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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

The Incredible Art of a Life


David Branson's legacy of passion, love and art has torched the towers of complacency and smugness. His death prompts much reflection and analysis of what it is to be an artist.

He rose like the ancient god: BAAL.

Before rehearsing Brecht's BAAL in 1998, I conducted a number of workshops with David Branson to prepare for the later rehearsals of the production. At the time, I was concerned that David focus all his energy on to the one role and not be distracted by the multiplicity of activities that drove him and compelled him forward. The result was one of the most amazing and powerful distillations of life and art I have ever witnessed.

His body and voice merged with the particular content of Brecht's play to create moments of intense power and disturbance. Audiences would later glimpse something of this. Although it must be said that only two or three of the scheduled performances revealed anything like the power evoked during those workshops in December 1997. For here was David Branson in full flight without self-consciousness and without the need to perform. He was the creator. He descended into the psychic pit where creative demons evoked their subversive energies that gave rise to BAAL. Here was David flowing and driving with a tide of energetic inspiration that merged spirit with flesh. And it was caught on video. Here were moments that can be witnessed: scenes that illustrated the processes of life and art being sculptured by the will of a creator. Here was David Branson submerged within some greater power tapped for his own use in giving form to invisible urges and energies that frighten the social orders of our rationally constructed and constricted lives. I believe BAAL was a revelation to David on a personal level just as his work on DEMONS was a social cultural revelation of forces and energies captured and shaped by Dostoyevsky. I don't know when David first expressed a wish to play BAAL, but it would be hard to imagine a role that allowed him to pitch himself so fully. BAAL was closer to the surrealists in style and inspiration than any of Brecht's later works. It presented a wild absurd universe where man either conformed to the petty rules of social order or raged as a brutal god: a law unto himself to end in inevitable self destruction. This was certainly at odds with the later more orthodox socialist Brecht. The contradictory nature of BAAL was more problematic than any of his later characters: The moral of the tale more concealed beneath the poetry of the telling. But the element of free spirits outside the social constraints of stifling orders and authority rang bells for David Branson. David's sympathies were always with the anarchists and those who defied orthodoxy of any kind. He shunned the easier roads that might have absorbed his talent and energy. He understood the risks of contributing to the dominant culture and allowing it to sap his will and limited hours. For David's limited hours were spent in constant acts of giving to those he considered travelling on the same waves of creative energy. Anything that hindered the creative spirit was the enemy and had to be opposed. The result was that David was constantly causing ripples where ever he found complacency and stagnation. David gave new meaning to chaos theory. He achieved works of art through constant breaking of form and unity. In doing this, he paradoxically liberated others to achieve the finality which he shunned. In DEMONS, he insisted on the inclusion of Camus (who's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel provided inspiration for our work) as a character in the production. More significantly, he insisted on having the car crash which killed Camus in real life. The violent nature of this incident broke through much of the reality being established through Wayne Macauley's well crafted deconstructed text. However, David was insistent against the opinion of virtually everyone connected with the project. Still, he argued his point clearly and consistently. We could have over-ruled him. But somehow, he challenged all of us to try something outside of the obvious: to allow the chaos to pattern itself and find it's own reality. He was determined that the work express the concerns of S11 and the anti-globalization movement. To do this required that art and life merge and the lines be left less rigid. Camus' position as the outsider in European politics fifty years ago was thus relevant. The artist as both outsider and participant in real life historical events provided contradictory psychological and political tensions within the production. And, with David's death in a car accident while on his way to the theatre some weeks later, one can't help but acknowledge the art and life pattern created from the seeming chaos of his methodology and the focused order of his intentions. For David Branson never seemed to waver from a very personal and ordered intention to galvanize individuals and community into artistic expression. David never ceased to create a performance out of his own life; a performance that ensured a little chaos and unpredictability was injected into all social situations ... and often challenging the accepted social order while drawing people's attention to the fact of their existence in a specific moment. Not just in a general sense; but in a very specific and obvious way. This isn't an exaggeration. The power of David's focusing a moment will be a lasting legacy. His performance was so strong as to go beyond performance and into a hyper-reality. In David's presence, everyone woke up. While all around us, the dominant forces of culture and society are drugging us into an abstracted state where existence is becoming increasingly abstracted into generalized images of being: The image of being distracting and distorting our experience of being. And so as I am left to watch the video of David energizing a space while working at merging his physicality and psyche with Brecht's character, I struggle to take some of his incredibly chaotic energy and merge it with the equally incredible focus of his intent. In real meetings with David Branson, one became infected with this duel experience. In memory, one is left to be a witness to it and then to be a carrier; a bearer of that same purpose. On the video, I see him rising like the ancient god, BAAL just before he begins repeating the phrase: "I'm so close to you." SHADOW HOUSE PITS reaffirms its commitment to art and theatre that ignites perception of both the light and the dark of our existence in the wake of all that is deadening our sense of our potential as human beings. Sometimes individuals emerge who can assist us in our own clarification of what we must do and what we are. We thank David Branson for his gift to us.

Joe Woodward (10th. Jan. 2002)

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