Michael Burton is blogging about his travels in preparation for the 2017 INTERNATIONAL LEMNISCATE ARTS FESTIVAL TOUR

Thursday 23rd June. Sydney

This entry will be about the “readers’ theatre” events that took place in three places in America in May. I’ve been back in Sydney for three weeks; it was all quite a powerful time away and I’ve needed these weeks back home to pick up the threads of my own life after all the traveling and to sort out my impressions.

Readers’ theatre (although, as we were doing it in America, I should really say “theater”) is a form of theatre where a play is rehearsed and then read out loud by actors who in their performance attempt to bring the words to life but without any actual acting. There is no blocking and everyone sits in a line onstage and comes forward when their part appears onstage. One person reads out the stage directions so that the audience can picture what is happening. I wondered, before we did this, if this would work. Would six hours of reading with no acting hold the audience’s attention for our play?

“Our play” is a new mystery drama, The Working of the Spirit, written to follow the four written between 1910 and 1913 by Rudolf Steiner. [See the first two paragraphs of the opening entry for this blog, Monday 10th February for an introduction to this theme.] I wondered if I myself would want to sit through a whole mystery drama being read rather than acted – even one written by Steiner! And for the actors, some of us would be doing this for three weeks (two days rehearsing and then two days of reading) while others would approach it for one week only. How would this work out in practice? I think we were all quite excited and a little bit nervous as well.

On the first evening actors were given copies of the script, The Working of the Spirit, Draft Seven. This final version has been finished this year and is at present in process of being published by SteinerBooks, New York. We’ve always felt that the important thing in our work was not just to produce a script but to have this play performed, and to that end a group has been working since 2012 with the producer and creator of the concept, Marke Levene. This event was to be the first visible sign of what had been happening over the last four years.

The first place where this was done was at Copake Camphill Community in Harlemville, New York. After seeing Camphills in England very broken from how I’d known them in the 1990’s, it was wonderful to be in a Camphill that apparently is working extremely well. The life in the house where we stayed (special needs adults and staff living together as a family) was rich, so that whatever happened we always wanted to go back there at the end of the day. There is nothing quite like the Camphill model anywhere in the world! Poor New Zealand, never to have experienced it! (Hohepa has aspects of it but it’s not at all the same.) Camphill puts into practice in daily life the very goals that Hilary talks of trying to do in the new mystery play. Hilary is a major character of this play; he has inherited from his father a factory and attempts to transform it, saying of it that he wants it to be, “no ordinary, money-making venture, but a kind of laboratory in which the future of the earth is being prepared.” That is exactly how I experience Camphill!

Penelope Snowden-Lait from Christchurch was with me in this Camphill house in which we stayed and we had good opportunity to catch up. The two days of rehearsals went very well. A young man from Sweden, Henric Lewengard, had taken on the role of directing, and he did this with a very fine sensitivity and openness to others that made each feel recognized and heard. On the Friday night we did an excerpt from the play to the Copake Community and on the following day, Saturday 14th May, went through the whole play to a wider audience. We started at 10.30am and, with breaks, finished at around 6.30pm. This gave us six hours reading time and, knowing in advance that the play in its written form lasts for seven hours, the decision was made to leave out the three scenes which go back to Ancient Greece; I gave a narrative of events instead.

People had come from many parts of the East Coast and it was an exciting event – the first time the play had ever been heard publicly. Comments afterwards were very positive.

On the day after, Whitsunday, we listened to an initiative that is related to ours and yet entirely different. While we’ve been working on the script for The Working of the Spirit, Glen Williamson from New York City has been writing his play Future Dawning which deals with the characters from Steiner’s plays living future lives in the twenty-first century. Glen, like myself, has had much help from others with his script and his research; he has been working on it over an even longer period of time than myself. Much creativity and originality had gone into this work, but I had a feeling that to hear two such works in a weekend was too much! I had a sense of spiritual indigestion and found I couldn’t watch all the scenes but had to take some time out. Someone expressed the situation as like waiting at a bus-stop; nothing happens for a long time and then two come along together!

After two days off we went to Chicago. Henry Allan, who is the artistic director of a theatre company in Gloucester Massachusetts – see http://www.northshorefolk.org/ – was the director this time, and he brought a very different style to the work. Very professional in his stagecraft, Henry stressed the need for actors to embody the characters and not simply do “Steiner-style” speech.

We immediately set ourselves up for disappointment by putting the Greek scenes back in but not making other cuts – thus the “spiritual indigestion” feeling came back – there’s no way you can do seven hours of reading in six! For the Sunday, a second Chicago reading, a cast member who is also a dramaturg undertook at short notice to make cuts and, though this wasn’t a perfect answer, it satisfied the need to get through the full drama including the Greek scenes in the required time. 

The audiences in Chicago were quite small but extremely appreciative. One of our own actors, Ariane Grossi, made the most powerful statement about the play. Ariane had come from Gloucester with Henry and had never heard of Anthroposphy before. She gave an extraordinary performance of Lucifer with power and imagination and then spoke very movingly afterwards of how very, very relevant to life today she found the play to be. She works day to day as a manager of a Starbucks and has been telling all her customers about Rudolf Steiner and the mystery dramas. She was very sad to be leaving us; she and Henry and the others who came from Gloucester certainly made a great contribution to our tour.

Rudolf Steiner College, Sacramento, was the place where we held the final event. If Copake, at the beginning of our tour, embodied a place where the ideals of Hilary’s company are being lived, Rudolf Steiner College, which has recently been through a massive restructuring process, seemed also to be connected to themes in our play. Not having been there when this was happening, it is impossible to know how right or wrong this perception is, but many in our audience pointed out how the play, with its theme of great changes being brought through a collision between economic and spiritual values, related strongly to their experience of having been through the demise of the enterprise that they had worked for.

The final mood of the play is one of hope, and I hope that we could leave some of this behind us in Sacramento and elsewhere. This is a time of painful transitions which have to be endured in order that something new can arise out of the ashes of the old. The feeling that genuine spirituality is in a very fragile state compared to the enormous power of our financial system and the iron laws of the state is something that we all meet today; at Sacramento this seemed to ring true to us all and was quite poignant.

After three weeks on the road, there were also some strong tensions living in the group on the final day. Luckily they met directly and we are free to go forward without conflict into the future, but I interpret our social dynamics on that last day as evidence of the power of the play to uncover currents within ourselves that are deeper than we would normally acknowledge. That is what mystery drama is all about! For it to be transformative it has to go deep. May it work first of all upon ourselves and then in a good way also upon the audience who comes to see it. 

The readers’ theater idea for this play proved itself to be very successful in these three venues. Preparations are underway for it to take place in two venues in England in October. The venues will probably be Stroud and London, and Marke Levene, our producer, would also like this to happen in Australia and New Zealand. Penelope and I will have to see if this is possible and where and when this could be held.

I am now up to date on this blog and will keep you informed if decisions for NZ are made. Anyone who would like to assist the process is welcome to send me an email on michaelburton999@yahoo.com.au .