BLOG 12th October 2020

The Invitation to not know

This guest blog was written by Patrick O'Reilly from Tinderbox and is part of our Dreams Guest Blogs series. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.


“I don’t know” is my ultimate top phrase of 2020. I’ve said it repeatedly throughout lockdown. The feeling of despair watching the news and seeing the world come to a standstill, “I don’t know’ rolled off the tongue more times than the changing restrictions guidelines. To declare “I don’t know” rolls eyes with deep sighs and nods of agreement. Because yes, we are taught to always have the answer, to know what to do. But this year, I just don’t know.

Our world stopped in March with the Covid-19 Pandemic and we were suddenly thrown into a headspace of complete uncertainty. Lives have tragically been lost, the economy has plunged into a recession, people’s careers and daily lives have been heavily disrupted and every single one of us has faced anxiety and loss in varying degrees. The Arts Community has been truly devastated by the pandemic; the very air that we breathe is now too dangerous for us to engage in live performance, feel human connection and presence.

As Artistic Director for Tinderbox, we immediately jumped to creating solutions and opportunities for artists through programmes like Solo Art, Repose and Lucid projects. We wanted to create a space for artists to continue working when their very identity and meaning were being stripped due to work cancellation and job loss. I felt a duty and responsibility to open a creative space despite the restrictions imposed by lockdown. It felt incredibly vital to maintain connection and energy amongst the sector. A part of Tinderbox’s mission states that we aim for artists to be a positive impact for the world and never did it feel more necessary for artists to recognise their own innate value as human beings and artists. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom. The past six months have presented moments of sheer brilliance as I watched the limitations of the lockdown being challenged and overcome by online streaming of new work by so many artists and organisations.

I worked throughout lockdown, trying to continue programming work, making and changing plans, one step forward, two steps back followed by the never ending cycles of questions upon questions piling up on the kitchen table. Certainly I had moments of clear affirmation with ideas, celebration of resilience with our community, interspersed with moments of hope and the occasional eruptions of angry swearing in the kitchen (much to the surprise of my neighbours) but there was one moment in particular that forced me to confront and acknowledge a huge part of my own creative process.

Back in May, I needed to make a pretty important decision around a particular project. I was sitting at the kitchen table listening to the cat meow incessantly for ham (Milou can actually say the word ham) and my mind was chattering away as it usually does; “here, do that, that will be brilliant, no it won’t, you don’t have the skills or the capacity, but what about me, me, how many retweets will it get blah blah, blah”.

I was aware that my mind was going into overdrive about the situation with that God awful anxious feeling the push of the weight of the world on my shoulders to try and know what to do. But the truth is; I didn’t. I had no idea.

So I took the decision to stop. I intentionally decided to just observe the endless drivel of mind chatter. I decided to use my learned skills as an artist to let go of the babbling head and instead rest in the body and just float in the calm centre of the hurricane. I let go of anxious knowing and decided to not know.

I stopped trying to know what to do. I stopped trying to answer the questions. I stopped fighting the limitations of restrictions. Resting in the not knowing immediately relaxed my mind and body. My self-entitled boundaries dropped. My ego stopped fighting with the need to know what to do. My vulnerability revealed itself and immediately, I felt a sense of deep acceptance for what is. It is what it is.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But we all know that it definitely isn’t easy. Wanting to know what to do is inherent in all of us and I apologise if I come across like a “woke being” (which I’m not, or maybe I am, I don’t know, who cares) but I literally had two choices; either burn out with exhaustion or rest in a place of not knowing - (which actually increases creative flow)

My constant need to know didn’t actually help my situation in any way. In fact, it only exacerbated my mind hurricane and accelerated my helplessness to the situation. But by admitting the not knowing, a sense of clarity revealed itself and actually allowed me to look at the situation with a sense of freedom and play. Not knowing isn’t some abstract idea either; it is a place we are all aware of. As creators, we do it all the time. We make work. We create movement scores. We write stories. We always bring the unknown to the known.

I believe we need to give more presence and value to the process of the unknown. I think we are addicted to knowing. Always focusing on the product. I believe that if we all put our hands up in the air and admitted that sometimes we really do not know, then perhaps we could create an arts ecology that is less focused on giving power to those who keep reminding us that they know and provide a space where equality and openness and not knowing is equally celebrated and valued.

To know or not to know?

To be successful, we need to know. That’s what we are told from a young age. We need to be the best. We need to get on top of the food chain. We need others to look at us with admiration and nods of approval because we know. We go to drama school. We learn a myriad of techniques and ideas. The sacred cows of the theatre share their techniques and reveal their secrets to the select few. And so we bow down to those that know and hopefully through the exchange, we can repeat this endless cycle of “we know more, we know better”. Of course, all we know is someone else’s idea or opinion and so we go about like clones regurgitating the knowing to anyone who will listen. Throughout my career, I had very clear moments when I realised that I was doing my job for this very reason; “Yes, this is it, look at me now, I have trained. I now know. I know everything!” It only took a couple of sessions at the Le Coq school when that “Mr know it all” ego was stripped and exposed for all to see. At times it was humiliating (defensive knowing isn’t pretty) and at other times, deeply liberating.

As Artistic Director, I always try to start from a point of not knowing. It’s incredibly risky and exciting. I don’t do workshop plans. I don’t do rehearsal notes or actor notes. I don’t hold onto huge opinions on prolific works of art or political opinion. Every day, I rely on my intuition to just be present in the room. I create a space for artists to be playful with their ideas, their passions and their work. In my experience, when you create an open space, generosity, openness and energy come in abundance. The deliberate choice of not knowing invites you to close the gap between the thinking mind and the doing body and just be. That is play. Being alive. In the moment. Of course, critical analysis can happen later when we are constructing our creative narrative but the departure point should be full of curiosity and mystery. Not with what we already know.

Not knowing isn’t defeatist in attitude or holding onto a feeling of resignation. It starts from a place of curiosity, an energy to explore and discover, to use limitation and obstacles as points to leap off further into the unknown. Not knowing is infectious energy in a rehearsal room. Not knowing invites an artistic process to be free to discover and experience itself. Not knowing gives the artist her rightful place to breathe fully as an artist. Not knowing isn’t a shrug in the shoulders and a casual form of “here, sure we don’t know, it doesn’t matter.” That’s not what I’m suggesting here. It simply means never resting in what we already know. We need to stop dishing out what we know. We need to stop defending what we think we know. Many of us hide behind our job title and accolades with the fear of someone tapping our shoulder one day and catching us not knowing what to do. Exposed. We hide our vulnerability. Our real selves. I want to begin every project with questions, a sense of curiosity and honest vulnerability. It feels nonsensical to continue gripping on to my tightly held answers as I will miss out on or ignore so many different opportunities and opinions that appear different from my own. Life and creativity are ever changing and in constant movement. I don’t want to be stuck in the mud.

Theatre should begin with questions followed by a radical active exploration for both performer and spectator to search for the answers and find themselves unified in the creative space. Performance should not be a full stop. Perhaps it should be an ellipsis… (now, what are we going to do with what we have created together, the real work starts now). Theatre should be a powerhouse of ideas, visions, dreams and radical thought. Theatre should celebrate what it means to be human in all its messiness, paradoxes and contradictions.

And everyone should be invited. Absolutely everyone.

So can we trust to bring the unknown more deeply into our creative process? Could it be a tool to enrich artistic practice? Over the past two months, these questions took me on an express train through the Culture:reset programme and Manifesto Course at Art Haus Berlin. Of course, my questions only scratched the surface of my crumpled half written Manifesto and I needed to excavate deeper to extract the potent ingredients to try and live and work as an artist today.

I don’t know the answers.

But I do know the questions. And that’s good enough for me to begin.

Could we let go of being part of linear arts ecology that is signposted by varying degrees of success to the finish line?

Can we stop climbing on people to get to the top of the ladder and expect others below to hold and maintain the balance of the ecosystem?

Could we instead create a horizontal model where everyone is equally valued as an essential part of the ecology?

Could we be part of an arts ecology that is circular in form because we celebrate interdependency and are less focused on outwardly success?

Could we create an arts ecology where terms such as professional practice, emerging artists, community arts and participatory workshops are reduced to just two words; human expression?

Could we create an arts ecology that celebrates diversity and artist/participant and audience collaboration to explore unknown territories of live performance? To have new voices heard and recognised? To make art together?

How would this work? And to be honest, I don’t know. But by not knowing means the circle is continuous in opportunity whereby the linear hierarchy form is proving increasingly difficult as the foundations holding it up are in the midst of collapse and ruin.

But I am going to use these questions as a frame of reference to ignite Tinderbox’s current strategy for future programming. For example, this year we are creating four creative laboratories (Play Machine) with 50 artists based in Northern Ireland. The laboratories will search for new ways to create live performance using space, mask and activism as provocation. Most importantly it will place the artist as central to the process of discovery. Then from January 2021, we will tour across Northern Ireland with Motion project, sharing performances, live rehearsals with artists/participants/audiences in each location and providing creative space for workshops and conversations to occur. I want the artistic process to be renewed everyday so we are consistently creating in the moment with new stories led by new conversations. Every day we will learn together and shape our performance with new voices and opinions in each location. By using these questions, we aim to deconstruct artistic practice and re-construct a new vocabulary of thinking, making and being with artists, participants and audiences. We keep saying that we are all in this together so let’s make that happen.

They say you need to know the rules to break the rules. You need to know form to break the form and I absolutely agree. I’m not saying that everyone should abandon what they know but should rather create an equal space for the unknown to present itself. To play with what you know rather than hold on to it rigidly.

Now I have to admit that there is absolutely nothing new about what I’m saying here and to some, what I’m saying here probably seems overly simplistic. Naive almost. I’m not saying stop knowing. Know as much as you need and want. Hold onto your knowing if you want but “know” there is also vast and richer potential in the unknown. We just need to gently loosen from all that we know so we can create an arts ecology that celebrates creative flow rather than trying to own it.

I’ll end with my Manifesto. It took me a long time to get it to this point and it’s still not complete (I don’t think it ever will be). After many weeks of dialogue, creative exercises, dancing in my pants on zoom and extracting the essential of what I’m trying to say in words, I can finally reveal my piece de resistance for today;

“Embrace everyone. Go beyond what we know.”

I’ll be honest, it will probably be different next week.

Understand your audience, develop your strategy today.

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