The Guardian: Lindsay Kemp: 'His life on stage was his most intense reality' | Lindsay Kemp | The Guardian

Paul's house was haunted. Jerry and Andrea slept in the bed and I slept on the floor. But during the night, Andrea woke up with a start as she felt hands around her neck trying to strangle her. I noticed the curtains flowing like in the moving "The Haunting". Paul had warned us his Neutral Bay house was haunted. But we were young and took such thoughts with a healthy scepticism. My brother was staying in a different room with his then fiance, Mary, whose back was playing up after the ten hour drive from Brisbane. Next morning Paul asked if we noticed anything strange during the night. Well ... Later that day we met up at the Glebe New Arts Theatre (Cinema) in Glebe to see a mysterious show that Paul had insisted we should drive down to Sydney and see. This moment was to be the turning point in my life.

Theatre as a life changer

It was November 1975. I had been teaching in a one-teacher school in south west Queensland. The world of Glebe Point Road and The New Arts Theatre (or Cinema) was a universe away from that little school. And stepping past half naked guys banging drums and walls in the foyer covered by naive yet violent crayon drawings made me imagine some asylum thing going on for real. What the fuck were you leading us to Paul? I was genuinely terrified!

The theatre auditorium was lit by ultraviolet lights and the stage had billowing smoke being pumped on to it as loud sounds filled the packed theatre. Then it started. I couldn't believe how loud the music was and how extreme the sexual images were as the masturbation extravaganza began. I was shaking. The brutality of the physical suggestions soon merged into a grotesque beauty I have rarely seen or experienced on a stage. The magic of transformation then merged with my studies and thoughts on the social constructions of reality studied at Uni. I felt the transforming power of a theatre than made no attempt to placate my very straight understanding of society, existence and reality. And I knew this is where I wanted to be ... I felt I needed to challenge my own stereotypes of vision.

Lindsay Kemp

It was Lindsay Kemp's production of "Flowers" based on the Jean Genet novel "Our Lady of the Flowers" that changed everything for me. I could never go back to teaching in a Primary School or even exist as a teacher following some defined curriculum. I swore I would never teach in a school again. Mind you, I did teach in a school for much of 1976.

In the following year, I was at a party with my brother, John. At this party, another old school colleague, Sean Mee, told me of a job at La Boite Theatre that might interest me. And life went on from there ... I got the job and started at the theatre in January 1977.

It took years of working in theatre and then later teaching Drama in a Secondary College to really grasp what Kemp actually did and what emanated from him. The only person I knew of on the historical influential stage that had anything of his power and style was Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of Butoh. While I have no idea as to whether Kemp ever had any knowledge of Ohno's work, the simplicity and intensity of movement was evident in the work of both. Yet both artists emerged from totally different social, cultural and artistic settings while both were inspired to create from the life and work of Jean Genet.

I was fortunate enough to work with a Butoh teacher in the 1980s and I began to place into context some of the experience I had of Kemp. This combined with workshops on Meyerhold run by Stephen Champion and other teachers working in similar vein, including from Don Asker of Human Veins Dance Theatre, some patterns in theatre processes began to emerge.

There was one Lindsay Kemp exercise that I adapted and still use today at the start of new projects and new semesters of classes. I believe it opens up so many doors to processes from participants who simply needed to let go. My students would recognize it as the "Silly Face / Silly sound" exercise!

My interest in Artaud, Butoh, Meyerhold and a number of various more esoteric exercises and techniques trace their genesis to that one experience of Lindsay Kemp's "Flowers". Peter Brooke's work gave me a paradoxical structure or framework through which to identify experience and potential experience within theatre; while all the while, Brecht was whistling in the backstage.

So why am I crying?

That week-end at Paul's place and the visit to Glebe Point Road had such unexpected ramifications. The ghost that played around the bedrooms of that night has been replaced by many ghosts since. Lindsay Kemp's death only became known to me because Paul contacted me out of the ether on Saturday. Paul was the bass player in our band from the 1960s. And we talked about that event from November 1975. It prompted me to do a search on Lindsay Kemp; only to discover he died at the age of 80 three years ago.

How many theatrical experiences might people have that link with their own social and family situations? A theatre event isn't just a night out! It is an invitation to dance with ghosts and the sometimes terrifying worlds that are beyond our limited experiences. Whether it is for a "Flowers" or a "Caucasian Chalk Circle" by Brecht, the event has potential to resonate in ways that cannot be foreseen.

So my "crying" is a metaphor. I'm not shedding sentimental tears. Rather my body is literally shaking from the immense power unleashed by the uncertainty of a stirred up psyche. Perhaps we forget or refuse to acknowledge theatre as the secular equivalent of the wicca, the religious sacrifice, the transformational ritual that has power to touch and affect the real world! The crying is for standing in trepidation of where this recognition leaves me now.

Joe Woodward

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Photo by Matt Kochar

To discuss theatre and drama without any referencing of the epistemological dimensions that garner and shape artistic production is to deny students of the very grounding on which art has any plausible validity within education and life itself.

I'm going to make a broad statement here. Of course the validity of it is challengeable. But it provides the basis for virtually all my work in theatre.

Stirring the Cultural Psyche

Theatre is about stirring up the psychic energies within culture and society to reveal often hidden agendas, motivations, how people relate to each other and the political dimensions of all action. It is about revealing or examining possible ways through which young people, adults and societies can navigate their way through a maze of deception, narcissism and a general clattering of all our realities. You will appreciate this view is significantly different from that which proposes theatre as affirmation of particular world views, identities and activisms of all kinds. However, I certainly don't want to suggest a theatre as some kind of passive or socio/political neutrality! The reverse is the case. Theatre is a dynamic ingredient in the recasting of values and challenging of cultural beliefs. It goes beyond "art for art-sake".

Release from Cultural Entrapment

While culture is generally seen as something to be affirmed and studied it is also a straitjacket through which one is held captive to the circumstance of one's own birth. Historically it has led to more bloodshed, oppression and destruction than any other single concept. This is the irony and paradox of existence; without culture we are left stranded in a void. This leads to ennui and alienation of the soul and oppression of the individual spirit. But it is also a tunnel through which vision is channelled to only one perspective, blocking out other dimensions and possible realities. While it frames identity, it also constricts imagination and the spirit of natural curiosity.

Theatre is a tool to release the personal and political psyche from cultural entrapment.

Theatre and the Dream

If our theatre is vibrant, we wont be sleeping

Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", with its awkward and disunified structure, best illustrates the absurdity of conformity within cultural barriers while also injecting disruptors into the easy adherence to social norms. In the Dream, much of what we hold sacred is but an illusion and only through reflecting on the dream world may we come to realize our potential and possible outcome. However, as we see in the Dream, the participants never see the forces that are shaping their actions, thoughts and feelings. It is only when we view the situations from a distance can we see the absurdity of the offence. So:

Image by Edwin Landseer

"If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber'd here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend ..."

(Puck from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream")

The irony in the speech is that theatre can wake us up from the somnambulist state through which we drift each day. If our theatre is vibrant, we wont be sleeping.

Or perhaps it was all just a compilation of theatrical devices by Shakespeare to have fun with concepts of honour killing, abusive sexual relations and manipulation of ones' personal feelings ... Perhaps!

But "A Midsummer Night's Dream" does provide a blend of comic interactions, absurd situations and natural human feelings. It places the action in the most bizarre of circumstances while avoiding outright attack on any one group or people, world view or ideals. One can think of few works that accomplishes this feat so economically.

Education and the Dream

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is certainly one of Shakespeare's most popular and enduring works. Students from all cultures are introduced to it in schools. Even Primary school aged children often get a touch of the Dream. It is often introduced as Shakespeare's play about love and relationships. While not to dispute this interpretation, it doesn't go far enough.

Schools might do well to introduce students to the nature of absurdity in theatre while opening up the world of examining life's absurdities. To discuss theatre and drama without any referencing of the epistemological dimensions that garner and shape artistic production is to deny students of the very grounding on which art has any plausible validity within education and life itself. Worse: it encourages ego driven attitudes and narcissistic approaches to the very notion of developing and presenting theatre.

Characteristics of an Epistemological Theatre Approach

OK! I have to go out on a limb here. We are all culturally bound in one way or another; accident of birth or result of personal trauma or some other life altering effect (eg. a brilliant theatre work or piece of literature or an accidental meeting with a remarkable person)! So accepting this, when studying or setting out to present a work of theatre, particularly a classic piece of theatre, it is incumbent upon us to begin as an Epistemologist.

Some Epistemological questions we might consider include:

  • Through what lens are we viewing this work? Identity? History? Politics? Belief systems? Artistic movements? Modernism? Traditional viewpoints ... etc ... etc ...

  • What was the original circumstance for the work?

  • What beliefs do the current group of presenters hold regarding their society, culture and personal situations?

  • What strategies might be engaged to challenge such beliefs?

  • What alternative social and cultural beliefs might be studied to open up alternatives?

  • Is there a history of presentation to the work that might inform us as to how previous artists and presenters approached the work?

  • Are there seeming anachronisms within the contexts of the work? What purpose might they serve?

  • What purpose might be served by presenting this work now?

And you might think of a trillion other epistemological questions.

The more you challenge through the epistemological approach, the more possible it is to breakthrough the straitjacket of cultural entrapment. Identity is the enemy of art. It crushes possibilities. The power of group thinking is the enemy of art. It squashes the possibilities for seeing potential beyond the tunnel vision imposed by accidents of birth.

No wonder authoritarians and thugs will do everything to quash art and theatre that challenge their manipulation of the cultural psyche.

I then suggest that teachers, artists, theatre directors, writers and students become epistemologists as grounded qualifications for their work as creators and generators of new societies and new potentials for human kind and the planet.


Joe Woodward 5 Sept 2021

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Originally scheduled for a presentation at Smiths Alternative on 11 August 2014, "And Beyond the Violence" has had a long gestation having been initiated some time in 2012, almost ten years ago, and will continue to be developed before it ever sees a full production in its hybrid theatre/cinema form. The scheduled international reading of the script by local actors and actors from New York and Beirut marks the latest phase in this mission to expose the hidden gravity that seems to be pulling the world towards opposite poles. One must wonder if the title is really ironic; in that there is possibly no "beyond" ...

If I think about it, what is being constructed in the play is a coping mechanism to deal with the horror of terrifying possibilities. The surreal elements in the work allow for a kind of retreat by the artist and protagonist into a picture frame of her own creation. It isn't so much a delusional creation as it is a mechanism for exploring the very real observations of what is around her. Yet there is really no escape. Even the most basic personal creations can be coopted into culturally and socially neurotic action that has the potential to destroy the most basic human instincts for survival.

And while there are moments "beyond", then perhaps we need to grasp these and cherish them for all they are worth. The public and personal universes we occupy are transitory and possess awe-inspiring terrors that we might wish did not exist ... but these are only wishes!

The Tragedy Impulse in a Postmodern World

"And Beyond the Violence" has its generic roots in Greek Tragedy. While the main protagonist is not of high status, she is in keeping with today's views on the status of human beings. Postmodernism has a real problem with tragedy; with tragedy's unyielding finalities. So in creating a work that utilizes postmodern and absurdist elements, even surrealism, I have also attempted to scope the classic tragedy over-arching structure as a kind of arc. I am not sure this creates an artistic tension or contradictory form within the work as a whole. But we will see.

The new presentation is a reading of the text with a music back ground. The work is now in a hybrid theatre/cinema form. Come and experience the work and join the discussion:


PS. One of our readers is Roger Azar. He is the star of a new movie from Germany. It is to be released this year. It really looks amazing ... See the preview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7fPRqsi5U0

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