Lucy Neal, theatre director and artist and long-time convenor of Transition Town Tooting, discusses her latest book Playing for Time.
BB: Playing for Time, your second book*, is far from being the usual, passive coffee table book about the arts, on the contrary, itís a real call to roll up your sleeves and use art for change. Would you be able to talk a little about what youíre looking to achieve with this call?
When I woke up to the full enormity of what was happening to the planet, and how much our own ways of living were part of that, I was pre-occupied with 'how to act'. I realised that the choices I made day to day were important. After that I then realised there was a creative role to play in actively recreating the future, re-thinking a world we might actually want to live in. Becoming involved with the Transition movement was a key learning experience for me, recognising that I could not only make practical changes in how I live, where I live but also that working with others nearby was a galvanising exciting door into feeling part of much bigger changes happening in all corners of the world at present. Having worked in the arts all my life, I also began to see that creativity was at the heart of the Transition process, so Playing for Time became a process of mapping the ways in which Transition and the arts combine and that is inherently about bringing people together, working collaboratively and creatively, responding to serendipity and possibility, trusting in one's imagination, taking risks and believing that the universe responds positively when one takes steps to act for change. The book is about what those steps might be and gives readers some 'ends of pieces of string' to take up and try. So far, readers have got in touch saying that is exciting and they are going to give the recipes a go - whether it is a land journey, revealing the carbon web in their lives, following the Give and Gain process for initiating a creative project or learning all about fermentation and kefir culture. There are, I hope, many doors in.
BB: Transformation is the underlying theme of the work; through your experience of using the tools described in the book within the context of your work with Transition Town and other community projects, do you think transformation could be achieved on a wider societal level with them?
A Transition contexts allows us many opportunities to rehearse change. It might simply be a film night we are putting on locally, but how we host that, invite people in, allow inclusive discussion, foster dialogue, be honest about what we fear and what we hope for, all this adds up to what we have called 'live story making'. It's not possible for us all to go from 0% responsibility for the planet to 100% overnight. We have to learn and feel our way through to how we might see things differently, do things differently, but once we have seen that we CAN respond (closely tied to responsibility - the ability to respond) and that we have a role to play, I believe this vision is transformative for us. We do not have to leave things to 'experts' - those who deal with facts and figures about climate change and carbon. This is how we learn to live within limits creatively and huge changes are needed at societal levels to think differently about consumerism, about social justice, about competition, about economic growth, about the connection between ourselves and others around the world and future generations. The German artist Joseph Beuys believed in something called social sculpture: that to use our imaginations was already changing society and that the transformation of society was considered an art in itself. So yes, societies are transformed culturally; ideas of who we are and what our lives mean are all opened up and played with in the arts. The arts hold the key to the biggest social changes and they can be made overnight. Just like that if we are all harnessed and looking in the same direction and gathered in the same spaces, imaginatively and creatively. It's all possible. Transformation can happen within us personally or collectively amongst many people at the same time. It works both ways.
BB: The book turns the idea of the solitary artist on its head, allowing the role of artist to be re-defined as collaborative instigator; it seems clear that our current problems are too large for an individual response do you think artists have a pivotal role to play in a making much needed change happen?
The collaborative aspects of transitional arts practice are key. It is not only that we are capable of so much more with others than on our own, but also that the future will not have a single voice. The future needs to be pluralistic, diverse, inclusive. Everyone's story is needed; every voice; every narrative, so working collaboratively fosters the emergence of such diversity. It positively encourages the idea that 'we are the many'. Collaboration also involves the word 'laborare': it can be hard work sometimes, but it is ultimately powerful, celebratory and joyful and joy, like gratitude, is a radical force. It emphasises the fact that we have all that we need.
A consumerist culture persuades us we are needy and incomplete/ The truth is, as humans, we are creative, kind, empathic, imaginative, collaborative beings and we can celebrate that.
Playing for Time also explains how artists can be disrupters, truthtellers and agents of change. They can make the enormity of what is happening potentially less painful as alternative ways of seeing things are shown at the same time as a 'waking up' to truth. Artists can be circuit breakers. Potential tragedy can be turned to comedy in the comedic sense of the word - a reconstituting of the community. Learning and hope come from this.
BB: Many people see the need for a change of course but feel powerless to make a difference. What would you say to them?
Act consciously in the service of life. Make your intentions clear. Take one small step. Speak it out loud. Such actions will make other things happen. Surprising things. Providence comes to meet us and however risky or scarey 'acting' feels, courage is rewarded. An unbounded energy comes to meet us and this gives us all the energy we need to see new possibilities unfold. If you have ever played that systems game where you keep your eye on 2 people moving slowly around a room keeping a triangle between them and yourself, you will see clearly how your actions affect others and whilst you may be following others, you have NO IDEA how many are also following YOU/. We are all connected, so our own steps towards building a positive future matter hugely. We have so much power to change. When people realise they too have a role to play - that changes everything.
BB: Finally, do you think art can cut through preconceptions to address difficult, and often complicated issues effectively on its own or do you think its use in tandem within a community setting is where its power lies?
Context is all. I get quite frustrated when I see 'art' that is disconnected to the planetary context we are living in/ This does not have to be literal references to climate change necessarily. It could be more around a sense of connection to the narrative we're living in and that includes feelings of loss, yearning, despair as well as gratitude for what we have, a deep connection for example to others, other species, land and the Earth. Similarly I get quite frustrated by community awareness raising projects that fix on facts and figures of science, of carbon and energy. We need those of course, but we also need celebratory social spaces that allow us to see the challenges plainly but leave emotional space for us to feel and imagine alternatives. We need above all a language of the heart to transform feelings of negativity and powerlessness into a collective narrative of change.