouped the four sounds into a repeatable ‘sentence’.  The next four sounds became the response.

    Secret #5 – Everyone has something to say.  

Our position was to be changed. Collective physical effort was required to move things about.  In the tropical heat, the effort required to carry the imaginary was equally arduous.  We took a brief pause before returning to our central question.
In a large standing circle, we re-introduced a chanting chorus of the Mighty “Who”.  Standing broadly, and with hands carrying the weight of our intent, we entered the circle one at a time, progressively inviting in the next person.  It worked even better when the supporting circlers contributed vocally to pull the who out of each of us.  When a couple of participants weren’t connecting with either eyes or solar plexus, I could re-enter the circle as an anchor and amplifier…

  Secret #6 – It is essential to build the We  

The Inside Story
Whereas Day One worked as a well-orchestrated miracle distilled from a cornucopia of converging themes and strategies, the plan for Day Two was decidedly sketchier.  The theme was reasonable enough: if Day One dealt with asking the question of who we were, both as a group and individuals, Day Two sought to answer it through isolating the ‘me’.

The group’s composition had of course changed:  four repeats, several pre-warned no-shows, one new recruit, one absconder just as we convened.  We chose to retain the one empty chair and an open door as a gesture to all those absent.  The new recruit provided a good rationale for a repetition of our central themes, and a round of several of our favourite sounding exercises.  At first, these remained on the dry, mechanical side, until, just as we began to take off with some gusto, we were interrupted in grand style.  In barged a delegation from The Ministry in the form of one already-warbling diva and her press attaché.  The journalist could be dispatched for later; the founding matriarch of the college was more formidable, and had already come home to roost in our available chair.  It became the perfect occasion for introductions that had been hanging in the air since yesterday.  Characteristically for our group, while half the intro was of course factual, the other half became the spontaneous device of an expressive sound.  Some sounds bore repeating, as if tasting each other’s who; others stood best alone.  Peopled surprised each other, and themselves.

I had been given an additional opportunity to summarise: if theatre was a journey where we would be using the strength of the us to answer the question of who am I; if theatre was always about liberation, we would need to be brave.  To be brave, we would have to move through dangerous territory and face our fears. Fortunately, the theatre offered us a great teacher – stage fright.  If we couldn’t delve into the secrets of stage-fright and meet our genuine fear, we would remain in the fast theatre; we could always force ourselves forward, we could wave our arms and play it safe, but this would not be a theatre of liberation.  In the Slow Theatre, we are heavier, we must make our fears carry our humanness to the audience.  They don’t need to see super-humans – but to feel and identify with their part in our humanity: ‘If I am me, do you see you in me?  If we are us, can we also be you ?’

I broke off the philosophical, and distributed the kangas that had been politely waiting beneath my chair.  By chance, we had exactly the right number.  Some of the above philosophical expounding may have in fact occurred while I was hiding my face behind one of these traditional, colourful cloth wraps.  Soon, everyone was carrying on likewise – how much of ourselves could we expose, before the accumulated social pressure forced a retreat.  After the group round, we each did solos, peeking out from behind our kangas.  Several of these self-exposures provoked evaluations.

We removed our chairs, still carrying our kangas.  I gave the highly accessible text of ‘Yes/No’ (in which ever language was most appropriate) and demonstrated the task which was to locate places of comfort and strength in the room, evaluate them, reaffirm or reject them.  After a brief round to establish the pattern, I instructed them to include one another in the space; the act of invitation, affirmation, appraisal suddenly acquired a deeper, more earth-shattering subtext.  Fortunately, we liked one another.

The journalist was back, took his shots and left.  We reconvened in our circle for our final play.  The task was simple.  In the spirit of Slow Acting, each person would stand up from their chair, go behind it, absorb the attentive energy of the group, and then slowly stand up upon their seat, and establish contact with each member of the group.  It is an arduous, open journey.  Bluffing could occur, but at the peril of losing your who.
I introduced this work as sharing The Inside Story, not of telling us who you are, but of letting us see you.

Secret # 7 – it is necessary that the drama/education process
recognise and cultivate who you are .

 October 2007

Bagamoyo College of Arts

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Sharpening the Edge

Matera + BemThe proposed gathering, Living on the Edge is not yet a laboratory where experiments vital to human survival are performed; conceivably, it may be an SOS call from those witnessing their communities succumbing to gravity; however, it may merely be a picture postcard depicting interesting initiatives by the wild and fabulous —Wish you were here ?

How close do we really get to the Edge?  Until we supply our own vegetables, we remain an hypothesis; perhaps, we are at best romantic Edge-flirters…
Trained as international tourists, with a return ticket in our secret pocket that will zip us back to oh so familiar cafés – we can gleefully glance at the potential for societal development; entering into close combat with the dirty dynamics of change, is quite another matter.  The real work of Living on the Edge begins when we leave behind our blueprints and project proposals, and start becoming part of each other’s lives.
The prototype unMonastery 1.0 in Matera marks this transition.

A young Materani explained to me the career options in the area.  There are two major fields of study offered at the local university: the town is obviously full of architects, it also has a very high concentration of archeologists.  I am thinking that as much as building a new community within an old one, we should look at our work as unearthing an old community while belonging to the new one.  This point of balance may be the Edge we are looking for…

Archeologists dig slowly.  Sometimes they use no more than a slim brush, or their breath, to remove the layers left by time.  We must also live slowly into our form: building only as we uncover our buried inner needs.  To enter into this dialog with the wall-memories of the Matera caves resembles the communion necessary before donning the shamanic mask: absorbing the spirit of millennia of inhabitants; allowing them to govern our beings and our interaction.  It is not unlikely that we must grunt, dance and sing before we can produce well reasoned statements of mutual agreement.

It has been established by Pacheca
and seconded by the glorious Jessica that the unMo kitchen must be the Goddess of our Existence.  Around this primal field of interaction, we shall channel our mutual nourishment and develop our culture.  While it is not necessary that all supplicants to the unMo document their qualification as a gourmet chef; it shall be a shame if they are not so when/if they choose to leave…

The one mandatory qualification for a life as unMonk/ unNun is that we are humans.  Humans forget; denial is our speciality.  One task of the unMonastery is to become a library of experience: to remind one another.  Removed from the coddling of modern convenience, we shall live a life that confronts our civilizedness.  It is our capacity to surmount this confrontation that is the true fruit of our labours.

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